19 November 2012

PERSONAL CANON: I DEMAND THAT YOU SHOOT ME NOW

Duck Amuck and What's Opera, Doc? are the freebies. There's no point in calling one of those the best Warner Bros. cartoon ever made, because, well, duh. Declaring yourself a fan of American animation and then professing a love for Duck Amuck and What's Opera, Doc? is like opening a conversation about your tastes in music by stating that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is the best album ever made. Of course it's true, but since everybody else already knows that, it's not going to tell us anything useful about you, other than your profound lack of imagination.

So the real question is, what's your third-favorite Warner short? And here we start to get to the point where things are interesting and distinctive. For example, I know that many people just outright adore Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century, but I've always thought it was a touch overrated, for the probably ludicrous reason that I think Porky Pig acts much too much out of character, though Chuck Jones was never a director of particularly great Porky shorts - no sir, you've got to stick with Bob Clampett for that.

My own pick for the third-best Warner short is a bit of a cheat, in that it is actually three shorts that are virtually always lumped together as one whole, the so-called Hunting Trilogy (that only emerged as a series by accident & after the fact): Rabbit Fire from 1951, Rabbit Seasoning from 1952, and Duck! Rabbit, Duck! from 1953. They are all of them directed by Jones, and written by Michael Maltese, Jones's great and often overlooked collaborator, and they are all, at a sufficient remove, identical to one another. All three consist virtually the exact same plot: Daffy Duck (Mel Blanc) is in the woods, planting a trail to Bugs Bunny's (Blanc also) warren, and laying out signs that promise it's Rabbit Season, even though it is in fact Duck Season. Elmer Fudd (Arthur Q. Bryan) comes along, looking to hunt rabbits, but when he encounters Bugs, to Daffy's disgust, he has no idea what's going on. The duck attempts to convince the hunter to fire upon Bugs, growing increasingly frustrated, but the rabbit coolly uses awe-inspiring verbal trickery (the films boast, easily, the best dialogue in any Warner's short cartoon; possibly the best dialogue in the history of American animation) to force Elmer to shoot Daffy in the face, instead. Frequently.

There are a few wrinkles - Rabbit Fire alone does not end with a final indignation for Daffy and the closing line, "You're despicable", while Duck! Rabbit, Duck! does not feature a sequence of Bugs distracting Elmer while dressed as a sexy woman - and each of the films takes place in a different season: summer, fall, and winter, respectively, though summer and fall look awfully damn similar. But the nugget of all three films is precisely the same thing: Bugs outwits Daffy and both of them wipe the floor with poor, stupid Elmer, and Daffy gets shot so, so many times. 18 times in all over the course of the 21 minutes and eleven seconds that makes up the whole trilogy (and that's including three opening credit sequences, mind you). So, in fact, calling it a "trilogy" is being a bit generous: more like three variations on a theme, more profitably compared to, say, Monet painting the same haystacks over and over, or the same water lilies. Here we have a given scenario repeated with only subtle distinctions: three seasons to make the films visually distinct, with Maltese's new gags serving as the primary variable - to extend the Monet comparison, the way that Daffy is shot is equivalent to the different patterns of light on haystacks - with Jones using all his powers to bring those gags to life as effectively as any human could, because ultimately these are funny cartoons to laugh at, and not theoretical treatises on the nature of animated violence and cartoon character morphology.

Though, given the two men responsible for making the films, it's not surprising in the slightest that there's more than a bit of theory to be found, and surely not all of it is accidental. Jones must have taken a particular delight to using Daffy as a laboratory: his and the character's highest moment, Duck Amuck (which actually preceded Duck! Rabbit, Duck! to theaters by more than seven months) was born out of the artist's desire to see how far he could push the character's visual design before he ceased to register as Daffy at all; and so does the Hunting Trilogy function, in a sense, as an experiment in extremes: how much violence can be dumped on Daffy, how grotesquely can he be deformed, and how mindless can all of that be, before it turns into something unpleasant?

