Thursday, March 22, 2012

What’s Up between Cartoonist and Audience?

Preliminary thoughts, very sketchy. Comments and questions, please!
This post is about two things: the frame, and various details. By frame I mean the overall ‘governing aegis’ of the cartoon, the compact, if you will, between cartoonist and audience. As for details, there’s lots of them.

The details that sent me down this particular conceptual path happen at about two minutes and 40 seconds into What’s Opera, Doc? when Elmer turns to the audience and says, “That was the wabbit.”

Opera 36 that was the wabbit

One detail is the fact that he looks right at the audience and addresses himself to us. This isn’t the first time this happens in this cartoon. It happened early on when the camera first zoomed in on Elmer and, after asking us to be “vewy quiet” and he told us that he was “hunting wabbits”—notice the plural. Between these two instances Bugs addresses the audience twice and the he does so once at the very end when he tells us that he’s not dead but, in effect, is pretending to be so in order to satisfy operatic conventions.

So, in the space of a six-minute cartoon we have five violations of the so-called “fourth wall,” the one between the fictional world and the live audience. Well, they may be violations of the fourth wall, but I’ve come to suspect that such violations are consistent with the conventions of a certain kind of cartoon, and whatever kind that is, it is not particularly, cerebral, meta, or avant-garde.

On the contrary, it is typical and quite common in many cartoon shorts of the Golden Age. That’s the frame I’m talking about, the compact with the audience. It stages the relationship between artist and audience in a way that’s quite different from most live action features and from feature-length animation. It’s not just that these cartoons are shorter, but that they’re constructed on different principles. They aren’t stories that just happen to be short. They’re something else.

The cartoons that are constructed in this way don’t really have plots. The stories are strung together from gags, gags which generally depend on word play – e.g. a gun labeled “disintegrating gun” that disintegrates — or on physical tricks — e.g. being suspended over a cliff until you look down. We’re compelled through the cartoon by our expectation of another gag, not by our interest in what the characters are trying to achieve. We know that Wily Coyote is trying to catch and eat Road Runner and that Road Runner is trying to evade Wily Coyote; we know also that Wily will not succeed. And so it is with Tweety Bird and Sylvester, Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny, and so on.

These characters have personalities and those personalities are important, very important. But the personality isn’t important as a locus of a character’s desires and motivations. Those are fixed. The cartoon isn’t exploring them. Rather, it’s exploring their participation in and reactions to the gags. When Daffy’s pistol disintegrates in his hand, what does he do? When Wily starts falling, what does he do?

Now, and this is a tricky question, what does the use of gag-based narratives have to do with the relatively casual inclusion of remarks to the audience? Why are these aspects of the same mode of cartoon-making?

Whatever it is that’s going on, it seems to me that a cartoon like Duck Amuck is simply taking it to one logical extreme. Daffy is swamped in gags, gags happening over around under and through him. At the same time he’s constantly addressing us, except that it isn’t us he’s addressing. He’s addressing an unseen cartoonist who’s executing all those gags. So the cartoon is a back-and-forth interaction between Daffy and the unseen cartoonist such that, when Daffy addresses that cartoonist, he also addresses us.

By contrast, What’s Opera, Doc? comes close to eliminating gags of the usual sort, under Wagnerian influence, moves to the very edge of a story. Elmer’s revenge arises from within the story itself. It’s not something he brings with him as one of the factors generating the string of gags.

What I’m getting at, then, is that the gag-based cartoon is staged as a conversation between the cartoonist and the audience. They are, if only implicitly, back and forth interactions. These ‘cartoonic’ conversation turn on gags, with addresses to the audience functioning as a type of gag. The gags violate OUR sense of reality in one way or another, but not the reality of the cartoon characters. Speech addressed to the audience violates the reality that cartoon characters cannot, in fact, talk with real people.

In saying THAT I’m also asserting that both live action and animated features ARE NOT staged as conversations between the film-maker and the audience. Those films are not conversationally directed at the audience in the way these cartoons are. They just flow on, and the audience watches. When, on relatively rare occasions, the audience is addressed, that’s special.

More later.

I hope.

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