Friday, December 7, 2007

Short Film Week, Day 6: Six Chuck Jones Cartoons

[This entry is a contribution to the Short Film blog-a-thon being hosted right here at Only The Cinema, in association with Culture Snob.]

Tonight, I was inspired by Matt Zoller Seitz's great review of Chuck Jones' classic cartoon What's Opera, Doc?, to make my own night a miniature Looney Tunes extravaganza, revisiting some favorite Jones shorts and a few that are new to me. As for What's Opera, Matt's review does an excellent job of describing what's so compelling about it, but I'll attempt to add a few modest thoughts of my own here. This may not be my favorite Looney Tunes film as it is for Matt (my pick would be Duck Amuck, which I discuss below), but it's undoubtedly in the top of the pack. This short takes advantage of the well-established Elmer Fudd/Bugs Bunny dynamic, in order to translate these characters into a new medium and a new context, where their usual hijinks are elevated to the level of grand drama by Wagner's music and the weaving in of operatic plots.

All the usual Bugs/Fudd plot points are hit along the way. There's the obligatory opening conversation where the hapless Elmer tells Bugs that he's going to kill da wabbit, not realizing, for reasons entirely unexplained, that the wabbit is standing wight there in fwont of him. Uh, sorry, that Fuddian drawl just becomes irresistible after awhile. Why doesn't Elmer realize, anyway? What makes it click for him that Bugs is, in fact, the wabbit he seeks? Who knows, who cares, but the moment does come, like a belated light bulb lighting up a corner of his empty head, and then the chase is off. Step two, of course, involves Bugs in drag, because Bugs is kind of kinky like that. Bugs knows the appeal of a leggy blonde, especially one riding an elephant-sized white horse bedecked with flowers, and his transformation injects the cartoon with a shot of romance. Of course, this too must end, as eventually the steadfast Elmer always figures out that his love is actually that crafty wabbit in disguise. In this case, Jones accomplishes the big reveal with possibly his cleverest feint yet, a beautifully sustained moment in which Fudd sweeps his Brunhilde up into his arms, bending her back as the last chords of their love theme sound off, and Brunhilde's helmet sloooowly, smoothly slides off her head, tumbling step-by-step down the massive staircase below the lovers, letting Bugs' ears flop out loose. And the chase is off again, culminating in Fudd's grand, cataclysmic assault from the heavens — Fudd as a dim-witted and lovesick God, feeling betrayed, smiting down his betrayer in a fit of rage.

This is the typical Elmer-chases-Bugs plot, a distillation of the duo's love/hate relationship that dominated so many classic Looney Tunes cartoons. The reason that this might be the ultimate chronicle of their meeting is the mythological setting. The Looney Tunes characters verge on myth to begin with, inhabiting archetypal roles that they play out in one cartoon after another, perhaps adding details and variations to their myth, but always living up to its basic premises. What's Opera raises the stakes by transferring the Bugs Bunny mythos into the Brunhilde myth and the other grand myths of opera, letting these two mythic modes play off each other and inform each other. The two aesthetics are, in some sense, perfect for each other to begin with — it's not a marriage based on compromise, since Looney Tunes and opera complement each other so well. Both rely on grand gestures, both involve swings from one emotional extreme to another (especially Fudd's rapid transitions from casual chatter to enraged pursuit when he realizes that Bugs has fooled him again), and both use bombastic music to propel the action along. This is a wonderful short, especially perfect for any already-converted Looney Tunes admirers (and really, who doesn't count themselves in that category?), since it plays with familiar tropes and character dynamics in a totally new setting. You can watch the short here.

Next up tonight was Duck Amuck, possibly Jones' best known Looney Tunes outing, and for very good reason. This 1953 metafictional masterpiece was so ahead of its time that even today, it still packs quite a punch and is uproariously funny for every second. The film concerns a baffled and increasingly enraged Daffy Duck's struggles with an aggressively uncooperative animator, who keeps changing the scenery around Daffy, never allowing him to settle into a plot for very long. The beginning of the film briskly moves from a farm to an Arctic wasteland to a Hawaiian tropical forest, with Daffy struggling to keep up by darting off-screen to change outfits and gather the appropriate props for each new setting.

Then Daffy settles down and gets serious, turning to the screen for a sustained argument with his animator, which triggers a masterful sequence of fourth-wall-breaking gags, with the animator's pencil frequently entering the realm of the cartoon to redraw or erase at will. As the film goes on, breaking the fourth wall becomes absolutely destroying it, blowing it up and stomping on the remains, as the film breaks out every trick possible to disrupt the usual boundaries of the cartoon world. Most hilarious is when the soundtrack betrays Daffy, making a guitar he's playing sound like machine gun fire or a car crash, then turning his enraged yell into the howl of a rooster crowing. But the visual disruptions are even more profound, as when the film reel slows down so that parts of two individual frames can be seen at the same time, one above the other, and the two Daffies in these frames begin arguing with each other before pulling each other into a brawl. Later, the very sides of the frame itself turn liquid and unreliable, bending inward on Daffy like putty, forcing him to eventually rip apart the whole thing, leaving shreds of paper hanging everywhere. Daffy's demands for a close-up at one point subtly mock the conventions of star power, and the animator jokingly obliges by zeroing in the frame to focus on Daffy's distant head, without actually making it any bigger. "That's a close-up?" Daffy screams, outraged.

