Thursday, April 2, 2009

If Animation Has a Name, Then it Must Be Charles M. Jones

"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.


Greg said...

I wanted to watch this but completely forgot about it until about five minutes after it ended. But I did watch some Looney Toon shorts afterwards and enjoyed them as usual.

So who is your darling co-curator Emily? Is it the same Emily I know, the one who lives by that building where those guys are always playing that song about that guy that does that stuff? Cause if it's her she really should contribute. I mean, I don't ever see her doing anything else.

Ryan Kelly said...

It was a wonderful doc, so if nothing I hope my post with the quotes I pulled (not easy!) gave you at least some sense of it. If I notice it's on the schedule, I'll be sure to make it common knowledge, since your blog has become one of my cyber-stombing grounds.

No, my Emily and that Emily are not the same Emily. You really need to get your Emilys straight before you open your mouth, Lapper.

Emily would be my darling girlfriend, whom I've been attempting to coerce (read: force) into writing for this here web-blog. Her hang-ups about posting are pretty much the same as mine; mostly, we tend to be perpetually dissatisfied with anything and everything we write. Me starting Medfly Quarantine was a way for me to kind of move passed that, hopefully. She's also gonna HTML-up the website and make it pretty, because that's just beyond my capacity.

Thanks for reading, Greg. I'm working on a post about the H.G. Wells movie Things to Come and its relation to WWII that I hope you'll enjoy.

Greg said...

Did you read my piece on Wells, Things to Come and Liberal Fascism in August? It's here if you didn't. It's back when I was on the old haloscan commenting system so to read the comments click on the archived comment link at the bottom. If you haven't read it I hope you do. And I look forward to reading yours.

Ryan Kelly said...

No, I missed that one, and it was a very good read with fascinating, insightful comments. Back before I was blogging, yours was one of the blogs I checked in on from time to time. Needless to say, I missed a lot! (now you're in my dashboard)

The film's idiot politics are unquestionable, but I also think it has such a seething humanism that runs through it that it doesn't really bother me too much. Also, the way it sees WWII as the catalyst for the end of individuality is, well, very telling of the sense of dread at the time.

bill r. said...

Her hang-ups about posting are pretty much the same as mine; mostly, we tend to be perpetually dissatisfied with anything and everything we write.

I'm perpetually satisfied with everything I write, think, do, or say. I just seem to consistently nail it.

Ryan Kelly said...

It's a talent--- no, a gift, rather, that we all try to emulate. At the end of the day, we're all just second-rate bill r's, at best. At worst, we're David Edelstein.

Ryan Kelly said...

Oh, that was mean, and I instantly regret it. Which isn't to say I don't still think it's funny!

bill r. said...

Taking shots at David Edelstein is not something that is going to offend me. So carry on.

Jill said...

Since we all watched this together - me, you and "your" darling co-curator, I agree it was an excellent biography but woefully too short.
Jones' main message was basically "screw the money, do what you love and have fun doing it."

Ryan Kelly said...

What's with the "quotes" around "your"?

Jill said...

Well, I have always tended to think of her as mine :)but we can share.