Tag Archives: violence

Saturday Theme Songs: Powerpuff Girls

The Powerpuff Girls, maybe along with Dexter’s Laboratory, epitomized everything good about Cartoon Network’s output in the 1990s. Maybe some of their shows were a little too repetitive, or sophomoric, or smug, but the channel was committed to producing original and interesting cartoons for our generation. Like the decades-old cartoons they once aired, Cartoon Network took a more absurdist approach to animation. Unlike, say, Fox Kids or Kids WB, which were more action-oriented and toyetic with only a few exceptions, Cartoon Network’s roster as a whole was premised around either very unusual situations, or twisted adaptations of familiar scenarios. Dexter’s Laboratory and Courage the Cowardly Dog were both totally new and bizarre; The Powerpuff Girls was a fresh, humorous look at one of the oldest concepts in cartoon history – the superhero.

The show is based around a historical gender divide: little girls are supposedly gentle and demure, while superheroes (i.e., men) are tough, powerful, and sometimes brutal. Craig McCracken knew better. He plays on the old cliché of girls as being made of “sugar, spice, and everything nice,” but then adds Chemical X, which derails any and all expectations. The girls maintain their “girliness” – in fact, when Professor Utonium is knocked against the wall, it happens in a burst of hearts and stars – but it’s still very compatible with their superheroism and violent acts. Kick-Ass‘s Hit-Girl was nothing new; the Powerpuff Girls have been doing the same routine for years.

As if to underscore the girls’ comfortable fusion of girlish innocence and manly violence, there are gender divisions within their ranks. These are all communicated from :33-:41 in the video solely using musical leitmotifs and the girls’ unchanging facial expressions. Blossom is marked as the standard, the perfect balance of power and puff. Bubbles and Buttercup, meanwhile, represent the opposite poles within the girls’ unusual range of gendered behavior – the giggly maiden and the sneering tomboy. Nonetheless, both of them take equal pleasure in savagely beating up villains. The way that their rogues gallery is presented and then dispatched hints back at their origins as the “Whoopass Girls”; they may be little girl superheroes, but they’re still willing to take out Fuzzy Lumpkins with more than a little sadism.

The opening abridges a lot of the show’s psychological complexity, especially as the girls’ childish outlook is put up against Townsville’s harsh realities. (This would most often happen with their greatest foe, Him.) But it gets across a pretty good one-minute synopsis laying out the show’s huge appeal. They’re extremely violent superheroes, but they’re cute little girls, and they’re served up with a very ironic edge. So boys, girls, and jaded college students can all find something to enjoy. As effective as the opening may be, though, I actually enjoy the closing theme more, mainly because it’s a full-blown song by the Scottish band Bis. Enjoy!

What about you, dear reader? Have any fond Powerpuff Girls memories?

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Cartoons: They’re Not Just for Children EVER

I don’t know where people got the assumption that animation is a children’s domain. Maybe through further research I could ferret it out. Is it because animation’s ability to violate physical rules appeals especially to children, who may not yet entirely understand them? Or is it because animated characters tend to be especially broad and caricaturish, and this is supposedly geared toward a child’s lack of sophistication? Is it because animation has historically been realized best – for many artistic and industrial reasons – in 5-10 minute shorts, as opposed to the more critically respectable feature length of live-action films?

I don’t yet know, but the assumption couldn’t be more wrong-headed. It’s been mostly within my lifetime, since the emergence of “adult animation” as a distinct category, that magazines have trumpeted (and continue to trumpet), “Cartoons [or, often, comics]: they’re not just for children anymore!” Well, duh. But what’s particularly sad about this sudden realization is the fact that animation was never just for children. From the very first (lost) feature-length animated films of Argentina’s Quirino Cristiani, which were apparently full of complex political commentary, right down through beloved classics like “Red Hot Riding Hood” and “What’s Opera, Doc?”, animators have consistently operated at a level of sophistication (and perversion) equal to or even above that of conventional, live-action filmmaking.

Which brings me to Max Fleischer’s 1931 cartoon “Bimbo’s Initiation,” which I was recently introduced to by my friend Jacob. It’s 6 1/2 minutes of mayhem, persecution, and Freudian nightmares. Its visual sensibilities lie somewhere between M.C. Escher and Alice in Wonderland, and its characters’ primary motivations are sheer sadism and uninhibited lust. It dispenses with all but the minimal necessary narrative: Bimbo is dropped through an open manhole out of his mundane surface world and into a violent underground funhouse, where he’s systematically pursued and tortured for the remainder of the cartoon. The only real plot progression occurs as Bimbo’s trials become increasingly dangerous and nonsensical, and when the Mystic Order that’s attempting to initiate him reveals themselves as dozens of Betty Boop prototypes.

