The Rise and Fall of The Simpsons: An In-Depth Video Essay Explores What Made the Show Great, and When It All Came to an End

As an American man in his thirties, I can, if necessary, communicate entirely in Simpsons references. But however voluminous and close at hand my knowledge of the Simpson family and their hometown of Springfield, it doesn't extend past the 1990s. Most of my demographic can surely say the same, as can quite a few outside it: take the Irishman behind the Youtube channel Super Eyepatch Wolf, author of the video essay "The Fall of The Simpsons: How It Happened." We both remember tuning in to the show's debut on December 14, 1989, and how it subsequently "transformed television as we knew it" — and we've both lamented how, in the nearly three decades since, "one of the best and most influential TV shows of all time became just another sitcom."

So how did it happen? To understand what made The Simpsons fall, we have to understand what put it at the top of the zeitgeist in the first place. Not only did the counterculture still exist back in the 1990s, The Simpsons quickly came to constitute its most popular expression. And as with any powerful countercultural product, it was just as quickly labeled dangerous, as anyone who grew up describing each week's episode of the show to friends not allowed to watch it remember. Yet its "rebellious satire" and all the consequent violations both subtle and blatant of the staid conventions of mainstream American culture (especially in its purest manifestation, the sitcom) came unfailingly accompanied by "comedy grounded in character and heart."

The fact that The Simpsons' first generation of writers might well revise a joke twenty or thirty times — creating the countless moments of intricately structured, multilayered verbal and visual comedy we still remember today — didn't hurt. But even if current writers put in the same hours, they do it on a show that has long since lost touch with what made it great. While each of its characters once had "a very specific set of conflicting beliefs and motivations," they now seem to do or say anything, no matter how implausible or absurd, that serves the gag of the moment. Celebrity guest stars stopped playing characters specially crafted for them but caricatures of themselves. Plots became bizarre. "The only thing that The Simpsons was a parody of now," says Super Eyepatch Wolf bringing us to the present day, "was The Simpsons."

While the show has been self-referentially acknowledging its own decline since about the turn of the millennium, that doesn't make comparisons with its 1990s "golden age" any less dispiriting. One thinks of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, another generational touchstone, whose creator Bill Watterson ended it after just ten years: it still finds an audience today in part, he says, "because I chose not to run the wheels off it.” The Simpsons, by contrast, now draws its lowest ratings ever, and it would pain those of us who grew up with it as much to see it end as it does to see it keep going. But then, "entertainment isn't meant to last forever. Rather, it's an extension of the people and places that made it at a particular moment in time." The Simpsons at its countercultural best will always define that moment, no matter how long it insists on running beyond it.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How Master Japanese Animator Satoshi Kon Pushed the Boundaries of Making Anime: A Video Essay

To casual viewers, most Japanese animation (at least apart from the elegant work of Hayao Miyazaki and his collaborators at Studio Ghibli) can look like a pretty unsophisticated and even disreputable affair, characterized by crude flashiness, convoluted storylines, and bizarre, sophomoric humor. All those things do, of course, exist in the realm of anime, but only because everything does: if Japan's version of animation often rises above those of other cultures, it does so as a result of that culture regarding animation as simply cinema by other means. And any cinematic form will inevitably produce diverse virtuosity: to see how a master Japanese animator can have a sensibility completely different from that of Miyazaki, look no further than Satoshi Kon.

"Even if you don't know his work, you have certainly seen some of these images," says Every Frame a Painting's Tony Zhou in the series' video essay on Kon's work, which includes the internationally acclaimed films Perfect BlueTokyo Godfathers, and Paprika.

"He is an acknowledged influence on both Darren Aronofsky and Christopher Nolan, and he has a fan base that includes just about everyone who loves animation." The essay shows us how those two Western live-action auteurs, among Kon's other fans, have borrowed his images for their own stories, just as Kon, in turn, drew a great deal of inspiration from a similarly unlikely source: George Roy Hill's 1972 cinematic adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse-Five.

