The demise of the cartoon short
Cartoon Network, a cable-TV channel owned by Turner Broadcasting, shows animated cartoons around the clock. In 1992, when the channel was launched, its programming consisted solely of old-fashioned short subjects that featured such cartoon characters of the Hollywood studio era as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Wile E. Coyote. Today, though, the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts produced by Warner Bros. between 1933 and 1963 have mostly been supplanted by more contemporary fare, just as their once ubiquitous characters are no longer on view at such pop-culture events as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which now gives pride of place to the likes of SpongeBob Square-Pants. The caravan of popular taste has moved on.
For those baby boomers who grew up watching Warner Bros. cartoons on television every Saturday morning, the inexorable demise of Bugs and his friends has been a source of nostalgic dismay. But for critics and scholars who believe that the best studio-era animated cartoons are comparable in quality to the best live-action screen comedies of the 1930s and 40s, it is a catastrophe.
Fortunately, the past quarter-century has seen the publication of several penetrating studies of golden-age animation, foremost among them Michael Barrier’s Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age (1999), as well as biographies and monographs about such key figures as Tex Avery, Walt Disney, and Chuck Jones. Even more important, many studio-era animated shorts have been transferred to DVD, and some of them can also be viewed on YouTube. As a result, it is now possible to study the Warner cartoons with the close attention that they deserve—and to understand what made them so good.
Even at the height of the studio era, it was uncommon for serious film critics to write about animated cartoons other than in passing. Those who did, like Otis Ferguson, focused on the output of the Disney studio, and in particular on its pioneering full-length feature films. Indeed, Ferguson went so far as to rank Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the first American animated feature, “among the genuine artistic achievements of this country.”
Short subjects, on the other hand, were generally dismissed as purely commercial undertakings, cranked out by the animation units of the major studios in order to fill out the two-features-and-a-short mixed bills that were customarily presented by American movie theaters well into the 1950s. For the most part, the only people who took them seriously were the artists and writers who made them, and even at Disney, whose early shorts had set the standard for the rest of the industry, they came to be increasingly regarded as a backwater.
Not, however, at the Warner Bros. animation unit, which never tried to compete with Disney by making feature films, sticking instead to gag-based seven-minute shorts that made their comic points with masterly economy. The studio’s four key directors, Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng, and Chuck Jones, soon developed styles of their own that owed little to Disney’s genteel whimsy. What resulted was a house style that mated silent-movie slapstick with the high-speed repartee of screwball comedy to inspired effect.*
The unit’s principal “star,” Bugs Bunny, who made his screen debut in 1940, was a distinctively urban-sounding rabbit modeled after James Cagney, Warner’s best-loved real-life screen hero. Like Cagney—and unlike the sputteringly hapless Daffy Duck, Warner’s second-most popular cartoon character—the wisecracking, preternaturally self-assured Bugs was omnicompetent in the face of disaster. Between them, Bugs and Daffy neatly symbolized the limits of human aspiration. As Chuck Jones explained: “Bugs is who we want to be. Daffy is who we are.”
Much of the brilliance of the Warner Bros. shorts was a simple matter of superior comedic craftsmanship. Voiced with panache by the radio comedian Mel Blanc and accompanied by the zany, collage-like musical scores of Carl Stalling, they were consistently funnier than Disney’s cartoons, in part because they were designed to appeal to adults as well as children. This helps to explain why they remain so watchable today. As Jones put it in a 1988 interview:
We never made films for adults, and we never made films for children….We made pictures for ourselves, and we were lucky because the producers never knew exactly what we were doing.
In addition, Disney’s animators, for all their matchless technical virtuosity, also made a fundamental aesthetic mistake that would cost them dearly. Artist for artist, the Disney team packed a greater technical punch than any animation shop in history, but its product grew duller and duller, while the Warner cartoons of the same period became wittier and more vivid. Why? Because Disney’s creative team was fixated on the chimerical goal of what its animators called “the illusion of life,” whereas Clampett, Freleng, and Jones understood that no matter how well you drew it, a cartoon was bound to look like a sequence of two-dimensional drawings of talking animals. By renouncing Disney-style hyperrealism and accepting the inherent limitations of their medium, these men freed their imaginations to run rampant within those limitations. Not so Disney, whose goal was to make his studio’s cartoons look as lifelike as possible,
thus stultifying the creativity of his collaborators.
