Simpsons Classics: 22 Short Films about Springfield

“The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life. This antagonism represents the most modern form of the conflict which primitive man must carry on with nature for his own bodily existence.”

–Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life”

“Everybody in town’s got their story to tell.”

“There’s just not enough time to hear them all.”

Milhouse Van Houten and Bart Simpson, “22 Short Films about Springfield”

Viewed in and of itself, “22 Short Films about Springfield” isn’t the funniest episode of The Simpsons, or its most character-driven, and it certainly isn’t the best. In fact, it doesn’t even earn these titles among the five episodes that accompany it on Disc 4 of the Season Seven DVD.* It isn’t as funny as “Much Apu about Nothing,” and it lacks the frequently poignant characterization of “Summer of 4 Ft. 2” or “Homerpalooza.” But within the entirety of The Simpsons canon, “22 Short Films” stands out as a unique, and, I’d like to argue, uniquely necessary episode of the series. This is because “22 Short Films” is nothing short of a thoroughly Modernist foundation and legitimation of Springfield as a metropolitan setting.

*If I could only keep one of my DVDs, it would be this disc. It has “22 Short Films,” “Raging Abe Simpson and His Grumbling Grandson in ‘The Curse of the Flying Hellfish,’”  “Much Apu about Nothing,” “Homerpalooza,” and “Summer of 4 Ft. 2.” It is amazing.

By this, I mean that the 23 minutes of “22 Short Films about Springfield” help establish, develop, contextualize, and yes, animate the world around the series’ eponymous family. And the manner in which it does this is steeped in what appears to be a distinctly Modernist tradition. My texts for backing up this assertion will be the episode itself (obvs), the aforereferenced “Metropolis and the Mental Life” by Georg Simmel, and two landmark Modernist novels: Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and definitive Modernist tome of them all, James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Modernism was the artistic reaction to the industrialization and concomitant urbanization of the late 19th century. As such, many of its most famous works are built around cities. Döblin has Berlin, Joyce Dublin, Bely Petersburg, Woolf London, and so forth. Simmel’s 1903 seminal essay* addresses the circumstances of metropolitan living at the turn of the century–circumstances that centered largely on alienation and a growing sense of insignificance.***

*I believe essays qualify as seminal if and only if they get their own Wikipedia page.**

**Good thing I found this. Otherwise, I was going to have to totally back off that claim.

***Devotees of the blog may recall my review of Bely’s Petersburg, in which the city’s residents are compared to a giant, immutable myriapod that constantly moves down the Nevsky Prospect.

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In the essay, Simmel states that “[m]an is a creature whose existence is dependent on differences,” and he argues that the process of individuation is more easily compromised and complicated by a metropolitan setting. It is easier to fall victim to the myriad outside influences and stimuli in the city, as a self-definition composed of “those irrational, instinctive, sovereign human traits and impulses” clashes with the city’s “schematically precise form.” “Even though those lives which are autonomous and characterised by these vital impulses are not entirely impossible in the city, they are, none the less, opposed to it in abstracto.” The result is what Simmel calls the “blasé outlook,” defined as the “incapacity to react to new stimulations with the required amount of energy.” Simmel’s last point is that “the metropolis is characterised by its essential independence even of the most significant individual personalities.”

Enter the Simpsons.

Just as Simmel said a city transcends “the most significant individual personalities,” “22 Short Films about Springfield” states its case that the town extends beyond the purview of just the Simpson family. It opens with Bart and Milhouse on an overpass, spitting and squirting ketchup and mustard on the cars below.

BART: “Milhouse, you ever think about the people in those cars?”

MILHOUSE: “I try not to. It makes it harder to spit on them.”

BART: “Sometimes I wonder about all the people in this town. Do you think anything interesting ever happens to ‘em? I mean, there must be thousands of great stories out there.”

It is worth noting that, in this scene, we the audience don’t get much of a chance to see any of the cars. The opening shot of the scene shows cars driving by, but once Bart and Milhouse enter the picture, we see only their backs as they spit. When the camera angle changes to once again show the road–seemingly Springfield’s main drag–no more cars are on it. The targets of Bart and Milhouse’s saliva and condiments are, to us and to them, anonymous and faceless.

