Sunday, August 20, 2006

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.


Blogger Noel Vera said...

Am presently in the middle of 120 Days of Sodom, and while the analogy is interesting, I do see a crucial difference--Freleng and Jones and company pace their sadism at a speed that will satisfy anyone with a short attention span, while de Sade catalogues his horrors with a thoroughness that needs more than a little patience to wade through. Sade pretty much marches to his own obsessive beat.

August 20, 2006 9:20 PM  
Blogger phil said...

"Am presently in the middle of 120 Days of Sodom"


are you sore yet? think you can last another 60 days?

hey girish.
nice post here. the above comment would be more appropriate on Barthes'(s?) blog though i think...

i like the ideas in the post, about abstraction and reality, about the relation of art to realism. you raise an interesting point about mania as a component to art and artists.

in a way it is a version of your theory of recurrent themes in the work of particular directors, is it not?


August 20, 2006 9:55 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Noel, I haven't read Sade yet, but I did just get a-hold of Pasolini's Salo. And I'll read your Light Sleeper round-table conversation on it soon after I watch it...

August 20, 2006 9:57 PM  
Blogger girish said...

"in a way it is a version of your theory of recurrent themes in the work of particular directors, is it not?"

Hey, Phil. I think you're right. Those manias are definitely connected for me...

August 20, 2006 10:01 PM  
Anonymous The Cinesthete said...

I can see the Sade analogy working. His writings could be considered the adult cartoons of the time. And the way they were published and distributed does remind me of underground comics of today.

August 20, 2006 11:16 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

And I kept reading Sade as "Shar-day." "No Ordinary Love," indeed.

August 21, 2006 12:27 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

"are you sore?"

The most unsettling thing about it was a marked increase of libido while reading, even this second time around. And very little of that stuff actually appealed to me.

We--or mostly I--talk about the difference between book and film in that discussion, girish. And the follow-up article by Saul has very interesting ideas about what Pasoilini added to Sade to make it his own, or make it indubitably a Sadean film, and not just an illustrated book of horrors.

August 21, 2006 12:31 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Gracias, amigos.

Some clicks:
--Two Svankmajer posts at Michael Guillen's.
--David Pratt-Robson on Zorro.
--New posts from Brad at East Bay View.
--Round-Headed Boy on Mission To Mars.
--Time magazine's 50 Coolest Websites.

Off bright and early to annual all-day faculty meeting, a reminder that the new semester is just a week away...

August 21, 2006 6:55 AM  
Blogger phyrephox said...

Great screen-captures Girish, and nice captions as well. I wasn't aware of the name of Friz Freleng until this post.

August 21, 2006 9:41 AM  
Blogger nigredo said...

hi girish...

i've been following your blog for quite some time and... WELL DONE... you manage to speak (or write?) about film in a very in-depth manner and you tackle issues that are quite complex; yet you do this using plain and simple english accessible to all... i always admire that in a writer...

as regards this post i am 100% behind you... i remember the controversy that had been going on some years back regarding the lax censorship devoted to anime films that featured extreme violence and sex... urotsukidoji became a bad word as it managed to scrape an "18" certificate when a film with live actors containing those same scenes would have ended up with a dreaded "X" and half of it on the censors' cutting room floor...

August 21, 2006 1:31 PM  
Blogger Dennis Cozzalio said...

Girish-- outstanding gallery! This WB/sadism question is one that has eternally perplexed my wife, no fan of cartoons, especially when she sees me and my daughters helplessly giggling at Sylvester taking another blow for unchecked appetite. Abstraction and speed of delivery of the blows are key components here, if you ask me.

Thanks for the great post. Mine is up, and it looks like Brian has quite a collection of links already. This was a great idea for a blog-a-thon, and far more challenging (for me, at least) than I ever would have guessed.

Here's to your Monday!

August 21, 2006 4:38 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Phyrephox, Nigredo, Dennis--Thank you!

Re: the gallery, I spent the weekend watching about 30 Freleng films, and when I sat down at the computer to do the screengrabs, I intended to cull from all of them. But after merely two films (albeit great ones), I found I had all of the 2 dozen sadistic images I needed!

And I bought a how-to HTML book and everything. (Not that I ended up using any of it for that bare-bones page....)

Glad you enjoyed it.