I can understand how an anti-realistic story like this, brimming as it is with flagrant absurdism, could be potentially viewed as childish. It’s practically preverbal, as most of the dialogue is a simple chant – “Wanna be a member? Wanna be a member?” – followed by Bimbo’s “No!” The cartoon physics at play, especially in the Rube Goldbergian torture devices, follow their own ridiculous logic, and the anthropomorphic characters include a sword, fire, a skeleton, and a shadow. These aspects of the cartoon’s universe suggest either a child, or else an altered state of consciousness, whether dreamed or drug-induced. These aren’t just infantile fantasies; they’re a baring of the male psyche, reducing Bimbo to his lowest state of vulnerability and victimization. This cartoon has some pretty intense psychoanalytic subtext for it to just be “kids’ stuff.”

And then there’s the afore-mentioned sadism and lust. This isn’t just typical cartoon slapstick as Bimbo tries to reach some concrete goal; he is literally running for his life from a secret society obsessed with killing him, or at least paddling his ass until it burns. (This cartoon really has an unhealthy ass fixation.) And it’s only after Betty’s rubber-bodied dance that Bimbo’s interest in becoming a member is quite visibly aroused. The happy ending seems to imply a forthcoming orgy – is this the transition from nightmare into wet dream? Whatever it is, it’s definitely beyond the sexual reckoning of your typical child. This cartoon takes haunted house clichés and stretches them out through repetition into rituals of torture; it’s as if this underworld were itself conflicted, infinitely punishing and rewarding Bimbo.

I don’t pretend to understand “Bimbo’s Initiation,” but I do enjoy it immensely. Wikipedia claims that comics artist Jim Woodring was heavily inspired by this cartoon, and if you’ve read anything by Woodring (like, say, Frank), the influence is clear both in architecture and in tone. A child could easily find this funny, sure, because it is funny. But there’s so much going on below the surface, and even on the surface, that’s decidedly adult; it strikes you on numerous levels simultaneously. This is a sick cartoon. That’s not a judgment, but more of a declaration: this cartoon has diagnosable psychosexual maladies. It’s sick. This isn’t the only place I could have started when talking about how cartoons, even back in 1931, were never just for kids, but it’s an entertaining place. Disney may get the press and all the money, but Max Fleischer had one hell of a perverse creative vision.

asshttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4vkRsylQ0lg&NR=1

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Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Treehouse of Horror V

So, I’m going to use the quasi-existence of “Aprilween” (i.e., a made-up horror-themed holiday halfway between each Halloween) as an excuse to continue my proposed series of Simpsons analyses. Every time I watch one of the show’s many, many great episodes, I just have an urge to talk about it – to figure out what the writers and animators did to make it so fucking brilliant. There’s so much going on in each 22-minute selection, such a talented collaborative balancing of social satire, emotional realism, and absurd animation. Single minutes of the show at its prime can unload so much comedy and pathos and subtle creative tricks you’re not entirely aware of that it makes your head spin.

And even while still fitting in all of this, the show occasionally took total departures from reality. Every October (or, more likely, early November) they would, and still do, put forward a Treehouse of Horror episode. They were continuity-free triptychs full of gore & violence, but still with the show’s usual abundance of verbal and visual jokes. But they went places (like hell and outer space) that normal episodes generally couldn’t. They allowed the show to disregard all pretenses of realism and dive into apocalyptic nightmares and carefree killing sprees, often within in a parody of a Twilight Zone episode or a classic horror movie. Anyone could die. Any institution could be dismantled. Basically, it was The Simpsons‘ horror-themed equivalent of DC’s non-canon Elseworlds series, or Marvel’s What If.

Plenty of full episodes or individual segments would’ve been worthy of closer inspection. (Although, as with the rest of the series, quality tends to drop off when you move past season 9-10.) “The Devil and Homer Simpson” from Treehouse of Horror IV, for example, has Homer trapped in his own ironic hell courtesy of an ironically satanic Ned Flanders. The legendary “Homer³” from VI uses then-revolutionary computer-generated imagery to produce an eerie, self-destructing dimension in which Homer gets trapped. (Homer being trapped in bad places was clearly a persistent theme in these episodes.) But beyond any doubt, the greatest of all 20 Halloween specials is Treehouse of Horror V.

Just as the Halloween episodes take place outside the series’ normal continuity, they also dispense with its conventions. V begins not with the familiar clouds over Springfield, but with Marge announcing that Congress has forbidden them from showing it – this cuts to an Outer Limits-style TV hijacking by Bart and Homer, which introduces the episode – and this segues into a morbid parody of the expected opening, which moves through a graveyard and toward the Simpsons’ house. Pattie and Selma are burnt as witches, Moe hangs himself, and Bart guillotines school employees (including a disturbingly happy Principal Skinner), all of which confirm this as a Springfield in which power structures have been overturned in favor of anarchic violence.

