A Quick Word on the Beauty of ‘Phineas and Ferb’

I’m rewatching Phineas and Ferb again at the moment and just finished the episode Magic Carpet Ride. During the song sequence, it suddenly occurred to me that this really is a microcosm of just what makes this show so special. It’s that it manages to be both absurdist and sincere at the same time. It simultaneously makes you laugh and warms your heart.

The scenario here is that Phineas and Ferb’s father has been watching his favorite childhood show and laments that the ‘magic carpet’ tie in wasn’t as magical as he remembers. So the boys turn the living room carpet into a flying carpet to give him a real magic carpet ride. What follows is a genuinely beautiful sequence of them flying around town, accompanied by a song that includes lyrics like “it’s aerodynamics are highly advanced / and its weave is so tight and so soft.”

Seeing the kids casually flying around town on a carpet, complete with sofa and TV, is obviously absurd and prompts some ridiculous imagery. But it also has some really sweet scenes like Phineas and Isabella sitting together in rapturous delight at the view below, not to mention the whole thing was two kids trying to cheer up their father.

This blend of the sincere and the ridiculous is pretty much in the show’s DNA. Even the animation style hits this balance of being both surreal and actually very beautiful at times. The scenes of them flying around the town are gorgeous and enlivened by little moments of innocent emotional power.

I don’t like a lot of modern art, like Picasso and Duchamp and so forth. I think their work is frankly hideous. The excuse generally made is that they did something different and original, but something like Phineas and Ferb puts the lie to that plea. The animators here create a unique, stylized, and surreal art style, but do it without sacrificing beauty. Likewise the writers make something creative, funny, and satirical without being in the least cynical or mean spirited.

So, this goofy kid’s show puts the lie to the vast majority of modern and post-modern art and literature; you can be as different, creative, and original as you like without being nihilistic, ugly, or mean. That’s why I have little patience for works that strike me as such, because, well, it could have been otherwise if the creators had wished it. The fact that they didn’t says something about them and their work that I don’t care for. And as long as there are works like Phineas and Ferb around, I’ll know where to go instead.

 

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Doctor Simon’s Remedy

There was a small town somewhere tucked back among the hills. The people there were much the same as everywhere; some beautiful, some ugly, most rather plain. Several would have been lovely if not for noticeable scars, and all got cuts and abrasions once in a while.

One day a traveling doctor rode into town upon a brightly colored wagon. He claimed to have the solution to all their problems of ugliness, pain, and scaring.

“The problem, my good people, is skin! Why is one person beautiful and the other ugly? Nothing but skin! Why are some left with scars from past mistakes while others are not? No fault of their own; it is all because of skin! Why do you suffer from cuts, bruises, and other painful abrasions? Skin, skin, skin! My solution will spare you forever from these ills, and will cost you not a penny. What is my solution, you say? Simplicity itself; remove the skin!

“Think about it; each one of us a squishy, flesh-coated skeleton, walking nightmares. When all are beautiful, no one is, and when all are ugly, ugly is beautiful. No more cuts, no more bruises, no more scars. Have you ever heard of muscle scaring? Or bone? A skinless world is an equal world, where none must suffer and each may face the world with a straight back and unafraid!”

His remedy was met with unexpected enthusiasm. Of course, those who were already beautiful, or who only rarely suffered from bruises and the like thought he was merely a quack, and those who were generally plain thought his idea interesting, but probably not worthwhile. The ugly and the scarred, however, flocked to his wagon. A man with a terrible scar running down his face volunteered to be the first.

Well, the remedy didn’t quite go off as expected. Having one’s face cut off is a rather unpleasant experience, and then of course the doctor had to stop after that because the poor man was bleeding all over the place. But Doctor Simon, as was his name, assured him that this was just a temporary reaction, and that he only need keep replenishing his blood with a supply he, Doctor Simon, would provide until the body accustomed itself to the lack of skin and then they could finish the procedure.

