Monday, August 20, 2007

What Happened to the Pig?

Rafael and I went to see The Simpsons Movie last week. Eh. I laughed a few times. There were some great lines and decent moments. But I don’t really remember it that well, and there were long stretches that more or less felt like filler. I asked Rafael what he thought about it. “What happened to the pig?”

Rafael’s got a weird thing about that pig. The pig is Homer’s best friend and ally-in-crime in a couple episodes. He displaces Bart in Homer’s affections for part of the movie. He’s a nice tool for a writer to have -- humorous in a non-human way. He’s a good, safe addition to a series episode, because he can throw the family out of equilibrium, then disappear at the end when it’s time to get back to the square one.

But Rafael really likes that pig. He has a little smile on his face whenever the pig does something cute, or bristles at Homer’s stupidity. Any episode with that pig is a good episode. While I hadn’t even really noticed that the writers had failed to resolve the pig issue, it more or less kicked Rafael out of the flow of the movie.

Now I’m not going to criticize the writers for recklessly dropping the pig issue willy-nilly. But I am going to suggest that dropping the pig issue is at the root of a lot more problems than you might expect.

That pig is a tool for the writer. It provides a very particular kind of laugh. It frames Homer’s rejection of his son in a relatively comfortable way for the audience. He’s familiar, and so he frames the drama for us. And like I said above, he’s great in a half-hour episode, because you can easily subtract him from the equation. But a feature doesn’t work like that. You can’t just subtract. Viewers read characters in terms of their development. Even if that character is a pig.

While I watched, I didn’t really notice or care that the pig issue was dropped. But I did unconsciously go through a period of adjustment -- from watching for the pig to not watching for it. While I did that -- even if I wasn’t thinking it consciously -- I was reframing the story.

That reframing period is a very unstable one for the viewer. They’ve lost an anchoring point, and they’re looking for another. While they’re re-anchoring, they aren’t quite sure where to get the entertainment from. They’re looking for the pattern, and so everything that doesn’t fit stands out. What doesn’t fit? Plot discrepancies. Jokes that fall flat. Characterizations that fail. Soon your problems are magnified -- and the lack of pig is the least of your problems.

One of the main complaints about The Simpsons Movie is that it pretty much feels like three episodes pieced together. While almost no one is going to blame the problem on the lack of pig, I think the way they handled it drew our attention to the structural problems of the script.

The writers took great pains to frame the material for the audience. The opening is a clever frame for transitioning expectations to a feature. But they fell down on one really minor point here, and it may have cost them millions of dollars. One small chink in the armor can open up a whole host of questions that the writers do not want in the viewer’s head. Any writer knows just how difficult it is to anticipate readers’ questions. Many bristle at the idea that giving the audience that kind of power. “Who cares about the damn pig? Can’t you see I’m telling a drama about a family struggling for happiness in an unfair world teetering on the brink of ecological collapse?!” Yeah. We see it. Now fix the pig.

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