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The Simpsons Turn 25

A holiday experience I will always remember occurred a quarter century ago—on December 17, 1989, to be precise. I wish I could say this was the day I came upon a helpless little fawn in the snowy woods and nursed it back to health. Or prepared a meal for a homeless family who taught me the true meaning of human connection. But nope. On that evening, along with about 13 million other viewers, I was introduced to what would become the most popular and longest-running television sitcom of all time. The Simpsons was and still is, some 560 episodes later, wonderfully and smartly irreverent, taking cynical swipes at just about everyone—family, bosses, teachers, neighbors, politicians, police. We’d never met characters so likably flawed. In that first episode, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” Bart gets an illicit tattoo, inserts rude lyrics into Christmas carols and is yanked off the stage during his school pageant. He also pulls the beard off a shopping mall Santa. Meanwhile, Homer steals a Christmas tree and loses all the money for the family gifts at the dog track. President George H. W. Bush inadvertently endorsed the series while unsuccessfully campaigning for a second term in 1992 when he announced, “We’re going to strengthen the American family to make them a lot more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons.” The out-of-touch elitist didn’t seem to realize just how deeply the Simpsons embody modern family values. This middle-class American family from a town called Springfield is in many ways like most of us—imperfect but basically pretty decent. They watch TV together, they laugh a lot and they really do seem to love each other. We’ve even adopted some of their favorite expressions into the English vernacular, including d’oh (something you say when you’ve done something really dumb, as Homer often does). Malcolm in the Middle, Modern Family, The Middle and other popular sitcoms have taken inspiration from The Simpsons, portraying amiably dysfunctional families with flesh-and-blood actors. But part of the reason The Simpsons perseveres is because the animated characters are timeless hybrids who will never grow out of their roles. Homer will never retire from the nuclear power plant where he bumbles through his shifts. Bart will always be the little neighborhood thug we want to throttle and Lisa is perennially wise beyond her years. While animated Simpsons imitators like Family Guy and South Park can be hilarious, too, to me something gets lost in all the crude innuendo. Let’s go back to that Christmas special of 25 years ago. When Homer doesn’t show up for the family Christmas Eve festivities, Marge’s snarky, smoky-voiced sisters dis him, saying he’s going to crawl home smelling like booze and cheap perfume. But loyal Marge never loses faith in her Homey, who eventually arrives with the gift of a rescue greyhound, thereafter named Santa’s Little Helper. As the family settles in for some yuletide bliss, we’re left feeling good and wanting more—that’s the secret of the show’s phenomenal success and what will keep us watching The Simpsons for the next quarter century. Photo courtesy of Everett CONNECTS_The-Simpsons

by Stephen Brewer

Dec 17, 2014

Portrait of the Engineer as a Young Man

Haruki Murakami is a big deal. When bookstores open at midnight specially to sell his latest book, lines wind around the block. The quality of his writing certainly merits the attention, but Murakami’s understated style belies his celebrity status. In his 13th novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Murakami tells a simple story into which creep fantastical elements and a foreboding undercurrent. Despite its terrible title, it’s one of the year’s most interesting books. Tsukuru Tazaki is a 36-year-old single Tokyo man who builds train stations. He lives a lonely but contented life, spending many evenings sitting on a bench in one of his stations and watching the people go by. He is permanently scarred, however, by something that happened during his sophomore year in college; his four best friends, for reasons unknown, suddenly cut Tsukuru out of their lives. (Each of their names relates to a color, hence the novel’s title.) Tsukuru became severely depressed for half a year, failing to kill himself only because he lacked the stomach for it. Since then, his life has gone on, but his lack of friends and a string of noncommittal relationships underscore his decades-old wounds. When his new girlfriend Sara learns about the mysterious betrayal of his college friends, she encourages Tsukuru to reconnect with them in search of answers. Rather than thumb through the story’s details and play spoiler, it’s more fruitful to look into the protagonist and what he chooses to show us. Tsukuru presents himself as a nondescript, fairly uninteresting person, but he perceives the people he encounters as attractive, ambitious, grounded. Whenever someone unexpectedly leaves his life, he assumes they must have sensed the way he sees himself, and demanded something more from a long-term companion. And his train watching, perhaps a charming character quirk, reveals a deep divide between Tsukuru and his fellow man. The title takes on an ironic meaning; people hustle onto trains going near and far while Tsukuru sits, his pilgrimage one of solitude, of silence. Murakami’s novel unfolds in nonlinear fashion, and even its conclusion doesn’t close the story so much as complete the tone. The main narrative follows Tsukuru’s present relationship and reconnection with his past, but we also get glimpses of him in his deep depression and soon afterward, when he befriends a young man named Haida. Throughout, it’s Murakami’s style and not the substance of the story that makes the novel intriguing. From several vivid dream sequences to the sudden introspective truths about human nature, Tsukuru Tazaki is a colorless novel you won’t stop thinking about. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia SHOP_Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki

