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Frank Cottrell-Boyce on TV

Cartoon times

Future generations will look back on the twentieth century as the age of the cartoon. Just as we use the illuminated manuscript as a synecdoche for the medieval world, so scholars of the twenty-fifth century will look back at our culture through the lens of the animated short. If there is any justice they will see Warner Brothers' Loony Toons series as an achievement to rank alongside the pyramids and the Book of Kells.

Like all great art forms, it flourished away from the ray of critical attention. Like the theatre of Shakespeare or Ibo sculpture it was not regarded as Art at all at the time by either its creators or its consumers. The very fact that the masterpieces of the form were addressed to children meant it did not have to justify itself in aesthetic or moral terms. While literature, art, and music became pallidly self-regarding and nervously self-justifying, the cartoon developed a visceral self-confidence, a heedless, expressive energy that is best summed up in the character of the Wile E Coyote, perched on a cliff top, haemorrhaging creativity in the vain, pointless pursuit of an unstoppable, probably inedible bird.

The Coyote, like the art of the animated short itself, never stopped to ask himself if it was all worth it, if it really meant anything. Questions like 'why don't you save some of the money you spend down at the Acme Store and buy yourself a frozen roadrunner?' simply do not arise. The impossibility of catching the Roadrunner is the source of the Coyote's creativity. The fact that he will never eat the Roadrunner is in a sense his great source of nourishment.

Between the look of hope on the Coyote's face as he launches himself into the air and the look of resignation as he craters the canyon floor (on one occasion right next to the crater he made last time) is the whole of the vanity of human wishes. In the senseless extravagance of the Coyote's inventions is all the hope of humanity. There is a mythical final episode of the series in which it turns out the Roadrunner owns the Acme Store and has been itself responsible for the Coyote buying all the backfiring dynamite, catapults that stick, and jet packs that turn upside down and pile-drive you into the canyon floor. If it was really made, it was never shown because the whole point is the innocent ignorance of the Roadrunner. Cartoon deals in manias, obsessions, wild, undeserved hatreds and unassailable illusions.

For a while it looked to me as if The Simpsons represented some kind of climax to the Great Tradition. Here was a cartoon series addressed to all age groups. Both vulgar and literate, it was clever without being smart. Here were characters finally reduced to the simple, explosive gesture; a spikey yellow boy with 'Low achiever and proud of it' blazed across his T-shirt, forever yelling, 'I'm Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?'. The series itself, on the other hand, was always torn between the mesmerising, amoral energy of Bart and a tendency towards moralising in the storylines. When Bart saws the head off the statue of Springfield's founder, he lives to regret it; when Bart cheats his way into genius school, he is quickly exposed as a fraud (even though the school seems full of frauds). The stories - like Homer and Marge themselves - sought to contain the boy, either through punishment or by providing an alternative such as Bart's sister, Liza - jazz saxophonist, poet, moralist and artist in dry macaroni.

In the new series, this attempt to contain Bart has been taken to its limit. Moralising has been replaced with self-criticism. The most vitriolic satire in the new series is directed not against the feckless Homer or the fried brain of Bart, but against TV, and in particular, kids' TV.

Bart has always been devoted to two things: Krusty the Klown - a TV entertainer who appears (as Bart does) on breakfast cereals and lunchboxes; and Itchy and Scratchy - a cartoon cat and mouse. Krusty's career as an endorser of products has always been used as a wry comment on the success of The Simpsons own merchandising. Now the comment has become less wry. Krusty appears on every advert on the Simpsons own TV, endlessly repeating the phrase, 'I heartily endorse this event or product'.

In the episode, 'Escape from Camp Krusty', the children are sent to a summer camp endorsed by Krusty. It turns out to be a kind of Midwestern gulag. Bart leads a rebellion and the state troopers are sent in. 'Kids in TV-land, you are being duped!' is his message. Krusty is a seedy, wheezing, cynical character but he is St Francis of Assisi compared to Itchy and Scratchy, who are a kind of post-Nintendo Tom and Jerry. Itchy is tooled up like Rambo and does not hesitate to torch and kneecap his opponent who - unlike Tom - bleeds with exhilarating generosity from every wound.

The attack on kid's TV is particularly violent here. We are told that the new Itchy and Scratchy movie 'contains 30 per cent new footage'. We are given a behind-the-scenes peep at the making of the movie - in a drawing-room full of sad-looking Koreans being supervised by Americans in full combat gear. Interestingly enough, Itchy and Scratchy are identified more or less explicitly with Micky Mouse. The first Itchy and Scratchy movie was called Steamboat Scratchy (first Micky movie was called Steamboat Willie). Now, while I am only too happy to see the verminous Micky vilified, the sheer intensity (and irrelevance) of the hatred in these scenes suggests self-loathing as much as it does Micky Malice.

In one episode, a teacher warns Marge that if Bart is not disciplined, he will end up as a male stripper; if he is disciplined, he could end up as chief justice. Homer disciplines Bart by refusing to let him see the latest Itchy and Scratchy movie. In the end, Bart does become chief justice. His future is assured because he is not allowed to watch cartoons. In case there is any doubt about whether or not the Simpsons themselves are implicated in this, the baby Maggie is shown in one episode sucking a Bart doll.

Because of Homer's incredible torpor (he has a nervous breakdown when the couch collapses), The Simpsons has to some extent always been about TV. But now the self-reflection has turned into self-flagellation. The art of cartoon is having its first crisis of confidence. The irony is that this crisis has been brought about by the phenomenal success of The Simpsons. This is the first time a channel has built its primetime scheduling around a cartoon series. Indeed, until they bought the football, Sky made the show its main pull. The makers seem to have been terrified by the size and power of their own show. Their reactions are instructive.

In 20-odd episodes they have mimicked the whole story of Western art. They began by trying to tame their monster by tying it to the wagon of trite morality (don't steal cable TV; don't deface public property), then moved on to satiric recycling of old material (episodes parodying Edgar Allan Poe, Tennessee Williams and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest); and finally atrophied into tedious self-examination.

The final collapse of The Simpsons dream leaves Rolf's Cartoon Club (ITV) as positively the only programme on TV still worth watching (except for Knot's Landing, of course). Rolf showcases the best of the old, while keeping an eye on the new, demystifying the production process and encouraging young film-makers. Where there is Rolf, there's hope. Apart from that, kids in TV-land, you are being duped.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 52, February 1993

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