Friday, June 26, 2009

Existential Angst and a 16-Ton Weight

A review I wrote that appeared last weekend on

I have to laugh when I watch old Tom and Jerry cartoons. First, of course, because they’re funny. The original series of 114 theatrical cartoons by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Hollywood cartoon studio were produced between 1940 and 1957, seven of them winning the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoons)...a tie for most awards, one should note for the animation snobs out there, with Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies animated series.

A series of perfectly dreadful and too-often released cartoons followed, produced in Eastern Europe (cheap labor, I would imagine, and worth what they paid for it), produced by Gene Deitch at Rembrandt Films in 1960 before, thank the animation heavens, there came Chuck Jones in 1963. Which brings us to Tom and Jerry: The Chuck Jones Collection. Jones was one of the handful of master animators to influence the entire look and feel of the Warner Bros. animated line with his Bugs Bunny, Road Runner, Tweety and Sylvester and countless other cartoons. But after 30 years, the studio closed its animation section and Jones set up his own shop, Sib Tower 12 Productions, with partner Les Goldman. MGM came knocking, and the 34 madcap adventures included in this collection was the result.

The second reason I find to laugh at these, or any classic animated shorts is because of how the reality of these characters clashes with the perception that has grown up around them since the 1950s when they began appearing as Saturday morning children’s programming. These cartoons were not created, originally, as children’s fare. They were, instead, part of a program of entertainment shown to adult movie audiences in a day and age when theaters routinely ran double features and the bill changed twice a week. Before, between and after the movies, however, came a variety of subjects: a newsreel, a short feature (usually humorous), a cartoon, and coming attractions, at the minimum. Look at a World War II era Bugs Bunny cartoon; that was not kid’s stuff!

Because as I watch these cartoons—and they are a lot of fun, have no doubt of that—I’m struck at how mercilessly violent they are. Heavy objects routinely fall and crush their victims (Tom), explosives blow in hand or in the victim’s (Tom’s) mouth, an axe used to chop open a mouse hole chops a victim’s (Tom’s) tail like a chef chops a carrot. The network censors chopped a lot of that material out of the cartoons when they went to TV in the 1960s, and, by the 1980s, the original essence of these little seven minute masterpieces was corrupted beyond redemption, to the point that as the writer of the Tom and Jerry syndicated newspaper strip for Editor’s Syndicate around 1990, I was told Tom could chase Jerry, but if he caught him, he could do him no harm. No hitting, no smashing, no slamming, certainly no chopping of tails. These guys were pals who chased one another for fun.

Bugs Bunny has suffered a similar fate in the modern world: A friend working on a Bugs Bunny promotional comic book project was told by WB to change a gag because “Bugs would never produce a mallet out of nowhere and whack someone like that!”

But thanks to home video and DVD and the demand of the marketplace for original and uncut material, the truth is coming out. Tom and Jerry is funny and it’s funny because it’s violent. Take away the psychedelic randomness and well-constructed but mean-spirited violence of a situation like Tom and Jerry or the Road Runner and Wiley E. Coyote and all you’re left with is the existential angst of the eternal loser pursuing that well-known definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again in expectation of a different result.

Tom and Jerry: The Chuck Jones Collection is a textbook for such insane repetitious behavior. The cartoons all follow the familiar pattern: Tom is chasing Jerry, very clearly wanting to eat him; Tom, being a domestic short hair, often attempts to devour the mouse at table, with a proper place setting, complete with silverware and such condiments as salt, pepper and catsup. Tom gets his ass kicked repeatedly (Jerry might take a few lumps in the first few minutes, but he’ll quickly get pissed and turn the tables) yet does not stop coming for the mouse until his inevitable and ironic comeuppance at the end of the cartoon. It doesn’t matter, as in “Pent-House Mouse,” the first Jones effort, that Jerry started it by dropping a metal lunch pail on Tom’s head from the top of a construction site. It’s Tom that pays the price. Again, in “The Cat Above the Mouse Below,” Tom is an opera singer taking the stage for a performance in a legitimate opera house before a paying audience...but that performance happens to disturb the sleep of Tom, who has taken up residence under the stage. He’s a squatter disturbed by a legitimate use of the property he’s squatting on, yet it’s Tom who winds up with his tail in a sling. To heighten the cruelty, Tom is always allowed just an instant, that single moment of believing he has, this time, won...before the rug is both metaphorically and really pulled out from under his paws. Existential scream, anyone?