August 21, 2006 5:28 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Terrific post by Owen Hatherley, part of the Porn Symposium (hey, there's an idea for a future blog-a-thon): Russ Meyer, Vilgot Sjoman, etc, but mostly Dusan Makavejev.

August 21, 2006 5:46 PM  
Blogger Jan said...

Thanks for tipping me off on the porn symposium, I especially enjoyed the post by infinite thought which the thread pointed me to.

August 21, 2006 8:27 PM  
Anonymous Thom said...


Thought-provoking post. I'm intrigued by your first connection. I agree that we will accept outrageous behavior in cartoons that would, at least, give us pause in "realistic" work. But, even though the images are only cartoons and not "photographed reality" do you think there are still limits to the "shocking violence and outrageous sadism" that we will tolerate/celebrate or is anything fair game when the images are 'toons?

August 22, 2006 12:20 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

Loved your S&M gallery, Girish, clever. I can practically hear all the thwacks and oooophs!! The violence in cartoons has been skillfully satirized in the "Itchy & Scratchy" episodes of "The Simpsons" and Joe Dante endeavored a spin with the concept in "Twilight Zone: The Movie" in the 3rd Episode--"It's A Good Life"--where the horror was being transported into the violence of cartoons.

August 22, 2006 3:31 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, all.

Thom, I'm sure there are many limits (sex a lot more than violence...), but I guess I'm just surprised by how much we can get away with and why. I've never read any treatises on humor: exactly how it works, why, etc, and have always wanted to. I know that both Freud and Bergson (among others) wrote seriously about humor...

Michael, I've never seen that Joe Dante episode, and will track it down. He's a director many people like, but I'm hardly familiar with his work.(20 years ago, I loved Gremlins and Gremlins 2.)

Big day today: TIFF announces their film list.
Back with a post on it this afternoon.

August 22, 2006 7:03 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Quite a surprising angle to compare cartoons and Sade, yet interesting indeed. Sex and violence proceed from the same duality of physical desir/moral frustration, but I wonder if the grammar system of porno and comedy really meet in permutations. Although this is obviously a disturbing similarity.

Abstraction of pain and death is the key. Like Roger Rabbit demonstrated, toons are immortal, and they would kill for a laugh. This is where the active identification of cinema, and the distanciated proxy of cartoons split. I would more likely compare cartoons to fairy tales (whiches are full of sexual symbolism though) where magic allows characters to go through irrealistic dangers to face death, resurrection, torture and punishment. The childlike fantasy has no discomfort to play dead, to engage in virtual violence where the blows are simulated. Kids need this second-hand experience of harmless violence, and we cannot rationalize it with a moral judgement, cause it's not ill-intentionned but soothing.
Pain is absent from cartoons, violence is spectacular but the reactions of the victim are disprotionately insignificant compared to the expected damages. Recovery is instantaneous too, or skipped through ellipsis. It's a sort of violence that has no physical consequences to fear.
It's not teaching kids the hazard of domestic violence, but helps them to bring out inner demons dealing with moral transgressions with their parents (challenged authority, rules, forbidden games, phobia...)

It's funny though that the Itchy & Scratchy or the Roadrunner are devoid of storytelling, because the instinctive point is destruction of the opponent without justification, taking cartoon violence to it's barest.

August 22, 2006 9:01 AM  
Blogger Joshua said...

I love your take on Barthes and cartoons. I think it's a great alignment of ideas because in the cases of both Sade and Tweety Bird sadism seems the only possible outcome of the porno-grammar. Which is to say that Sade's narratives are exhaustive and relentless, but function as a result of all those rules and classifications Barthes lists -- the heightened state of eroticism he achieves (as Noel points out) is intense regardless of one's attraction to S/M, because the rules and boundaries inherent in Sade's form demand sadism and slavery and we respond to that in notable ways. The same is true of cartoons. An animated film like "The Little Mermaid" has very little appeal to adults but the frenetic and sadistic Bugs Bunny cartoons maintain in us a heightened state. While pushes the boundaries of the socially acceptable while nonetheless keeping us in line with tightly drawn rules and boundaries, we become trapped in the artist's erotic world. And anyone who claims the relationship between Tweety and Sylvester isn't erotic is missing the point.

