Freleng, Barthes & de Sade
This post is part of the Friz Freleng Blog-A-Thon masterminded by Brian Darr at Hell On Frisco Bay.
Why is it that acts that would horrify us in real life instead evoke in us shameless, uncontainable joy when encountered in a cartoon?
While pondering this, I was reminded of Roland Barthes’ thoughts on the writings of the Marquis de Sade. (Seriously.) Barthes believed that most people view the writings of Sade—incorrectly—through a somewhat ‘realistic’ lens, are outraged by the staggering and unlimited perversions they encounter there, find them scary and disgusting, and pretty much refuse to move past that initial moral judgment and give the author any more reflection. (I should admit here that I’ve never read Sade first-hand myself, only accounts of his writings.)
Barthes pointed out that by abandoning our ‘realistic’ vantage point, and understanding that Sade was an elaborate (if mighty peculiar) sexual fantasist, it is possible to see the Sadean world as an intricate self-enclosed system unto itself. This system (according to Barthes), like a language, has its own grammar (“a porno-grammar”), consisting of some basic elements. Sexual posture is the main one, and the others are: sex, male or female; social position; location, e.g. convent, dungeon, even bedroom!, etc. Sade then combines these elements together in all manner of exhaustive permutations to elaborate a fully-fleshed out (sorry) set of possibilities. It is this abstract system of rules and combinations, completely and undiscriminatingly explored, that makes it a system fertile for intellectual discourse, just as, for example, a linguistic system might be. This discourse is what interests Barthes, less than each and all of the literal sexual acts themselves.
The other great thing that fascinates Barthes—and this one I resonate with deeply—is Sade’s penchant for inventorying, his mania for counting and classifying.
What does all this have to do with Putty Tat and Tweety Bird? Well, let me make three connections. One: Cartoons, by not being ‘photographed reality,’ somehow liberate us from the preconceptions we would bring to a live-action film. What shocking violence and outrageous sadism we tolerate in our cartoons—not just tolerate, but celebrate, the more ingenious and plentiful in number and invention, the better! (Bazin was really on to something when he proclaimed the deep and primal power of the photographic image. Cartoons can short-circuit this power by flying in under the radar: we’d never be able to handle this stuff in a ‘realistic’ work.)
Second, by abandoning the ‘realistic’ vantage point, we automatically gain a distance, a detachment, which allows us to view a cartoon in an abstract fashion, as if it were a set of diagrams, both conceptual and literal. (Correspondingly, the mise-en-scène of a cartoon is itself abstract, just a few lines standing in for a house, a dog, or Niagara Falls.) And finally, many cartoons—Freleng’s are a perfect example—use this abstraction to strip the narrative of everything but invention and elaboration and inventorying. What are the number of ways in which a cat will hunt a bird—and fail, experiencing serious pain along the way? A Freleng cartoon might be saying: Let us count and record these ways in number and variation—all we can cram into a seven-minute span.
I’ve prepared a little Freleng Gallery of Sadism here, mashing up the images from two Freleng films, Putty Tat Trouble and Canned Feud, both 1951.