Friday, March 24, 2006

Kulturkritik

[This post is dedicated to that girl--ed.]

Very little of what falls under the designation "cultural criticism" these days strikes me as either cultural or critical (that's why I invited Jeremy to contribute to this blog, incidentally) --- which is all the more reason to give a shout out to a couple of items I came upon recently.

First, Nick Lemann, writing in the New Yorker, gives the definitive account of Bill O'Reilly as both particular and universal, demonstrating how it is possible for an epiphenomenon (in this case, of right-wing ressentiment) to have tremendous causal power. Money quote:
If what you know about "The O’Reilly Factor" comes mainly from its opponents on the left—from movies like "Outfoxed" and Web sites like Media Matters—and you watch it regularly for a while, you’ll be surprised by how little of the content these days is political. "The O’Reilly Factor" is, increasingly, not a conservative show but a cop show—"O’Reilly: Special Victims Unit," perhaps—devoted particularly to sex offenders; the host, in effect, is Shannon Michaels playing Tommy O'Malley [the split O'Reilly alter-egos of his gruesome novel]. Once, when Howard Stern was asked to explain his success, he said that he owed it to lesbians. O’Reilly owes his to child molesters.[...]

The connection between the scourge of child sex abuse and liberals whom O’Reilly doesn’t like—a long list that includes George Clooney, Hillary Clinton, Paul Krugman, and Alec Baldwin—may not be obvious, but, to O’Reilly’s way of thinking, both are part of a national climate of permissiveness and relativism. This is manifested in the unprovable, but no doubt painful, loss of the norms that O’Reilly and his audience remember growing up with. The implied connection, anyway, gives O’Reilly a good pretext for the odd but compelling mixture of subjects on “The O’Reilly Factor,” with foreign policy one minute, a lurid (one might even say titillating) sex crime the next, and the Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof’s latest unfair attack on O’Reilly the next. (O’Reilly is feuding with Kristof, who has assembled from readers’ pledges a notional fund to send O’Reilly on a reporting trip to Darfur. O’Reilly recently parried by saying that the Times “continues to ignore the child predator situation here in the U.S.A.”) It would be useless to accuse O’Reilly of trafficking in cultural symbols and not substance, because to him cultural symbols are substance. Like every artist, he has created a territory that is distinctively his, and under anyone else’s supervision would not cohere.
O'Reilly is the id of George Bush's America, and something like the type-defining token of many of the pathologies of our political culture. Whether the right analysis is Nietzschean or Freudian (or something else) --- i.e., whether the motive force is sex or power or both or neither --- I leave as an open question.

Next, and on a brighter note, FW-pal Alex Remington has a post up that deserves to be in Time or the NYT magazine about just what makes South Park such a revolutionary show:
The thing is, the show doesn't do things to push the envelope--it just does them because they're funny, from a talking taco that craps ice cream to Satanist woodland critters trying to incarnate the Antichrist. This lack of forcedness is what makes the show so twisted: they can do literally anything, and it would be hard to be surprised. That what makes "Scott Tenorman Must Die" the greatest South Park episode of all time, for Cartman exacts a revenge so shocking that it changes his character forever, from sociopath to psychopath: the show manages to redefine its own boundaries at the same time that it violates every expectation the audience could ever have had.
My only complaint is that I wish Alex had gone on at a bit more length. I'd agree that "Scott Tenorman Must Die" is the most important episode in the show's history, the definitive break between its funny-but-still- gimmicky early seasons and what Matt and Trey have done since (to be sure, the later elements were present to some degree at least from the second season, with "Underpants Gnomes" a particular highlight of the early period). As for the greatest episode, both my qualitative and quantitative intuitions pull a lot of different ways. Viscerally, "Cartmanland" is somewhere near my favorite simply in virtue of being an absurdist retelling of Job (and one of the best ever). The funniest premise for an episode (I think) belongs to "The Red Badge of Gayness" which I won't try to summarize except to say that it's not what you think. The episode that made me laugh the most was "Woodland Critter Christmas."

