Marc Sidwell reviews The Simpsons Movie
In The Simpsons Movie, Lisa struggles to explain to a harried Marge, busy cleaning up after Homer’s new pet, exactly what is the best quality of the boy she has met. After reeling of a list of adorable traits, she adds, “But I haven’t told you the best part… The best part is he isn’t imaginary”. It’s a great little exchange, typical of The Simpsons in its suddenness, its compression, its ability to combine humour and pathos while also revealing character – or simply for its simultaneously unabashed delight at introducing a moment of surreal meta-textual whimsy into a realistic scene.
Is it silly to subject The Simpsons to such critical appraisal, to approach a two-dimensional cartoon as if it had real depth? Evidently not. It could be a Norman Rockwell image, this highly realistic yet simultaneously archetypal and iconic portrait of a human relationship (the jaded but loyal wife of many years and her young daughter, trembling on the brink of love). Better, given the streak of melancholy loneliness that informs it, to think perhaps of an Edward Hopper painting. And indeed one of the tie-in posters in HMV right now is an Edward Hopper pastiche, with Homer eating in an all-night donut shop under the title Nighthogs (below). The marketing men understand that America’s yellowest family is an aesthetic achievement in the great tradition of American art. From the continent that gave us Ray Bradbury, Cole Porter and Bob Dylan has come another popular yet dazzling imaginative creation, this time born in round-table script meetings. Its cinematic incarnation just provides a fresh opportunity to introduce yourself to one of the greatest bodies of work produced by committee since the King James Bible.
And the greatest achievement of all is Homer J. For Homer, like Lisa’s boyfriend, is not imaginary. He is us. As the film opens, he sits in the cinema beside us, matching us jumbo hot dog for jumbo hot dog. Here, in a splodge of yellow and a few crude black lines, is a slice of realism that the self-conscious artists of cinema forgot, not the dark underbelly of society exposed to thrill middle-class voyeurs, nor a celebrity-chasers’ tour through New York high society. Homer and his family remind us all, high and low, that life is not elsewhere. Watching ourselves, we find that drama is the bread and butter of everyday existence. If Joyce’s Ulysses was “the dailiest day possible”, Groening’s team give us the most quotidian of lives, and we find it full of heroic possibility.
Our modern Homer is truly a hero for our times, and it is appropriate that he should end up as the star of his own summer blockbuster. If Hamlet was the hero-fool of an aristocratic ideal, a man so finely-cultivated that he becomes lost in the infinite maze of his thought, out of touch with his body, Homer is the hero-fool of our commercial and democratic age, a man so unpolished, so given over to bodily impulse that he is at war with his own mind. “O that this too, too solid flesh would melt,” sighs Hamlet. “Shut up, brain, or I’ll stab you with a Q-tip,” threatens Homer. Hamlet is dignified by the humanity of his contemplation, the fine moral sense and epistemic caution that leads him to stay his hand. Homer offers a more accessible model: he is dignified by the humanity of his instincts, the love for his wife and children and for life itself that ground his irrepressible actions.
That love of life is one of the chief joys of the Simpsons. For in the last century, art learnt to take itself far too seriously. The idea of celebration is considered simpleminded at best, dangerously uncritical at worst. Yet The Simpsons is relentlessly questioning, refusing to give any point of view a bully pulpit. That doesn’t dampen its Rabelaisian glee in language, imaginative invention and in the rude life of the body. In Gargantua and Pantagruel we hear, ‘I drink for the thirst to come. I drink eternally’. In The Simpsons Movie, faced with disaster, the townspeople alternate between beer and prayer: this is a poke at religion, certainly, but it is equally drinking appreciated as one of life’s profound rituals.
To watch The Simpsons Movie is to be reminded that life, even without a great job or well-behaved children or a wife who’ll let you keep a pig in the house, that life in itself is worth celebrating. In the Nighthogs posters on sale in HMV, Homer chows down happily on his midnight donuts, and we see what Groening and his team have added to Hopper’s morose sensibility: the idea that modern urban life doesn’t have to be about ennui and isolated longings. It also has donuts and, with any luck, snuggling.