Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Best Cartoon Series By Matt Groening

Okay, I did not go see The Simpsons Movie, and I do not intend to and don’t want to. I was very much a fan of "The Simpsons" back when the Simpsons were cool and funny – when Bill Clinton had more to do than hog the stage while Hillary fumes on the sidelines mentaling shrieking "It’s my turn you chunky..."

Well, okay.

"The Simpsons" went through three distinct phases. There was the early, rough era when Homer was a little too alcoholic and mean and the jokes had an unfunny edge to them. There was the all-too-brief middle era when the show was one of the funniest on TV, and then there’s the remainder of the show’s 18-decade run, which is marked by not being funny and too many episodes that have Lisa in them.

Why is it that every sitcom family, even the animated ones, have to have a socially conscious girl in them that sucks the life and humor out of the show whenever she’s on the screen? Think of Tina Yothers. Remember how much "Family Ties"stopped being even slightly entertaining when she was onscreen? You always knew that she was about 1 minute away from some patronizing speech about the rain forest. Just like Lisa Simpson. I think it’s because Hollywood writers are liberals, and because sitcom writers are in their minds important novelists who resent writing scripts for TV shows and want to spend their time writing big important books that nobody would want to read anymore than they want to hear sonorous speeches from Lisa Simpson. But because they can’t write those novels – or because they can but nobody wants to publish or read them – the writers have to make a living writing for sitcoms and so they plug those speeches into the Tina Yothers character and the studio heads go along with it because they think they’re Doing Good by letting the speeches get on the air.

I bet if I could remember much about "Alf" beyond the fact that it was a puppet that looked sort of like a baby Snuffleupagus that ate cats, that show would have a self-important daughter with concerns about the world we live in.

But Lisa was not the only problem with "The Simpsons." She was the only problem that existed for the whole too-long life of the show, true, but there were more problems and the biggest problem was that The Simpsons stopped being funny or relevant and started trying to hard. It went from being a fun mockery of us and society and people in general to something that just couldn’t buy a laugh.

I think I lost interest when Homer became a conceptual artist and flooded the town. The show that brought us "Stop The Planet of the Apes, I Want To Get Off" had devolved into an episode where Homer impossibly flooded Springfield so that Marge could paint again, or something. It was all too much – it was show-offy and unrealistic in a way that wasn’t funny, it was just painful.

I recently– okay, last year – checked in to see if I’d find it funny again, and watched half an episode in which Marge gets hooked on some online game only to find that Bart is a master character that’s killing everyone. First of all, that ripped off "South Park," which was funny because South Park had an episode in which a character keeps pointing out that the Simpsons had done something first, but not funny in a way that made you laugh because of the Simpsons; it was funny in a painful way. Second of all, making fun of online games? Wow, there’s a target nobody’s touched yet. Hey, Simpsons’ writers – what do you think of high gas prices? Aren’t they outrageous? Maybe Lisa could make a speech in favor of solar power! And Homer could wreck the sun?

If I see that as an episode, I’m suing.

What makes "The Simpsons" suckiness so remarkable is that the show sits alongside proof of Matt Groening’s actual genius, the good Groening creation, "Futurama."
Futurama got such a raw deal. It’s already a tough sell – a science fiction cartoon that’s not The Jetsons. But it was on Sundays, on Fox, which meant that it was pre-empted for 9/5 of the year because of football, and when it wasn’t pre-empted it aired immediately after football, and for most people, football and funny-sci-fi-cartoon are not an obvious link. And that combination led to its early demise on Fox and sort-of resurrection on cable.

Futurama was, is, brilliant and hilarious. Loosely the story of the adventures of Fry, who accidentally cryogenically froze himself while delivering a pizza on New Year’s Eve and woke up in the future, it managed to include science and humor and commentary on modern – our modern, nowadays – society alongside absurdities and parodies. It featured easy targets like "Slurms Mackenzie," the hard-partying mascot for the drink "Slurm," and in that episode parodied beach movies and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." And it went after harder targets, more abstract ideas, like the time the professor made an entire universe in a box, and got into a battle with the alternate selves of the characters who thought that our universe was in a box in their universe.