This introduction reaffirms the way we feel about non-Simpson Springfieldianites. In other, narratively linear episodes of The Simpsons, there exists a kind of solipsism to the world of Springfield. Although Springfield contains a vaster quantity of secondary, tertiary, and quaternary characters than any other series in television history (for I think obvious “Because it’s easier to draw someone new than hire an actor to play someone new” reasons), these characters generally exist solely in relation to the Simpson family. Thus, we know Moe and Milhouse because they are Homer’s bartender (or life partner) and Bart’s best friend, respectively. As far as we the viewers know, these characters don’t exist outside of their relationships with the Simpson family. They are very static characters, and there are very few scenes that feature Moe but not Homer, just like there are few scenes in which we see Milhouse but not Bart. They will get the occasional one-liner at the opening or close of a scene, but largely, these secondary et al. characters are there to interact with Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and even Maggie. I mean, the Simpsons even appeared in Wiggum P.I. and The Love-matic Grampa in “Simpsons Spin-off Showcase.”*,**

*Our Phil Hartman retrospective sadly did not include what I think may be my favorite Troy McClure line ever: “Spin-off! Is there any word more thrilling to the human soul?”

**In fact, this is related to one of my BIG pet peeves with later episodes of the show, in which the Simpsons play an unrealistically large part in the lives of other Springfieldianites. I’m thinking here of any episode in which Homer becomes a counselor or confidant of someone like Mr. Burns or Kirk Van Houten or Krusty. The last example, “Insane Clown Poppy,” goes so far as to acknowledge the absurdity of a Homer/Krusty pairing. Krusty asks Homer if he’d really be willing to fight the mafia with him, and Homer responds, “For a casual acquaintance like you? Absolutely.”

“22 Short Films about Springfield” limits such interactions. While the Simpsons do participate in some of the short films–which let’s be honest are often more like simple scenes (and 22 is, by most any count, inaccurate)*–most transpire without them, and just as important, without reference to them. Apu goes to a party, Smithers is stung by a bee and suffers an allergic reaction, Skinner hosts Superintendent Chalmers for an “unforgettable luncheon” that goes awry, etc. The scenes themselves are too short and comically driven to do much individual characterization; we, for instance, already know Chief Wiggum enjoys the occasional hamburger and donut or that Snake is a criminal. Collectively, however, they put faces in those cars underneath the overpass (both metaphorically and, as we’ll see, literally).

*The various writers of the episode–10 in all–knew this going in. The title alludes to “Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould.”

“22 Short Films” does this by focusing in short, stylistically diverse spurts on a wide array of characters that represent different classes, ethnicities, and dialects. We start with a working class immigrant in Apu (Sanjay, too) before moving to the “upper lower middle class” Simpsons to the upper leisure class of Mr. Burns and Smithers. We also see the criminal class with Snake, the domestic middle class with Skinner and Chalmers, and the lowest class of them all with Cletus. Apu isn’t the only minority shown; we also get a scene starring Bumblebee Man and his wife along with cameos by a characters such as Groundskeeper Willie. The overall effect is a bit mindboggling: How can one city–let alone one often portrayed as a small town–be home to such an incredible diversity of citizens? Springfield takes on an Everycity quality and even becomes a kind of stand-in for America as a whole. It houses rural, urban, and suburban; lower, middle, and upper classes; immigrants and the aristocracy.

The episode even tries to take on a kind of “everygenre” mentality, an ambition most commonly associated with Joyce and Ulysses. Throughout the course of his novel, Joyce refused to stick to an overarching style. He wrote in different languages, different dialects (we’re getting there), and manifold styles, from newspaper clippings (“Aeolus”) to romantic novels of the day (“Nausicaa”) to the Catholic catechism (“Ithaca”). Different episodes of Ulysses* employed these different styles, in the same way that scenes in “22 Short Films” adopt their own individual aesthetics–often parodically. Dr. Nick Riviera’s scene mimics a medical procedural such as ER, complete with its intense musical score and relatively simple conclusion. Bumblebee Man’s brief scene with his wife mocks what Bart would later call “unpredictable Mexican sitcoms” in “Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie.” And then of course there is the extended parody of Pulp Fiction involving Chief Wiggum, Snake, and Herman.**

*My use of episode here is not to be cute in tying Joyce’s work in some way with that of a television series. “Episode” is what Joyce himself preferred his sections or chapters to be called.