Alex is particularly good on South Park's place among the "adult animation" (if we must) genre, and I'd like to make explicit his implicit point that the best adult animation is approximately as good as performance art gets at our present stage of civilization, with a tiny minority of cinema and live-action tv really in the same league --- e.g., the George-centered storylines of Seinfeld, season two and after of Curb Your Enthusiasm, almost all of Arrested Development, and the hit (versus miss) sketches on Mr. Show with Bob and David. (Sometime in the hopefully near future, I'll elaborate on this a bit more, but suffice it to say for now that dislike of animated comedy is mostly reducible to stupid philistine dogmatism of either a hipster or a crotchety jerk form.) If you'll permit me the conceit of drawing parallels between animated comedy and the other great original American art form, jazz, here's how I get an explanatory handle on the evolution of animated comedy: The Flinstones are something like the New Orleans period; Rocky and Bullwinkle (the one important element of the genre Alex failed to mention) is the Louis Armstrong; The Simpsons was Bird and (having outlived him) is now Miles Davis, more focused on reinvention than innovation; and South Park, plainly, is Coltrane. The one show I'm aware of that might prove to be the next revolution in the genre --- though South Park, further like Coltrane, could be the end of originality in the genre --- is Drawn Together, which extracts the elusive but inherent humor in topics like "abortion, rape, incest, spousal abuse, racism, anti-Semitism, and terrorism" (quoting the Wikipedia summary here); I think the show's ethos is nicely summed up by Princess Clara's sobriquet for her vagina, "my whites-only drinking fountain." Those, as far as I can tell, are the generational strata of animated comedy. There are certainly other very good shows --- most of them part of Adult Swim, e.g. Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Harvey Birdman --- but they would correspond, to continue my metaphor, to impressive but largely insidery figures like Lester Young, Cannonball Adderley, Charles Mingus (actually, hundreds more) whose impact on larger musical culture, while significant, is indirect.

Then there is Family Guy. Alex only refers to it in passing, and I'd be interested in his thoughts. I was a big fan during the show's first incarnation, and then two things happened: 1) The DVDs came out and everybody became a fan; 2) Scott McFarlane & co. lost their edge. Family Guy is still funny enough to be worth watching if you've got nothing else to do at 9 on Sundays, but its synthesis of Monty Python and The Simpsons, once promising, is a pretty spectacular disappointment. (The spinoff, American Dad, is generally excruciating to watch after any of the shows it competes with, though the Paul Lynde-esque gay alien is terrific.) The career of Family Guy is one of a movement from subversiveness to gimmickry and conformity. (Questions for commenters: What are the general features of that trend, and what are the most notable examples?)

4 Comments:

At 8:50 AM, Blogger That Girl said...

Thank you for coming back to us. One thing I always wonder about the "adult cartoon" genre--if there are certain "kiddie cartoons" that better prepare one to be an appreciative member of the audience (I think we can all agree there are) then where do they belong in the adult cartoon canon, if they belong at all? I'm thinking specifically of Ren and Stimpy for its absurdity and scatological humor and even Rugrats and Doug for their subtle tweaking of childhood social dynamics. I feel like I'm a better cartoon watcher now for having watched those shows then. I also think we can't forget how amazing the best crazy Looney Tunes shit was. There was weird stuff going on there. Are we making an arbitrary distinction between adult and kid cartoons just because we watched some when we younger and some now? Watch Duck Amuck, that's some of the smartest, most self-aware art ever made.

 
At 10:00 AM, Blogger Dan said...

Kudos to Finnegan, and That Girl. I second what Finnegan said, but That Girl is right that Looney Tunes from the 40s and 50s, the Chuck Jones stuff, succeeded at being both a children's entertainment and a hip, adult satire of history, pop culture, and even high culture (think "Kill the Wabbit".

Also, I think the Simpsons and South Park are far smarter and funnier than Family Guy ever was. Family Guy has its funny moments, but on the whole it is too obsessed with trying to be funny and reference-y and it has never had the real subversiveness that The Simpsons and South Park have

 
At 2:42 PM, Blogger Rich said...

This whole thing is a topic that I have discussed before and Dan and I share some similar feelings. Here's what I wrote in August.

http://marquisgrissom.blogspot.com/2005/08/random-attack_05.html

http://marquisgrissom.blogspot.com/2005/08/addendum.html

I also wrote an article about South Park that I will dredge up on my home computer later tonight. Finally, I love cartoons, and I would say this: South Park and the Simpsons are in a class by themselves at the top of the cartoon pyramid. But I am also very impressed by cartoons like Pinky and the Brain that were actually very smart, but also appealing to children (as has been mentioned about Looney Tunes)...

 
At 11:02 PM, Blogger Alex said...

I didn't watch Family Guy at first because it was a cult phenomenon, and I don't like cults.

But now I don't watch it just because I don't want to. Whenever I see an episode, there are about three funny jokes sandwiched by 20 minutes of "look at me!" shenanigans that the Simpsons used to be able to shit out in their sleep.

The thing is, most adult animation nowadays fills a very specific niche: college-age stoners. Mid-'90s kids' animation, specifically the Animaniacs, blow virtually every show ever--with the notable exceptions of South Park and the Simpsons--right out of the water.

 

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