This man, Mr. Portnus, declared himself satisfied and left the tent praising the doctor’s skill while trialing a stand holding a large vial of blood hooked up to his veins. The town was shocked by his new appearance, but he and the Doctor insisted that was just a reaction to what was new; once more people had the procedure, everyone would soon come around.

And more and more people did get the procedure. Mrs. Sodor had the skin of her arm removed, Mr. Prasman had his leg stripped, even the Vicar went and had the skin of his chest removed. The more people who had the procedure, the more were interested in it. They all began speaking of how wonderful it would be when their bleeding stopped and they would be able to finish the procedure, so all the town would be skinless. Mothers had started to bring their children to have it done, and there was talk about training the school teacher to do it in class. It became something of a point of pride to have had part of your skin removed. Those who had been uncertain to begin with had it done just avoid being ostracized, and the beautiful people in town who weren’t interested at all and who still thought the whole thing horrible began to get a lot of nasty looks from their neighbors and to be snubbed by their friends. A few of them gave in and had the procedure done.

So things went on; almost the whole town went wrapped up in bandages and trailing vials of blood, thinking about how very clever they all were and how much better it was now that they didn’t have to worry about bruises and scars, and that the ugly and plain didn’t have to worry about their looks, and how horrible those who hadn’t gone through the procedure really were. So high and mighty, pleased with themselves, vain and snobbish.

True, a few people had bled to death, but that was own fault for not keeping their supply topped off, wasn’t it? And there did seem to be quite a few nasty infections going around, but that had always been the case and people were just more open about it. And, well, one had to pay the good doctor for another supply of blood every day, and there were a fair amount of bandages to be purchased, but that was the fault of the beautiful, wasn’t it? If they paid in, it’d all be cheaper for everyone. Besides, they were the ones going about saying you should stop going to Doctor Simon, that you shouldn’t have had your skin removed in the first place, and on and on, bothering the poor souls until they didn’t know what they were doing. They were morally responsible, really. If only they’d go along with it everyone would be fine and maybe then they’d stop bleeding at last.

Some of the few beautiful people left were saying that the rest of the town really ought to see another doctor and have their skin replaced. As if that were possible! You can’t go back, and anyway putting the skin back, even if you could, would surely result in some very nasty scarring, and the whole point of this procedure was to avoid scarring. They were saying the people should do it for their children, but sure it was much better just to give the children the procedure as soon as possible so they’d have the most time to adjust. That way the next generation would be able to fully enjoy the benefits of a skinless life!

Meanwhile, Doctor Simon had become by far the richest man in town. The few beautiful people left soon learned to keep their heads down and their mouths shut, lest they offend him and his servants. Even those who had had the procedure took care to always speak well of the Doctor. After all, if he took offense, where would they get the bandages and blood transfusions they needed? Even worse, he might not complete the procedure once the bleeding stopped.

And so the whole town took on rather a frightened air. No one would speak ill of the Doctor, and even a failure to praise him was looking on with suspicion. No one dared question the procedure publically, and as more and more people bled to death, or died of infection, everyone just sort of stopped talking about it. Better to focus on the wonderful things the Doctor’s procedure had brought them, rather than moon about what couldn’t be helped.

After all, one couldn’t go back.

Cardinal Virtues Begin on Catholic Match

Over the next few weeks, CatholicMatch will be running a series of articles I wrote on the Cardinal Virtues. The Introduction went up today:

When we only have ourselves to consider, we can (and many do) distract ourselves with hedonistic indulgence, with ever more novel and transgressive pleasures, or, failing that, with the bitter delights of resentment towards a world that has ‘cheated’ us and so live what seems a tolerably happy life even without virtue. But when we share our lives with someone else, when we’re responsible for not just our own but another’s happiness, it’s much harder to fake contentment.

The other person generally doesn’t let us get away with it, and, assuming she’s just as bad as we are, we get to experience the abrasive, sandpaper-like results of vice without the anesthetic of self-approval. This is one reason why so many relationships fall apart, and why they often end so acrimoniously.

