The Curious Case of Crazy Cartoons

RoadrunnerCartoons are the closest approximation to Tarantino’s movies. They start out as a simple ideas inspired by real-life objects/characters/situations and go on to evolve into completely new universes with their own sets of mythologies and histories. Although controlled to the last pixel by their creators, these cartoon characters take up a life of their own and, in the process, have the creators conform to their characteristics. A sub-art form by itself, the cartoon provides so much scope for exploration of both the animation medium and of cinema itself (by exclusion of reality). When Émile Cohl created Fantasmagorie (1908), now accepted as the first ever animation movie, he had given a mile of head start for the genre with the film’s no-holds-barred repudiation of real space and time. Since then, sadly, animation seems to have been moving in the opposite direction, trying to imitate “normal” cinema with its gargantuan technological expertise,  in the same way the latter tries to imitate life. These CG devils do not seem to understand that animation is both an adversary and a complement to photographic cinema – an extreme form of wish fulfillment that wears its manipulation on its sleeve – rather than a clone. Like all genres, the clichés have remained, the spirit and meaning buried. Premiering almost six decades ago, the Wile E. Coyote vs. The Roadrunner cartoon series is one that takes these clichés to the most extreme and, by doing so, digs into the most basic and pertinent of all questions about the medium – What does it mean to be a cartoon?

Honey, I Dehumanized the Kids

The Roadrunner series was conceived by Chuck Jones and Michael Maltese.  And Chuck Jones is as true an auteur that one can find in cartoon filmmaking. One can almost immediately tell a Jones cartoon from the others. His toons are characterized by hard edged drawings with jittery motion that lacks real continuity. His characters are true caricatures, deliberately far from reality, with justifiably no depth at all. These characters somehow appear to know that they are in a cartoon. Consider his stint as the director of the famed Tom and Jerry show. Till then, Hanna and Barbera had been presenting us cutesy, smooth lined and lovable characters (This still remains my favorite era in the Tom and Jerry series) who call out for empathy. With the arrival of Jones, however, things take a dark turn as we see a frenzied Tom chasing a Jerry who seems to be perennially on crack. Jones removes any trace of cuteness from these characters, providing features like vicious teeth and pointed whiskers, and disallows any sympathy for them from us, at least by the virtue of their appearances. It is as if Jones believes that we should know that these are just cartoons and their lives are not going to be altered by our sympathy. That does not mean that he doesn’t give us emotional anchors to hold on to in his cartoons, but just that he consistently avoids the threat of realism – of appearance and of emotions – that plagues the cartoon world so often.

Although it never really upped the ante for the Tom and Jerry series, his style sure does work wonders here. In the Roadrunner series, too, there are no attempts at unwarranted emotional bonding even though one does end up rooting for Wile E. within minutes into each episode. For a comparison, these cartoons of Jones are like the early short films of Chaplin that relied purely on slapstick, without ever concentrating on the Tramp’s relationship to us like the later Chaplin films do. Jones relies on Woody Allen kind of humour – throw them all and see what sticks – with his relentless series of gags. His humour does not depend on what happens (which, by the very virtue of the Roadrunner series, is known to every one), but how does it happen and how long does it take to happen. Part of the fun in watching the Roadrunner cartoons arises from this surprise element of time that comes into picture in these skirmishes. Consider this random episode called Hip Hip-Hurry! (1958) that Jones directed. The episode consists of 8 gags of lengths 58, 30, 26, 8, 28, 35, 25 and 106 seconds respectively. The numbers are enough of a witness that Jones revels in writing both gotcha gags and wait-wait-almost-there-boom set pieces (which were a characteristic of his Tom and Jerry cartoons too) equally. And that is the only kind of unpredictability that he allows in the world of Roadrunner.

[Hip Hip-Hurry! (1958)]

