"I’m not particularly known throughout the world for being a conductor of oceans, but I bet I’m one of the best. "
Last week, TCM broadcast the original documentary Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood, and it was one of the more illuminating half hours of television that I've recently seen. Using a technique similar to that of the recent Oscar nominated short I Met the Walrus and The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation (the creators of the latter short made this film), the documentary animates the recollections of childhood that Jones describes, giving his stream of consciousness explanations of his life an added twinge of poignancy. Also, the cartoon figure that the film uses as a stand-in Jones as a child was drawn by Jones himself. It's a self-portrait in motion.
The film uses segments of an interview conducted with Jones before his death in 2002 to get to the core of his childhood, which helps illuminate why his characters have such universal appeal. They aren't just cartoon archetypes, they represent a portion of his psyche. This is why the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series have had such continuing impact; they aren't just strings of jokes and sight gags, the cartoons are representative of a world view that was shaped by experience.
"When I was two years old I think the event that occurred then probably had a great deal to do with my becoming an animator. Because I fell off a second story back porch on to a hunk of cement. I’m sure that it jostled my brain cells out of any hope that I would be a very logical child."Watching Jones hand draw the Looney Tunes characters is one of the great joys of this documentary. It adds a personal touch to the characters we're all so familiar with. Jones talks about how these characters are, in essence, a part of the very fabric of his being.
"Pepe, he assumes immediately that he’s irresistible, so that’s actually the opposite of what I felt. I felt I was very resistible. People ask me about whether I’m some of the characters like Pepe. Of course I am, but I’m Daffy Duck, too."It's this personal touch that separates Jones from the rest. Jones was so obsessive about his work that he believed that a single frame could make the difference between a good joke and a bad joke, and he would go through his films a frame at a time until they were just right. He treated his form like it was music, with every frame being a note in a comedic symphony. His films played with the synchronization of senses that Disney's Silly Symphonies had helped popularize, but I think the Warner Brothers shorts went even deeper with that core idea, because they played with that concept of image and its relation to music in unique, unexpected, and consistently hilarious ways.
The tone that runs through the documentary is one of poignant melancholy. One gets the impression that Chuck Jones was one of those people who had it all figured out, and we were lucky to get a glimpse of that understanding through his work. Many of his films stand out as the very best of the Warner Brothers cartoon catalog, which would put them among the best films ever made, and he among the great film makers. It's incidental that his understanding of humanity took the form of slap-stick one reel cartoons, that's merely the way in which he related to the world. "If I can find the quirk to something, I think I can understand a little bit about it." Perhaps Jones was a forebearer to Wes Anderson in that sense.
Being the shameless self promoter I am, I'd like to use this post as a chance to formally announce what I hope will be a recurring series for Medfly Quarantine, the Looney Tunes Project; where myself, my darling co-curator (still waiting on a contribution from her...), and anyone who feels like contributing will write up a Looney Tunes or Merrie Melodies short. Be sure to check back for updates.