Jones, the most imaginative of Warner’s animation directors, was also the first to move decisively toward an explicitly surrealistic approach that had always been implicit in the studio’s renunciation of conventional realism. While cartoon slapstick usually exceeds the boundaries of the physically possible, it is almost always rooted in and recognizably related to reality. But in Duck Amuck (1953), the most radical of Jones’s cinematic experiments, an offscreen animator (who turns out to be Bugs Bunny) torments Daffy by constantly redrawing the world around him, thus loosening the viewer’s grasp on what is “real.” Similarly original are the cartoons in which Wile E. Coyote fanatically pursues the Road Runner through a sparsely drawn desert, violating along the way most of the laws of physics.
Unlike his colleagues, Jones was no less adept at creating memorable cartoons that dispensed with the now-familiar Warner characters. Perhaps the best of them is One Froggy Evening (1955), a dialogue-free, unsettlingly dark parable of obsession in which a demolition worker discovers a singing frog in a musty cornerstone and resolves to make him a star—only to learn to his horror that the stubborn frog will not sing for more than one person at a time.
What made it possible for golden-age animation to flourish well into the 50s was the fact that cartoon shorts, like bottom-of-the-bill Westerns and film noir B-movies, were seen by Hollywood executives as fungible commodities, by-products of the studio system whose creators were left alone by their employers so long as they stayed within their budgets and finished their films on time. Only in retrospect did the artistry of cartoons like Duck Amuck and One Froggy Evening come to be widely acknowledged—and once the studio system collapsed, there was no longer any cost-effective way to produce them.
By the late 60s, animated shorts had ceased to be produced for theatrical release, and full-length features were few and far between. Then, in 1988, Disney released Robert Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a dual homage to golden-age cartoons and film noir that combined animation with live action to spectacular effect. The success of Roger Rabbit inspired the studio to make The Little Mermaid, a 1989 feature-length adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale. These immensely popular films triggered a cartoon revival in Hollywood, one that was facilitated by the introduction in 1990 of computer animation, which was well suited to the hyper-realistic drawing style for which the Disney studios had long been famous and which soon supplanted traditional ink-and-paint animation. For the first time since the demise of the studio system, it was possible for cartoons to turn a profit.
Many, if not most, of the post–Little Mermaid features that have done well at the box office, however, are child-oriented films whose coarsely knowing scripts emulate the reflexively sarcastic manner of the postmodern TV sitcoms on which they are based. They are also often sanctimonious exercises in political correctness that preach the paramount virtue of tolerance (their plots usually hinge on the “difference” of their principal characters), reaching predictable and enervating ends.
The promise of animation as an adult form of entertainment, by contrast, remains bright, if not yet fully realized. In addition to such deservedly admired animated TV sitcoms as The Simpsons (1989–), Daria (1997–2002), and King of the Hill (1997–2010), a handful of first-rate animated feature films, most of them produced by Pixar, have managed to break free from the rigid stereotypes of neo-Disney animation. Brad Bird’s The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007), like Who Framed Roger Rabbit before them, are intelligently written adult comedies in which computer animation serves the director’s will rather than subverting it.
But there can be little doubt that the old-fashioned animated short is gone for good, henceforth destined to be remembered and enjoyed only by connoisseurs. Not only is its format unsuited to the needs of film distributors, but most modern-day moviegoers seem incapable of making the imaginative leap necessary to appreciate hand-drawn cartoons whose humor relies not on media-savvy pseudo-irony but on a clear-eyed understanding of human nature. Unlike today’s crassly jeering cartoon characters, Bugs and Daffy know that nothing is funnier than the truth—augmented by a strategically placed banana peel on which to slip.
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.