THE FO­RUM on Bart and the Bard

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - GE­ORDIE WIL­LIAMSON

SO, at last, The Simp­sons Movie — a project sus­pended in the Hol­ly­wood ether since the show’s third sea­son — will be­come a re­al­ity when it opens on Thurs­day. Crit­ics in­vited to ad­vance screen­ings of the film’s open­ing min­utes have come away laugh­ing, so we can prob­a­bly ex­pect a tri­umph. How­ever, even if the project turns out to be a 40- pound turkey, we’ll still flock to see it, if only out of cu­rios­ity. Fail­ure, in the con­text of such huge suc­cess, has its own fas­ci­na­tion.

The most in­ter­est­ing thing about the be­lated ar­rival of the movie, how­ever, is its re­dun­dancy. The Simp­sons re­cently cel­e­brated its 400th episode and is set to en­ter a 19th sea­son, with no end in sight. It has won 23 Emmy awards and been voted best television show of the 20th cen­tury by Time mag­a­zine. And it earned its star on the Hol­ly­wood Walk of Fame back in 2000.

Be­yond all this fid­dle, a fea­ture film feels less like some grand cul­mi­na­tion than a vic­tory lap. The only thing the trans­la­tion from small screen to large will con­firm ( as if fur­ther con­fir­ma­tion were needed) is that The Simp­sons ’ sta­tus as a tran­scul­tur­al­ity icon, a term art crit­ics use to de­scribe what is uni­ver­sally recog­nis­able and beau­ti­ful be­yond no­tions of taste­ful­ness, such as Elvis Pres­ley or Andy Warhol’s soup cans.

No, The Simp­sons ’ proper place is at home, on the box. Not only be­cause it is first and fore­most a TV show, struc­tured to pro­vide 23 min­utes of per­fec­tion each episode, but be­cause TV is also its sub­ject, its rea­son for be­ing. A film ver­sion is merely a cu­rios­ity: a fish out of wa­ter, re­moved from its nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment. And ours, too, it should be said, since it’s the same sub­aque­ous world we gog­gle at through the bathy­sphere win­dow of our flat- screens.

But per­haps it is the ex­tent of our im­mer­sion in the tele­vi­sual realm that blinds us to the real worth of The Simp­sons , the most bril­liant cre­ation of a medium that is it­self the ‘‘ most suc­cess­ful dis­sem­i­na­tor and de­finer of our cul­tural at­mos­phere’’.

This last point comes from a 1993 es­say about TV by au­thor David Fos­ter Wal­lace, in which he ques­tions why high­brow TV crit­ics have been largely un­able to get be­yond their ba­sic love­hate at­ti­tude to­wards the medium. His an­swer is that TV has sup­planted them, emerg­ing as its own best critic and self- an­a­lyst.

This was not al­ways the case. TV and its au­di­ence have spent decades evolv­ing along­side one an­other, in a kind of feed­back loop. We be­gan by watch­ing pro­grams that were, when com­pared with nov­els and cin­ema, sim­ple and for­mu­laic. We had to learn the con­ven­tions of a medium whose tra­di­tional role was dreamped­dling — of­fer­ing a sense of nor­mal life trans­formed into some­thing sweeter, kin­der, ti­dier — be­fore we could move into more com­plex ter­rain: the ac­tion shots and car chases; the rapid col­lages of news and com­mer­cials; dra­mas with their mul­ti­ple plots and gritty verisimil­i­tude; and come­dies buoyed by risque com­men­tary and, most sig­nif­i­cantly, irony.

To­day’s au­di­ences are, ac­cord­ing to Fos­ter Wal­lace, ‘‘ jaded, weary, but will­ing and above all knowl­edge­able. And this knowl­edge­abil­ity ut­terly trans­forms the pos­si­bil­i­ties and haz­ards of ‘ cre­ativ­ity’ in TV’’.

He sug­gests that once an au­di­ence at­tains a cer­tain level of so­phis­ti­ca­tion, the medium is free to be­come its own self- con­tained uni­verse. ‘‘ The best TV,’’ he con­cludes, ‘‘ has been about ironic self- ref­er­ence like no species of post­mod­ern art could have dreamed of.’’

En­ter The Simp­sons , a pro­gram that con­sciously echoes the daddy of all ’ 50s sit­coms, Fa­ther Knows Best — one of a num­ber of shows from that pe­riod so moral­is­tic and white­bread that one critic la­belled them ‘‘ Aryan melo­dra­mas’’ — only to turn its con­ven­tions inside out.

This has hap­pened be­fore: four cen­turies ago, in Eng­land. Play­go­ers in the El­iz­a­bethan era also had to be­come ac­cul­tur­ated to their medium, largely through for­malised re­li­gious works — the creak­ing dra­maturgy of moral­ity plays — be­fore they could ap­pre­ci­ate the faster- mov­ing, more per­sonal, event­ful ( and deca­dently sel­f­ref­er­en­tial) cre­ations of full- blown El­iz­a­bethan, Ja­cobean and Carolinian drama.

To take this par­al­lel to its log­i­cal con­clu­sion, the uni­verse of in­ven­tion ex­plored over two decades by The Simp­sons rep­re­sents a creative ef­flo­res­cence com­pa­ra­ble to only one fig­ure, William Shake­speare. If this sounds a long bow to draw, re­mem­ber that El­iz­a­bethan theatre was made pos­si­ble by two groups: univer­sity wits, such as Robert Greene and Ben Jon­son — iro­nists and schol­ars steeped in classical lit­er­a­ture — and ac­tor- play­wrights, who were of ne­ces­sity more pop­ulist and in­stinc­tual. So it was with The Simp­sons : cable TV pro­duc­ers de­mand­ing bums on seats be­fore any other con­sid­er­a­tions, and a coun­ter­cul­tural car­toon­ist named Matt Groen­ing, whose writ­ing team be­gan their ca­reers pro­duc­ing satir­i­cal zines for the lib­eral arts col­lege cognoscenti.

El­iz­a­bethan theatre was low art, in the sense that it had to please peo­ple to make money. And yet the tools it used to pull pun­ters in — vul­gar­ity, pruri­ence and Fal­staffian buf­foon­ery — were de­ployed with enor­mous sub­tlety and so­phis­ti­ca­tion. There was also no shame in steal­ing plots ( Shake­speare did so reg­u­larly), nor with col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween play­wrights. Just like TV, as theatre de­vel­oped, once- dis­creet gen­res of com­edy and tragedy blended to­gether.

Also, con­sider the in­her­i­tors of The Simp­sons ’ pro­tean achieve­ment: South Park , with its dark and con­tentious sub­ject mat­ter, is per­fect Ja­cobean stuff ( John Web­ster and John Ford), while Fam­ily Guy, which takes sel­f­ref­er­en­tial­ity to a new level, re­sem­bles the court masques of Jon­son, those private en­ter­tain­ments writ­ten for the delec­ta­tion of the elect.

Like TV, it was El­iz­a­bethan theatre’s cul­tural cen­tral­ity that made its true reach in­vis­i­ble to the kul­turkri­tiks of its day. It was two cen­turies be­fore the im­por­tance of th­ese drama­tists be­gan to peel away from their pop­u­lar role. Per­haps it will take us just as long to re­alise the om­nipresent power of TV over our own con­tem­po­rary cul­ture, though hope­fully not as long to ac­knowl­edge that its great­est work was a crudely drawn car­toon about a dys­func­tional fam­ily in small- town US.

As for the film ver­sion, I think I’ll hang on for the DVD.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jock Alexan­der

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