Monday, January 09, 2006

Of Course You Realize, This Means War, Chuck...

Before it slips my mind, I should weigh in on this (if there's something to complain about, I don't want to miss out!). In the current-as-I-write issue of Video Watchdog, #123, Steven Lloyd continues his reviews of Warner Home Video's Looney Tunes Golden Collection DVDs. The last article was a tiring and not-particularly-useful plot summary of every single cartoon on each disc. Since most VW readers are likely to file their issues with others, and not next to their box sets, and there are already resources for this, it seemed a dull page-filler for a magazine that has never previously mistaken plot summary for criticism. The new article spends much time on the same task, but Lloyd more than makes up for it in his opening-statement essay. For starters, it contains a great defense of Friz Freleng, in specific his understanding of filmic music. But the part that gets the blood pumping is about Chuck Jones.

In brief, he calls out Chuck Jones for hijacking Daffy Duck's character in the '50s, and by implication for making himself the de facto voice of Looney Tunes animators. The change in Daffy from freewheeling lunatic to what John Kricfalusi calls "the comedy asshole" at Jones' hands has certainly been noted before, but here is a rare instance of someone complaining about it.

I agree that it is obnoxious when Jones talks about this shift as if Daffy were always so, and worse when he acknowledges it, but insists that the crazy-ass Daffy is an untenable character for manufacturing plots. This didn't useta bother him when he made Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur. You can't, he argues, just have this guy screaming and flying around for 7 minutes. What Jones probably actually disliked about Daffy-Daffy was a limited use for his increasing interest in subdued, non-stretchy character "acting" animation. Intuitively, that seems to fly against the constant body-deformation in his Roadrunner series, or Daffy's bill being blown off repeatedly in "Duck! Rabbit, Duck!" However, those are always plausible extensions of the character designs, and all eyeball-popping an torso-twisting is meticulously explained by the physical realities of the gag. By contrast, I suggest frame-stepping through Clampett's "Falling Hare," when the Gremlin smacks Bugs Bunny on the brain with a huge wrench, or better yet simply Bugs screaming "WHAT am I DOING!?" The contorted drawings of Bugs are hilarious, totally off-model, impossible, and so grotesque they would never be allowed within 100 yards of a '50s Jones cartoon. I suspect Daffy had to change partly because it made Jones uncomfortable drawing characters in such expressionistic ways.

Chuck Jones at work, carefully in-betweening his own history

The problem is, that I like the Jones Jerk-Daffy, too. Insecurity, hair-trigger temper, greed, and cravenness in a hero character are very, very funny (I've wondered if William Macy modeled his performance of Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo on this Daffy), and in Daffy they are smartly observed. It's a necessary character-type for the Looney Tune universe, which was previously missing. I like the crazy original Daffy more, but what would he have to do in Jones' mature (and ultimately moralizing - meanness is punished in Jones' postwar work) cartoons, anyway?

The Jones revisionism that bothers me far more is what he did to Bugs Bunny. And I never hear anyone talk about this. Jones' philosophy is that Bugs must, in every story, be innocently minding his own beeswax, until some thug threatens his home, then he fights back. The director would boast whenever asked, that he has always been very careful about making sure Bugs didn't hit first.

And I gotta cry "foul." That kind of thinking totally hamstrings the character as a mythological trickster, leads to repetitive storytelling, and turns plots into revenge stories in which Bugs takes an eye and a leg and a head for an eye. Besides, it's revisionist, and denies that in the past Bugs had behaved like a bully, braggart or worse. He was named "Bugs" because he's a nutcase, no? Witness Friz Freleng's great "Wabbit Who Came to Supper," in which Bugs destroys Elmer Fudd's sanity via home invasion for the sole reason that he knows Elmer is sworn not to hurt any animals. It obviously didn't jeopardize audience sympathy in the pre-war cartoons to have Bugs screw with anyone he felt like for no reason. In a way, it is the same kind of wish-fulfillment we get from Jones' vengeance-driven Bugs. I don't understand his guilt over stories where Bugs picks on Elmer Fudd, either. It's a real-world dynamic: don't we all feel oppressed by stupid people?

To be perhaps more petty, and perhaps more heartfelt, I just don't like the way Jones drew characters. I don't like the elfin slant he gave to eyes. I don't like the elongated, overly tall, too-humanoid physician he gave Bugs.

I don't mean to attack Chuck Jones' work, even so far as to imply it's boring; he was a genius animator, and made hundreds of hilarious cartoons that I love. But since he was so articulate about his work, and survived after many of his peers, his personal vision of characters and self-imposed storytelling rules became confused in the public forum for Official Looney Tunes Policy. It is partly because his body of work is so renown that it's worth finally looking closely about what was imperfect about Jones' cartoons.

[Note: Pardon my lack of supporting examples, but I'm writing this at lunch... Uh. Maybe I could use those cartoon plot summaries after all.]

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