Basically, to have good relationship requires good people; you can’t live well together if you don’t know how to live well in the first place, any more than you would suddenly be able to draw well just because you’re partnered with someone who doesn’t know how to draw either.

Read it all.

David Warren Gets It

David Warren of Essays in Idleness eloquently says something that has been on my mind for a long time: that most of what we call ‘freedom’ is really a rejection of freedom.

We flatter ourselves, not only by the sins we commit, but by our modern conception of what sin is. We think that we are enacting “some momentous alternative to the good,” when really we are just being thick….

…And we, from pride, compliment ourselves when we have “gamed the system.” Having demeaned not the devil, but God, in our grey “agnosticism,” we praise the ruthless and successful, and sneer at all the humble “losers.”

Our whole conception of freedom has been reduced to the dumb idea that we are “free to choose” in our own – very short-term – interest. And we protest only obstructions to that paltry freedom, including the obstructions of Nature, which made us (to give only one example) male or female.

We are unacknowledged antinomians, and that is why we cannot understand that freedom from sin entails freedom from the law. For if we were free of sin, we could do as we pleased without transgression. But as we are not, we have to be restrained. The real choice is between humility and humiliation…

 

He concludes by pointing out that Rousseau got it exactly backwards: man is not “born free and is everywhere in chains,” but is born in chains and must achieve his freedom, which he does through humility and discipline.

Definitely read the whole thing.

Thoughts on ‘Gravity Falls’

Gravity Falls is one of those shows that I’d heard raved about from several different quarters as being a very smart, very funny, and very mature kids’ show with a lot of dark, creative imagery. So, when I had some extra time (read: was procrastinating again) I watched through it.

My reactions were surprisingly pretty mixed. I enjoyed a lot of it; when it’s good, it’s very good. The trouble is that, like the little girl with the little curl, when it’s bad it’s horrid.

gravity_falls_6

The set up is that two twin siblings, Dipper and Mabel, are going to spend the summer with their great-uncle (‘Grunkle’) Stan; a grouchy con-man who runs a tourist trap ‘mystery shack’ in the rural town of Gravity Falls, Oregon. The town, as the two kids soon discover, is a nexus point of everything weird, supernatural, and unexplained, and they try to uncover the mysteries of the place while dealing with the pressures of growing up.

So, a good set up with lots of potential. Now what else is good about it? Well, first of all, the characters are pretty fun. I can’t say I was especially engaged by any of them (with one exception), but they’re interesting and pleasant company for the most part. The story arc of the two kids growing into adolescence is pretty engaging and realized through some nicely drawn subplots. The relationships are really good too; between the siblings, between the kids and their uncle, between Dipper and Wendy the girl who works the counter, and so on.

The stand out, for me, was the uncle, who’s a fantastic character. When I look back on the show, his scenes are chiefly what I remember and his relationship with the kids was probably the best thing about it. He’s an unabashed crook, grump, drinker, and scoundrel, but nevertheless you know he loves his kids and would do absolutely anything for them. His interactions with the two kids, especially with Mabel, are the most emotionally gripping elements of the story and actually brought a lump to my throat once or twice.

The atmosphere of the show is great as well. There’s a constant underlying sense of secrecy and uncertainty, playing into the mystery element. You’re almost never sure quite what’s going on, who to trust, or what’s going to happen next.

I also like the creativity shown in the creature designs and the supernatural effects (my favorite being an island that turns out to be a floating head). As that indicates, it’s often very dark and pleasantly frightening: sure to give sensitive young viewers nightmares. I liked how it was willing to push the scary and disturbing imagery, and that they weren’t afraid to place the kids in real danger, making for an unusually harsh tone for a kid’s show.

Speaking of danger, the main villain is fantastic: kind of like Freddy Krueger if he were a used car salesman. The exact rules of what he could and couldn’t do were kind of vague, but that’s kind of the point, and he was wonderfully evil in a delightful way.

