Last Picture Shows
Fernando F. Croce on Futurama (episode: “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings”) and A Prairie Home Companion
"Theater is a faithful wife. Film is the great adventure—the costly, exacting mistress." Would Ingmar Bergman object to this writer filching his famous dictum and changing "theater" to "television" in order to express his own stylistic predilections? Probably, as the great Swedish director—two of whose most beloved films (Scenes from a Marriage and Fanny and Alexander) began as miniseries for Swedish television—was no stranger to using the medium to his advantage. Still, the domesticity/extramarital implications of that quote have always struck me as ideal for evoking a key contrast between TV and cinema. The former, with recurring characters watched in the comfort of one’s home, radiates safety; the latter, with unknown narratives viewed in the dark with strangers, courts risk.
Or so it used to be. Today, when the medium once dismissed as a "vast wasteland" is reportedly in the midst of a golden epoch, to claim that simply stepping out to a movie theater is artistically purer than setting up a DVR system would be grossly reductive of a complex debate. Taking TV as seriously as film is something I’ve long resisted, but my old excuses no longer hold up. Lack of unifying authorial vision? David Chase, David Milch and Matthew Weiner, to name just three, offer worldviews that are recognizable across different projects. Flat visual style? A fellow cinephile once chastised me for my ignorance of Mad Men, which is in his words “the last refuge of authentic mise-en-scène.” Even with glaring blind spots (I’m still in the early seasons of Breaking Bad, for instance, and know virtually nothing about series from other countries), it’s clear to me that television right now showcases an overflow of talent. To snub it is to willfully disregard a valuable portion of culture.
And yet it’s hard not to think that the numerous articles asserting that television has finally surpassed cinema are a tad eager to bury a medium that’s already been declared "dead" at least a few dozen times. It’s too easy to score points by comparing The Wire to Adam Sandler, and about as fair as comparing The Tree of Life to Honey Boo Boo. Then again, the barrier between film and TV was never a particularly rigid one. Mr. Cinema himself, Alfred Hitchcock, put the bareness of nascent TV techniques to brilliant use in Psycho, one year after Jean Renoir had employed TV cameras and studios with equal fascination in Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier. Michael Mann’s Miami Vice and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks started out as distinctive TV projects that grew thin and aimless as episodes were increasingly handled by journeymen directors. (Consider how hyper-concentrated Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and the 2006 Miami Vice are, as if their auteurs were aggressively reclaiming original visions that had been watered down.) And what of the TV-series-to-movie-franchise transplant Mission: Impossible, which started out with Brian De Palma pyrotechnics only to morph into extended episodes of 24?
No, the saga of TV and cinema is not about one ascending while the other declines, but rather about overlapping, mutating influences. It was once said that 1950s French film critics discovered Shakespeare by watching Orson Welles; how many budding film writers would later discover Welles by watching The Simpsons? That show’s abundant Citizen Kane parodies were but one element that made it such a personal gateway to other discoveries, including creator Matt Groening’s other series, Futurama. Futurama is one of my favorite shows, but can an animated sci-fi sitcom credibly stand for an entire medium? Yes, because it showcases what is arguably TV’s biggest difference from cinema: the luxury of time. Whereas narrative in filmmaking is traditionally bound to two-hour blocks of introduction, conflict, and resolution, TV shows—whether they hit "reset" by the end of the episode to start anew the following week or extend plot elements from one episode to the next in serialized arcs—can afford wider structures for world-building and exploration. That this automatically translates to more complexity is, of course, a fallacy: TV shows are still in the end slaves to viewer numbers, and changes in a character’s personality can easily be explained as "discovering new sides" when they may really boil down to stirring up the ratings game.
Still, time is on TV’s side, at least theoretically. And the concept of time—and, maybe more importantly, of time lost—looms over Futurama, starting with the premise: following a cryogenic mishap, 20th-century slacker Philip J. Fry (voiced by Billy West) finds himself one full millennium in the future. Where in The Simpsons, Groening’s innate cynicism is diluted by the characters-above-all sensibility of producer James L. Brooks (known to have personally contributed to the series’ most sentimental episodes), here it’s productively complemented by the cosmic obsessions of co-creator David X. Cohen. Packed with suicide booths and homicidal Santa Clauses and presided over by a revived, howling Richard Nixon, the show’s 31st-century world would rival the mock-Beckettian desolation of Groening’s "Life in Hell" comic-strip if not for the way it keeps revealing an ever widening vision, setting up stories or even throwaway gags that open up new planets and forms of life. On the surface, it’s a workplace comedy in which the discombobulated protagonist’s love interest is a karate-chopping mutant Cyclops (Katey Sagal’s Turanga Leela), his closest friend is a misanthropic robot (John DiMaggio’s Bender), and the office’s underdog is a Yiddish-accented, pungent space crustacean (West’s Dr. Zoidberg). At the same time, Futurama is about our need to touch the ineffable sublime, a longing reflected in Bender’s several journeys of identity and free will or in the various ways cantankerous crackpot Professor Farnsworth (also voiced by West) literally splits and multiplies the universe with his inventions.
As much as it liked to raise stakes on celestial levels, Futurama was at its most affecting when contemplating the distance between colossal spaces and intimate sentiment, when its jokey intergalactic mythology gave way to moments of unexpected emotional intensity. In that sense, the show’s great search for sublimity rested on the romance between Fry and Leela, a frequently thwarted affair that reached its zenith in the August 10, 2003 episode “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings,” the finale of the show’s fourth season (and, incidentally, the show’s original finale—more on that later). In it, Fry scrambles in vain to master the holophonor—a tricky instrument that allows feelings to be projected through a fusion of music and images—as a way to express his love for Leela. Frustrated, the lovelorn schmo strikes a Faustian deal that exchanges his own hopelessly clumsy hands for the adroit, metallic digits of the Robot Devil (voiced by Dan Castellaneta). Suddenly turned into a holophonor virtuoso, Fry goes for broke and composes a full opera for his beloved; Leela, meanwhile, has been rendered deaf as part of what the Robot Devil calls his "ridiculously circuitous plan" to get his hands back. The Goethean machinations are worked out, incongruously but fittingly, at the opera house before a gasping audience filled with the show’s sundry supporting characters.
