Today is the 101st birthday of the late Chuck Jones. Though he doesn’t have his name attached to a worldwide series of theme parks, Jones is one of the most famous and prolific figures in American animation, director of over 300 cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, Marvin the Martian, Pepe Le Pew, and Tom & Jerry, amongst many others.
An evaluation of the man’s entire career is better suited for a book, or even a chapter of a larger book, and I strongly encourage you check out any of the linked works if you want to learn more about Jones’s creative and collaborative process. But today is Saturday, and I just want to watch some cartoons, and I’m assuming you do too. As he possesses a giant filmography of which I’ve still only seen a fraction, this is a partial list, my attempt at listing the essentials.
The Undisputed Classics:
Three Jones cartoons are preserved in The National Film Registry at the Library of Congress: Duck Amuck, One Froggy Evening, and What’s Opera Doc? It is no coincidence that they are all exemplars of his greatest strengths – timing, subtlety, expressive poses, and heaps of psychological humiliation.
Where his contemporaries like Tex Avery and Bob Clampett pushed the physicalities of their characters to extremes, Jones reigned his in, communicating his best jokes in small but nonetheless expressive movement. When radical shifts occur, it’s in the disparity of poses, not the outrageous stretch in between, where the joke hits best. All of this is on full display in One Froggy Evening. Along with the comedy, the endless torrent of humiliation and frustration the construction worker experiences are communicated not with dialog, but with furrowed brows and shifting eyes.
Jones spent seven weeks instead of the usual five putting together What’s Opera, Doc?, composed of 106 shots, well over the standard 60. Through a wide, subjective color palette and a commitment to the timing and emotional spectrum of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” What’s Opera, Doc? is simultaneously a tongue-and-cheek riff on Fantasia and one of the most earnest of the Looney Tunes ever produced.
In Chuck Jones’s hands, Daffy Duck could sustain an entire cartoon. While Bugs, Elmer, Porky, and the rest require a foil to bring out their personalities, Daffy’s foil is the world itself. Nowhere else is this more evident than in Duck Amuck. Constantly victimized by the unseen painter that relentlessly manipulates his universe, Jones reiterates a point that he often made himself in interviews – the cool, confident Bugs Bunny is who we want to be, but the pathetic, frustrated, Daffy is who we usually are. And again, Jones communicates so much of this through Daffy’s face, not just through the bizarre landscape and costume changes.
The Hunting Trilogy:
Though Duck Amuck, What’s Opera, Doc?, and One Froggy Evening proved that Jones and his crew could pull of cartoons with one character, opera soundtracks, and no dialog, these were all successful because they were deviations from an established formula. The three cartoons that make up the so-called “Hunting Trilogy” – Rabbit Seasoning, Rabbit Fire, and Duck Rabbit Duck! – are effectively the same premise. Elmer Fudd is hunting, Daffy and Bugs are in the woods, whether or not is Duck or Rabbit season is in dispute, Daffy is repeatedly shot in the face. But the cartoons rarely get boring. Though Bugs, Elmer, and Daffy had each been around for close to a decade by the time these cartoons were produced, the three-way character dynamic infused in them by Jones and writer Michael Maltese creates an almost self-perpetuating gag machine.
Jones frequently described his characterization of Bugs Bunny as a “counter-revolutionary,” who wanted nothing but to be left alone and only went into action when his antagonists finally went too far. Outside of Elmer and Daffy, Jones gave Bugs a wide range of antagonists such as Giovanni Jones in Long-Haired Hare, Toro the bull in A Bully for Bugs, Marvin the Martian in Haredevil Hare, and Witch Hazel in Broom-Stick Bunny. Outside of the Hunting Trilogy, one of the Best Bugs vs. Elmer cartoons is The Rabbit of Seville, another musically-driven outing in the vein of Long Haired-Hare and What’s Opera, Doc?, though considerably more gag-driven, with a joke to match nearly every musical cue.