This is one of the loosest, funniest, most inventive classic Warner Brothers shorts, with Jones and his creative team throwing a barrage of ideas at their unfortunate main character, overwhelming the screen with the sheer inventiveness of their concept and the never-ending well of ideas they draw from it. It's such a rich concept that, over 30 years later, comics scribe Grant Morrison would return to Duck Amuck as the raw material for one of the best issues of his Animal Man series, infusing Jones' original concept with a new sense of poignancy and emotion. This cartoon is a true classic, and its enduring status is well-deserved. If by chance you haven't seen it yet, immediately go to watch it here.

Now Hear This is a later Chuck Jones cartoon, from the beginning of the 60s, and its strangeness and lack of the Looney Tunes stable of characters has probably made it a very obscure short — I'd certainly never seen it before until I stumbled across it on YouTube tonight. In some respects, this short expands the aural section of Duck Amuck to the length of a full cartoon, as the entire film consists of an extended series of sound gags set in a near-abstract and fluidly changing milieu. The short takes place in a visual netherworld with no scenery or location — though a waste bin's label identifies the locale as Britain — and the simple plot involves an old man who finds a red horn on the ground and takes it, believing it to be a good replacement for the crumpled old horn he was previously using for a hearing aid.

What follows is almost impossible to describe, a fluid series of jokes with almost no context or narrative rationalism, verging on cartoon surrealism. The best comparison might be as a kind of sequel to Un Chien Andalou, with sounds as the driving force behind the stream of non-sequiturs that pour forth here. The horn at times turns into a shower head, raining on its poor new owner. In another sequence, a bird enters the horn's bell and lays an egg directly into the man's ear; when he shakes the egg out, he hears sawing and hammering sounds from within the egg, leans closer to listen, and is promptly knocked back as the egg grows long, spindly legs and walks away, with a brass band bursting forward through a crack in the front. The man is walking along confusedly, later, when train tracks suddenly begin laying down across the screen, and he hears distant engine noise approaching. He steps off the tracks and out of the way, only to be flattened by a train that unexpectedly comes roaring by at a perpendicular angle to the tracks.

The whole film is dominated by these illogical and absurdist transitions from one moment to the next. It's a film in which irrationality has taken control, using noise and its visual counterpart to disrupt expectations and play with the total aesthetic freedom that a cartoon world provides. Not as formally exacting as Duck Amuck, this is nevertheless a fun and wild experience, an exercise in total freedom from even self-imposed physical rules, so that every moment provides totally unexpected thrills and laughs. Well worth checking out for Jones enthusiasts, and available online here.

The Case of the Missing Hare is a typical Bugs Bunny venture, but one I remember seeing so many times as a kid that it has a nostalgic glow for me probably out of proportion with its actual place in the Looney Tunes pantheon. Not as showy as some other Jones cartoons, this one replays the basic Bugs scenario, this time with a magician as his unwitting victim. It's a gag pile-up, with a funny moment packed into practically every second of the short, whether it's a broadly played physical gag (Bugs pulling himself out of the magician's hat by his own ears, holding himself suspended in the air without explanation), or a nice turn of phrase (I love the fact that this film makes a gag out of the inability to say "prestidigitation").

Bugs has always been my favorite "actor" in the Looney Tunes stable, and his expressive body movements and wiseass attitude are at their peak performance here. Best of all is when the magician tries to pull a rabbit out of a hat, and Bugs, refusing to comply, crawls up the sorcerer's sleeve and pops out of his shirt's neck hole, face to face with him. Bugs puts his arm around the magician's neck, almost caressing him, and squashes their faces together as he taunts him. Even when Bugs isn't in drag, there's always been something strangely sexual about his relationship with his antagonists — the way he sidles up to them, insinuating himself with them, almost seducing them, before going in for the fatal blow of his inevitable violent betrayal. It's what makes him such a compelling character, the way he combines a flippant verbal wit with his sinewy, rubbery movement and physical destructiveness, as well as a minor streak of cowardice that every so often takes over and makes him turn tail and flee.

This is yet another entry in a long line of Bugs vs. Some Poor Schlub shorts, not particularly distinguished from any one of a dozen others, but still hilarious in its own right. You can watch it here.

