AP Film Studies: Homer's Odyssey

A Homer Groening retrospective reveals an overlooked genius.

It’d be fair to assume that when Matt Groening named Homer Simpson after his father, he also gave the cartoon buffoon his dad’s personality. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Because the senior Groening was something Homer Jay isn’t: brilliant.
Born in Saskatchewan in 1919 and raised in Albany, Ore., Homer Groening was a bomber pilot, Mad Men-era ad man, surfer and prankster. He was also a highly respected filmmaker, but his work has long gone unrecognized. The Midcentury Oregon Genius film series aims to change that with a retrospective of Homer Groening’s work, beginning at 7 pm Saturday, Jan. 17, at the Hollywood Theatre.

Curated by Matt and Lisa Groening—the latter will moderate a post-screening panel (UPDATE: and Matt Groening will also be there)—the event unearths short films by a man with droll wit and a keen eye. The wide-ranging program includes commercial films for Jantzen and Timberline Lodge, experimental short A Study in Wet (which boasts an enthralling soundtrack composed of water sounds), and another short called The Story, shot in Washington Park and starring Matt and Lisa as kids narrating a bedtime story to younger sister Maggie. 

But who was Homer Groening to those who knew him? AP Film Studies spoke with the event's organizers and panelists—among them daughter Lisa, Oscar-nominated animator Bill Plympton and other friends and colleagues—to find out.


On Groening's World War II experiences, which included the bombing of Paris:

"Dad never referred directly to his war experiences, at least not with me. He was of that generation that didn't blab about their feelings. I thought he was indestructible and that no real harm would ever come to me while he was around. I was about 14 when The Exorcist came out, and I wanted to go see it. But Dad wouldn't let me, saying there was too much ugliness in the world without paying money to go see it at a theater." —Lisa Groening, daughter

"He was a hell of a nice guy. A great sense of humor. A great sense of empathy. Everybody will say—and it's absolutely true—that he was one of the nicest guys that you would ever know. Except, like many of my friends growing up, he had killed people. He talked about the fact that there's no way he could ever perform an act of violence, but during the war he did." —Ted Mahar, friend and former Oregonian film critic

On his filmmaking style:

"I never heard Homer Groening say 'action' or 'cut.' What he'd do is put the camera in his lap and start talking to somebody, and he'd silently flick the on switch. The person would be talking, and he'd get these great off-the-cuff sound bites. Then they'd say: 'All right, I suppose you want to film this now. Start asking me questions.' He'd say: 'Nope. We've got it all. We're done.' And he'd have the best off-the-cuff and from-the-heart quotes he could use.

"He was really quiet, and a really good listener. He never shot from storyboards. He wasn't following a script. So it was incumbent on him to listen to see how the fabric would tie together. He had a natural curiosity. He was absorbing things all the time. The fabric of the story would often evolve as he was shooting. You hired Homer because he would see it with his eyes." —Tom Shrader, friend and advertising colleague


On his humor:

"Droll, dry, appreciative of brief and intelligent use of language. He would have loved Stephen Colbert. Having a sense of humor was very, very important in our family, which came from both Dad and Mom. It's a big reason why they fell in love in the first place." —Lisa Groening

"One thing I love about his films is that they were very deadpan. To me, he was in kind of a Monty Python school, very absurd and surreal. They weren't slapstick. They were ironic. He fit in very well in the Portland humor scene. He certainly influenced my humor a lot, and I'm sure his son's too." —Bill Plympton, Oscar-winning animator who met Groening while studying at Portland State

On sharing his wisdom:

"Homer said: 'Always lead with your best stuff. Always put your best shot up there first.' It's great advice. He was a mentor for a lot of guys." —Richard Blakeslee, filmmaker


"One of the absolute greatest things I have ever heard about the artistic impulse came directly from Homer. He just kind of tossed it off as a whimsical remark, but it stayed with me: 'The object of painting is not to cover the wall. It's to empty the can.' It's the perfect impression of the artistic impulse and love. The object is to get this thing out of you. Neither Sophocles nor Shakespeare could have put it better." —Mahar