**Such incorporation of contemporaneous culture (Pulp Fiction came out two years prior to “22 Short Films”) and a bombardment of commercial media are other tropes of modernism, especially Joyce’s practice of it. Just take a look at the book of footnotes they sell as a companion to Ulysses: It’s 698 pages! The understanding of “22 Short Films” is similarly buttressed by an extensive knowledge of American pop culture ca. 1996, whether it’s the Pulp Fiction or the Ballpark Hot Dog ads Apu mimics in his short. We see the flood of commercial stimuli in the form of advertisements on the radio, the newspaper, or Mr. Burns’ copy of Auto Gyro Enthusiast, and there are references to Heloise, McDonald’s, the Voyager spacecraft, and my personal favorite, Comic Book Guy’s “rare photo of Sean Connery signed by Roger Moore.”

One of the episode’s most Modernist scenes occurs at the end of the second act. It is the continuation of an earlier story in which Lisa has gotten gum stuck in her hair, and Marge is trying fruitlessly to get it out.* Gradually, more and more Springfieldianites happen to walk by and notice what is going on, and they all start to chime in with their advice. “Does the whole town have to hear about this?” Lisa cries in embarrassed desperation. Each character that calls out their own counsel utilizes a specific dialect; this, in fact, is where we see several of the minority cameos mentioned one paragraph above. There’s Groundskeeper Willie, the Sea Captain, Otto, Dr. Hibbert, Sideshow Mel, Lionel Hutz, and Uder all emphasizing the different manners in which Springfieldianites speak.

*Fans of the episode may recognize the pun in “fruitlessly.”**

**The pun is, she uses fruit to try to get it out.

This isn’t an isolated incident. As a whole, “22 Short Films” showcases a diversity of dialects that includes Dr. Nick’s faux medical jargon (“transdental electromecide”), Bumblebee Man’s Spanglish (“un disastro de electricidad”), Cletus’ stereotypical white trash drawl (“Back you go, to waits for a woman o’ less discriminatin’ tastes”), and Mr. Burns’ 19th-century insults to Smithers (Smithers is alternatively called an “infernal ninny,” a “stuporous funker,” and a “wretched shirkaday”). The episode itself even seems to mock its own insistence on changing dialects in its best scene: the luncheon between Principal Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers:

SKINNER: Superintendent, I hope you’re ready for mouth-watering hamburgers.

CHALMERS: I thought we were having steamed clams.

SKINNER: Oh, no, I said, “steamed hams.”  That’s what I call hamburgers.

CHALMERS: You call hamburgers steamed hams?

SKINNER: Yes, it’s a regional dialect.

CHALMERS: Uh-huh.  What region?

SKINNER: Uh, upstate New York.

CHALMERS: Really.  Well, I’m from Utica and I’ve never heard anyone use the phrase, “steamed hams.”

SKINNER: Oh, not in Utica, no; it’s an Albany expression.

CHALMERS: I see.

Watching this scene, we all recognize the absurdity of calling a hamburger a “steamed ham.” Chalmers does, too: “And you call them steamed hams despite the fact that they are obviously grilled.” But the overarching point is the validity and acceptance of such regional dialects. In America, there are a lot of ways to say the same thing, and when Springfield acts as a microcosm of the diverse nation as a whole, it takes on that same quality.

All this play with dialects is reminiscent of Joyce’s Ulysses, and in particular its 14th episode, “Oxen of the Sun.” “Oxen of the Sun” is almost entirely about form and not plot–even more so than most episodes of Ulysses. Its purpose is to trace the genealogy of the English language and the various forms it has taken and dialects it has produced over time. It starts as a kind of Old English/Latin garble before progressing through numerous stages of Middle English to the various ethnically infused forms of the contemporary language. By the end of the episode, individual sentences are written in different accents as a bevy of conversations are interwoven in a gallimaufry of voices within a pub:

“Out with the oof. Two bar and a wing. You larn that go off of they there Frenchy bilks? Won’t eash here for nuts nohow. Lil chile velly solly. Ise de cutest colur coon down our side. Gawds teruth, Chawley. We are nae fou. We’re nae that fou. Au reservoir, mossoo. Tanks you.”