Fast and Furry-ous was the first outing for Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, who would continue their silent rivalry in dozens more Warner cartoons all through the 50s and 60s. If all the Looney Tunes gang are somewhat iconic, minimally defined beings with certain archetypal characteristics, these two take this tendency to its absolute extreme. The Road Runner runs, and the Coyote tries to catch him. And... that's it. Period. Throughout dozens of films, dozens of iterations, the Road Runner always runs, and the Coyote is consumed by a maniacal, single-minded desire to catch and eat him, though he never quite manages. There's no dialogue, only the high-pitched "meep! meep!" of the Road Runner before he (she? it?) sticks out its tongue and darts off in a blur, feathers and dust flying behind. The humor of these shorts is therefore purely visual and, yes, physical — it's not for nothing that these cartoons have continually been held up as the example of how kids' cartoons contain unacceptable levels of violence. The primary delight in these shorts is the increasingly complicated Rube Goldberg-like devices and traps to which the Coyote must resort in order to capture his prey, and the inevitable way they backfire to prevent him from reaching his goal.

In this first installment in the long series, the Coyote appropriately starts out simple, attempting to catch his rival in a pure race, in which he is of course left in the dust. He next tries pure blunt force, sticking a metal plate out in front of the Road Runner's path, but the bird proves that it can stop on a dime as well as run at super speeds, and the Coyote is again outwitted. From here, the gags grow progressively more and more baroque, culminating in the outlandish sequence in which the Coyote uses a motor to power a refrigerator, which he straps to his back, forming a makeshift snow machine that spits out snow into a path in front of him, allowing him to ski rapidly in pursuit of the Road Runner. But before that there's probably my favorite Road Runner gag, in which the Coyote paints a stone wall with an image of a tunnel, complete with realistic shadows and perspective lines — the Coyote has studied drawing techniques! — in order to fool the bird into crashing. Can you tell I like metafiction? But the Road Runner, of course, runs right through the tunnel, perhaps smart enough to realize that in this cartoon world, everything is drawn, so he can run through a tunnel drawn by the Coyote just as well as one drawn by a Warner animator. But Wile, not as swift (in both senses of the word), too literalistic and unimaginative, can't make this same mental leap, and when he tries to run through the drawing, he just crashes into the wall.

The Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner skits, like this prototypical example, endure so well because they play off this essential difference between the characters' personalities. The Road Runner is pure unfettered id, creative energy and imagination running free with no desire except to continue running. The Coyote, on the other hand, is chained to his desires, a slave of basic physical needs, and all his ingenuity, no matter how elaborate and seemingly well planned, ultimately fails because his intelligence is being placed in service to his all-consuming want. The Road Runner expends its imaginative energy in pure creation, the act of running for its own sake, while all the Coyote's schemes are pragmatic, intended only to achieve an immediate goal, and therefore lacking in the vital spark which might, ironically, bring him success. This tension, unspoken but sitting quietly at the core of these shorts, drives the interplay between these immortal enemies. This first in the series only begins a cycle of desire and violence that would drive the duo through all their subsequent shorts. Watch how it all starts here.

The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics is another incredibly weird 1960s entry from Jones, working for MGM rather than Warner and again experimenting with visual abstraction, this time seemingly inspired by the work of abstract animator Oscar Fischinger. The film tells the story, in voiceover, of a straight line who falls in love with a dot, though the dot spurns the line as too prosaic and "square," preferring the anarchic fun of an "uncouth" squiggle. This rejection prompts the line to attempt to free himself from his boring non-shape, and eventually this quest teaches him to bend himself into new shapes and control his body for creative purposes. It's apparent right on the film's surface that this is a work about artistic creativity, presenting a thinly veiled critique of abstraction for its own sake — the film all but accuses abstract artists of laziness. Instead, Jones presents the line as a sterling example, since he achieves virtuosity in order to express himself in any way possible, rather than just random anarchy. In this sense, it's not much of a stretch to wonder if Jones was also lashing out at hippie culture, especially in light of the few references to "squares" and the depiction of the rival squiggle as an unwashed bum.

Although the narrative voiceover is mostly lame and the film's message heavy-handed, it does provide plenty of purely visual delights, especially in the form of the line's showing off of his newfound skills in order to win the dot's affection. This sequence provides a perfect opportunity for a showcase of abstract pattern animation, itself a display of technical virtuosity on the part of the animators. There are also some incredibly subtle and surprising sexual subtexts in the film, like the suggestion that the dot and her grubby boyfriend the squiggle are "frolicking and... doing who knows what else." Coupled with the vaguely elicit sensation of watching the dot squirm and roll around within the squiggle's shifting form, this creates a clear image of sexual geometry at work. It's an image that's mirrored at the end, when the dot sidles up to the line and rolls sensuously around his straightened form. Naughty. You can watch the fun here.

1 comment:

Jandy said...

I just found this post upon Googling "The Dot and the Line" along with "hippie" because I just rewatched it and wondered the same thing about whether Jones was critiquing hippie culture. So then I had to go watch "Now Hear This," which I hadn't seen before. Thanks for that! It made me think of Monty Python cartoons - must've influenced them.