Once More Upon a Time in the West

The idea of the Roadrunner show resembles a western (The fact that the coyote is a symbol of the Native American makes this notion all the more interesting!). Like the western genre, it originates as a piece of history – a shred of fact that a coyote is trying to get his hands on a roadrunner – and then develops itself as a myth that is derived from that piece of history (that the coyote always goes after the bird). Two primary characters facing each other off in a vast, cruel and blazing environment is one of the biggest stereotypes of the now-extinct genre. In Roadrunner, too, the geography is sparse, torrid and lifeless and painted with mostly brown and deep yellow colours. Furthermore, the western has always been a playground for writers to tease our moral standings and to tantalize us with notions we try to take for granted. Usually, the “morally good” according to law and social institutions for justice, in the form of police and the sheriff, is pitted against the morally good according to personal conscience and intuition, in the form of the noble outlaw and the lone ranger. Scenarios are written in such a way that our empathy goes against the justice system, which seems to be blinded by its own rules, and the audience is made to unconciously question the way laws are made. In the case of Roadrunner, this sense of balance between “good” according to public opinion and right-wing morality and “good” according to personal experience and emotional connection is maintained in the form of the roadrunner and Wile E. respectively. The cerebral part of us tells us that the roadrunner is never the instigator of trouble and it is plainly wrong to try to kill the harmless being. On the other hand, by virtue of the script, we end up supporting the coyote’s efforts and even want him to get the bird for once. The result is the deletion of human morality – the notion of heroes and villains and good and bad – from the Roadrunner universe.

No Man’s Land

One observation that one immediately makes when watching the Roadrunner cartoons is the strange absence of humans in the toons. There are no human “characters” in the series as such, even though they make their presence in the world felt indirectly now and then. Even when they do, in the form of the regular afternoon trains that run over Wile E., the random trucks that get him at the tunnels and the friendly neighbourhood highway chases, they merely act as deus ex machinas that make sure that Wile E. does not catch roadrunner and that he always chases him.  Same is the case with the ACME Corporation, from where Wile E. obtains all his bizarre gadgets. He always gets what he wants from them although one is not sure how the economy allows for this. ACME is not very unlike our capitalistic companies that benefit from people’s internecine quest for climbing the social ladder as fast as possible and which try to rake money even at the  cost of deterioration of people‘s ways of life (and history has made sure that this policy of ACME holds good for Certain Intelligence Agencies too!). Both humans and institutions perpetuate the myth of the roadrunner and Wile E by their non-intrusion and occasional intrusion. Furthermore, there are no laws in the Roadrunner world.  Unlike in movies like Toy Story (1995), where the toys had to obey the rules of the human world and come into true existence only when they are far removed from observation, Wile E. need not be ever conscious of his actions. He knows that he is being observed by the humans and he would always be made to chase the roadrunner. Even science, with its selective application of its laws, seems to want to keep the myth alive.  All Wile E. can do is to conform to this “fascist conspiracy” of the external world.

The Cartoon with(out) a Difference

In the case of The Roadrunner series, one is safe in saying that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Far from being wrong, it is the very truth of the world of Roadrunner. The stories of all the episodes of the series are so identical to one another, that it would only be a miracle if one can identify individual episodes. You have this lanky, brown coyote – about 45 years of age, one would say, if Jim Carrey were to play him – who tries, in every which way possible, to get his hands on this clever, thin roadrunner bird. Predictably (I mean predictably), he fails, only to get up again and repeat the process. Each of these vignettes starts out and ends in the same way – with Wile E. concocting some new plan to get hold of the Roadrunner and with him getting caught in his own trap respectively. The only difference between each of these encounters lies in the way Wile E. fails in his mission. In fact, the whole universe of Roadrunner relies on repetition – repetition of situations (what would Roadrunner be without the top view of Wile E. falling into the cliff?), repetition of geography (more than in any other cartoon, the scenery in these cartoons repeats very often, especially noticeable in the background during the chases) and repetition of structure (to the point that the relative ordering of the vignettes and the episodes is ultimately immaterial). Heck, even the single piece of speech in the series comes in the form of a repetition – “Beep Beep”.

But then, there are traits that are also shared by every other cartoon (Garfield often speaks to us out of context of the cartoon about these clichés) and also perhaps the easiest ones to devise. But, the real success of the Roadrunner series lies not in using these clichés, but retaining them forever, even at the cost of being unfunny and redundant. Jones takes the practice to the breaking point (and beyond) by bombarding us with the same elements over and over. And, through this monotony, he achieves something much more than instant chuckles. Harold Ramis’ brilliant Groundhog Day (1993) examines, albeit in photographic reality, what it takes to live in a completely predictable world – a world that is mathematically derivable, geographically utopian and emotionally unresponsive. Its protagonist, Phil Connors (who is worthy of Bill Murray), after some days of rejoicing over the unlimited power that he has been given, finds himself completely alienated from his people and then, gradually, comes to accept his situation. Beyond that point, he stops attempting to break the loop of time and decides to enrich his own life and that of the others. Now that it is neither possible for him to pursue any goal in life that he may have had nor take his own life, he realizes that the only difference that he can make in this world is to make the people around him happy, even if it is just for a couple of hours. Phil Connors isn’t very unlike our hero Wile E.