But cartoon cat and mouse chases aren’t about fairness; they’re about frenetic energy and things going splat. And, under the direction of Chuck Jones, frenetic splatting abounds, as does surrealism and a healthy dose of utter absurdity. And done on a budget, but with infinite imagination. While Hanna and Barbera had distilled animation for TV down to the lowest common denominator of “limited animation” in Huckleberry Hound, Quickdraw McGraw and Yogi Bear, Sib Tower 12 Productions was still doing full-animation, just not as lushly as in the old days. Jones designs the more elaborate stunts and gags that would require expensive animation to occur off-camera, substituting sound effects and reaction shots for comedic effect. It works, of course, because on a Jones cartoon, the money went into drawing and animating the acting of his cast.

Tom, the real victim in these cartoons, is given the most expression, often as he takes his beating with surprising aplomb and superbly animated action, but on a subtle level that you don’t think about while you’re watching. Awareness kicks in only later, as with a bit in “Jerry Go Round” in which Tom is on a ladder that’s been pounded into the ground by an angry elephant; Tom climbs up the ladder and out of the hole in a daze, continuing to climb even after he’s run out of rungs. His little stumble when he finally realizes there's no more ladder is so real, so true, you have to stop and remember this is an animated cat. Early in “A-Tom-inable Snowman,” a bomb explodes in Tom’s mouth, shooting his teeth (the full set) across the room. Without changing his perfect, world-weary expression, the suffering cat blows out a puff of smoke and calmly wipes his lips with his bib. Later, in the same short, Tom is skidding uncontrollably across the ice towards a hole. When he realizes the inevitable is coming, he just looks at the viewer with that poor bastard look Jones had perfected for his losers and shrugs a “What? Me worry?” shrug before plunging into the water and being entombed in solid ice.

Tom can’t even win when he wins. In “Snowbody Loves Me,” Tom finally catches Jerry but in exasperation, tosses him out into the blizzard rather than eat him. The cat’s conscience gets the better of him and he saves Jerry from hypothermia, bringing him back inside and feeding him Schnapps to revive him. The cartoon ends with Jerry dressed up like a tiny Burgomeister and dancing while Tom played traditional Bavarian music. I don’t quite know what was going on in that one.

But music, of course, plays an important role in the Chuck Jones Tom and Jerry cartoons. Other than a few grunts and groans, these shorts were played largely in pantomime, but the director who gave us the classic Bugs Bunny “What’s Opera, Doc?” creating the proper mood with music is not an issue.

If the cartoons in Tom and Jerry: The Chuck Jones Collection remind you of the WB oeuvre, it’s because Jones pretty much defined that look with his handling of the flagship Warners characters. The same is true of the Chuck Jones animated version of Dr. Suess’s “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” When most of us think of the Grinch, we don’t think of Seuss’ rendition but of Jones’ animated interpretation of it. True, his Tom and Jerry shorts do not hold a candle to his best Warner Bros work, but even these lesser efforts are better than the best of most other animators.

Chuck Jones himself is well spotlighted in this two-disk set, first in “Tom and Jerry…and Chuck,” a documentary narrated by voice artist June (Rocket J. Squirrel) Foray chronicling Jones’ history with this “violent twist of the eternal chase,” as well as a second documentary, “Chuck Jones: Memories of a Childhood,” told through Jones’ own words (and he is as good a storyteller in person as he is on the animation cel) backed up by old photographs and film clips, along with over-the-shoulder shots of Jones sketching the people and events he’s describing as little snippets of delightful pencil-test animation of his stories.

Tom and Jerry not violent?


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Extra! Extra! Read--And Hear!--All About It!