Outside of Duck Amuck and the Hunting Trilogy, Jones found many other ways to humiliate Daffy Duck, most successfully in a series of genre parodies: The Scarlet Pumpernickel (a personal favorite, in no small part for its abundance of dandyish costumes), Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century, Drip-Along Daffy, and Robin Hood Daffy. Porky joins Daffy in the latter three as a straight man (though mislabeled by Daffy as “comedy relief” in Drip-Along Daffy) providing a calm counterpoint to the increasingly angry and egotistical Daffy.
But Speaking of Frustrated Failures…
Jones’s skill with evoking a sense of empathy for even his most foolish (or at least perpetually unlucky) characters was the foundation for what might be his crowning work – the first 26 Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons. Redundant as they are, they remain some of his funniest, and his most effective. In the words of animation historian Michael Barrier:
“(Jones) understood that violence must have consequences in the real world; otherwise, a gag with violence in it will seem incomplete and unsatisfying. But the consequences can be different, and in the world of Jones’s cartoons, they are: the grisliest fate is not to be maimed or killed, but to be embarrassed…The Coyote is at the center of each gag; the long falls and tremendous explosions are simply means of making him funny. What matters is not that a boulder is falling on the Coyote, but how he feels, as revealed in his face and body, when he sees it coming.”
As there are 26 essentially interchangeable cartoons in this series, it’s hard to recommend one of the other. Fast and Furry-ous is the first, and after that I’d recommend just looking at this list and watching all of them, or picking based on which title pun you think is the best (Whoa, Be Gone! or Scrambled Aches are two of mine).
But wait, there’s more:
Before he honed his style, Jones started off his career with Warner Brothers making Disney-esque cutesy cartoons starring Sniffles the Mouse (they’re pretty obnoxious, I won’t provide the links). Jones, however, was able to transfer that cuteness, and mix it in with some of most expressive work, in Feed the Kitty. As in much of his best work, Jones’s two protagonists don’t speak, but communicate everything we need to know about them in their faces and in their body language. The cartoon made an impact on the people at Pixar, as they pay a nearly shot-for-shot homage in Monsters, Inc.
In a bold effort to ditch his Disney-esque work in 1942, Jones made “The Dover Boys at Pimento University” or “The Rivals of Roquefort Hall.” Based around shape-based characters and minimal motion, Dover Boys is one of the earliest examples of the Jones style.
Jones continued to experiment with sound, shape, and motion, later on his career with cartoons such as Now Hear This and The Dot and the Line.
Some Things I Didn’t Cover:
- After Jones left Warner Bros. in the early 1960s, he went on to direct 34 Tom and Jerry shorts for MGM.
- He helmed the animation for the holiday classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas as well another Dr. Seuss adaptation with Horton Hears a Who!
- He collaborated with Seuss and many other animators with the Private Snafu WW2 propaganda shorts. He also worked with UPA in making Hell-bent for Election, a FDR campaign cartoon.
- He directed the animation for the film adaptation of The Phantom Tollbooth.
- He made hundreds of cartoons, I can not cover all of them. But someday I will see them all.
Chuck Jones received an Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in 1996. Here’s a clip of his acceptance speech, gratingly introduced by a baggy-suited Robin Williams:
That’s it. Go watch some cartoons.
In my last year of college I took a course called “Teaching Writing.” One of the articles I read contended that the reason a teacher should not spare intense critical comments on students’ papers was to build a voice in the students’ head. If they read criticism enough times, they’ll become critics themselves, and they’ll see the red ink before they ever commit their mistakes to paper. I believe it, not just because I’ve had enough of my writing eviscerated to the point where I’ve become my own biggest critic, but because I’ve had a critic’s voice lingering in the back of my head since I was 12. That voice belonged to Roger Ebert, specifically the voice he established in the hundreds of reviews, essays, and articles collected in Roger Ebert’s Home Video Companion, 1996 Edition.
