“The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” in “The Simpsons”

Poochie
Poochie

As viewers of The Simpsons know, The Itchy & Scratchy Show is a cartoon often watched by Bart, Lisa, and their friends; it’s about a mouse who finds ever more baroque ways to maim and/or kill a cat. The cartoon-within-a-cartoon first appeared in 1988, when the characters who would become The Simpsons were a feature of The Tracey Ullman Show, and, according to the Simpsons Wiki, has been featured eighty-seven times on The Simpsons proper.

“The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” (1998) was a milestone for The Simpsons: with it, the show passed The Flintstones for the most episodes produced for a prime-time animated series. Probably not coincidentally, the episode provides a deliciously meta look at the problems confronted by a long-running show. You see, ratings for The Krusty the Clown show are plummeting whenever Itchy and Scratchy comes on, and Krusty isn’t happy. “But Itchy & Scratchy is critically acclaimed!” the cartoon’s producer, Roger Meyers Jr., tells him. “Acclaimed?” the clown snorts. “I oughta replace it right now with that Chinese cartoon where the robots turn into blingwads!”

The attempts to get Itchy & Scratchy back on its feet were surely taken from The Simpsons’ staff’s own experiences, from the self-contradictory focus groups (“So you want a realistic, down-to-earth show that’s completely off-the-wall and swarming with magic robots?”) to the notes from network execs. They’re sure the show needs a new character–a dog. “We at the network want a dog with attitude,” one suit says. “He’s edgy. He’s in your face. You’ve heard the expression ‘let’s get busy’? Well, this is a dog who gets ‘biz-zay.'” (Remember, this episode appeared in 1998, when the “let’s get biz-zay” Arsenio Hall Show had already been off the air for four years.)

The ploy doesn’t, of course, fool Lisa: “Adding a new character is often a desperate attempt to boost low ratings,” she confides to Bart. Magically and without explanation, a new kid appears in the Simpsons household, Roy; like Poochie, he wears shades and a backwards baseball cat. Á la The Fonz, he calls Homer and Marge “Mr. and Mrs. S.”

Improbably, Homer is hired to provide the voice of the cartoon dog, Poochie. He appears with “June Bellamy,” who does Itchy’s and Scratchy’s voices, at a fan event. And that gives the episode’s writer, David X. Cohen, a chance to skewer the bulletin-board-lurking obsessives The Simpsons had already begun to attract. One of them, Doug, pushes up his glasses and asks a question.

In episode 2F09, when Itchy plays Scratchy’s skeleton like a xylophone, he strikes the same rib in succession, yet he produces two clearly different tones. I mean, what are we to believe, that this is a magic xylophone, or something? Ha ha, boy, I really hope somebody got fired for that blunder.

Homer: I’ll field that one. Let me ask *you* a question. Why would a grown man whose shirt says “Genius at Work” spend all of his time watching a children’s cartoon show?

[embarrassed pause]

Doug: I withdraw my question.

[starts eating a candy bar]

Everybody gathers at the Simpsons house to watch the episode.

Nelson’s right, it stunk. As usual, Lisa has the sharpest take: “It’s just that Poochie was a soulless by-product of committee thinking. You can’t be cool just by spouting a bunch of worn-out buzzwords.

To which Bart inevitably replies, “Don’t have a cow, Lise.”

Cohen gets in more jab at the “fans.”

Comic Book Guy: Rest assured I was on the internet within minutes registering my disgust throughout the world.

Bart: Hey, I know it wasn’t great, but what right do you have to complain?

Comic Book Guy: As a loyal viewer, I feel they owe me.

Bart: What? They’re giving you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? If anything, you owe them.

Comic Book Guy responds with the first iteration of what would become one of The Simpsons’ own greatest buzzwords: “Worst. Episode. Ever.”

“Coed Frenzy” in “Blow Out”

blowout

Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981) begins, appropriately, with the sound of heavy breathing. We see the outside of what turns out to be a sorority house. A security guard lingers in front of a window, watching as two very scantily clad sorority sisters dance to loud rock music. All of a sudden a knife appears in our frame a vision, and–from the point of view of us, the audience–the guard is stabbed in the back. The killer moves over to the next room, whose occupant is having sex with a guy. She sees the slasher and yells out. But it’s too late–he’s already in the house. As he strolls the halls he observes more young women wearing very little clothing and gazing at one with no clothing, in a shower stall. Out comes the knife, and before we can say Psycho, she sees him and screams…

And we cut to John Travolta, a cigarette in his mouth, giggling. “God, that scream is terrible,” he says. We’re in a screening room where Travolta’s character–sound designer Jack Terry–and the director have just watched the same footage we have.