We see dialects of English ranging from French to Chinese to black, expanding our panoramic view of Dublin. Furthermore, pay special attention to how this excerpt ends: with standard, if humorously misspoken, concluding salutations. This isn’t a coincidence; subsequent paragraphs end similarly, with “Amen,” “Health all! À la vôtre!”, and “Night. Night. May Allah the Excellent One your soul this night ever tremendously conserve.” We can infer, then, that these different conversations that took place in the pub were successful–that the dialects themselves are valid and effective means of speech.*

*And I get a second chance to link to DFW’s essay!**

**Can I really quote any part of the Skinner/Chalmers scene and not quote what is a strong candidate for the funniest conversation in the history of the show? Of course not. So here:

SKINNER: Well, that was wonderful. A good time was had by all. I’m pooped.

CHALMERS: Yes, I should be… [sees fire in Skinner’s kitchen]…Good Lord, what is happening in there?!?!

SKINNER: Aurora borealis.

CHALMERS: Uh, aurora borealis??? At this time of year, at this time of day, in this part of the country, localized entirely within your kitchen???

SKINNER: Yes.

CHALMERS: May I see it?

SKINNER: No.

I can’t tell you how many years I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me “Good Lord, what is happening in there?!?!” just so I can calmly, coolly, and instantly reply, “Aurora borealis.”

“22 Short Films” doesn’t interweave the dialects quite as much as “Oxen of the Sun;” it isn’t like we have multiple conversations occurring simultaneously at any point in the episode. One thing “22 Short Films” does to compensate for this, however, is to interconnect all its scenes through creative transitions. Nearly every scene is linked to its predecessor and successor through some segue: A radio advertisement for Gorman’s Ear Guards (“GUARD YOUR EARS…with Gorman’s”) links Apu’s scene to one with Marge and Lisa, a flicking light transitions us from the hospital to Moe’s bar, a bee flies past 742 Evergreen Terrace and into the park where it stings Smithers, etc. Such use of transitions promotes a kind of “organic connection” between the denizens of Springfield, something we also see in Joyce’s “Wandering Rocks”* or in any number of early Modernist films such as Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City or Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. And it establishes what Simmel termed the “firmly fixed framework of time” within the city; we see how everyone is related to everyone else on this one day in Springfield.** The bee’s-eyed view of the town is especially pertinent. What else is the entire episode doing than presenting this flyover, compound-eyed view of the entire town?

*Wandering Rocks” is, in fact, the episode of Ulysses whose structure is most similar to “22 Short Films.” Appearing in the middle of the novel, it is broken into 19 intercut sections that showcase different aspects of Dublin life, focusing on several characters that we haven’t even met before and may not meet again in the novel.

**It all happens on one day? Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

This broad idea of expanding a work’s tableau to include shallow explorations of secondary characters so as to provide depth to a metropolitan setting is pretty rampant in Modernist texts. Let’s use an example, though, from Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929).* While the novel is largely the story of a single protagonist named Franz Biberkopf–to the point that it has a subtitle, “The Story of Franz Biberkopf”–it occasionally splices in scenes of life in the German capital much like the ones in “22 Short Films.” The novel’s fourth book includes a section titled “A Handful of Men around the Alex” that runs through the stores in the neighborhood and the people on the street, even delving into personal histories of some of the city’s neighboring residents. At the end of this section, we read of a baker’s apprentice with his wife, and the invisible narrator has a conversation with an invisible antagonist:

“Wonder what those two get out of life? Well, first of all, they get each other, then last Sunday a vaudeville and a film, then this or that social meeting and a visit to his parents. Nothing else? Well now, don’t drop dead, sir. Add to that nice weather, bad weather, country picnics, standing in front of the stove, eating breakfast and so on. And what more do you get, you, captain, general, jockey, whoever you are? Don’t fool yourself.”

*Full disclosure: Had to read it for a class but didn’t finish it. Lay off, it’s a tough book.

It sounds an awful lot like a continuation of the conversation Bart and Milhouse have on the overpass: this contemplation of what life is like for people who are not them. The baker’s apprentice and his wife are not given names; like the occasional Springfieldianite, they are defined by their profession. But taking a quick dip in their consciousnesses expands the brushstroke with which Döblin paints Berlin.* It is, after all, an entire city–and one that is home to a few more people than just Franz Biberkopf.

*How confusing is it that his name is SO close to Dublin?