There are a lot of different ways for me to explain why I love the movies, but I can essentially boil it down it to a quick succession of events that happened in my sixth grade year: I went to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring in December, fell in love with it, and tuned into the Academy awards the following March. Fellowship didn’t win any major awards, which instead went to a bunch of movies I hadn’t heard of. This pissed me off. Not so much because Fellowship didn’t win, but because there were movies I hadn’t heard of, movies that everyone else in the room knew about, movies that, even when cut into 30-second clips, looked exciting and interesting in ways I didn’t know movies could be. And there were those long montages, the retrospective tributes that have long been held as evidence that the Oscars are nothing but a self-congratulatory echo chamber, that nevertheless opened my young eyes to a whole history of references that I didn’t get.
My preoccupation with catching every cultural reference was simultaneously coming to head with The Simpsons, a show that made references its stock-in-trade, not just in passing jokes, but in entire sequences and episodes. I had The Simpsons: The Complete Guide to our Favorite Family, an indispensable book summarizing each episode of the series during its golden years, seasons 1-8. Each summary somewhere contained a “Movie Moment” box that explained those jokes the adults were laughing at were references to The Godfather and Alien and A Clockwork Orange and a whole list of movies I had never seen, and just possibly heard of.
And in those days, youngsters, the internet was slow and made a terrible noise when you had to connect to it and, like today, it wasn’t a safe place for 12-year-olds. So I used what resources I had. If something on The Simpsons or The Oscars or on TCM sparked my interest, I went to the warped and weathered copy of Roger Ebert’s Home Video Companion in the coffee table and looked it up. Then maybe I’d read the review right after or right before, or look into one of the titles that caught my eye when I was flipping through the pages. I’d see the star-ratings he’d give the movies, and find that movies I’d liked as a kid were actually regarded as terrible, and that some of those VHS tapes on the shelf I’d ignored for so long were considered classics. I read his defense of Hoop Dreams and Natural Born Killers, and learned that what made something good or bad wasn’t just its content, but its form and message and its intentions. I learned how to do a scene-by-scene analysis of Pulp Fiction years before my parents deemed me old enough to see it, even years before I snuck the tape off my grandpa’s shelf and watched it when no one was home. I read his “100 Scenes in 100 Years” in the back of the book and my list of must-see movies expanded, and it kept expanding as I learned of directors and actors and the many trends and movements they were a part of. And I built a vocabulary: Character development. Archetypes. Genre. Formula. Shots. Narrative. And that vocabulary became an arsenal. Now if someone challenged my tastes, I had the language and the historical knowledge to take them to court on their claims. I can’t say if I always won – I was in my early teens, and what was once a charming precociousness was quickly turning into off-putting condescension towards nearly everyone – but I was learning how to be a critic.
And not just a critic of the movies. It translated into books, comics, TV, music, politics, school, adults, my peers, myself. Some might say I went a little overboard. If you know me you know that I tend to assess reality in the terms of film criticism – political events are too heavy-handed, conversations were too reliant on exposition, this friend is a complex supporting character while this coworker remains frustratingly one-dimensional, etc. But apart from his ability to analyze and criticize and really blast the shit out of something he hated, there was a very human and often very passionate optimism that ran through everything he wrote. Read any of his many great blog posts, or his stories of Gene Siskel, Pauline Kael, Russ Meyer, Malcom McLaren, and there’s no doubt that he cared deeply about people and the world at large. To get so down on North, but to still champion Hoop Dreams or Dark City demonstrates more than just a love of the movies, but a serious, intense conviction that what we say and what we produce is important and has meaning, and that if at its best a roll of film can make just a few people’s days, or lives, better, then it is no doubt worth giving a damn about. At least that’s what I’ve picked up. And on my best days, I like to think that’s what motivates me, too.