Joke-wise, “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings” could be seen only as a self-contained parody of Faust; its poignancy, however, is inseparable from the rest of the series, from the time spent knowing these characters. After so many episodes, there have been enough highs and lows in their relationship for even a gag like Fry’s response to Leela’s wistful reminiscence of her ex-boyfriend ("That could be my beautiful soul sitting naked on her couch!") to carry emotional heft. The element of time is also imprinted on another, extratextual level, as the show’s future was still uncertain when the episode was produced. Despite its cult following, the ribald, metaphysically inclined, frequently melancholy Futurama never became a commercial juggernaut like The Simpsons, and its screen life was one of abrupt cancellation and channel-hopping rebirth. On the DVD audio commentary for "The Devil’s Hands," Groening and Cohen admit to not knowing whether there would be any more episodes, and consequently including as many characters as possible in an attempt to craft something of a last hurrah. Though Futurama’s renewal years later will surely give the creators a better chance to map out the series’ finale, the romantic urgency and bittersweet uncertainty of this episode still linger as the show’s perfect closing note.
My original plan for this piece was to pair up “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings” with F. W. Murnau’s 1926 silent Faust. Yet, as I rewatched these star-crossed time-travelers and aria-singing automatons, Robert Altman’s 2006 swan song A Prairie Home Companion kept lightly but persistently wafting into my mind. Maybe it was the humorous intimations of the supernatural, as if the Robot Devil were a splenetic version of Virginia Madsen’s lethally tranquil "Dangerous Woman," both of them in the wings waiting for the time to collect their debts. Or maybe it was the palpable delight TV show and film alike took in democratically varied ensembles, crowding their frames with contrasting races, genders, shapes, and personalities (and, in Futurama’s case, alien species). The real link, it finally dawned on me, lies on their shared sense of autumnal spectacle, of emotional gatherings before the lowering of curtains. Where Groening and Cohen were pondering the impending end of the fictional universe they created, the elderly Altman, who had just recently at the Academy Awards revealed that he was the recipient of a heart transplant, was gazing ahead at an even more personal finale. Whether in Fry’s evanescent holophonor sonnets or in A Prairie Home Companion’s opening image (a silhouetted skyline that becomes a neon-colored reflection on a rain-slicked street), these are visions aware of their own fragility.
Seemingly conscious of living on borrowed time, Altman’s film sprints forward. "Every show is your last show," announces GK (Garrison Keillor) behind the scenes as his radio program races through its final broadcast. The old theater has an upcoming appointment with a corporate-sponsored wrecking ball, so every performer takes to the stage as if part of a teeming, melodic eulogy. Though A Prairie Home Companion is based on Keillor’s beloved, long-running staple of public broadcasting, Altman can scarcely rely on already established personas—each character, from the two singing sisters (Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin) and the hardboiled klutz (Kevin Kline) to the cowboy duo (Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly) and the pregnant assistant (Maya Rudolph), is introduced as part of a torrent of idiosyncratic humanity. Whereas TV can take its time easing the audience into characters, cinema must do the same within a limited timeframe, and A Prairie Home Companion, like many Altman films, chances upon these people as if they had simply been living for years. When first seen, they're deep in remembrances, engaging in private jokes and hinting at past affairs, and it’s up to us to catch up with them. Never allowing viewers too comfortable a vantage point, the camera prowls and drifts, constantly stretching the screen.
“You can't just have your characters announce how they feel,” snaps the Robot Devil in “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Plaything,” before deflating himself in typical, lovely Futurama fashion (“That makes me feel angry!”). That’s a lesson Altman respects, especially as embodied in the Robert Frost-via-Will Rogers, Scandinavian rue of Keillor’s deadpan ringleader. Literally sitting by Death’s side, GK parries Dangerous Woman with a bone-dry joke about penguins, then continues to quietly marvel at the garrulous crooners around him. The freewheeling yet delicately sculptured atmosphere of A Prairie Home Companion could of course scarcely exist in a series like Futurama, where animation demands the kind of preparation and exactitude that would suffocate the famously improvisatory Altman. One’s gala spectacle is the polar opposite of the other’s low-key jams, yet I’m as moved by the moment Katey Sagal’s voice slightly cracks when Leela joins the operatic tessitura as I am when Meryl Streep’s honky-tonk chanteuse launches into a sustained, high note during one of her melodic performances. As they approach their inescapable curtain calls, both Groening's show and Altman's film emerge as plangent portraits of communal expression, of makeshift families in a continuous flux of dissonance and harmony.
“The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings” leaps from television to opera while A Prairie Home Companion mingles cinema with radio. Like his penultimate film The Company, Altman’s final work is a radiantly transparent allegory for filmmaking, just as Futurama signs off with an affectingly crude holophonor projection evocative of the earliest forms of animation. Both end on a bare stage, acknowledging the abyss while winking at it. Perhaps it’s my hunger for different formats, or more likely my pusillanimous indecision when it’s time to reach some sort of hard-line verdict. In any case, the question I kept asking when faced with the prospect of comparing utterly different mediums was less “which is superior” than “why give one up when you can have both?” Ingmar Bergman himself, after all, simply laughed when asked late in life about his own film vs. theater analogy: “I guess I’m polygamous now.”