Oh, and the show is often very funny, with a gloriously dark sense of humor. For instance, an early joke is that Stan’s last outing with the kids involved them helping him counterfeit money (“The county jail was cold”). Basically, any time we see one of his schemes, it’s pretty much hilarious. Mabel’s pretty funny too with her super-cheery, not-quite-all-there perspective, and Dipper gets some great reactions as the nearest-to-sane character present.

Okay, so the show has good characters, great atmosphere, it’s creative, funny. Sounds good. And a lot of the time it is. But the rest of the time…

The first problem is that, though the show has great atmosphere, the animation is kind of hideous. The characters are all lumpy and distorted, and there’s a dreary, unpleasant tone to the art style. And it’s not a matter of being stylized either: a lot of the characters in Phineas and Ferb have much weirder designs than this (Phineas’s head is a triangle), but they don’t create the same impression of ugliness. Maybe it’s because the characters there are done in broad geometric shapes, or because the colors are brighter, but the animation is much more pleasing to the eye than anything here. Gravity Falls is kind of unpleasant to look at, especially the more you watch of it.

Another thing is that I found the writing oddly slapdash. For instance, sometimes plotlines are more taken for granted than actually established. Grunkle Stan supposedly doesn’t believe any of the kids’ stories about the strange goings on. I may have missed something, but I recall maybe one or two scenes of him reacting this way, and both very early on. Then in the opening of the second season it’s suddenly a twist that he knew all along. But…they hadn’t made anything of his supposed incredulity. It didn’t affect the story in any way, at least not that I can remember (contrast in Milo Murphy’s Law, where Bradley’s status as a jealous sourpuss is well-established even though he’s not in very many episodes). And there are a few things like that; elements that are just kind of assumed, but not really established and which don’t affect the story in any way until the writers just decide to resolve them.

Also, the characters don’t always behave believably. There’s a Halloween episode where the twins end up menaced by a Halloween spirit that threatens to eat them if they don’t give him a certain amount of candy by the end of the night (downing a passing child just to prove it’s serious). Dipper spends the night embarrassed to be trick-or-treating and wanting to ditch the effort to go to a party with Wendy. Even in cartoon terms, that’s not believable behavior: he could be entertainingly irritated at being frightened into doing something he’d rather not, but he can’t be just shrugging off a death-threat from a supernatural monster. In other words, there has to be at least an element of fear in his behavior if the scenario is going to work, but there isn’t; he’s just annoyed and trying to find away to blow it off. The way they defeat the monster is stupid as well; just a cheap joke that feels like they were stuck for an ending.

That’s a problem that kind of keeps coming back throughout the show; as I said, the writers are willing to put the kids in real danger, but they don’t always act like they’re in real danger, or even in a cartoonishly inappropriate way. Half the time the characters just don’t seem to be taking their own predicament seriously: and not in an amusingly careless “I’ve seen it all” kind of way, but in a weird “doesn’t matter to me” way. This sort of thing rips me right out of the story: you can’t be both flippantly careless and darkly frightening at the same time because the two tones cancel each other out. It hits the right balance sometimes, but misses badly at others.

Again, contrast this with Phineas and Ferb. It’s a much brighter and cheerier show, and the characters there are very rarely in any danger, or even faced with serious consequences, but whenever they are they act like it. They still joke and banter, but when they need to be serious they get serious. For example, when Candace realizes her brothers have been abducted by an alien poacher, she immediately forgets all about ‘busting’ them and rushes to their rescue. Even as goofy and surreal as the show is, the characters consistently act in a believable fashion. The characters on Gravity Falls don’t, or at least not consistently.

Ironically this means Phineas and Ferb actually does a better job at creating a sense of danger and dread on the rare occasions it tries than this one does as a major part of its makeup. When zombie pharmacists are scarier than child-eating scarecrows, something has gone very wrong with the latter.