Let’s return to the end of “22 Short Films,” when in the last scene Nelson Muntz directs his trademark “Ha ha!”* at a very tall man driving a very small car. Now, cars have been a consistent presence in the episode, ever since their conspicuous absence in the opening scene. They have been used for scene transitions on more than one occasion, and we have seen Bumblebee Man and Snake driving in cars during the episode. What sets the Very Tall Man apart is that he is unknown to us; he has never been seen in Springfield before (and perhaps, ever since). When Nelson mocks him, he stops his car, gets out, and confronts him:

VERY TALL MAN: Do you find something comical about my appearance when I’m driving my automobile?

NELSON: Yeah.

VERY TALL MAN: Everyone needs to drive a vehicle, even the very tall. This is the largest auto that I could afford. Should I therefore be made the subject of fun?

NELSON: I guess so.

VERY TALL MAN: Would you like it if I laughed at your misfortune? Huh? Maybe we should find out!

*Is there any Simpsons’ catch phrase that is done less justice by being spelled out than Nelson’s? There’s just no way to capture all the glory of his mockery by simply typing out “Ha ha.”

In short, the Very Tall Man makes Nelson consider the feelings of those around him. He puts a face in a car, just as the episode has been doing the whole time. He then makes Nelson march down Springfield’s main road–now it’s crowded with people, as if for a parade–and blow kisses to his fellow Springfieldianites. And there are Bart and Milhouse on top of the overpass, squirting condiments down on him. Bart turns to Milhouse:

BART: Well, Milhouse, I guess interesting stuff does happen to people in Springfield.

MILHOUSE: Yep, everybody in town’s got their story to tell.

BART: There’s just not enough time to hear them all.

We have come full circle. The two 10-year-olds now know a little bit more about the people they’re showering with ketchup, mustard, and saliva. And to really hammer home this point of circularity, the final shot shows Bart and Milhouse walking away from the overpass and toward…the Kwik-E-Mart. The whole process can begin again, just as in Finnegan’s Wake.

So although “22 Short Films about Springfield” isn’t the best episode of The Simpsons, it remains one of its most fascinating and necessary ones. By exploring the lives of the other denizens of Springfield, it expands our perception of the series’ setting and puts faces in the cars under the overpass. Springfield is not, believe it or not, a one-family town, and it is not the setting of, say, The Truman Show, in which every other character is there to serve the main one in some way or another. By showing Springfield’s trees, we get a better sense of the forest.

Well, that was wonderful. A good time was had by all. I’m pooped.

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9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by walbert on June 14, 2010 at 11:15 AM

    Well played, good sir. These don’t come often enough.

    Reply

  2. [...] Simpsons Classics: 22 Short Films about Springfield – This is from No Pun Intended and deserves its own post, but I just never got to it this week and it’s my best chance to end with someone else ragging on Zombie Simpsons.  Besides, I’ve never read Ulysses and the only thing I know about Berlin  Alexanderplatz is that they made a really long movie out of it.  (And I learned that from The Critic.)  In what I assume is a meta-wink to the episodic nature of the source materials, Tim has broken his piece into smaller pieces so that the footnoting scheme restarts almost every paragraph.  But don’t let that deter you, the system works well and is very readable: They are very static characters, and there are very few scenes that feature Moe but not Homer, just like there are few scenes in which we see Milhouse but not Bart. They will get the occasional one-liner at the opening or close of a scene, but largely, these secondary et al. characters are there to interact with Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and even Maggie. I mean, the Simpsons even appeared in Wiggum P.I. and The Love-matic Grampa in “Simpsons Spin-off Showcase.”*,** [...]

    Reply

  3. [...] Also, yesterday was the date of Lisa’s wedding in the largely well-received but not Tim-favorite episode, “Lisa’s Wedding.” So close to [...]

    Reply

  4. Very well articulated. I like the argument that “22 Short Films” is important to the Simpsons oeuvre and I heartily endorse this event or product.

    Reply

  5. [...] immortal luncheon between Chalmers and Skinner in “22 Short Films about Springfield” (which Tim has written, shall we say, extensively about), the original story pitch for what became “Two Bad Neighbors,” one of whom was George [...]

    Reply

  6. [...] 22 Short Films about Springfield [...]

    Reply

  7. [...] last night, putting it up there with Gunsmoke and Lassie in terms of longevity. Of course, in terms of cultural influence, it’s probably #1. It’s common to rank episodes, but at this point it might be easier [...]

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  9. […] 22 Short Films about Springfield […]

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