Every dark impulse boiling beneath the show’s day-to-day conflicts is let loose in shockingly literal form. The Treehouse of Horror episodes were not just a little ghoulish fun, but also a blood-spurting catharsis for the show’s whole cast. Secret fears or desires could be voiced without needing to worry about them affecting future episodes. This is especially visible in the episode’s first (and best) segment, a pitch-perfect parody of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining entitled “The Shinning.” (As Groundskeeper Willie says, “You want to get sued?”) Mr. Burns hires the Simpsons as winter caretakers for his lodge, but not before erasing their access to TV and beer, causing Homer to… “something something.” (“Go crazy?”)

In its imitation of Kubrick’s masterpiece, “The Shinning” brings to mind the infamous mirror routine in the Marx Bros.’ Duck Soup. Just as Harpo darts back and forth in a dead-on mockery of Groucho’s mannerisms, so does “The Shinning” invoke all of The Shining‘s most memorable set-pieces, only to deflate their terrifying grandeur and mystery. The gush of blood from the elevator, formerly an enigmatic omen of impending violence, is reduced to a quick joke, as Burns notes, “Usually the blood gets off at the second floor.” And the hedge maze is no longer a site of confusion and danger, as Bart merely chainsaws through it. All these nightmare images look ridiculous when viewed through the Simpsons’ all-American ignorance, just like the “Bad Dream House” from Treehouse of Horror I, which prefers suicide to a life with the insufferably self-absorbed family.

As Ashley and I were discussing earlier, “The Shinning” isn’t just parody for its own sake. It doesn’t even bother with many of The Shining‘s most iconic moments – the occupants of the rooms, Danny on his tricycle, the twin girls – and instead focuses on the analogy of Homer and Jack Torrance as frustrated men within the strictures of the nuclear family. Both become violent under the building’s malevolent influence, but whereas Jack is triggered by drinking, Homer goes crazy when he can’t drink. He’s so dependent on these creature comforts – TV and beer – as escapes from what he would later describe as “the drudgery of work and family” that we can plausibly imagine the Homer we know and love going ax crazy without them. It’s just thrilling how, even in the midst of a hilarious parody, the Simpsons writers are still furthering their vast thesis of Homer as the quintessential American father.

And even while developing Homer’s relationship with TV through parallels to Jack (culminating in the sublime line “Teacher, mother, secret lover…”), this 7-minute segment still finds time for Mr. Burns’ disregard for others’ lives, Marge’s maternal anxiety, Wiggum’s incompetence, the family’s apathy toward Grampa, and Moe’s interminable despair. (Plus a great gag involving assorted movie monsters.) It’s all full of subtle Kubrickian musical and visual cues and intimations of real horror, too. At the very least, it’s very, very high up in the pantheon of Treehouse of Horror segments. At most, it could be 7 of the most effective minutes in American animation. In any case, there’s a lot going on here, and the segment is both a great tribute to the original film, and a great addition to the show’s legacy.

So where to go from there? The next segment, “Time and Punishment,” may not surpass the early peak set by “The Shinning,” but it’s still imaginative and frightening in its own right. It starts out with the Simpson family around the kitchen table on a breathtakingly idyllic morning – when suddenly Lisa screams, “Dad! Your hand is jammed in the toaster!” After some quick effort, he gets it off. Bart screams, “Dad! It’s in there again!” It’s a jarring non sequitur, and a brief exemplar of what horror is all about: the perfect, conflict-free setting, with Homer overstating how happy he is, can turn on a dime into inexplicable, unstoppable chaos. Homer goes downstairs to fix the toaster, only to inadvertently build a time machine. In short, Halloween has let the show throw aside all rules of logic and physics for no good reason. It’s funny, it’s scary, and it’s beautiful.

Granted, I’m a sucker for a good altered timeline story, and “Time and Punishment” is up there with the best of them. Rather than dwell on any linear connection between time periods by having Homer do or undo a specific action, we instead see him fuck up the past through a variety of means – swatting a mosquito, sneezing, sitting on a fish, killing everything in sight – and have each one yield a seemingly random but progressively weirder outcome. One future, for example, has Flanders as Big Brother, giving us a creepy insight into what the friendliest neighborino would do with unquestioned power. Another appears utopian, until Homer fears the loss of another creature comfort (donut) and tragically flees in horror moments before donuts rain from the sky – an ironic Twilight Zone ending tucked inside a wider story.