I could go on. I could get sappy. If I wasn’t careful, I could turn this into my autobiography. I could lament for a few more paragraphs that I never got to meet him, or even write him a letter, just to thank him. But I’ll keep it to this, for now. I know I’m not alone. There are countless other people just like me I’m sure, who got into film through Ebert and At The Movies and his reviews and his books. And like how I hear him in my head every time I watch a movie, I’m sure so many hear the same. So while you might be dead, Mr. Ebert, your voice hasn’t gotten any quieter.
Home Video Companion? You’re goddamned right.
I’ve been showing up late to the movies lately. So far it hasn’t been a problem. Aside from missing the first few minutes of Men in Black 3 and having to crane my neck in the front-row seats at Moonrise Kingdom, I haven’t missed much.
Except for the trailers.
There was a time when I’d hate myself for missing them. Trailers are part of the moviegoing experience, and I love going to the movies more than damn near anything. But I’ve gotten sick of them in the past few years. There are certain things about movies that no matter how mature/cynical I get, my romantic mind will never let me hate: the Oscars, Ewoks, Kevin Smith. But trailers get no such pardon. I haven’t sworn them off completely, but I’m starting to think of them like death and taxes for the cinephile – a fact of life, but shitty nonetheless.
To be clear – trailers are not the worst aspect about contemporary filmgoing. Unlike cell phones and that smug jackass behind you that keeps calling what happens next, trailers are supposed to be there, and are a relatively minor nuisance. And in and of themselves, they’re an interesting form. Just look at Alien’s trailer. I’m not just digging that far back because I’ve got rose tinted glasses when it comes to film history – it’s the widely cited example of a good trailer, and justifiably so. It drowns you in mood and atmospherics without insulting your intelligence. But we (and by we I am especially referring to those of us that read and write about movies on the internet) tend to let our film consumption become far too oriented around trailers, and consequently we tend to view movies through the wrong lens. I, and other film nerds like me, will praise that Alien trailer as a great standalone work, but what if in some Bizarro world Alien was a bad movie? We’d be pissed off, complaining that Alien didn’t live up to the trailer, furious that we’d been had.
I’ve been guilty of this before, and in spite of my best efforts, I probably will again. But I’ll be damned if I can understand why. Most of us don’t fall for marketing so easily with everything else we consume. We know that AXE won’t turn us into handsome chocolate men that women will go feral for, and we know that Coors Light guarantees neither good times nor half-nude models. And moreover, we’re proud of our ability to see through marketing bullshit. Throw a stone on tumblr and you’ll hit a thousand posts tearing apart ads from every conceivable angle. It’s a skill we have in spades, yet we get blind about it when it comes to movie trailers. More often than not, they’re taken at face value, when they should be consumed with skepticism the way all advertising should be. And I don’t just mean skeptical of the movie itself (“This looks like an Inception rip-off”) but skeptical of whole marketing process. (“They’re making this look like another Inception.”)
We too readily assume trailers are honest representations of the work being promoted, or are perhaps, at worst, exaggerations. I suppose some of the tendency to trust trailers is rooted in that film is an artistic, creative product. Though we can access trailers online and we see them on TV, we encounter them most often at the cinema. And because we consume them in the same context as movies, we tend to hold them to the same standard and consider them as products of the same maker. Which is true, to a point, as most movies come from Hollywood, and the studio system isn’t particularly diverse. But that leads to a crucial misunderstanding – that all filmmakers cut their own trailers, or at least approve of them. Sometimes this is true – for films outside of the studio system, as well as with big-name auteurs like P.T. Anderson, who cut his own trailers for There Will Be Blood – but more often it’s false. Marketing campaigns are the product of marketing experts, and the ad people in Hollywood are no less full of shit than their East Coast counterparts.