One other thing of interest to Sade (and perhaps too to Freleng) comes from Sontag's essay on fascism. The final passage of the essay is a review of a book on nazi regalia which she describes as a work of pornography and then segues into a discussion of the gay male fascination with BDSM. She compares our current rituals of sadomasochism to Sade and notes that Sade had to make it all up -- his work is brilliant fantasy largely because it all sprang from his twisted, fertile and stylistically revolutionary mind. But the current BDSM scene is lifted only in part from Sade (and "The Story of O") and almost entirely from the Third Reich. Which explains why Tom of Finland's drawings are so much less riveting than 120 Days of Sodom or Tweety and Sylvester.

August 22, 2006 9:06 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Joshua and Harry ~ Thank you for laying all that good brain food on the table...!

August 22, 2006 10:37 AM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

A bit of cartoon-related news:

This is downright stupidity. An anthropomorphized cat and mouse chasing each other with all sorts of deadly weapons is OK, but we must never let kids see them smoking.

"Our audience is children and we don't want to be irresponsible." - Turner Europe spokesperson

Would be funny if it wasn't so goddamn pathetic.

August 22, 2006 10:45 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

Joshua: Sylvester and Tweety are more riveting than Tom of Finland? Ahem. I beg to differ. Oh well, within the BDSM meme, I beg period. Heh.

I haven't read that Sontag essay but will hunt it down now. She is my fave rave lately: articulate unto beauty. The direct link to Nazi aesthetics is in some of his darkest work (he's incredibly prolific). Another queer artist who leans so much into that domain is Stavrinos.

August 22, 2006 11:14 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Truly ridiculous, Filmbrain.

There's an interesting, related excerpt from Michael Guillen's Freleng post, about Ted Turner deciding not to air Speedy Gonzalez on the Cartoon Network:

"As one contributor ["Map Kernow"] to an online forum debating the issue angrily vented: "This shows what I've always maintained: 'political correctness' and 'sensitivity' etc. aren't about being 'sensitive' to minorities or people of color. It's a crutch for guilty liberal white people to feel good about themselves. It doesn't mean a damn thing that Mexicans themselves do like Speedy Gonzales—some white folks at Cartoon Network have decided they shouldn't oughta like Speedy, and that's that.""

August 22, 2006 11:16 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

The phrase in that Tom and Jerry piece Filmbrain linked that stood out for me was "aimed at children". Perhaps I'd feel somewhat differently if I were a parent myself, but these days I feel rather offended by the whole concept of "aiming" films and television at young children just so they can be shown candy and toy commercials that their parents won't sit though. Tom and Jerry cartoons were originally made for general audiences, not kids, and no amount of editing or repackaging them is going to change that.

Girish, really a great post (and gallery). I think Freleng IS cataloging in his way; it's a catalog of gags, and Chuck Jones and the others did it too. But while Jones paces, say, his Road Runner cartoons to maximize surprise when possible (you never really know how elaborately one of the Coyote's schemes will get foiled; sometimes it only takes a few seconds, and he mixes brief gags with elongated ones), I think Friz is more likely to encourage the viewer to predict how the gag might go, and the anticipation can sometimes make it even funnier.

August 22, 2006 5:06 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

And I meant to add that, by encouraging anticipation, Freleng may be helping the viewer appreciate the cataloging process.

An example that comes to mind is from Golden Yeggs, when Rocky gives Daffy a count of five until he's required to lay a gold egg. Each count represents another attempt on Daffy's part to escape, and after the first one or two fail, the pattern is already established enough to get us to eagerly wonder, "what are some other ways a duck can be kept in an apartment by a diminutive gangster?"

August 22, 2006 5:41 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

And delight in knowing that we're about to find out!

August 22, 2006 5:42 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh that's great, Brian. You're really helping us think about these films that all too often we (or I, anyway) pay unfairly less critical attention to....

August 22, 2006 6:36 PM  
Blogger Joshua said...

Maya --

The problem with Tom of Finland to me is that, unlike Sade and Tweety, the work is never fully committed to either cartoonish humor or lavish style. It's a sort of cross-breed and a very kitschy one at that. Amusing? Of course. Sexy? or captivating? Not really.

As for Sontag, the essay is "Fascinating Fascism" and appears in "Under the Sign of Saturn." I can also be read here. It is primarily about Leni Riefenstahl's photography, and therefore has very little to do with current discussion. sorry for throwing things out of whack. So to speak.