This is probably connected with another problem; the show is very cynical, which isn’t necessarily bad in itself, but it leads the characters to have kind of a myopic worldview. The thesis seems to be ‘the only good thing you can do is be there for your friends and family,’ which plays out in some very strange and kind of nasty scenes. There’s a bit near the end where one character can literally save the world with a single gesture…but he holds off because he’s angry that another character hasn’t shown him enough appreciation. Then the choices the kids make towards the end are likewise kind of…wrong. I can’t get into it without spoilers, but the overall point seemed kind of self-centered to me. Basically, the leads are very loyal to each other, which makes them likable, but it doesn’t seem to translate into either care for others in general or any sense of value for its own sake.

Related to this is that the show often rewards the characters in unearned ways just because the writers decide they should be rewarded. There’s a really stupid episode where Dipper and Mabel are hunting down a centuries-old conspiracy, and Mabel’s random, goofy behavior turns out to be the key to solving each riddle, because the guy who set the puzzle was just as goofy and random as she was, and “being silly is good.” No. Just…no. The hand the of the writers is brutally obvious throughout, rewarding Mabel for no other reason than that they wanted her to be right.

Again, contrast this with a similar situation in a better show. There’s an episode of My Little Pony where Rarity has to solve a mystery on Rainbow Dash’s behalf and apparently spends most of her time changing costumes and getting distracted by irrelevancies. But it turns out everything she focused on was vital to the case (the costumes not so much) and that, in classic detective fashion, she knew what she was doing the whole time. You see, Rarity was able to solve the mystery because she’s both intelligent and very attune to details: traits that obviously lend themselves to solving mysteries. On Gravity Falls, Mabel solves the mystery because she’s ‘silly’ and because her random, goofy behavior just happened to correspond with the mystery author’s random, goofy behavior, which only works because it was specifically set up that way. That’s the difference between an earned solution and a contrived one.

And there are quite a few episodes like that, where the writers are obviously just forcing things to go their preferred way, either because they’ve written themselves into a corner or because that’s just how they want it to be. So between that, the false-seeming behavior, and the often slapdash plotting, I don’t think I can call this a well-written show.

Then there are just stupid things: I praised the main villain, but the secondary one is just dumb and neither a consistent character nor a very entertaining one. There were a fair number of episodes that just plain didn’t work, or had a great set up that they completely undermined for a cheap gag.

In all this I think the central problem is the mindset behind the show. I don’t know anything about the creators, but the show seems to come from a very cynical, almost nihilistic point of view. I may be reading too much into it, but that’s the impression I was left with, though accompanied with some strong emotional connections to and between the characters and a lot of good humor and creativity.

I’ve spent a lot of time describing what’s wrong with Gravity Falls because its flaws are mostly structural, down under the surface and tricky to pin down. The show is superficially very strong, but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny very well. Shows like Phineas and Ferb and My Little Pony are not only fun to watch, but get better the more you think about them. I’ve seen Phineas and Ferb all through at least three or four times and I’m still finding new things to like about it and new ideas to draw from it. Gravity Falls is generally fun to watch, but it doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny. The more I think about it, the more I see the flaws, the gaps, and the wrongheadedness in it, all the more so because it does have such a superficial shine to it that makes me annoyed to find it’s not as good as it tries to be.

I’m an inveterate re-watcher, so one of my main rubrics for judging just about any work of fiction is whether I want to see it again. Phineas and Ferb I wanted to re-watch as soon as it was over, since it left me so emotionally satisfied that I wanted to go back and see the whole thing again knowing where it was leading. Danny Phantom left me appreciative for the good parts, but with absolutely no desire to watch it again. Gravity Falls is somewhere in the middle. I don’t want to watch it again anytime soon, but I feel like I may at some point in the future. The good parts may just be good enough to tempt me back once more, at least to some episodes. It’s certainly a good show in a lot of ways, but I can’t say I liked it very much.