And the future where Maggie axes Willie in the back before saying, in James Earl Jones’ voice, “This is indeed a disturbing universe”? Funny, yes, but uncanny and off-putting. It also elucidates on the segment’s earlier hints of madness erupting out of normality. Maggie may have been referring to her own alternative universe, or to the Treehouse universe in general, where these flagrant violations of the show’s basic tenets can run wild. After losing all self-control and smashing all the prehistoric flora and fauna he can, Homer is deposited in one last future. It looks and feels like the one he started in, but in the gruesome reveal, his family eats with forked tongues. He shrugs and sighs, “Eh, close enough.”

The tone of compromise in Homer’s voice feels so strange in this otherwise surreal situation. It’s a sign of exhaustion, a willingness to live with a flawed family, a resignation to the absurd that falls halfway between Charles Schulz and Albert Camus. This isn’t just flat-out comedy with the occasional bloody murder – the writers cross through an astonishing amount of emotional territory. While these first two segments are devoted largely to Homer’s alienation as a working father (OK, at least that’s my reading), the last is one for the kids. It’s probably the weakest of the three, but “Nightmare Cafeteria” has some images of unremitting ghoulishness that can still inspire terror in me.

Its storyline couldn’t be simpler: Springfield Elementary’s detentions are overcrowded. Therefore, Skinner schemes to grind students up and serve them for lunch. Eventually he goes so overboard that the vast majority of the student body are herded like cattle, with the last few students (naturally, Bart, Lisa, and Milhouse) strongly aware of what’s in store. It may have a far more traditional narrative and narrower focus than the others, but it also strikes harder at its lone target. From the first moments, the horror of public school begins, as students are crammed into detention rooms so tight that their faces are pressed against the doors.

And this is default from which the episode takes off. Lunch lady Doris’s gripe about “Grade F” meat could easily be a jab at food services in a normal episode, but here it leads into systematic mass murder and cannibalism. Much of the set-up strongly resembles The Simpsons as we know it; this time, it just goes much farther and gets much darker. Skinner and Krabappel’s usual disdain for the students leads them to whole-heartedly embrace this new solution, and we have to wonder: When it’s not Halloween, do they still bear this much hatred? As it is, we immediately believe this over-the-top faculty revenge fantasy. Skinner’s poor excuses, comical in any other setting, become unsettling when applied to Üter’s disappearance (and subsequent transformation into “Üterbraten”).

Marge, meanwhile, offers her children a lesson in self-reliance, simply telling them to “march right back to that school, look them straight in the eye, and say ‘Don’t eat me’!” With Milhouse, they attempt an escape, only for the drooling teachers and staff to corner them with their backs to a giant “Hamilton Beech Student Chopper.” Bart insists, with desperate self-awareness, that something will save them, but no deus ex machina comes. They all fall to their deaths. It’s a child’s bleakest nightmare, when every authority figure has become either useless or predatory, when the place they spend 7 hours each weekday has turned into a death trap. Across the three segments, three major pillars of modern life – family, home, and school – are shown to be insecure from inside or outside threats.

The ending even tops “Nightmare Cafeteria,” by having Bart wake up from his nightmare and be comforted by his family… all of whom are then assailed by fog that turns them inside-out. They dance to “One” from A Chorus Line (a song included earlier in a joke about the Tonys), are joined by an inside-out Groundskeeper Willie (whose repeated axings unify the segments), and sing “Happy Halloween!” as Santa’s Little Helper tears at Bart’s vulnerable organs. The Simpsons, in its lightest episodes, ridiculed the corruption and foolishness of America’s social and moral authorities. Here, at its darkest, it said that the real world was the nightmare – at least on Halloween – and that, as in Kubrick’s films, there is no real fail-safe button for life’s problems.

Whether those problems are addiction-based insanity, an unstable space-time continuum, or hungry school administrators, we may not be able to save ourselves. If possible, as in “Time and Punishment,” we should just cope with them as best we can. The false dream of a solution, as when Marge advises the kids on how not to be eaten, or realizing the lack of one, as when Homer shrugs and goes back to his breakfast, are what provide the episode’s delicious black comedy. Because no part of it really ends satisfactorily. Each segment leaves many unanswered questions, a “…?” hanging uneasily in the air even after the characters have moved on. For me, this gets at what the series, in its most surreal and absurd moments, sees at the bottom of modern existence. It’s “the horror,” as Colonel Kurtz would say.

Normally this vision of horror is sublimated into pure comedy, or into familial melodrama. The desperation each family member feels in their roles is pushed aside, and they continue doing the best they can, (dys)functioning as a single, loving unit within American society. But on Halloween, all these anxieties burst out like xenomorphs, pregnant with fantasies of mutilation and mass murder. These possibilities exist in the unconscious of the show’s normal episodes. Little signs of them are everywhere (and I might write about that sometime). But only in the Treehouse of Horror episodes can they receive their fullest expression, in parodies and nightmares and hypothetical scenarios that are, in the truest sense, horror.

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