August 23, 2006 3:09 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

Whatever I'm doing, girish, I'm as much responding to the thinking in your post as to the cartoons themselves, so consider it a collaborative effort!

August 23, 2006 4:06 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Don't apologize, Joshua. Digression is, for me anyway, the favored mode of motion!

Thanks, Brian.

August 23, 2006 7:03 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

Exactly!! I, for one, enamored as I am with Sontag these days, really appreciate the link to the facsism article. Thank ya!!

August 23, 2006 12:39 PM  
Blogger CK Dexter said...

I've always liked Theodor Adorno's explanation of cartoon violence. It's over the top, but I think there's something to it:

"In so far as cartoons do any more than accustom the senses to the new tempo, they hammer into every brain the old lesson that continuous friction, the breaking down of all individual resistance, is the condition of life in this society. Donald Duck in the cartoons and the unfortunate in real life get their thrashing so that the audience can learn to take their own punishment."

This is part of his, and Max Horkheimer's "Dialectic of Enlightenment" schtick, where they analyze the unfortunate way that the rational pursuit of knowledge and freedom turns into its opposite. In the case of cartoon consumption, what appears to be uninhibited fun supposedly turns out to be a reinforcement to social conformity. And in content, what appears as the "freeing" of the spontaneity of the characters (the "freedom" of their wacky hijinks) turns out to be an expression of masochistic and sadistic tendencies that support violent and authoritarian social and political institutions.

Adorno's idea coincides, actually, with certain aspects of Sade's work--especially his philosophical ruminations in "Philosophy in the Boudoir." Sade starts with basic enlightenment principles about the rights of human beings and tries to deduce from them the conclusion that every individual has the right to do whatever they like to another--and that, moreover, in a truly free society the law would require the victims of this right to submit. He is, in effect, a parody of the enlightenment tradition: universal freedom turns into universal enslavement.

What does that mean for cartoons? Freud suggested that humor involves a momentary lifting of repression--consequently suggesting it is on the side of freedom. A cartoon might be seen as a temporary release of violent tendencies that are restricted by social life, on that view. But Adorno and Sade suggest that cartoon violence doesn't satisfy a primary, frustrated desire, but are instead a training in repression, a support for, rather than an escape from, authority.

August 27, 2006 7:45 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Your Adorno explanation is really interesting. What I remember from cartoons (I haven't consumed some in a long time), is the clear-cut identification of Good/Evil characters. Maybe I should scan cartoons for a more comprehensive study, but it seems the victim is always little, fragile, innocent, defenseless but smart or lucky : female/child figure. And the agressor is bigger, stronger, resourceful, hyperactive but dumb and unlucky : (ani)male/adult "pervert" figure.

So the underlaying moral invariably favors the victim, even if it's fun to watch the baddie try and try again to break the (moral) law. Freud would say we allow ourselves to identify with the baddie because we know he's punished in the end, so it both satisfies our pulsion/desir (exhibition) and our need of order/justice (inhibition). Cartoons are a world where right and wrong can co-exist in "harmony".

I can totally relate to this description of social authority there. Children education is in fact a process of conditioning : every wrongdoing is immediately punished, recurrently, invariably, until full social inhibition is acquired. I wonder what it means that grown-up adults can still find pleasure in watching these scenes of repression conditioning though.

I begin to see the sexual content in cartoons now. Hunger is a substitute for sexual desir : The wolf and the little red ridding hood. Which is a male perspective by the way. But I guess women find pleasure/satisfaction in being chased without being caught too, watching the men try and fail.

August 28, 2006 1:50 PM  
Blogger Joshua said...

I'm also excited by the Adorno passage, but I think that Harry's missing something in his response to it. Part of what makes the cartoons in question (Tweety and the Road Runner are the prime examples, but we could add Bugs and Elmer, Tom and Jerry, ad nauseum) so subversive is that they invert the roles of aggressor and victim. The cat/hunter/coyote earns our sympathy because he is frustrated in his desire to follow his basic drive (to hunt and kill a bird/rabbit) by a "victim" who is not only more cunning than him, but much more sadistic. The tricks Tweety, Bugs and the Road Runner play on their enemies are operatic in there sadism, and the "victims" take such glee in tormenting the "villains." And this is where Sade's "Boudoir" comes in, though I don't think it applies wholly or that Adorno really gets it right. The fact is, in cartoons, there is no instinct toward submission and in most cartoons there is no social order that is upheld. The "social order" would require the bird to submit to the authority of the cat, but the Tweety and Bugs are anarchistic figures who undermine the power of the law precisely by ignoring it -- and that's what we find funny. Still, Adorno, Sade and Freleng might all agree that cartoons help us see that the limits of rationalism and freedom in the face of irrational desire.

