On a weekday afternoon in 1972 I visited a fellow film aficionado in his Los Angeles home. Several other people interested in film were also there. Suddenly, at 3 PM, everyone gathered around an old black-and-white television. A longtime auteurist, I wondered what obscure classic was commanding their attention. It turned out to be a daily show of Hollywood cartoons from the 40s and 50s–everyone was trying to guess the directors. I remember thinking, “This is taking auteurism too far.”
But the next year I was converted by one of the people present, Greg Ford, who curated a cartoon series at the now-defunct New York Cultural Center with entire programs devoted to cartoons directed by Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Frank Tashlin, and others. That series has since entered animation history books as the first auteurist presentation of cartoons, and now Marty Rubin–who sponsored Ford’s original series and is currently associate director of the Gene Siskel Film Center–has again collaborated with Ford to present eight programs of Chuck Jones cartoons over eight days, beginning March 2. Most are studio or collectors’ prints not usually screened, so this could be the chance of a lifetime to see good prints of these lively, often hilarious cinematic gems in a theater, the way they were meant to be shown. Though Jones is best known for creating the Road Runner and for helping to define Bugs, Daffy, and other characters, his cartoons with lesser-known critters (many also included here) are every bit as glorious.
In recent years, Warner Brothers has begun capitalizing on the work created by Jones and others, selling animation cels and other products and licensing the characters’ use in commercials. Jones, still going strong at 88, does the same at www.chuckjones.com, which also has a complete filmography. The cartoons can be seen on television, but much is lost there. Jones’s art depends on establishing and then disrupting space and rhythm–you have to be moved by the illusionistic power of the setup. When one of Wile E. Coyote’s contraptions collapses on him, the impact of the event depends on establishing its physical presence, an illusion undercut by video. And cartoons’ solid, saturated colors are arguably more altered by the tiny lines of video than textured human faces are.
Jones’s great theme is control: the struggles of his characters against one another, their environment, and themselves. His cartoons are affecting in part because he creates real personalities; Jones packs more psychological complexity into six minutes than many of today’s directors convey in two hours of explosions. His characters experience hurt and have self-doubts and dreams. Sometimes they go insane or are driven to suicide. Creating wildly different facial expressions in rapid succession, Jones not only shows a character losing control of circumstances but suggests a divided inner life.
Born in Spokane, Jones got his start in the 1930s helping create animation cels. His first cartoons as director, beginning in 1938, showed a Disney influence, but he soon diverged from that aesthetic; indeed, much of Warner Brothers’ output seems intentionally opposed to smooth, syrupy, sanitized Disney cartoons, where cute and cuddly characters are the norm. Jones’s cartoons are full of sharp breaks, abrupt transitions, troubling contradictions; their look and feel and space are as broken and ragged as the coyote’s fur just after he’s been scorched by one of his own explosions. In Jones’s disturbed world, characters are less likely to have their conflicts resolved than to end up in a “Psychopathic Hospital.”
Most Jones proponents argue that these cartoons are suited to the sophisticated tastes of adults, but I think something is lost by not taking into account the original intended audience: children. Those gravity-defying moments when a character zooms off a cliff, realizes he’s in midair, and crashes to the ground can be correlated with a child’s attempts to reconcile flying fantasies with the discovery of physical limits. The way that characters struggle for mastery of their environs, often to have their tactics turned back on themselves, reflects a child’s early stumbles; control and its loss mirror a child’s attempts to assert autonomy in the face of seemingly omnipotent parents.
Viewing a Jones masterpiece simultaneously evokes the childhood experience of helpless laughter (given the rapid-fire pace of gags) and calls into question the solidity and stability of the world as the ground seems to literally shift under you. In general Jones plays with illusion, making references to filmmaking that can range from the mundane–in Beanstalk Bunny (1955) Daffy says of the beanstalk, “I better get to work climbing that thing or we won’t have any picture”–to the virtual inventory of cartooning techniques in Duck Amuck (1953).
Jones sometimes expresses the control theme in the language of his cartoons. In Rabbit Seasoning (1952), Bugs Bunny twists Daffy’s attempts to convince the hunter Elmer Fudd that it’s really rabbit season until Daffy ends up yelling “Shoot me!” an exhortation he later diagnoses as the result of “pronoun trouble.” But more often Jones realizes the theme of control through disruptions of space, unsynchronized or oversynchronized rhythms, and shifts in the cartoon’s representational system, devices often present in the same work though one or another might dominate. All depend on precise timing to surprise us: Jones’s explosions always seem to come a little early or a little late. For the coyote’s first crash in Fast and Furry-ous (1949), he falls off-screen as we stay on static blue sky. For the second, Jones cuts even more disturbingly from an eye-level shot of the coyote on refrigerator-fueled skis to a view down into a spectacularly deep canyon.