In the past year or so, I have written five (and am about to start on my sixth) kids chapter book for Stone Arch Books. These are fun little stories, running about 4,000 words, starring Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, and are done in the animated style. There are 54 of 'em so far in the DC Super Heroes line, although you're unlikely to find them in bookstores; Stone Arch produces books for readers with reading difficulties, so while the stories are aimed at 5th graders, the language is aimed at the 2nd to 3rd grade levels. They're sold primarily to the education market and to libraries. Friends and colleagues including Bob Greenberger, Martin Pasko and Martin Powell have also contributed stories to the series.

I was asked to write a Superman book that was to feature the winner of an essay contest about a real life hero who inspired them, along with guest-appearances of said inspiration. I wrote a story that allowed for names and locations to be easily plugged into the story about a kid who saves Superman, the winning essay (by a kid from my native Brooklyn!) was selected by the publisher and announced, and now the book, strangely titled The Kid Who Saved Superman is finished and making the news...well, the New York Daily News anyway...

...And now New York's NBC News affiliate as well...


...And, New York's Public Radio Station...

...And the Kansas City Star...

...The Hartsford Examiner...

...The Charleston Daily Mail and numerous other media outlets.


Friday, June 5, 2009

Weekly World News XXII

Another ditty from the late, lamented Weekly World News, written in September 2005, back when there was a lot of right wing fundamentalist talk about how all theories, like evolution and gravity, were called "theories" because they were still unproven. When one has the forum, one must respond.

© Weekly World News

Washington, D.C. – One of the most divisive issues in America today remains the debate over the validity of scientific theory. From evolution versus intelligent design to global warming versus benign climatic change, political differences seem to have spilled over into the laboratory.

But the latest and most vocal debate seems to be over the concept of what has been, until recently, one of the bedrocks of science: gravity.

“This nonsense has been going on long enough,” declared the 700 Club’s Pat Robertson. “It’s about time someone planted their feet firmly on the ground and spoke out against this unproven, so-called ‘scientific theory.’”

Doctor Sam “Right” Winger, a professor of Religious Sciences at Bob Jones University, agrees. “Has anyone ever actually seen gravity? Of course not, because it doesn’t exist. Why, anybody who’s ever read the Bible knows that the Earth and everything on it was created in seven days, and nowhere is gravity mentioned. No, the reason we don’t float off the face of the planet is because the good Lord gave us this world and wants us to stay put.”

“Thanks to Dr. Winger’s clear and concise analysis of the situation, we feel confident this is the right thing to do,” said House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois) in an announcement with his Senate colleague, majority leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee). “That’s why we’ve put forth joint resolution HR-666, repealing the so-called Law of Gravity.”

“Isaac Newton, who wasn’t even an American,” said an outraged Senator Frist, “perpetrated this hoax on the world based on having an apple fall on his head. It never occurred to this heretic, who also gave the world calculus—which, by the way, we’re going after next—that this was actually the Lord’s way of trying to smite him for his wrong-headed thoughts instead of proof of some asinine theory.”

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, “The president has long believed that gravity should be a faith-based initiative instead of something mandated by law.”

“I’ve always believed gravity is the work of the good Lord. Back when I was in the Air National Guard,” the president quipped to reporters on his way to a two-week vacation at his Crawford, Texas ranch, “I used to pray He would keep me in the air every time I had to fly. Which wasn’t often.”

Responding to claims by the scientific community that gravity is a proven force of nature, Dr. Winger said, “It’s all right there in the Bible, in Genesis, verse 7: ‘And God made the firmament and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so.’ Heaven up, firmament down, God’s will. I don’t know what else you need, but if it makes you feel any better, even NASA agrees with us.”

“Of course! It’s obvious,” agreed Todd T. Toddman, director of the National Anti-Scientific Association (NASA).

Representative Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said, “Look, I understand some people might not be comfortable with the religious aspect of this matter, so for them—though they’re going to Hell—let’s just say, if an American doesn't want to keep his feet on the ground, there shouldn't be a law that forces him to!”