The answer is, "more than this": even watching all three films right in a row (something I'd never actually done before prepping this review), it's impressive if not downright miraculous how they never start to feel repetitive or boring, or even excessive. And for that, we can thank Jones himself, who in these three films perfected the art of comic timing in American short-form cartoons, finding the exactly perfect length of time for Daffy to be completely blindsided by each and every shot to the face, while Bugs stands there looking at him blandly for just perfectly the right moment. Allow me to permit the director to speak for himself, in one of the most beautiful passages describing the basic nature of cinematic language that I know of:
"I think you must learn - if you're in any filmmaking - you must respect the single frame. And there are twenty-four of those per second. If you don't respect that single frame you're in the same boat with a musician who does not respect an eighth note or a sixteenth note or a thirty-second note or whatever. You have to find the smallest unit and you have to love it and believe that one will make a difference. One frame to me will make the difference between whether the thing's funny or not."
In the Hunting Trilogy, those frames are selected with unmatchable, unimprovable care, reaction shots lingering for precisely as long as they need to so that the comedy can be given space to breath without crossing into the territory of being dull or worse, unappealing: for the main source of humor in this movies is violence, and particular the various ways that taking a shotgun to the face distorts Daffy's bill or knocks it clean off. And much as Duck Amuck sought to find how much of Daffy's physical shape could be stripped away before he stopped looking like himself, these films, the latter two in particular, seem hellbent on finding out exactly hoe much of Daffy's face you can remove while still leaving him able to express frustration, exasperation, and a miserable sort of acceptance.

But let us return to the comedy: for these shorts are masterpieces first and above all because they are such impeccably-designed gag delivery systems. A lot of this is because of the simple timing I've already mentioned: if the gun fires too quickly, we don't get the delicious anticipation, but if it fires too slowly, the thing is more of a thriller than a comedy; if Daffy responds too quickly, we don't get our full reaction out, but if he takes too long, it lets the unpleasantness linger. Nowhere in Jones's estimable career is that timing more perfect.

A lot of it is also, mind you, a matter of character: Bugs and Daffy, who never co-starred prior to these shorts, are a magnificent team, one of the best mash-ups of two established personalities in the history of American animation, with the very important caveat that, to a significant degree, Rabbit Fire is the film where those personalities were really codified. In the '40s, Daffy (befitting his name) was a manic screwball figure, causing mischief for the joy of pure anarchy; near the end of the decade, feeling that this idea had run its course, the writers and animators who worked on him (but Maltese in particular) started making him more thoughtful, a somewhat craven and selfish figure rather than just a pure force of comic chaos. Bugs transitioned, around the same time, from being a similar force of anarchy, though with more of a wiseass personality than a screwball one, to being the sardonic, in-control figure that he is best known for being (this transition was largely complete by Rabbit of Seville in 1950, though it still reaches its strongest early expression in the trilogy: there are few Bugs moments more perfect and characteristic than the one seen in each of these shorts, where he patiently and thoughtfully takes a huge bit of carrot with Elmer's gun right to his head, and by the time he swallows, has worked out exactly how he's going to dupe the duck and the hunter for the rest of the short).

Put those two personalities together, and outright cartoon magic happened: Bugs and Daffy are revealed, in these three shorts, as one of the great comedy teams of the post-war era, riffing off of one another flawlessly, impersonating each other (in his legendary career, Blanc was rarely given more to do, nor did it better, than in Rabbit Seasoning), feeding off of each other to magnificent effect even in jokes as low-key as the one in Rabbit Seasoning where they quickly run through an uninflected version of their most recent exchange, just a couple of seasoned players racing through the script, so that Daffy can see where he went wrong. "That's it! Hold it right there! Pronoun trouble" he announces smugly, and this meta-joke is sold not because it breaks the fourth wall, but because Jones, Maltese, and Blanc have all set it up so perfectly, from everything to the concept to Bugs's amused, detached expression.

A last little note and then I'll let you go: what separates the truly wonderful Looney Tunes shorts from the merely great is that the very best ones play like tiny parables for life in the 20th Century. Duck Amuck is a story of being absolutely, terrifyingly confused by a world that's changing all the rules even before you got used to the old ones; the Wile. E Coyote/Roadrunner shorts are heartbreaking little plays about a mechanised age in which all the things that we think will make our lives easier just force us into making the same mistakes, over and over again, only more efficiently now (conveniently married to the funniest chase comedies ever staged). And so the Hunting Trilogy, in which the three-part conflict between Daffy, Bugs, and Elmer plays out in the form of a somewhat obnoxious and morally dubious Everyman, Daffy (who thus represents the audience as we are rather than as we aspire to be, and is all the more real for it) constantly certain that, this time, he know how to outsmart the smartass who seems to get away with murder no matter what, and finally get a step ahead of the lumbering, idiotic fact of constant suffering; only he never can. It's like the coyote shorts in a way, in that it depicts the same stupid mistakes, over and over, and no matter how hard the duck tries to win, he never budges an inch from where he started. Culminating in a descent into real madness in Duck! Rabbit, Duck!, the high peak of the three films (though, like most people, I'm inclined to say that Rabbit Seasoning is by a slight margin the best movie overall - but these are impossible to rank, really), in which a bullet-addled Daffy starts spouting nonsense, having finally given up trying to win a conflict where he's so plainly outclassed, finding refuge in absurdity: "Shoot me again! I enjoy it! I love the smell of burnt feathers, and gunpowder, and cordite! I'm an elk! Shoot me, go on! It's elk season! I'm a fiddler crab! Why don't you shoot me? It's fiddler crab season!"