by Austin Murphy-Park

Dec 16, 2014

Painters of Light

In Mr. Turner, auteur Mike Leigh paints a portrait of an ordinary man who also happens to be extraordinary—J. M. William Turner, 19th-century England’s master painter, who possessed a penchant for maritime themes and terrifyingly sublime skies. As ever, Leigh employs subtle scenes that to the uninitiated or impatient might appear mundane instead of what they are: marvelously, cumulatively expressive. As in essentially all of Leigh’s films, Turner’s story is told through character, brought to life by a handful of excellent actors to whom Leigh frequently returns. In this case, considerable credit must go to Timothy Spall (Secrets & Lies , All or Nothing, Topsy-Turvy) who, as Turner, delivers a distinctly award-worthy performance. If there were an award specifically for superbly communicative grunting and growling, Spall would handily win it twice over. Until that category is recognized he’ll have to settle for his best actor win at Cannes, and perhaps an eventual Oscar. Spall’s Turner is gruff in the extreme—a curt, intimidating bear-pig of a man, who stoops and strides about like a Dickensian villain, a persona belied by glimpses of his keen intelligence and soulful passions. These passions and the degree to which they are withheld reveal the inner workings of a man who feels and loves so strongly, he must harden himself against his own crumbling. This conflict is the beating heart of the film. Leigh often shows Turner by way of the women in his life, all played by his familiar talents. Lesley Manville (Topsy-Turvy, Another Year) plays Mary Somerville, Turner’s friend and a notable female scientist in an age when there were few. Ruth Sheen (High Hopes, Another Year) plays Sarah Danby, Turner’s bitter first mistress and mother of his two illegitimate daughters, whom he barely acknowledges. Dorothy Atkinson (Topsy-Turvy, All or Nothing) plays Hannah Danby, a relation of Sarah’s, who works as Turner’s housekeeper and loves him despite the meager affection he offers in return. Lastly, Marion Bailey (Meantime, Vera Drake) plays Sophia Booth, Turner’s last love, to whom he seems to give the most of himself before his death. Perhaps the most intriguing of Turner’s women is his mother, whom he mentions only once, with venomous scorn. Known as the “painter of light,” Turner comes across as a man acutely aware of, and at battle with, the darkness. His outsize love for women is matched by his devotion to his old dad, his eerie tenderness for a girl’s corpse pulled from the Thames and pride in his flawed England. And yet Turner’s grand passions are always set against his own physical decline and desolate view of humanity. But Mr. Turner kindles a bittersweet hope despite the inevitable doom, and in this way it feels like real life. Leigh’s skillful balance of light and shadow in portraying this stormy figure is almost singular: I strongly recommend taking the two and a half hours needed to look upon his latest masterwork. Photo courtesy of Everett CONNECTS_Mr-Turner