More specifically, Kon drew inspiration from the film's inventive and surprising cuts from one scene to another, a formal reflection of its chronology-and-geography-jumping protagonist's state of being "unstuck in time." Throughout his decade-long feature filmmaking career, Kon "was constantly showing one image and then revealing that it wasn't what you thought it was." Kon died in 2010, having "pushed animation in ways that aren't really possible in live action, not just elastic images but elastic editing, a unique way of moving from image to image, scene to scene." His accomplishments live on not just in his own work, but in all the ways the creators who admire it continue to adapt his innovations for their own, even in the traditionally "respectable" forms of cinema.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

J.R.R. Tolkien Expressed a “Heartfelt Loathing” for Walt Disney and Refused to Let Disney Studios Adapt His Work

Image via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve just started reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit to my 6-year-old daughter. While much of the nuance and the references to Tolkienian deep time are lost on her, she easily grasps the distinctive charms of the characters, the nature of their journey, and the perils, wonders, and Elven friends they have met along the way so far. She is familiar with fairy tale dwarfs and mythic wizards, though not with the typology of insular, middle-class, adventure-averse country gentry, thus Hobbits themselves took a bit of explaining.

While reading and discussing the book with her, I’ve wondered to myself about a possible historical relationship between Tolkien’s fairy tale figures and those of the Walt Disney company which appeared around the same time. The troupe of dwarves in The Hobbit might possibly share a common ancestor with Snow White's dwarfs—in the German fairy tale the Brothers Grimm first published in 1812. But here is where any similarity between Tolkien and Disney begins and ends.

In fact, Tolkien mostly hated Disney’s creations, and he made these feelings very clear. Snow White debuted only months after The Hobbit’s publication in 1937. As it happened, Tolkien went to see the film with literary friend and sometime rival C.S. Lewis. Neither liked it very much. In a 1939 letter, Lewis granted that “the terrifying bits were good, and the animals really most moving.” But he also called Disney a “poor boob” and lamented “What might not have come of it if this man had been educated—or even brought up in a decent society?”

Tolkien, notes Atlas Obscura, “found Snow White lovely, but otherwise wasn’t pleased with the dwarves. To both Tolkien and Lewis, it seemed, Disney’s dwarves were a gross oversimplification of a concept they held as precious”—the concept, that is, of fairy stories. Some might brush away their opinions as two Oxford dons gazing down their noses at American mass entertainment. As Tolkien scholar Trish Lambert puts it, “I think it grated on them that he [Disney] was commercializing something that they considered almost sacrosanct.”

“Indeed,” writes Steven D. Greydanus at the National Catholic Register, “it would be impossible to imagine” these two authors “being anything but appalled by Disney’s silly dwarfs, with their slapstick humor, nursery-moniker names, and singsong musical numbers.” One might counter that Tolkien’s dwarves (as he insists on pluralizing the word), also have funny names (derived, however, from Old Norse) and also break into song. But he takes pains to separate his dwarves from the common run of children’s story dwarfs.

Tolkien would later express his reverence for fairy tales in a scholarly 1947 essay titled “On Fairy Stories,” in which he attempts to define the genre, parsing its differences from other types of marvelous fiction, and writing with awe, “the realm of fairy story is wide and deep and high.” These are stories to be taken seriously, not dumbed-down and infantilized as he believed they had been. “The association of children and fairy-stories,” he writes, “is an accident of our domestic history.”

Tolkien wrote The Hobbit for young people, but he did not write it as a “children’s book.” Nothing in the book panders, not the language, nor the complex characterization, nor the grown-up themes. Disney’s works, on the other hand, represented to Tolkien a cheapening of ancient cultural artifacts, and he seemed to think that Disney’s approach to films for children was especially condescending and cynical.

He described Disney’s work on the whole as “vulgar” and the man himself, in a 1964 letter, as "simply a cheat," who is “hopelessly corrupted” by profit-seeking (though he admits he is “not innocent of the profit-motive” himself).

…I recognize his talent, but it has always seemed to me hopelessly corrupted. Though in most of the ‘pictures’ proceeding from his studios there are admirable or charming passages, the effect of all of them is to me disgusting. Some have given me nausea…

This explication of Tolkien’s dislike for Disney goes beyond mere gossip to an important practical upshot: Tolkien would not allow any of his works to be given the Walt Disney treatment. While his publisher approached the studios about a Lord of the Rings adaptation (they were turned down at the time), most scholars think this happened without the author’s knowledge, which seems a safe assumption to say the least.

Tolkien’s long history of expressing negative opinions about Disney led to his later forbidding, “as long as it was possible,” any of his works to be produced “by the Disney studios (for all whose works I have a heartfelt loathing).” Astute readers of Tolkien know his serious intent in even the most comic of his characters and situations. Or as Vintage News' Martin Chalakoski writes, "there is not a speck of Disney in any of those pages."

via Atlas Obscura

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Studio Ghibli Releases Tantalizing Concept Art for Its New Theme Park, Opening in Japan in 2022

When you watch an animated film, you visit a world. That holds true, to an extent, for live-action movies as well, but much more so for those cinematic experiences whose audiovisual details all come, of necessity, crafted from scratch. Walt Disney understood that better than anyone else in the motion-picture industry, and none could argue that he didn't capitalize on it. When they founded Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki and the late Isao Takahata — in the fine 20th-century Japanese tradition of borrowing Western ideas and then refining them nearly beyond recognition — took Disney's deliberate world-building a step further, painstakingly crafting a look and feel for their productions that amounts to a separate reality: rich, coherent, and, for the millions of die-hard Ghibli fans all around the world, immensely appealing.