Occasionally they do right by their film – as best as they can in two and a half minutes, anyway. It’s easy to be honest about commercial films in a commercial. The routine genre pictures with hired-hand cast and crew have about 2:30 of substantial material as it is, and at worst, the trailer will give up all the goods too easily: the three funny lines, the one big explosion, the kiss in front of the skyline at the film’s climax. Trailers exist solely for the purpose of getting audiences to see them. And the best way to do that, in their mind anyway, is to make them all look the same. This is why it’s so easy to parody a trailer. Just look at the countless recuts on YouTube. While funny, they also plainly demonstrate how there are trusted beats to hit, in the forms of songs, shots, and seemingly profound but non-specific dialog. In his book 20 Master Plots, Ronald B. Tobias contended (as you might guess from the title) that there are, generally, 20 different plots a movie can follow. Likewise, I’d take a guess and say there are less than ten arcs a trailer will follow (though I’ll have to do more research before I have a final number on this).
One of the last times I went to the theater, I saw trailers for Lola Versus, Your Sister’s Sister, and Take This Waltz. Maybe it was just me and my loathing for trailers, but all of them – especially the latter two – struck me as damn near identical. While they’re not literally the same, they’re quite apparently reaching for the collective heartstrings of the same demographic. And damn did the trailer distributors know their audience. Without fail, each post-trailer silence was filled with “Oh that looks good” and “We’ve got to see that one.” Meanwhile, in those brief moments where I was falling under the trailer’s spell, I was confused. What the hell? I thought. I know Lynn Shelton and Sarah Polley are such promising, unique filmmakers, why are they doing the same damn movie? Trailers are cut this way to attract audiences to something they’ve proven they love, but there’s a detrimental side to it. Take this Waltz and Your Sister’s Sister are now lumped together in an inadvertent competition in my mind, in the suddenly existent genre of Mildly-Quirky-and-Disillusioned-Thirtysomethings Have Romantic Troubles Involving Schlubby Dudes Movie. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to watch more than one, my gut says, even though I should know the films are distinct, and only guilty of trailer association.
That’s where the problems really start for me. When trailers function as unintentional deterrents, I fly into a film-geek rage. I can’t count the times when I’ve just explained to a (non-cinephile) friend how much I loved a movie, only to be met with “that movie looked dumb,” or a similar assessment, as if the case was closed, during and immediately following those two-and-a-half minutes of quick cuts they saw a few months ago. Drag Me To Hell is a movie that suffered from this, at least as I saw it. The trailers for the film were not promising, displaying only half of the film’s major ingredients. It looked like a conventional horror flick. There was little if no indication of the comedic aspects of the film (unless you knew who Sam Raimi and knew his other horror films). Admittedly, comedy and horror have got to be hard genres to sell simultaneously, and at the end of the day, horror fans will welcome comedy sooner than comedy fans will welcome eyeballs in the mouth and cats being stabbed to death. But regardless, more often than not did I struggle to explain to friends that yes, Drag Me to Hell was a good movie in spite of how dumb the trailer looked, and yes, those laughs were intentional. Rarely did I encounter the viewer who understood the slapstick and camp elements of the movie as deliberate. It was as if they trusted the trailer first, as if it had the final word, and anything within the film that deviated was a mistake, an embarrassment the trailer tried to cover up in a half-assed ruse.
“It didn’t live up to the trailer,” you might hear, as though the trailer was the honest one of the pair. And so much of this investment in trailers, this view that the trailer might be alright, but the movie not so much, is very much a product of the ever-ridiculous hype machine. Just a few months ago we were treated to a trailer for the trailer for Total Recall, and few months prior we were given the same for Prometheus and Breaking Dawn – Part 2. I’m still trying to process it all. A commercial for a commercial – if somebody wrote that we’d call it stolid satire. Then, when the trailer finally came, it was reviewed and scrutinized on blogs across the web. There are a few things you can glean from a trailer, namely the quality of the special effects, and in the case of a sci-fi summer film, it’s not an absurd thing to review, if that’s all you’re going to review. But we’re talking about a whole league of blog posts, plus the hundreds of subsequent comments on the boards below. When the film finally comes, how much of the response will be to the film itself, and how much will be devoted to whether or not it lived up to the months of hype and speculation?
