Frank Cottrell-Boyce on TV
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
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