Deconstructing Wile E.

RoadrunnerThe world of Roadrunner is the perfect cartoon world. It is a world devoid of the notions of hunger, injury and death. Even though Wile E. believes that he chases the bird in order to eat it, that can never be his actual motive. The very fact that he keeps chasing the bird for years in vain suggests that food is never a point of concern for him. His role in life is to chase the roadrunner and nothing else at all. In this regard, he shares a very ironical relationship with the bird. For one, he cannot and will not catch roadrunner ever because, if he did, he would not have anything else to do in his life. In that case, he would lose his identity and turn from being a cartoon ‘character’ with unique characteristics to being a mere ink stain on a sheet of coloured paper. He would then be wandering the wilderness for eternity. Nor can he renounce the chase altogether for that would tantamount to him catching the bird and subsequently losing his identity. On the other hand, the roadrunner’s role is to be chased. Since Wile E. knows that his only option is to chase the bird, roadrunner needn’t ever instigate him. But if ever, Wile E. digresses from his job, it would be the roadrunner’s duty to pull him back into the loop since he has his identity to retain. The whole of fabric of Roadrunner is based on this paradoxical relationship that the two characters share.

Now, this is not the foundation that shows like Tom and Jerry are raised on, although they, too, are reduced to no more than a bunch of futile chases. The kinship between Tom and Jerry is built around the human world, unlike in Roadrunner, like a refrigerator loaded with food, a stray canary or a runaway bear. At any point, Tom and Jerry could make a pact and go on with their lives independently – which means that Tom can laze around forever and Jerry can pinch cheese whenever he wants. But, in the case of Wile E., there are no such easy alternatives. His world is defined solely by his chases and contains no other dimension. Tom or Jerry need not be in every scene in an episode, but Wile E. has to be present in every setup of every vignette and, if needed, in every frame. Like Barry Lyndon, the coyote’s life is sealed in the two dimensions he lives in (The ideal sequel, if you can call that, to the Roadrunner show will not be in 3-D, but rather in 1-D, with the two characters represented as two dots that never meet). Even though the initial motive for Wile E. is to catch roadrunner and that for the roadrunner is to evade the claws of Wile E., in the long run, they would inevitably reverse their roles. That is, the coyote. will, eventually, make sure that he doesn’t catch the bird and the roadrunner will make sure that he is chased. This is almost exactly the kind of relationship that Batman and the Joker share in The Dark Knight (2008).

One is tempted to compare the fate of Wile E. to that of Sisyphus, the Greek king who is made to roll a mammoth boulder over a steep hill slope forever, only to find it roll back down (Is it just a coincidence that Wile E. is seen shoving huge rocks time and again?). The coyote’s life, too, goes around in such pointless loops with no end in sight. In fact, Wile E. is the quintessential Absurd Hero, like Sisyphus, who realizes the pointlessness of his life and nevertheless continues. I’m a philosopher only as much as Barack Obama is a ballet dancer, but from what little I have heard about Camus, he draws three possible responses to this realization of the absurdity of the world – Faith, Suicide and Existence. He seems to reject the first two ideas, denouncing them as tricks to repudiate the truth about the meaninglessness of life. In the third option he proposes that life be lived for-the-moment and enjoyed to the fullest, without any hope or ambition and with the constant knowledge of the absurdity of it all, and thus have complete freedom over our actions. This way, the refusal of suicide becomes the very token of acceptance of absurdity and the freedom of choice that it provides. Now, this is where Roadrunner really takes its medium seriously. Unlike Sisyphus, Wile E. (and Phil Connors) does not even have the choice of suicide, so that he can refuse it. His world knows no death. Nor can he make a leap of faith, for he has nothing to hope for, except maintaining status quo. Thus, Wile E. can only take up the third option of living life for what it is. Wile E., like most Chuck Jones characters, knows that he is in a cartoon, that he has to carry on his chase act for ever and that there is no meaning to his life. So all he can do is keep chasing roadrunner – keep pushing the rock – in an attempt to keep both of them happy. Camus sums up the Sisyphus situation fittingly: “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”. The same should be said about Wile E.

(pic courtesy: The Yerton Dreamhouse)