11 October 2010

The Simpsons' Keeping It Real?

The Simpsons have not lost their edge even after celebrating its 20th anniversary as an animated sit-com. For this week’s episode titled Money Bart, Simpson’s Executive Producer Al Jean arranged to have ordinary Simpson’s title sequence to be augmented by touches from mysterious British graffiti artist known through his pseudonym Banksy.

The Banksy title sequence begins with the traditional sweeping tour of Springfield, but with a couple of subversive touches. The title card shot has a bird of prey with his ratty “trophy” prominently fly by. The school bullies are caught decapitating the statue of Jebbediah Springfield with a huge hack saw. One can spy a couple of instances of Banksy tagging on walls and billboards. Bart’s punishment was copying the ironic directive “I must not write all over the walls”. These visual comedy bits seem hardly remarkable until our favorite dysfunctional family sits down to watch television.

Apologies if these descriptions spoil the visuals but 20th Century Fox is aggressively asserting copyright and the controversy may make this video disappear ala the Path to 9/11.

The picture of the Simpsons watching the boob tube reveals itself to be a plasma television image in a grim Asian sweat shop that is laboriously drawing images of the Simpsons. As the POV focuses on the toxic slime dripping below, there are subterranean layers of exploitation. Busy sweatshop seamstresses sew Simpsons licensed garments, worker stuff Bart plush figurines and a DVD duplication production line.

This surreal sweatshop scene was simultaneously sickening, thought provoking and amusing. You do not want to think about the conditions in which our inexpensive consumer goods are produced. But Banksy infused some humor in this grim parody. The hole punch for the DVDs was an exhausted unicorn. A pooped panda hauled the cart of plushies. The plushy stuffing was made up by grinding up kittens. Boxes of Simpsons paraphernalia are sealed by a decapitated dolphin. Banksy’s contribution seemed reminiscent of Salvador Dali on a dark day.

Aside from letting an iconoclastic street artist have a flight of fancy, there may have been other motivations for the grim scenes. Clearly, Banksy was highlighting the uncomfortable elements. Although Al Jean denied it, but it does seem like an indictment of outsourcing animation to South Korea.

Kudos to the Simpsons for engaging in self-depricating humor that had a point and sticking with it to get the piece broadcast. And I thought that they had pushed the esoteric edge this past March when then did a homage to Koyaanisqatsi (Hopi for “Life Out of Balance”), the seminal phantasmagoric film which Philip Glass’ composed the score.

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