by Jonathan E. Roche

Dec 15, 2014

Sandy Hook: We’ll Never Know Why

Twenty-year-old Adam Lanza’s merciless shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, occurred two years ago this Sunday. Two official reports have since been issued: The first, released by the state’s attorney on November 25, 2013, offers a detailed look into the investigation of the events on that horrific day. The second, made public on November 21, 2014, is an in-depth study of Lanza’s childhood and young adulthood by Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate. What neither of these reports is able to tell us is why. The Report of the State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of Danbury on the Shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and 36 Yogananda Street, Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012, states, “The evidence clearly shows that the shooter planned his actions, including the taking of his own life, but there is no clear indication why he did so, or why he targeted Sandy Hook Elementary School.” The Child Advocate’s report, Shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, uses the Lanza case study to develop recommendations for improvements in the public health systems that monitor the well-being of children. It is dedicated to the “20 first graders who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School; they have been the sole reason for this report.” The 114-page publication delves into the killer’s past and does shed some light on his slide into darkness. Lanza, who had various developmental problems (doctors who evaluated him posited that they might include autism spectrum disorder, sensory processing disorder and pervasive developmental disorder), was also mentally ill. As a child he’d been diagnosed with anxiety disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, but for years he had gone untreated. Additionally, the medical examiner concluded that the killer, at six feet tall and 112 pounds, was anorexic “to the point of malnutrition and resultant brain damage.” Denial of the severity of Lanza’s psychological disturbances—by just about everyone involved in his care at home and in the school and health systems—is a consistent theme throughout both reports. Lanza himself, a witness told an FBI investigator on the day of the murders, “never completely accepted that he had a disease and therefore never took any of his medication he was prescribed.” The shooter’s parents also declined to see that he was properly treated. His mother, Nancy Lanza, showed a “pattern of attempts to bend or manage the environment for AL, to help him as she put it…‘get through each day,’” the Child Advocate reports. She “appeared to be a major factor, likely unwitting, in increasing AL’s isolation from the world.” Adam’s father, Peter Lanza, had not seen his son for two years, and he blames himself for their estrangement. “Any variation on what I did,” he speculated to New Yorker writer Andrew Solomon, would have been better, “because no outcome could be worse.” The first of Lanza’s 27 slayings was that of his mother. Matricides are uncommon (less than one percent of murders); nearly all are committed by males, often as an act of separation from an overbearing or overprotective mother; and the mother’s bed is frequently the scene of the crime. A case study published in a 2005 issue of the Journal of Forensic Science states that many people who kill their mothers consider their crime an “act of catharsis, liberation, metamorphosis against a humiliating relationship that threatens their sexual and social identity.” The report cites an additional trigger, which may come closer to explaining Lanza’s killing frenzy, which only began with his mother: “An inner psychic catathymic crisis caused by a provocative behavior. This crisis is characterized by an unbearable emotional excitement (fear, rage and desperation), a sense of being hemmed in an inevitable process and acting like an automaton.” In the days leading up to the massacre, Nancy Lanza had begun discussing some changes to the life she shared with her housebound son, including relocating to another part of the country. The Child Advocate considers this “fear of losing his home and of a change in his relationship with Mrs. Lanza, his only caretaker and connection,” among the provocations that sent Adam over the edge. He killed his mother the morning after she returned from a three-day vacation, during which he had been left home alone. She had taken the trip as an “experiment” to foster his sense of independence. Peter Lanza believes the killing was more encompassing than matricide: “The reason he shot Nancy four times was one for each of us: one for Nancy; one for him; one for Ryan [Lanza’s older brother]; one for me.” It’s disturbing to consider that while Nancy Lanza was struggling to appease her demanding near-recluse of a son, she was simultaneously stocking his arsenal. Among the evidence cataloged at the Lanzas’ home was a December 2012 Christmas card from mother to son containing a check for the purchase of a CZ 83, a compact, double-action, semiautomatic pistol originally manufactured for the Czechoslovakian military. Adam used his mother’s own .22 caliber Savage Mark II rifle to shoot her four times in the head. The Child Advocate reports: “While [our] focus has been on AL’s psychological deterioration, we reiterate that this should not be taken to mean that we do not recognize the ubiquitous role that guns, and especially assault weapons with high capacity magazines, play in mass murder. In fact, while mental illness plays only a small role in violence in America, assault weapons are an increasingly common denominator in violent crimes.” Adam Lanza, the state attorney reported, had an “obsession with mass murders, in particular the April 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado.” Three days before his own killing spree, Lanza wrote to an online acquaintance, “The inexplicable mystery to me isn’t how there are massacres, but rather how there aren’t 100,000 of them every year.” Susan Klebold, the mother of one of the Columbine High School killers, lamented in O magazine that she could not predict her son’s act of violence. In retrospect, she believes suicide was the key to his motivation. But whether Lanza was motivated by matricide or self-annihilation, the fact remains that in between those two acts he executed 20 small children and six school employees, an atrocity that has no apparent explanation. Monsignor Robert Weiss, who conducted many of Newtown’s funerals, characterized it as simply an “act of evil.” Susan Klebold’s recollection of what she learned about her son’s mental state after the carnage and the two reports about Lanza remind us that hindsight may reveal many red flags. A comic book Lanza and a friend made in the fifth grade, “The Big Book of Granny,” seems especially telling in retrospect: The homicidal Granny threatens to shoot up a classroom. “Let’s kill children,” another character says. Granny’s son ends up shooting her in the head. The book, the Child Advocate says, indicates that “by the age of 10, on some level, [Lanza] was deeply troubled by feelings of rage, hate and (at least unconscious) murderous impulses.” At age 14, Lanza was evaluated at Yale University’s Child Study Center, whose recommendations now seem prescient: “We believe that there is a significant risk to AL in creating, even with the best of intentions, a prosthetic environment which spares him having to encounter other students or to work to overcome his social difficulties. Having the emphasis on adapting the world to AL, rather than helping him to adapt to the world, is a recipe for him to be a homebound recluse, unable to attend college or work productively.” No matter how closely we sift through the evidence, and hold up this or that telling detail to the light, in our hearts we understand that we can never know why Adam Lanza killed. There could never be a justifiable reason for a man armed for military engagement to launch a deadly attack on dozens of six- and seven-year-old children. Evil—depraved, malevolent and unexplainable—may be the closest we get. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia CULTUREMAP_Denial

by Amy K. Hughes

Dec 12, 2014