Mouse Wreckers (1949) is the great example of shifts in space. Two mice looking for a new home decide to drive the resident cat, who’s won a caseful of “Best Mouser” trophies, insane. After dragging the cat through a drainpipe, for their final prank they nail the furniture to the ceiling while the cat sleeps, all except for one ceiling lamp nailed to the floor. The cat awakens and, terrified at his topsy-turvy world, tries to hold on to the ceiling’s rug. We first see him upside down, but then the frame rotates and we see him right side up–which makes the cut to a right-side-up shot in the next room, where the furniture is on the floor, even more disorienting. Unable to process the shift, the cat grabs the ceiling lamp in the second room, then looks out a window and sees that the landscape is upside-down; a cut reveals that the mice have placed an upside-down picture there. Out another window the landscape is sideways, and out a third it looks as if the house is underwater. The cat runs terrified from his home and is last seen cowering bug-eyed at the top of a tree.
Long-Haired Hare (1949) is one of many superb Jones music cartoons in which the synchronization of music and action is bizarrely exaggerated, contra Disney’s attempts at seamlessness. Bugs begins happily singing, accompanying himself on the banjo, “What do they do on a rainy night in Rio?” He’s overheard in the nearby home of rehearsing opera singer Giovanni Jones, who’s enraged to find himself suddenly singing “What do they do in Mississippi / When skies are drippy?” He goes out and smashes the banjo on Bugs’s head.
Bugs is later seen atop the band shell where Giovanni Jones is singing. Hitting the roof with a sledgehammer, Bugs causes reverberations that send Giovanni ricocheting across the stage. In the final sequence, Bugs shows up with white hair and wearing concert attire in the orchestra, where he’s reverently recognized by the players as “Leopold.” Breaking the conductor’s baton in two, Bugs proceeds to completely control both orchestra and singer with his hands, whose location and movements correlate exactly with the music’s pitch and rhythm: the conductor as dictator-cum-movie director (like the mice in Mouse Wreckers). Bugs nearly kills his performer: taking his hand out of his glove, he leaves it high in the air and walks away while Giovanni turns all kinds of colors trying to sustain his high note, eventually bringing down the band shell.
Jones’s best cartoons are self-referential, disrupting their own representational systems and reminding the viewer of cartooning’s artifice–once again unlike Disney. This is often in service of a social theme, something few critics but Ford have mentioned. The Road Runner’s impossibly rapid speed suggests the blur of an automobile passing a pedestrian–his beep is even a bit like a car horn–which gives the slower coyote’s Sisyphean failures an ecological tinge. And in one lesser-known series, a wolf and sheepdog who are to fight to the death punch time clocks. (The Warner Brothers bosses were notoriously unappreciative of cartoonists’ efforts; Jack Warner is said to have thought the company made Mickey Mouse cartoons.)
Duck Amuck is not only Jones’s masterpiece but one of the defining masterpieces of cinema art, exploring the process of cartooning with a profundity worthy of such meditations on filmmaking as Dziga Vertov’s The Man With the Movie Camera (1929) and Stan Brakhage’s Blue Moses (1963). As it begins, Daffy appears in elaborate costume-picture attire with a castle in the background, ready for a sword fight. But as the camera pans with him to the left, the color disappears from the background, leaving only line drawings, then only white. Seeing this, Daffy begins hectoring an unseen director–a monologue that constitutes most of the talk. Provided with a farm background, Daffy has to change attire; when the background turns icy, he must change again. Erased completely, he demands to be redrawn. Redrawn with a guitar, he has no sound. Demanding sound, he strums the guitar only to produce machine gun fire–the first of several “wrong” sounds as strikingly discordant as those in Peter Kubelka’s avant-garde Unsere Afrikareise (1966). The first two-thirds of Duck Amuck has the appearance of a single take, acting as a backdrop for Jones’s long shots, close-ups, and wandering frame lines. Finally the exasperated Daffy demands to see the director–at which point the camera pulls back from a sketchbook to reveal Daffy’s eternal antagonist.
Films whose narratives are arguably metaphors for filmmaking, like Gance’s Napoleon (1927) and Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), are about artists’ attempts to control the world. By identifying the filmmaker with sadism in Duck Amuck, Jones makes explicit something implicit in many of his other cartoons: that there’s genuine pleasure in these childlike fantasies of dominance and submission. Though his cartoons have been criticized for their violence–which of course is G-rated by today’s standards–that criticism seems to me absurd. Any kid can see Jones’s unmasking of illusions and know that his pliable creatures are enacting fantasies of omnipotence, not achieving it.