On his fixation with water:

"He said he was a water man. That's what Hawaiians called somebody who is all about the water. He told the story how one time, he was flying air cargo during the Korean War, and he stopped in Hawaii and actually met [legendary surfer] Duke Kahanamoku, who took him surfing. Homer brought a big balsa-wood longboard back and said, 'I was probably the first person to surf the cove at Seaside on a balsa-wood board.' Not a lot of people can tell that story." —Shrader

"A Study in Wet is just a movie about water. Even the soundtrack is made out of water. It expands your idea of what you can do with movies." —Blakeslee


On parenthood:

"Dad was a soft-spoken, gentle guy who sang 'Beautiful Dreamer' to us on the way to school and changed the words to put our names in the song. He took Maggie and me to Macleay Park to have Cheerios and milk in bowls he brought from home to give Mom a break. I adored him when I was little, and I wanted his approval always.” —Lisa Groening 


On his legacy:

"Dad would not have liked being called a genius. Mom told me someone once asked her at a cocktail party what it was like being married to a genius, and she said, 'Oh, you'll have to ask Homer.' —Lisa Groening

"He took something commercial and hard-sell, and made it entertaining. That was a real key. You look at a lot of the Wieden+Kennedy ads—ESPN and Nike—and they have a very similar sense of humor. In a way it's tragic he never became a true filmmaker, in the sense that he never made a Hollywood film or a feature film." —Plympton


On the similarities between Homers Groening and Simpson:

"Doesn't everybody love doughnuts? Other than his pure devotion to his wife, his unquestioned role as a universal patriarch, his name, and his dad's name, Abe, there are no other similarities between Homer Groening and Homer Simpson. Dad never said, 'D'oh,' and never went bald. He was also very proud of his son, who found such success in doodling.” —Lisa Groening 

Also Showing: 

  1. Dennis Nyback presents The Effect of Dada and Surrealism on the 1930s, featuring sections of Duck Soup, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break and other movies that thrust weirdness on unsuspecting viewers. Hollywood Theatre. 7:30 pm Wednesday, Jan. 14.
  1. Groening isn’t the only artist getting love from Midcentury Oregon Genius. The series also presents Heaven and Earth Magic, a 1961 cutout-animated feature by Harry Smith, which will be presented with a 16 mm film and two 35 mm slide projectors to create the layered images Smith pioneered. Hollywood Theatre. 7 pm Friday, Jan. 16.
  1. Back to the Future II takes place in 2015. So why do I still not have a fucking hoverboard? Academy Theater. Jan. 16-22.
  1. Bill Murray was at his lunatic best in Stripes, a movie that just makes you miss Harold Ramis more. Laurelhurst Theater. Jan. 16-22.
  1. Know what’s not getting a midcentury-genius designation? 1971’s Vampyros Lesbos. That’s a damned shame. Hollywood Theatre. 9:45 pm Friday-Saturday, Jan. 16-17.
  1. The NW Film Center celebrates the release of the documentary Altman with one of the director’s most beloved films—noir classic The Long Goodbye—and one of his most overlooked, 1977 drama 3 Women. NW Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium. The Long Goodbye: 7 pm Saturday, Jan 17. 3 Women: 4:30 pm Sunday, Jan. 18.
  1. The Clinton Street pays tribute to MLK with King: A Filmed Record…From Montgomery to Memphis. Clinton Street Theater. 7 pm Monday, Jan 19.
  1. You don’t need to be high to enjoy psychedelic animated freakout Son of the White Mare. But keep in mind it’s based in Hungarian folklore and features the human sons of horses fighting the forces of Hell while also glowing neon. So yeah, get super-high. Hollywood Theatre. 9:30 pm Monday, Jan. 19.
  1. Repressed Cinema digs up Miss Leslie’s Dolls, a 1973 exploitation gem in which a villainess keeps visitors as “dolls” in her basement. Yes, her dolls are buxom. Hollywood Theatre. 7:30 pm Tuesday, Jan. 20.

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