Futurama had great characters. Not just Fry, who was awesomely stupid but genuinely nice, but Leela the one-eyed orphan mutant kickboxing star captain who is Fry’s love interest. It had Bender, Fry’s best friend and roommate and also an alcoholic thief degenerate soap opera star robot. There was Zap Branigan, the sort-of-William-Shatner-esque space captain who might have been wearing pants and might not have been.

Futurama also was hilariously, insanely, funny. The stories were jumping off points for one-liners and site gags and twisty innuendos and plots. A stop for refueling leads Fry to buy a service station sandwich, and eat a crunchy black thing that turns out to be a tomato, resulting a worm infestation that makes him a better, smarter person who Leela loves. The professor’s invention of mutants to play against the Harlem Globetrotters results in time breaking down and jumping at random, giving the humans a chance to cooperate with the Globetrotters to save the universe – and giving Bender a chance to try to become a Globetrotter.

As absurd as they might sound, the stories always amounted to more than they started out to be – because they had a little heart in them. When Fry makes a deal with the robot devil and gets the devil’s hands, he uses them to play the holophone – a clarinet that creates holograms – like a maestro, impressing Leela with the symphony he wrote. Leela, though, goes deaf because of a trick the Robot Devil plays, and ultimately Fry must give up his hands (and his chance to impress Leela) to keep her from having to marry the Robot Devil. But in the end, we see Fry practicing the holophone on his own, determined to impress Leela through his efforts.

Futurama also has the distinction of being the only cartoon to make Sweetie cry – in the episode where Fry tries to track down his lucky 7-leaf clover, only to learn that his older brother, Yancy, had appropriated it and taken Fry’s identity to become a great space explorer. Enraged, Fry goes to rob his grave – SPOILER ALERT – but learns that Yancy had in fact named his son after Fry and given his son the clover because he missed Fry so much after Fry disappeared into the future.

It takes a special sort of genius to make you laugh and cry in an episode that features grave robbing.

That wasn't my favorite episode, though. If I had to pick one, I'd have to go with the one where Fry tries to buy underwear, only to realize he doesn't have enough money. Remembering that he had a bank account, he goes to get some cash and finds out that because of accrued interest over 1000 years, he's deliriously wealthy. Using his money, he goes on a spending spree buying... old 1980's artifacts, including the last can of sardines in the world, which for reasons too complicated to get into, the world's most loveable industrialist wants to get from him. And it's even funnier than it sounds!

Futurama presents a future that looked both inviting and scary, funny and disturbing, exciting and mundane. A world where you could work as a delivery boy but you’re delivering things to planets that are collapsing or controlled by human-hating robots or giant Amazons. A world where petting zoos included Tyrannosaurus Rexes and you could regrow your hands after the dinosaur bit them off. A world that looked a lot like the one we see all around us only it was new and different and fresh each time we blinked.

The future is like that for all of us: it’s a little bit frightening and a little bit intriguing, and it was fun and comforting to see Fry – us – deal with what we suspected (and feared) the future would be like and make it not so bad after all. It was even better to see that done with a sense of style and humor and even have all the science correct. And it was best of all, frankly, to have it done without a hectoring sister in the mix.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Best Christmas Movie

Think of all the things that Christmas means or should mean to people. Let’s list them together:

Goodwill towards men.

That’s probably good enough for starters. Ponder those for a second, and then ask yourself: What is the likelihood that a movie about an abusive alcoholic thieving Santa would embody those qualities? If you haven’t seen the movie Bad Santa, you’re probably saying “There’s no likelihood of that,” but you’re wrong.

Bad Santa
is The Best Christmas Movie because it not only embodies all of the good things about Christmas, but it does that in a way that does not leave you gagging or grumbling or wondering why it is that when people fall off the roof of the house, the lights always wrap around their ankle and stop them just short of landing on the ground.

The problem with most Christmas movies is that Christmas is so good that people hesitate to have any fun with it or tamper with the usual formulas. Whether or not you’re a Christian, Christmas has come to mean more than just big business; it means all those qualities I began with, and it means cozy scenes of couples curled up in front of a fireplace drinking eggnog, or kids opening presents, or carolers with red scarves and red noses. It’s chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Parson Brown doing the job while he’s in town, boughs of holly, and lords-a-leaping. Filmmakers tamper with that at their peril, or, more often, simply don’t tamper with it.

