Sunday, July 13, 2014

Chuck Jones exhibition (yawn)

The Museum of the Moving Image in NYC is hosting a Chuck Jones retrospective starting 19 July 2014.

Jones was certainly one of the Big Three directors at Warner Bros. during the studio's Golden Age of animation, the other two being Friz Freleng and Bob Clampett. (In spite of being essentially the father of the outfit, Tex Avery didn't stick around long enough, nor did Frank Tashlin or Art Davis; of Bob McKimson's directorial stint, the less said, the better.) Yet Jones carries an outsized reputation, especially among casual cartoon fans.

Jones certainly had his moments, a few of them cited in the article (though I prefer others, like Rabbit of Seville and The Dover Boys at Pimento University). However, for pure laughs, he couldn't hold a candle to Friz Freleng. The thing is, because Jones self-identified as an intellectual, I think it was and still is easier for both academics and adults not sure they should be proud of liking cartoons to like him. He self-consciously incorporated elements of "higher" art into his shorts. And by happenstance, he simply lived long enough to be able to ride the modern wave of animation appreciation that started in the late 1980s. If there was any elder statesman people were likely to meet or to hear about in the last couple of decades, it was Jones.

Yet nobody's cartoons make me laugh as hard as Friz Freleng's. Not Jones', not Avery's, not even Clampett's. And Freleng managed to wring laughs over the longest time of any Warners cartoon director. Whereas the quality of Jones' shorts declined in direct proportion to the quality of the animation in the late 1950s, Freleng stubbornly overcame the limited animation and stylized drawing to produce at least mild laughs until the studio's nadir in the early 1960s. Freleng's cartoons at their best are masterpieces of timing, artful repetition and exemplary musicality. As Jones himself admitted, Freleng made effortlessly funny cartoons at a time when Jones was still trying to figure out how to be funny rather than precious. (Preciousness is a failing that Jones never quite overcame: his limited-edition Bugs Bunny "cels", really original artwork, from the 1990s are as nauseatingly cute as his Sniffles shorts from the late 1930s.)

Throwaway gags are exquisitely set up and paid off. Look at Sylvester's facial expressions in Canned Feud, particularly in his brief breaking of the fourth wall when he looks at the audience: the look of sheer desperation, the tiny droplets of sweat that run down his face, the brevity of the scene (a second or less), are all just enough to convey exactly what he's feeling without milking the gag. Bugs Bunny sends Yosemite Sam over the cliff in Bugs Bunny Rides Again, but the real payoff is when Bugs looks stricken, races to the base of the cliff (ahead of the still-falling Sam), produces a mattress, says to the camera, "You know, sometimes me conscience kinda bodders me," pauses, adds, "But not dis time!" and tosses the mattress away. Later in the same cartoon, Sam is pursuing Bugs through a tunnel; we cut to Bugs hurriedly building a brick wall over the tunnel's end; we cut back to Sam rushing into the now-dark tunnel, experience a second of total blackness before his painful collision (which is so severe, it lights up the wall to show Sam and his horse flattened against it), then cut back to the exterior where Bugs watches a Sam-shaped part of the wall topple over, followed by Sam and his horse. The bare description of this gag doesn't convey its perfect timing, which is what sells it.

Little moments like these are littered throughout Freleng's shorts. They absolutely kill me, so I've wondered for a long time why he's not better loved even among animation fans. I've concluded that part of the problem is that there's nothing flashy about his shorts. They don't break new ground in drawing style or concept: he never produced a short that consciously lampooned Fantasia, for instance, or laid out explicit rules for his chase cartoons, while Jones did both. Yet if you step back, it's hard to claim that What's Opera, Doc? is funnier than Rhapsody in Rivets or that the average Jones Road Runner/Coyote short is funnier than the average Freleng Tweety/Sylvester short, especially if Granny is present and voiced by Bea Benadaret.

Focusing on Jones and ignoring Freleng is akin to focusing on Disney and ignoring Warner Bros., which is what animation scholarship did for decades. It seems the assured old hands who reliably deliver laughs don't get no respect. But just as scholars eventually woke up to the inventiveness in Warners shorts, inventiveness of a type not found in Disney's, they need to wake up to the sterling qualities in Freleng's cartoons, qualities not always found in Jones' shorts.

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