So, in the end, I have very mixed feelings about Gravity Falls. I liked a lot of it, and I disliked a lot of it, and on the whole it left me glad that I had seen it, but with a bit of a bad taste in the mouth.

Quick Thoughts on ‘The Big Lebowski’

Last night I finally saw the modern classic The Big Lebowski. It was not good.

I admit, I laughed a good deal. And for about the first half I was enjoying it. Then I started to realize that the film wasn’t going anywhere. Or, if it was, it wasn’t anywhere good. I don’t think I’ve seen such an empty film before. Indeed, the pointlessness of it seemed the chief joke; that the characters just stumble through meaningless and heartless events surrounded by directionless and heartless characters. As it drew on to the conclusion, it seemed to drag on longer and longer and grow more and more nihilistic and mean-spirited. It was like a friend at a party who starts off being funny and exuberant, but as he grows more and more inebriated as the night goes on starts ranting about the Jews or shouting about his ex-girlfriend and becomes unbearable.

It reminded me a bit of Gravity Falls: a show that I mostly enjoyed while watching, but which left me similarly empty and with a mildly bad taste in my mouth. But that show at least had some honest-to-goodness heart to it, even it was strictly limited to the main characters. And it was a lot funnier. Lebowski started off funny, but grew less so over time as we slowly realize that it’s not going to give us anything. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a pot-high: feels good at the time, but has no substance and ultimately leaves you a little emptier and a little bit of a worse person than you were to begin with.

New Years Specials

There aren’t as many good New Year specials as there are Christmas specials, for obvious reasons: New Year just doesn’t have the same depth or meaning as Christmas. Still, there’ve been a few, and two of them particularly come to mind.

The first is Happy New Year from Phineas and Ferb: the first episode of the fourth and final season. This shows the PnF characters all celebrating New Years Eve in their particular way: Phineas and Ferb decide to make a giant New Years ball to drop from space while hosting a party inside, Candace has made a resolution to stop trying to bust her brothers and decides she has time for one more desperate attempt before midnight, and Doctor Doofenshmirtz intends to change everyone’s resolutions to ‘Obey Doofenshmirtz.’ All typical Phineas and Ferb zaniness.

But, also typical of Phineas and Ferb is that there is a lot of heart to it. In particular, we get to see Candace trying to move on and mature, while maybe being not quite ready. She’s excited to be at her first ‘adult’ party – so excited that she and Stacy are giggling like schoolgirls – but not really prepared to let her old obsessions go, showcasing the tension between good resolutions and the lure of the familiar. Her story here ends on an ambiguous, but comforting note. Likewise, Doofenshmirtz’s plan goes down in probably the funniest way possible, but concludes with him shrugging it off and enjoying the night with Perry.

Of course, it’s very funny, creative, and features a really great song that is absolutely perfect for New Year.

Then there’s New Years Retribution from Sonic Boom. I’ve talked about this show a few times before, and it’s definitely in the ‘guilty pleasure’ category. I can’t really argue that it’s good, but it has a definite charm to it that makes it, for me at least, more enjoyable than some objectively better shows.

Anyway, the story of this one is it’s New Years and Dr. Eggman is in a funk because he failed to keep his resolution to beat Sonic at least once. He then gets the idea to create a machine that slows down time to give himself one more chance to finally best the hedgehog at something: anything.

This is definitely one of the better episodes. The humor is on (Eggman regarding a slow-cook roast: “It too is just a sad, yet succulent reminder of how quickly everything else in life moves”), and the story is really quite solid. Eggman’s the villain, but we still feel for the guy as he desperately tries to find something, anything that he actually can win at. His and Sonic’s interactions here are surprisingly charming: they’re less like mortal enemies and more like coworkers who don’t like each other, but can still sympathize with one another. It all comes together in the ending, which features a really sweet moment of shared humanity (for lack of a better word).

 

Two very different shows, but both get me into the New Year spirit.