 

 

After some back and forth about the scream, the director asks how long the two of them have worked together. Jack: “Well, let’s see. I met you on Blood Bath, right, and then we did Blood Bath 2. And then we did Bad Day at Blood Beach, and then we did Bordello of Blood. That brings us up to date, Coed Frenzy.

Coed Frenzy is specifically a … takeoff on? homage to? … Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), which shares the killer-in-the-sorority-house setting and is sometimes credited (?) with being the first slasher film.  Blogger and author Dan Hassler-Forest makes a distinction between Black Christmas and John Carpenter’s much more successful Halloween, which came out four years later:

Halloween and its many, many imitators tend to transform the intended victims into objects for us to stare at as they are being stalked, pursued, and threatened by the killer, thereby aligning us with the aggressor’s point of view. The implicit misogyny of the resulting formula was parodied most effectively by Brian de Palma in the opening scene of his masterpiece Blow Out, where every sexist cliché in the genre book is thrown at us. As early as 1981, it was apparently obvious to someone as astute as De Palma that slasher movies were all about ogling women as fetishized sex objects before taking sadistic pleasure in seeing them suffer.

I’m not sure if I would be so quick to credit De Palma with astuteness and parody. Rather, he appears to be fetishizing (or at least directing his gaze at) the women, and then taking sadistic pleasure in their fate. The sleazy director tells Travolta, “I didn’t hire that girl for her scream, I hired her for her tits.” To me, that about sums up De Palma’s actress-casting philosophy.

Travolta goes out to Fairmount Park to record some sound effects for Coed Frenzy. (The thing I like best about this movie are the many Philadelphia locations. I moved to town the year after Blow Out was released, and the film is an archive of many things that have changed, like the Reading Terminal, RIP, and a few that have stayed much the same, like the Reading Terminal Market.) While there he happens to record the sound of a car plummeting off the bridge, a car that happens to have in it a politician and a woman not his wife. Shades of Chappaquiddick.

Listening to the recording, Jack is convinced that it contains evidence of nefarious doings, and he becomes obsessed with it. Shades of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Antonioni’s similarly titled Blow-Up, and Coppola’s The Conversation. There is some interesting exploration of voyeurism and ’70s-style conspiracy, and some typically well-crafted De Palma set pieces, but the film left a bad taste in my mouth. The repeated violence against women came off as exploitative (in a bad way) and, to use Hassler-Forest’s word again, sadistic.

Back to the subject of this blog, Dennis Franz plays a sleazy opportunist in Blow Out, as only Dennis Franz can. At one point he’s in a cheap motel room, and the TV is on, as TVs in cheap motel rooms always are. IMDB tells me that the movie he’s watching is Brian De Palma’s first film, Murder à la Mod (1968), which failed so badly that for years it was believed to be lost, and no one missed it. The plot, according to an IMDB contributor:

Naive young lady Karen wants to help her struggling amateur filmmaker boyfriend Christopher raise enough money so he can divorce his wife. Meanwhile, jolly psycho prankster Otto stalks the building where Christopher is shooting a low-grade adult movie in order to keep himself afloat.

From the get-go, apparently, De Palma was De Palma.

 

“Queen Kelly” in “Sunset Boulevard”

sunset

Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) is probably the most movie-besotted movie of all time. Start with the premise. Gloria Swanson, a silent-film star whose career was derailed by the talkies, is Norma Desmond, a silent-film star whose career was ended by the talkies. Her card-game buddies are played by Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner, all silent-screen stars of yore. Her butler-chauffeur, Max, turns out to be a once-acclaimed silent-film director and Norma’s ex-husband. He’s creepily–and brilliantly–played by Erich von Stroheim, a once-acclaimed silent-film director who’d been reduced to playing character parts, mostly Nazis in World War II-pictures. One of the few Hollywood folk who successfully made the silent-to-talkie transition was director Cecil B. DeMille. Surprise! He turns up as himself. We see him on the set of Samson and Delilah, which was released in 1949. According to IMDB, “Set elements and costumes from … Samson and Delilah were pulled out of storage, and cast members from that film re-hired, to re-create his filming.”

The most meta scene comes shortly after screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) takes up residence in Norma’s decrepit mansion, where he serves as a combination amanuensis/boy toy. He tells us (there’s voice-over narration by Joe throughout) that Norma throws regular movie nights, just for the two of them; Max is projectionist. The repertoire, of course, is her own films. We see a bit from one of them, a scene where the young Norma’s face is illuminated by candles.

The clip is from Queen Kelly, a 1929 film that, more than any other single factor, derailed the careers of Swanson (the star) and von Stroheim, the director. At least he was the director until producer Joseph Kennnedy (Swanson’s lover and JFK’s father) fired him because the scenes he’d produced were too explicit and dark. Because von Stroheim retained the rights for what he’d shot, the film had never seen in the United States–until Sunset Boulevard.

The film, of course, is silent. As Norma tells Joe, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.”