Monday, August 3, 2015

Warner Brothers Stars: Bugs Bunny, Road Runner, Daffy Duck

Abstract, contents, and introduction below.

Duck Dodgers 5 oh sure

Abstract: Chuck Jones believed in the “disciplines” one had to maintain for a cartoon, the constraints within which one acted. In the Road Runner cartoons, no one talked, though there could be signage, the action always centered on two, and only two, characters, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, and it always takes place in the outdoors in the American Southwest. These cartoons play with reality and engage in a guessing game with the audience in doing so. What’s Opera, Doc? goes beyond a string of gags end engages in a story about the relationship between Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny. Finally Daffy Duck and Porky Pig venture into space in Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century, which satirizes incompetence and self-generating conflict.

Introduction: Cartoons are for kids, NOT! 3
Road Runner 5
Uh Oh! Hosni Mubarak and Wile E. Coyote 5
Desire and Causality in Road Runner Cartoons 7
Reason in the Social Mind: Road Runner II 16
Bugs in Drag 22
Method in Cartoonology 22
Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc? 23
Elmer Loves Bugs Redux 33
What’s Up between Cartoonist and Audience? 42
Duck Dodgers and Some Gags into the Unknown 44
Duck Dodgers Instructs His Pupil 44
Life Lessons 48
Words and Things 49
And the Larger Issues? 52

Introduction: Cartoons are for kids, NOT!

I’ve been trying to think of something engaging and insightful to say about the cartoons I’m covering in this post – three Road Runners, a Bugs and Elmer, and a Daffy and Porky – and am drawing a blank. The little gray cells are protesting that they’ve been working too hard. So I’m thrown back on the obvious.

Cartoons are for kids1 NOT!

Not when these cartoons were made. They were made for the general movie-going audience. They were made to be shown before a feature film, also made for the general audience.

I suppose that I could then pose the question: What makes these cartoons worthy of adult attention? Wrong question.

We might be better off asking what makes an adult worthy of these cartoons? The answer to that seems obvious: That the adult be alive, awake, and curious about the world. What these cartoons do is play with reality and in so doing reveal our assumptions about it.

I was drawn to the Road Runner cartoons because of what their director, Chuck Jones, calls their “disciplines”, the rules that each cartoon must follow. The Road Runners are among the most disciplined cartoons ever made. Or, perhaps more accurately, their disciplines are among the most austere.

They involve only two characters, the Road Runner and his nemesis, Wile Coyote. There is only one plot, if it is even that: the coyote chases the road runner and fails to catch him. The setting is always the same: the desert of the American Southwest. And there is no dialogue, though there may be writing in signs and such. That’s it.

And from those simple constraints Chuck Jones spun cartoon after cartoon. What makes them work is the gags. And the gags work on two levels. Within the cartoon Wile Coyote is always being outfoxed even as he attempts to trap Road Runner. Sometimes he’s outfoxed by Road Runner and sometime it’s just the nature of things that outfoxes him. But the nature of things in Cartoonland isn’t quite so regular is in the real world.

And that brings in the second level of operation, where the cartoons play with us. Coyote rarely suspects that he’s about to be fooled. We always suspect it, but never know just how. The gag’s always on us.

Of course, all these cartoons work the same way. But the others under examination here also allow dialog. And yet they are still austere. Compare any of these to an episode of The Simpson’s. To be sure, those episodes run 22 minutes or so rather than six or seven, but that alone doesn’t account for the proliferation of characters and dialog. It’s a different regime at work.

The Bugs and Elmer cartoon has only those two characters, unless you count the rotund horse that bugs rides for a bit. What’s Opera, Doc? is perhaps the most lavish cartoon Chuck Jones ever produced. It’s a satire of classical music, Wagner in particular, but also of Disney’s Fantasia. For example, there are shots reminiscent of Chernobog from Night on Bald Mountain. But whereas the large looming figure in the Disney was a devil, albeit a tragic one, the large looming figure in What’s Opera, Doc? is Elmer Fudd’s shadow.

Elmer’s after Bugs, as he always is. But this time he gets him, or at least Bugs allows him to think he’s gotten him. What’s more Bugs plays in this cartoon in two ways. Elmer is in Nordic warrior drag from beginning to end. But when Bugs first appears he’s simply Bugs Bunny and, as such, is not a player in the music drama that has captured Elmer. Then Bugs puts on a costume and inserts himself into the drama where Elmer serenades him in that role. Is Elmer revealing a hidden bond with Bugs? If not, then why is he distraught when he believes that he has finally killed Bugs? Why isn’t he happy in his triumph?

There is there more to this cartoon that meets the eye. It’s an odd tale of unrequited love, Elmer for Bugs. Or, rather, it’s a distortion of such a tale.

Finally, we have Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century, starring Daffy Duck and Porky Pig, with Marvin the Martian as the villain. Is suppose I was drawn to this cartoon because of the science fiction premise – it has Daffy was using a transporter a decade and a half before Kirk and Spock. And it plays on an important motif in popular culture: the incompetence of those in power. Daffy is captain of a spaceship while Porky is his cadet crewman. Daffy is utterly incompetent while Porky is not. Porky gets Daffy out of a jam, twice, but is unable to save him from utterly destroying the planet they set out to find.

It is tempting to see this cartoon as a foretelling of the space race and missile race that would characterize relations between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1950s and 1960s, but it has the themes nailed cold: the pursuit of a distant and largely pointless objective (a planet rich in an ingredient for shaving cream), the incompetence of the high and mighty, and the dangers of pointless technical mumbo-jumbo. Did Chuck Jones and his team foresee all that in 1952 when they made this cartoon?

But then, did they have to foresee it at all? Isn’t all that intrinsic to life in the modern world? They simply looked and reported what’s already there. It’s reality that took things out of control.

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