In the past month, several award-winning exhibits have opened in New York, among them: The Temporary Center for Translation at The New Museum, examining “pedagogical exchanges . . . as a mode for doing” (could you imagine anything more thrilling?!), the nice and specific Sites of Reason . . . A Collection of Ideas at MOMA, and A Couple of Posters about The Bus at The NY Transit Museum (God BLESS those people). To our collective rescue comes What’s Up, Doc?: The Animation Art of Chuck Jones, now at the Museum of the Moving Image, the city’s only museum dedicated to the art of film. Featuring 136 original sketches, 23 animated films, and, let me tell you, the cleanest bathrooms in the city, What’s Up, Doc examines the life and work of one of Hollywood’s greatest animators. Although occasionally starry-eyed, Doc does its best to explore what makes a cartoon – and by extension, a story – work.
At this point in history, I think it’s zero percent interesting to say, “Cartoons can be for adults,” and “Just because something is a cartoon, doesn’t mean it’s not meaningful.” YES NERDS, I KNOW. Thanks to honestly just endless examples (Crumb and Persepolis amongst them), most viewers today can appreciate the intellectual work that goes behind good animation. But it wasn’t always that way. It would be a long time (approximately forty-five years since the end of Looney Tunes), before animators like Jones would ever appear in museums like The Moving Image or the Smithsonian. Museums aren’t always the arbiters of good taste (see: “pedagogical modes of doing”), but their judgment means, you know, more than nothing, sometimes.
Most people know Chuck Jones for Looney Tunes, but he was also responsible for over 250 animated films, among them How The Grinch Stole Christmas and The Dot and The Line. The recipient of four Academy Awards and the nominee for many others, Jones proved that you could spend your life drawing cartoons and still get laid. We tend the think of Jones as a lonely cartoonist pining away in his studio, but Jones was primarily a director who – though responsible for characters like Bugs Bunny so deeply imprinted in our memory – hired a successful team of writers and animators to build his product. Michael Maltese wrote so much of the snappy dialogue, but it was “Tex” Avery – the cartoonist – who brought to life characters like Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and a host of other animal losers with significant speech impediments.
What makes Jones stand out from other writers in his genre is the focus he placed on his storytelling, and particularly, his comedy. What’s Up Doc explores how Charlie Chaplin and vaudeville comedy influenced the infamous physical gags behind Looney Tunes. It’s honestly not that funny to watch Wile E. Coyote run off a cliff and die. But it’s way more amusing to see Wile. E Coyote run off a cliff, look right left then down, before plunging a thousand feet to his death. Hilarious! What Jones and the comedians before him implicitly understood was that death alone didn’t equal absurdity – it was our knowledge of it. The fact that Coyote dies isn’t that funny. But when Coyote knows he’s gonna die and he still tries to resist it – now that’s comedy (in a totally terrifying, existentialist, I mean honestly-let’s-not-talk-about-it kind of way).
Outside of physical comedy, Jones placed a real emphasis on satire, some if it funnier than others (Anyone forced to read Jonathan Swift in college knows that satire often = the opposite of anything enjoyable ever). What’s Opera, Doc takes a silly, thoughtful poke at the opera world, one of Jones’ favorite themes and interests. It’s not mean-spirited, but it is observant, and I give a thousand Klout perks to anyone who’s able to take a nine-hour Wagner opera and make it at least negative 3% entertaining. Both here in What’s Opera, and in One Froggy Evening, which employs Van Gogh inspired backdrops, Jones uses caricature to expose people to subject matter previously seen as too highbrow for the cartoon world. Daffy Duck himself parodies Leon Schlesinger, Jones’ producer at Warner Bros, for being a dick/having a disability. It’s all in good fun, minus the whoops insane crazy racist stuff, mostly ignored in this exhibition. Feel that frowny face.
Still, what makes Jones’ work stand out isn’t so much his attention to character or use of comedy, but a certain tenderness that underlies his form. Most people are familiar with the ugly curmudgeon who discovers community in How The Grinch Stole Christmas; the wonderful lines that creep off and onto our protagonist’s face. But there’s also The Dot and The Line, one of Jones’ best, a simple little love story between a boring, kind line and a vain, beautiful dot. Even though The Dot and The Line only includes a dot – and a line – there’s so much personality and feeling in the way the dot bounces and the way the line squiggles. Their geometric romance feels very, very real. Were that the movie to be made today, it would probably prompt a truly terrible Etsy tote-bag spinoff and a silkscreened organic cotton baby onesie. Whereas so many other cartoonists today are precious, Jones was tender; empathy, gone deeper.
None of this is to say that What’s Up, Doc was a perfectly curated exhibit, or that Chuck Jones was a perfectly curated man. Doc is a homage, almost an elegy, which – like all elegies – tends to skirt some of the dirty stuff. You can only watch video after video of John Lassater, in near tears, describing Jones as a “genius” before you head to the nearest bathroom and swallow a Listerine pack. Jones was a brilliant and important animator, and Looney Tunes brought so much humor and pathos to the American screen. But as a product of its time, it also generated some pretty offensive characterizations that, unfortunately, have stuck with us. Jones was an artist but also a human, with all the crap that comes with it. It’s worth it to watch.
Heather Dockray is a comedian and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY. You can see more of Heather’s work at www.heatherdockray.com, follow her on twitter @Wear_a_helmet, and email her at email@example.com if you aren’t from Moveon.org