I had sympathy for Chuck Jones

By Whet Moser

Chuck Jones

A think piece

A couple of years ago, when I attended an institution where I could take a class called “Postmodernism,” my teacher asked how I felt so at home in the green fields of metanarratives, pastiche, parody, and self-referentiality.

For a glorious semester I thought it was an innate ability to see over the broad shoulders of modernism and into the 11 dimensions or however many scientists are telling us there are these days.

Then I realized that I had just watched too many Chuck Jones cartoons.

Jones, the reigning genius of Warner Brothers animation from 1940-1960, passed away last week. It had sadly been a while since his relevant period; like the other great American rebels of the period — Elvis, Hendrix, Hunter Thompson, etc. — Jones was destroyed artistically, although not physically, by the late ’60s and early ’70s. During his two glory decades, however, Jones took on Disney, the Cold War, Wagner, and other hideous cultural narratives, and won, successfully guaranteeing that three generations of Americans would never have to take anything seriously ever again.

Of all people, Steven Spielberg put it beautifully: “Disney taught me to fly with my dreams. Chuck Jones taught me to laugh at them.” (I’ll leave it to kinder cultural arbiters to determine how successful that particular lesson was. But like most Spielbergian statements, it’s nicely put, if a bit dishonest.)

There’s a lot of debate in culture-vulture circles about Disney and no space, really, to investigate it properly. So let’s make an offensive generalization: Disney is where America finally arrived at the crossroads between High Modernism and crypto-fascism. There’s a reason that the gold Walt-and-Mickey statue Walt Disney World has been closing their ads with reeks of Leni Riefenstahl. Likewise, there’s a reason that Celebration, U.S.A., Disney’s upper-middle-class Levittown in South Florida is infused with the eerie triumph-of-the-cheerful, familiar to anyone who grew up on pabulum like Beauty and the Beast and Pocahontas. It’s distinctively American cultural propaganda, but propaganda nonetheless. The pursuit of happiness is not just a right with Disney; it’s an edict.

Jones, coincidentally, got fired by Disney twice. Not because of content; he wouldn’t start to chafe against the Disney cuteness hegemony until he came under the wing of Tex Avery, the anarchic godfather of American animation. But getting screwed by the Disney machine set the stage for his rebellion against the Disney cliché. Avery’s vaudevillian low-brow humor — if you haven’t seen any of his cartoons, just think The Mask — saved Jones, but was too outré to begin with to successfully challenge Disney (hence Avery’s legacy ending as something of a cult following). Jones, however, had enough training in Disney’s dominance to explode it from the inside.

With Jones, composer Carl Stalling, voice-over artist Mel Blanc, and the unjustly neglected writer Michael Maltese, Warner Brothers during the 1950s created an anti-Disney. Consider the opening to Jones’s What’s Opera, Doc? (1957), generally considered the greatest short cartoon of all time. It opens with the shadow of a demon rising against a storm — a wink to Disney’s Fantasia. The camera pans down to reveal Elmer Fudd in full opera armor. It sets the tone for the rest of the cartoon. Whereas Fantasia elaborates on the classical music it borrows — everything from Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” to Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” — just as it elaborates on the fairy tale the movie is based on, What’s Opera, Doc? takes Wagner as simply a straight man to be played off of. What follows is a hysterical pastiche of Wagnerian opera splinted together by Stalling, undermining Fantasia, and “Ride of the Valkries” simultaneously. Disney hired the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra to do respectful versions of the great works; Jones got Stalling to boil down the Ring Cycle into a seven-minute parody. Kill the wabbit, indeed.

What’s Opera, Doc? represents the apex of Looney Tunes. It’s a flip-fantasia where nothing is what it seems and everything is a target; where Brunhilde is a cross-dressing bunny and the tragic hero can’t pronounce his Rs. It’s disrespectful and ennobling, the ballad of an ex-Disney lackey getting his revenge on the arbiters of low highbrow with the big populist gun of high lowbrow.

Jones built up to Wagner after taking on the absurdities of the space race and nuclear war in Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century, more than a decade before Dr. Strangelove made jet-black fun of Cold War technovanity . Daffy sets out to save the universe’s supply of rack-and-pinion molecules only to discover an evil plot to destroy the world. Besotted by egotism, he chases his assistant with a laser gun as Earth’s fate is sealed. Making light of the world’s destruction in 1953 should have been an act of the utmost tastelessness. At the same time, one can imagine a generation consumed by the vague threat of nuclear winter finding release by laughing at the specter of the end of the world. Disney, as exemplified by Bambi, played death for tears; Jones played it for gags. I’m reminded of R.E.M.’s classic of dancing through the apocalypse, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”: a pop collage that looks into the abyss and laughs.

The groundbreaking Jones cartoon unfairly ranked behind What’s Opera, Doc? and Duck Dodgers is Duck Amuck (1953). Way before Being John Malkovich, way before Italo Calvino’s Once Upon a Winter Night a Traveler, before even Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Duck Amuck was the ur-pop-postmodernist text. The premise is simple: Daffy gets into a fight with the animator, who tortures him by changing his body, voice, and world, or simply erasing him from the picture or dropping the film down around him. It’s metaphysical terror masquerading as child’s play in a way with which maybe only Roald Dahl can compete.

Which seems kind of easy at this point. But consider watching this at the tender age of six or seven, after years of the predictable Disney formula and its hermetically sealed world. Better yet, think about watching it on a movie screen during the Eisenhower administration, for God’s sake. Duck Amuck removes all distance between the creator and the work, and the basis of the joke is the conceit of the genre. The joke is not only on Daffy and Disney, but the audience.

I don’t think I ever saw the world quite the same after watching Duck Amuck some Saturday morning that I can’t remember. Maybe I should be pissed off at Chuck Jones for destroying my innocence. After six densely packed minutes, Duck Amuck gave the lie to any cinematic earnestness I’d encounter afterwards. Before that I was terrified by the opening of the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and I cried at the end of Big. Before that I watched Disney’s Robin Hood (the all-fox version) obsessively. Maybe if I hadn’t seen it I would have maintained the ability to be moved by, say, Jodie Foster’s turn as a backwoods mental case in Nell. Instead I had to suppress giggles sitting between my parents, and feel guilt for it. It takes some damn fine melodrama to get me off my couch at this point. Call Jones’s oeuvre A Young Person’s Guide to the Death of Art.

Thanks to Chuck Jones, I’m a bit more artistically street-smart, a bit more critical, a bit less trusting. A bit more of a cynic, a bit less of a sucker. Less willing to trust metanarratives and less willing to worry about that fact.

Ultimately, though, I’m left inspired. Chuck Jones’s glory days spanned the years of Truman and Eisenhower, which is staggering when one considers just what he was up to. He was pulling the stunts that would become middle and highbrow tenets years later, in six-minute variations on a child’s medium. Looking back at the absurdist genre-bending that would follow him, and that would make up so much of my education — Dr. Strangelove, Pynchon, Terry Southern, George Saunders, David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, Baz Lurhmann — I find it hard to imagine them in the same way, and I find it hard to imagine understanding them without a solid grounding in Looney Tunes.

I don’t know where you are now, Chuck, but it’s probably not heaven: I can’t imagine God having much sympathy for the creator of Duck Amuck. Nonetheless, we’re a generation indebted to you: a generation willing to laugh at our dreams. Which may sound nihilistic, until you actually go back and watch Duck Amuck. Not only is it just a pleasure to take in, it’s a rush to find out that the only person who might be telling you the truth is yourself. And rather than being terrified, Jones convinced us all to revel in it, freedom being just another word for no metanarratives left to lose.