That led us to the point, just before Bad Santa came out, where Christmas movies would be entirely predictable and entirely sucky. There would be snow. And small towns with main streets. And a scene where the family decorates the tree. And a grumbling boss. And slight – very slight – commentary to the effect of gosh, look how many presents we bought, we should really remember what this season is all about and then a snowball fight and Santa tucking in a little kid.

I blame Charles Dickens and The Grinch. Dickens gave us an idealized version of Christmas that places all Christmas celebrations in Victorian England. If your Christmas doesn’t have a goose, a lad in a newsboy cap, and hot toddies, it probably feels lacking. And The Grinch gave us the Christmas Feast (complete with Roast Beast), the stockings, the trees, and the singing. (Some blame, too, goes to “’Twas The Night Before Christmas.")

From those sources, we created “Christmas, The Holiday.” We dream of white Christmases where the snow begins falling in flakes as large as your head on Christmas Eve, and we watch movies where all those things happen and where everything is so sweet and so predictable and so boring that you can’t watch them anymore. By now we know that the grumpy account executive will see the error of her ways and we know that grandma won’t be left sitting alone all night.

I had had enough, and so, apparently had a lot of people. We just didn’t know we’d had enough, and didn’t know what we’d had enough of until about 1/3 of the way through Bad Santa when Billy Bob Thornton staggers across a parking lot in his department-store-santa outfit. Only the parking lot is in Arizona, and the heat is causing distortion in what we see, and Santa is staggeringly drunk and not even trying to keep his beard on.

At that point, Christmas movies of the past exploded and a whole new era was born. I hope. But I think it was.

Bad Santa is rude and mean and obnoxious and gross and times and rated R and it is both astoundingly funny and still somehow nice enough to qualify as a genuine Christmas movie. The story of an alcoholic safecracker who works as Santa to get access to mall safes just after the big Christmas sales is 99.9% raunchy hilarity and 0.1% sweetness, and even the sweetness is curdled with some tart, the way some candies work both sides of the tongue. Here’s an example: after Billy Bob convinces a kid who lives with a senile grandma that he, Billy Bob, is Santa, so that he can stay there while biding his time until the big heist – which will be Christmas Eve – we expect, from past Christmas movies, that the bad guy will find his heart softening. What we don’t expect is how that softening will be shown. Billy Bob does not change his heart and go out caroling with Thurman Merman. He decorates the house only because not doing so will attract attention he doesn’t want. But he does cook the kid dinner – bologna and salsa fried on white bread. And he tries to make amends by fixing the kid’s Advent calendar after ruining it while on a bender. But he fixes it with whatever’s handy, and hasn’t completely changed, so when Thurman gets an aspirin instead of a candy, all Billy Bob can say is “They can’t all be winners, kid.”

There are, also, no scenes of heartwarming tenderness explaining why Billy Bob might change his attitude. There is no picture from Thurman showing his missing dad being replaced by Santa. We learn that Thurman knows Billy Bob really isn’t Santa at all. And the touching moment when Thurman gives Billy Bob a gift happens when Billy Bob is making out with Lauren Graham and is interrupted by Thurman giving him a hand-carved wooden pickle. That’s sticky with Thurman’s blood.

It all sounds terrible, and sounds even worse when you consider that it’s full of cursing and replete with sexual references, but it works somehow, and I think it works because it takes all of the clich├ęs that have sprung up around Christmas and turns them inside out, allowing them to seem new and okay – like when you’d turn a sweatshirt inside out to wear it a second day. It messes with everything “regular” Christmas movies hold dear – the big bonding scenes between the bad guy and the kid involves the bad guy beating up a bunch of teenagers and then supervising a boxing match, while at other times Billy Bob explains that his beard is fake because he slept with a woman who wasn’t clean – Mrs. Santa’s Sister – and that he and Mrs. Claus are getting divorced because of it (but Mrs. Claus gets the elves.)

I didn’t think, when I first saw the movie, that it would hold such an esteemed place in my mind someday – I just thought it was a breath of fresh air and hilarious. But as it sunk in, I saw that it had achieved something really hard – it had made Christmas movies seem fresh and unique again. And it had achieved something even harder – it had made Christmas seem real again.