Of course, this is just my opinion, based on having a great deal more affectation for Daffy than for Bugs in the first place; different viewers will see different movies, and that's part of what these three simple little comedies are so complex and wonderful. They might be quickie entertainments made by geniuses who barely had time to reflect on their own brilliance, but by God, if we can't call gems like these masterworks of American cinema, then there's no point in being a cinephile.

9 comments:

Jeremy said...

"based on having a great deal more affectation for Daffy than for Bugs in the first place"

yaaaaaay

Even as a kid, I always thought Bugs was kinda an asshole

Samuel Wilson said...

But they're just Hope and Crosby in these shorts, aren't they? An improvement on the originals, arguably, but it's not as if Jones and Maltese came up with these characterizations ex nihilo.

Colin said...

I always thought Bugs Bunny was based on Groucho Marx...

Mysterious F. said...

Saying that anyone who calls one of those two their favorite Looney Tunes is boring saddens me. Duck Amuck is seriously my favorite movie.

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

...like opening a conversation about your tastes in music by stating that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is the best album ever made. Of course it's true...

Man, are you trying to start a wholly tangential argument here? :p

StephenM said...

Rabbit Seasoning has always been my favorite Looney Tunes short, though I'm willing to concede Duck Amuck and What's Opera, Doc? to be artistically daring/accomplished.

Now what's your FOURTH favorite Looney Tunes? :)

Tim said...

Jeremy- There are certainly Bugs shorts I like, but in the main, I'd agree: he's too smug to be completely funny.

Samuel- A bit of Hope & Crosby, a lot of Abbott & Costello; I hope I didn't give the impression I thought it was somehow a bold reinvention of comic tropes! What I like about it, in fact, is how well Jones and Maltese adopt a typical comedy duo to animation and then perfect their interplay all in one swoop.

Colin- Could be. I honestly don't know that much about that particular character's origins.

Mysterious F- Well, maybe not "boring". But it's a bit safe, and I say that as someone who included only those two Warner cartoons on my list of the best movies ever made.

GeoX- To be fair, that's not even my favorite Beatles album; but I think if you had to answer the question, "What is the consensus pick for the best album ever made?" it's pretty clearly going to be either that or the White Album.

Stephen- Dammit, I knew someone was going to ask that. Right now, Feed the Kitty, but it could, on any given day, be One Froggy Evening.

If I were obliged to name a short NOT directed by Jones, I might go with You Ought to Be in Pictures, or The Great Piggy Bank Robbery.

Brian said...

I'm drawing a blank on the name of the film, but the one where Bugs and Daffy are performing an apparent vaudeville routine in a theatre, with Daffy doing more and more complex acts to no response, while Bugs gets massive reactions for doing almost nothing, finally culminating in Daffy's suicide to the rapturous applause he so craved. "You're a hit Doc, they love you."

"I know, I know, but I can only do it once." while Daffy floats up to heaven.

My favorite Warner's short, and a perfect breakdown of the way I, you, and apparently most of the guys working at Termite Terrace felt about the Bugs/Daffy popularity difference. Daffy does so much more, and is so much funnier, yet Bugs is always the headliner.

(Although, I should caution, that I LOVE Bugs Bunny enough that one of my co-workers has nicknamed me Bugs, and I have, in turn, her Daffy. Yes, we occasionally break into fits of "Rabbit Season! Duck Season!"

David Greenwood said...

...like opening a conversation about your tastes in music by stating that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is the best album ever made.

You misspelled "the White Album". and I'll agree, "Duck Amuck" and "What's Opera, Doc?" are canonized in that Citizen Kane way where it's impossible for me to watch them objectively without considering their "greatness."

"Duck! Rabbit! Duck!" is easily my second favorite Looney Tunes short, but just as easily is my favorite one "Ali Baba Bunny". I've watched it so many times, and despite being somewhat racially problematic it makes me laugh like no other animated short, even after watching it a hundred times at least.

"Guard this cave well, Hassan, or the jackal shall grow fat on thy carcass."

Speaking of racism, I also have mad love for Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarves for being the most batshit insane Looney Tunes short ever.