All of this is not to say that I’m innocent of watching trailers and making judgements too far in advance. As a cinephile, I need something to critique, and when there’s nothing good on Netflix and I’ve seen everything in the theater, it’s easy to pull up IMDb and watch the latest trailers. When you’re a snob, it’s not enough to have opinions on what’s been around and what’s out, you’ve got to have opinions on everything coming, too. When Django Unchained’s trailer debuted online, I watched it immediately. Twice. I didn’t want to have some other guy have a claim for more expertise on Tarantino’s next movie. Still, I regretted it not long after. Tarantino has been talking about his “southern” film about slavery for years, and the plot details have been out for months. As he’s one of my favorite filmmakers, I’ve been keeping a close eye on the casting and production updates, and I’ve got a fair number of questions (How’s he going to handle race? Will he offend the right people? Will the film work without his career collaborator Sally Menke editing for him?). The trailer didn’t answer any of these, of course, but suddenly my mostly dormant speculation on the movie was amped up to critical levels. I had to gear my mind up and have my opinions in order for the inevitable moment when somebody brings it up in conversation or posts about it on Facebook. I imagine most hardline film nerds have a similar experience. You wouldn’t dare enter the conversation and risk exposing your ignorance, and sitting out a conversation on your favorite topic is torture. There’s only one choice, and that’s watching the damn trailer and having an opinion.
But man, do I regret it. I’ll never be able to see Django Unchained without some ill-formed presuppositions. (At least I’m doing better than I did with Inglourious Basterds. I read the script for that damn thing months in advance. I just had to be the smartest guy in the theater…) And going to the movies without the slightest notion of what’s coming next is an experience I love more than damn near anything. When I was in my early teens, when I wasn’t watching movies, I was reading about them, both in books and on the excellent, comprehensive, filmsite.org. It wasn’t long before I could name the great directors’ filmographies in chronological order, and kick every adult’s ass in any sort of movie trivia. Awesome as it felt, it came at something of a price. I knew too much. You read about movies enough, and you’ll learn the secrets of Rosebud, Keyser Soze, the Star-Child, and the Bates Motel without even asking for them. And so when the time finally came to view these long-awaited classics, they didn’t pack the punch they should have. I don’t like those movies any less as a result, but it’s made me cherish filmgoing without prejudice all the more.
Two of the best moviegoing experiences I’ve had in the past two years were for A Cabin in the Woods and Midnight in Paris. Somehow, in spite of my blog-plowing, all plot details for those movies slipped under my radar. I know Cabin in the Woods was a horror homage, and I knew Midnight in Paris was the new Woody Allen movie, but my knowledge ended there. Especially in the case of Midnight, I benefited from not seeing a trailer. There’s no way of telling this now, of course, but I’d pretty surely guess that I would not have enjoyed that film nearly as much if I had seen the trailer. Ultimately, I don’t think my final opinion on the movie would be that different. But nothing could replace the wonder I felt when I slowly realized, along with Owen Wilson, that I had arrived in 1920s Paris. I was just as surprised as he was to meet Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and the whole time I was right there with him, learning and discovering with the characters right in that moment, without a clue of what would happen next, in a setting I’d never experience otherwise. And what are the movies for, if not that?
Arguments, I suppose. Analysis, discussion, inspiration. I obviously get a lot of that out of movies, too. But let’s try save as much as we can for after the movie. Odds are, I’ll probably end up seeing a trailer within the next week. Even if I dodge them online, I’ll see them in the theater or on TV. It’s the price I pay for being a geek. I’ll always know more than I ever should about the least important shit. But if you can help it, next time someone asks you to see a movie you know nothing about, don’t look up the trailer. Look it up, to be sure – make sure the director isn’t Dennis Dugan – but avoid the trailers. See the movie the way it was meant to be seen – then we’ll talk.