That’s the larger point of this. Let’s face it: For all the great parts of Christmas, there are the parts we don’t like to think about or talk about because they take away from the magic a little. If you want a brightly lit tree, you’ve got to spend some time putting the lights on (and ultimately taking them off). A heavy snowfall is magical on Christmas Eve, but it keeps you from visiting relatives and makes you shovel your car out on Christmas Day. We all love shopping for presents, except for the lines and the crowds and the slush and the expense. The table full of Christmas cookies was preceded by a day or two spent in the kitchen and there’s a sink full of dishes.

Yes, Christmas is magical and it’s a celebration of all the good things about people. But it gets that way not in spite of or without all the trouble and stress and worries, but because of it. Christmas takes all the ordinary stresses of life and multiplies them: we have to cook everyday, but it’s not everyday that the whole family is going to eat it. We have money worries all the time, but we don’t spend all of our time hoping to find that perfect gift for the kids to show them how much they mean to us even though sometimes we’re crabby with them. We’re surrounded by music and movies and books, but it’s only about one month per year that those movies and music and books stop being about how hot people’s girlfriends are and start being about Angels From The Realms Of Glory.

So at Christmas, we amp up the stresses, but we amp up the good feelings, too, and if we do it right, the Giving, the Love, the Peace, the Togetherness, the Goodwill towards men, and the Salvation drown out the worries and stress and bad feelings, and we can appreciate, for a brief time, just how beautiful life really is.

Bad Santa taught me that. It made me laugh, and I enjoyed it, but it also made me appreciate how the bad things can make the good things so much better. And that’s why it’s The Best Christmas Movie.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Best Christmas Song

It’s only December 4, but I’m feeling Christmas-y. I began feeling Christmas-y, if you must know, almost as soon as the dishes were being cleared away after Thanksgiving dinner. I was able to resist the Christmas feeling when it first tried to wash over me, but I was able to do that at that time this year because the feeling first tried to get into my blood while Sweetie and I were at Toys R Us the first week of November, and they were playing nothing but Christmas music. Still, I fought it off because there’s a time and place for Christmas, and that time and place is beginning immediately after Thanksgiving dinner and continuing on until about 5:00 p.m. on Christmas Day.

That’s when Christmas ends: 5 p.m., December 25. It’s just over, then. The cookies have been eaten, the egg nog has been nogged, the presents opened and played with, the sweaters sweatened. And its at 5 p.m. that the feeling just fades away in the long gray of winter that January represents. I can’t ever feel Christmas-y after that point. When we were kids we’d go to my grandparents on Christmas Day, at night, for dinner and Christmas with them, but it was never right. We’d go there, eat dinner, they’d have the cookies and pies and all that, and the tree was there, and lit up, and they’d give us presents (which were usually a plaid shirt and a complete set of NFL pencils; we liked the latter a lot and would use them in order of our favorite teams, leaving the Cleveland Browns and New Orleans Saints pencils for the February and March, if ever) but it was not the same.

I think that’s because Christmas to me is not the holiday so much as it is the feeling of the holiday, the anticipation, the goodwill and fun that builds up from Thanksgiving on. You begin with a quiet family gathering of turkey and football and jellied cranberries, and that marks the end of regular time. Starting the next day, with the crowds and the shopping – and I always go out shopping that day – Christmas begins building up to the greatest holiday of the year. And I say greatest both from a religious and a secular perspective. If you’re religious – Christian, at least – there isn’t really a better day on the calendar than the day your religion was born. But even if you’re not Christian, the Christmas season has grown to represent more than just the birth of the savior of humankind (if that’s possible.) It’s become a celebration of the better side of people, the side of people that wants to show goodwill to each other, that wants to have peace, that wants to bestow gifts on each other, that wants to sing and be happy and love each other, that wants to give our spare dollar bills and quarters to the bell ringer and drop off a Toy for a Tot and watch the very special episodes of all our favorite sitcoms.

So we begin with the holiday shopping and crowds, and we move on to getting pictures taken for family Christmas cards and sending them out, and we start Secret Santas at the office and get small gifts, and we have Christmas parties with friends or coworkers and tell our wives that, no, the eggnog doesn’t have brandy, I don’t think, and then we cave in and take the kids to see the local theater production of either the Nutcracker or “A Christmas Carol,” and we drive around the neighborhood and look at the lights, and then we have the whole family over, which we swore we’d never do after last year when the kids chased the cats around and nearly knocked down the tree, and Dad is shocked to see that we’re not kidding, we really did get an 8-foot-tall inflatable Rudolph for the yard and, yes, there’s the parrot next to it, and he doesn’t believe that we bought it simply because it was on sale, but, hey, it’s Christmas, so you’ll even put on the slippers that you got.

