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Monthly Archives: August 2015
Depiction does not equal endorsement. An artist may explore the depths of something controversial or lurid or profane without giving it their stamp of approval. This is how we defend films, television shows, and other works of art against the myriad pearl-clutchers and watchdog groups who gnash their teeth, gather their pitchforks, and declare that “something must be done.” It’s how we protect the scores of transcendent works about unseemly, unsavory, or otherwise unpalatable personalities who offer compelling narratives, but who may never receive their societally-mandated dose of comeuppance or public shame by the time the story ends.
But here’s a dirty little secret – depiction is much more complicated than either the defenders or the scolds would readily admit.
Make no mistake — the fact that a film simply shows bad behavior, even in seemingly glamorous terms, does not necessarily mean that the director intends it as something to aspire to. The camera itself makes no judgments. Context speaks volumes. But merely pointing a camera at someone or something does still send a message. It says, “This is worth caring about, or at least worth paying attention to.” Aim it at a particular event, or individual, or group of people, and it says theirs is a story worth telling.
Which is to say that when Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson decided to point his camera at the lightly-fictionalized men and women of the San Fernando Valley porn industry in the 1970s and 1980s, he never truly glamorizes their existence or expresses his unqualified approval for how they live their lives. To the contrary, though the film ends on a note of bittersweet hope, the thrust of the work is how the flash and filth depicted, and the lifestyle that accompanies, thoroughly and pervasively runs these poor folks through the wringer.
The Simpsons has never addressed Homer’s alcoholism more directly than it did in “Duffless”, and for good reason. As I discussed with the fine folks at the The Simpsons Show podcast this week, Homer’s love for beer is such an essential part of who he is to the general public, that it’s almost as synonymous with him as his dim-wittedness or his love of donuts. That essentially means the show can never truly change this facet of Homer’s personality, which, in turn, makes it pretty unlikely that The Simpsons will ever explore the issue in any greater depth than it did here. It’s a serious topic to tackle in the first place, and it’s a tough one to get right when you have to leave an iconic character the way you found him, to the point that he’s basically not allowed to make any sort of change for the better. Thus the series, as a general rule, tends to sidestep the issue.
Don’t get me wrong, The Simpsons frequently makes references to Homer’s vigorous beer consumption, but it’s generally played for laughs and never taken terribly seriously. I don’t have a problem with that either. Sure, at a big picture level there may be something mildly pernicious about depicting someone who drinks as much as Homer does never suffering any lasting consequences from it, but (1) The Simpsons is a comedy show, not an after school special and (2) Homer is, entirely independently of his drinking, already a terrible role model who rarely, if ever, suffers consequences for anything. Heck, the show centered an entire episode around that idea. If Homer Simpson is the example by which people live their lives, then they have bigger problems than one-too-many Duffs.
Toy Story, the first fully CGI feature film, would still have worked without its groundbreaking, digitally-rendered aesthetic. The film’s visuals were certainly eye-popping in 1995, and Pixar’s decision to feature toys as the main characters was partly motivated by an aim to mask the limitations of computer animation at the time. But at its core, Toy Story is a universal tale about jealousy and acceptance than transcends the particular style employed by its creators. It could have been a traditionally animated film or a comic book or even a puppet show, and while some of its elements would certainly have been lost or changed in translation, the heart of the film would still work just as effectively.
ReBoot, on the other hand, the first fully CGI television show (which, incidentally, predates Toy Story by about a year), may very well be inextricable from the medium in which it was expressed. The show’s premise is inherently tied to technology. Set in Mainframe, an electronic metropolis that represents the inner workings of a computer, the world of ReBoot is replete with a series of anthropomorphic “sprites”, “binomes”, and “viruses” who deal with reality-altering games input by a mysterious “User”, unruly visitors from “The Supercomputer”, and vague whispers about “The Web.”
As with Toy Story, the artificiality of ReBoot’s setting helped the show to overcome the fact that full photorealism was beyond the reach of computer animation in the early 90s. But that same digital aesthetic also proved to be the perfect medium for depicting this sort of world, to the point that it’s hard to imagine the series working apart from the computer-generated imagery that made the show stand out among its Saturday morning brethren. That’s why I’m more than a little leery of the upcoming, inevitable reimagining of the series. Part of what made ReBoot so inseparable from its computer-animated style is the fact that the show was not merely closely connected to technology; it was closely connected to a conception of technology as it existed in 1994.