In a few years, those fans will get the chance to enter Ghibli's world in a much more concrete sense. Disney's insight that his audience would beat a path to an amusement park based on his studio's movies led to Disneyland, Disney World, and their global successors, two of which, Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea, now rank among the five most visited theme parks in the world.

The area of the Japanese capital already offers an acclaimed Ghibli experience in the form of the Ghibli Museum, but in just a few years the city of Nagakute, a suburb of Nagoya, will see the opening of Ghibli's own version of Disneyland, a theme park filled with attractions based on the studios beloved films.

Scheduled to open in 2022 on the same plot of land used for the 2005 World's Fair (where the house from My Neighbor Totoro was then built and still stands today), Ghibli's theme park will greet visitors with a main gate reminiscent, writes Kotaku's Brian Ashcraft, of "19th-century structures out of Howl’s Moving Castle as well as a recreation of Whisper of the Heart’s antique shop."

It also includes "the Big Ghibli Warehouse, which is filled with all sorts of Ghibli themed play areas as well as exhibition areas and small cinemas," a Princess Mononoke village, a combined area for Howl's Moving Castle and Kiki's Delivery Service called Witch Valley, and the Totoro-themed Dondoko Forest. Will Studio Ghibli's theme park rise into the ranks of the world's most visited? Nobody who has yet visited their world, in any of its manifestations thus far, would put it past them.

Studio Ghibli has released some basic concept for the new theme park. You can get a few glimpses of what they have in mind on this page.


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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

What Made Studio Ghibli Animator Isao Takahata (RIP) a Master: Two Video Essays

Among the many acclaimed animated films of Studio Ghibli — and indeed among recent Japanese animated films in general — those directed by the outspoken, oft-retiring-and-returning Hayao Miyazaki tend to get the most attention. But even casual viewers overlook the work of the late Isao Takahata (1935-2018), the older animator formerly of Toei with whom Miyazaki founded the studio in 1985, at their peril. Though he most often played the role of producer at Ghibli, he also directed several of its films, first and most memorably 1988's Grave of the Fireflies, the story of an orphaned brother and sister's struggle for survival at the very end of the Second World War.

"Grave of the Fireflies is an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation," wrote Roger Ebert in 2000, adding the picture to his "Great Movies" canon. "When anime fans say how good the film is, nobody takes them seriously. [ ... ] Yes, it’s a cartoon, and the kids have eyes like saucers, but it belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made."

No Western critic would frame it quite the same way now, with the implicit disclaimer about the nature of Japanese animation, thanks in no small part to what animators like Takahata have done to show the entire world the true potential of their medium since.

The quarter-century after Grave of the Fireflies saw Takahata direct four more features, Only YesterdayPom PokoMy Neighbors the Yamadas, and his visually unconventional, long-in-the-making final work The Tale of Princess Kaguya. You can get a sense of Takahata's distinctive sensibilities and sensitivities as an animation director in the Royal Ocean Film Society video essay "Isao Takahata: The Other Master" at the top of the post. It gets into the questions of why Takahata chose to tell essentially realistic, drawn-from-life stories in a form most know for its way with the fantastical, and how the visual exaggerations in his films somehow imbue them with a more solid feel of reality.

Just above, "Isao Takahata Doesn't Get Enough Respect (A Retrospective)," by Youtuber Stevem, goes in other directions, exploring the director's technique as well as his career, life, and personality, drawing not just from his work with Ghibli but the considerable amount he did before the studio's foundation as well. Still, Grave of the Fireflies may well remain most filmgoers' gateway into his filmography for the foreseeable future, not least because of its still-refreshing "anti-Hollywood" qualities. "Hollywood will have you believe that heroes are needed when times are tough," says writer on Japanese culture Roland Kelts in a recent BBC piece on the movie. "Isao Takahata shows us the humble opposite, that when times are tough what you need most is humility, patience and self-restraint. That's how one survives."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Famous Schrodinger’s Cat Thought Experiment Comes Back to Life in an Off-Kilter Animation

Schrödinger's Cat is one of the more famous thought experiments in modern physics, created by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger back in 1935.  The Telegraph summarizes the gist of the experiment as follows:

In the hypothetical experiment ... a cat is placed in a sealed box along with a radioactive sample, a Geiger counter and a bottle of poison.