And then it’s late and everyone’s gone home and the presents under the tree are those that Santa has brought for the kids and you get to sit quietly and drink yet one more glass of egg nog while you listen to music and look at the Christmas tree with the stegosaurus ornament.

And that’s the moment that Christmas is building up to, for me: that quiet moment after all the revelry, where I get to reflect on just how far my life has come, on just how much I love my life and the people in it, and get to do that after a whirlwind of singing and presents and celebrating and too-loud talking that’s stretched out over weeks and ranged from carrying boxes through the snow to stringing popcorn.

To carry me through that, to keep me on a Christmas-keel throughout that, I don’t rely solely on friends and family and presents and decorations. I rely on one of the most fundamental things that can affect mood: music.

Christmas music can be broken down into a couple of different categories and styles. There’s old-fashioned, and new, the traditional alongside the modern. There’s upbeat, happy songs; there are the sad ones that are sad in a good way, that make you melancholy because while you understand the emotion they’re discussing, you’re not going through it yourself. Each of them has their merits and captures a facet of Christmas.

Take one of the better traditional ones – O Holy Night. That’s a great one, especially if you’re religious. It’s quietly uplifting and elevates your mood in a meditative way. But that’s not all there is to Christmas.

Or there’s the bounciness of Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmas, a more modern, stripped-down synthesizer jaunt that celebrates the simple happiness of a family gathering. It gives you a bubbly little happy feeling, but doesn’t encapsulate the season.

There’s the solemn, throat-choking appeal of Do They Know It’s Christmas, a song that never fails to bring on a moment of silence and reminds us that Christmas is a time to help those less fortunate than us. But that, too, is only a part of the holiday.

And the importance of family, of friends, of love, at this time of year is captured by hundreds of songs. Please Come Home For Christmas. (There’s No Place Like) Home For The Holidays. All Alone on Christmas. Some fast, some slow, all a bit sad and reminding you to make sure that you visit Mom with some gingerbread cheesecake. And, they, too, fall short. (Among those songs is one not to miss, though: Fairytale of New York, by The Pogues. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful and almost was my choice for this category – almost. While it paints a beautiful picture, it’s ultimately too sad to win this award. But you should listen to it, and you should listen to it over and over.) (And you can do that here:)

I couldn't pick that one, because it's not The Best. There’s only one song, in the entire pantheon of Christmas songs, that adequately captures the whole of the season, of the holiday, and that song is “Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You” by Billy Squier.

No, I’m not joking.

Watch and listen:

Did you hear the lyrics? Just the title: Christmas is the time to say I love you. That’s the whole season wrapped up right there, isn’t it? Say “I love you,” to your kids, your wife, your parents, your friends, the world.

The song hits all the marks: “touch of magic,” mentioning Santa and the reindeer, talk of good cheer, the food and drink and candy, the reflections that Christmas brings on (“Memories of the year that lays behind us”) and of the feeling that Christmas engenders: Make you feel that life has just begun.

Beyond the words, though, is the music. I miss the 70’s if only for this reason: they don’t make music like this anymore. There’s no raucous guitar music that builds and builds and builds and piles chords and drumbeats and choruses all together, barely holding it together, the kind of songs that feel always like they could fall into chaos but never quite do, the kind of songs that meld together all the best instruments with a kind-of-screechy singer. The music is not itself especially Christmas-ized. There’s not a lot of bells and organs and harps. But it has a Christmas spirit all its own, in the jumbled happy way it tumbles out onto your ears.

The best thing I can say about this song, though, is that it, more than any other song, lifts me up. It actually gives meaning to the word uplifting for me. I can’t listen to it without smiling and tapping my toe and nodding my head and humming and, finally, singing along.
It starts slow, and then builds and builds and builds until its momentum just takes me and carries me away and makes me laugh and enjoy myself and opens my heart a little. And that, well, that’s Christmas.