If the Geiger counter detects that the radioactive material has decayed, it will trigger the smashing of the bottle of poison and the cat will be killed.

The experiment was designed to illustrate the flaws of the ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ of quantum mechanics, which states that a particle exists in all states at once until observed.

If the Copenhagen interpretation suggests the radioactive material can have simultaneously decayed and not decayed in the sealed environment, then it follows the cat too is both alive and dead until the box is opened.

The University of Nottingham's Sixty Symbols YouTube channel provides a more complete explanation. But with or without any further introduction, you can watch the off-kilter animation, above, which imagines the origins of the original experiment. It was created by Chavdar Yordanov for an animation show in London.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site early last year.

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Watch the Original Black Panther Animated Series Online: All Six Episodes Now Available Thanks to Marvel

Last month, I was thrilled to learn of a talk coming to my town called “The Writers of Wakanda.” I scored a (free) ticket, thinking that maybe the massive blockbuster movie’s director/writer Ryan Coogler might make an appearance (or his co-writer Joe Robert Cole), or maybe one or more of the high-profile writers who have expanded the comic’s world recently, like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxanne Gay, or Nnedi Okorafor. Well, either there was some kind of bait-and-switch at work or I naively failed to read the fine print. The event was a panel of devoted fans of the comic having a discussion about their lifelong fandom, the many iterations of the character through various Marvel writer’s hands, and the film’s huge cultural impact at home and abroad. It was slightly disappointing but also quite enjoyable and informative.

I learned, for example, that some of the most well-loved and highly-praised characters in the film appeared very late in the series’ run (which began with the character’s creation by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966) and were introduced by its first black writers, the “chronically underappreciated” Christopher Priest and the filmmaker Reginald Hudlin.

In the late 90s, Priest invented the Dora Milaje, the elite all-female fighting force who protect Wakanda’s kings (who each take on the mantle of superhero Black Panther once they ascend the throne). Hudlin created the character of Shuri, King T’Challa’s younger sister and the scientific mastermind behind his high-tech empire of vibranium-powered gear and gadgetry. Which brings us, at last, to the subject of this post, the Black Panther animated series, co-produced by BET and Marvel, who have released all six episodes on Marvel's YouTube channel. Stream them all above.

Taking its story from Hudlin’s 2005 comics run, the series is less animation and more “a stop motion comic,” as Nerdist writes, “added to the artwork of John Romita, Jr.” This is all to its credit, as is its star-studded voice casting, with Kerry Washington as Shuri, Alfre Woodard as the Queen Mother, Jill Scott as Storm, and Djimon Hounsou as T’Challa/Black Panther. How does it compare to the blockbuster film? From its first salvo of Wakandan warrior prowess in a cold open set in the 5th century A.D., to its seventies-African-funk-inspired theme song, to a present-day scene in the White House, with a blustery racist army general (played by Stan Lee) who sounds like a member of the current administration, the first episode, above, suggests it will live up to Hudlin’s casting of the character as “an unapologetic African man,” as Todd Steven Burroughs writes at The Root, “openly opposed to white, Western supremacy.”

Hudlin wrote some of the comic’s most politically challenging stories, delving into “serious European colonization themes.” These themes are woven throughout the animated series, which features such characters now familiar to filmgoers as Everett Ross and the villain Klaw. Captain America parachutes in—in a flashback—meets an earlier Black Panther during World War II, and takes a beating. ("These are dangerous times," says Cap, "you need to choose a side." The reply: "We have, our own.") The X-Men’s Storm, formerly the first most-famous African superhero, plays a significant role. Not in the series, likely to many people’s disappointment, are the Dora Milaje, at least in starring roles, and the film’s primary antagonist Erik Killmonger.

But not to worry. The ass-kicking general Okoye and her cadre of warriors will soon get a spin-off comic written by Okorafor, and there’s been some speculation, at least, about whether Killmonger will return (resurrected, perhaps, as he was in the comics) in the inevitable Black Panther 2. In the meantime, both longtime and new fans of the character can get their fix in this six-episode series, which offers a thrilling, bloody, and historically fascinating take not only on the Black Panther himself, but on the complicated relationship of Wakanda to the machinations of the Western world throughout colonial history and into the present.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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