August 29, 2006 3:26 AM  
Blogger girish said...

CK, Harry, Joshua ~ A most fascinating discussion...

August 29, 2006 7:11 AM  
Blogger CK Dexter said...

Joshua and Harry Tuttle's points about the standard character roles in cartoons are really interesting. It's true that the Adorno quote doesn't seem to fit the inversion of victim and aggessor in so many cartoons.

Adorno's view is more nuanced than that I made it look. He does imply that there are liberatory as well as non-liberatory forms of humor:

"Laughter, whether conciliatory or terrible, always occurs when some fear passes. It indicates liberation either from physical danger or from the grip of logic. Conciliatory laughter is heard as the echo of an escape from power; the wrong kind overcomes fear by capitulating to the forces which are to be feared."

So, maybe Joshua's examples are the "right kind"? Actually, that's tempting, since those Looney Tunes/Warner Brothers examples do constitute a kind of genre of cartoon, while Adorno's examples are invariably Disney. Can we divide cartoons (maybe not neatly) into Good (Looney Tunes) and Evil (Disney)?

August 29, 2006 8:45 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

You're right Joshua, I might overlook the sadism of the victim. But for instance the handless roadrunner never attacks actively, the coyote is clumsy and do it onto himself most of the time. It's bad luck, and not sadism on the part of the victim who only defends her own life against agression. The coyote endangers his own life by using deadly (disproportional) means.
And this would be a perfect ilustration of Freud's "failed act" (is it the right english translation?), where the baddie automatically makes sure to ultimately abort his own crime, because he knows it is wrong unconsciously and should be punished for desiring it.

But you're right for Jerry and Bugs, which is more of an Itchy & Scratchy model of reciprocated sadism.
I'm not sure about the link between Sade and cartoons, but I'd need to read all his books. The submission doesn't ring right to me.
The bird submits to the cat only in CK Dexter's interpretation of Sade, which is not a conventional social order (perverted).
The moral order of humans says cats cannot kill a bird in cage, because we fight against our animal nature. Sylvester is usually told by the old lady to watch the bird while she's gone, and this is the parental authority installment, which could be transgressed while the parents are away, despite the known consequences when they will come back.

The law is on the side of the victim, the natural order is on the side of the mighty. I don't think Tweety or Bugs are anarchistic figures. They only respond to agression with self-defense. In the natural order the prey cannot attack/kill the predator, they just duck and escape. Predators follow their instincts, but we humans disaprove. Since they are personifications of human personality, the defending victim could kill a criminal because he's wrong.
Ok Bugs is perverse. But Tweety usually reminds Sylvester what's wrong (submiting to parental order) and that these games might get him in trouble.

Yes CK, this discussion is definitely proper to Looney Tunes, whiches are a very specific kind of cartoons. But Disney's aren't "funny" in the same sense (with short running gags). What Disney cartoons are you thinking of for the "wrong kind"?

August 29, 2006 9:20 AM  
Blogger Joshua said...

I think CK is onto something with his distinction between Looney Tunes (which are at stake in Girish's post) and Disney films, which Adorno was more concerned with. We can add to Adorno not only Sontag (who mentions Disney's Fantasia as a supreme example of fascist art in the essay I've already discussed above) but also Walter Benjamin, who wrote about Mickey Mouse several times. Unfortunately, I don't own a copy of the essay in question and the full text online is of a later version that doesn't include his thoughts on Mickey, so this is what I could glean from some frustrating searches online:
"(Their dark fire-magic, for which colour film has provided technical preconditions, underlines a trait, which until now was only present in hidden ways. It shows how comfortably fascism – in this realm too – can appropriate so-called ‘revolutionary’ innovations.) What surfaces in the light of the latest Disney films is actually already present in some older ones: the tendency to locate bestiality and violence quite comfortably as accompaniments of existence. This calls on an older and no less terrifying tradition; it was introduced by the dancing hooligans which we find in mediaeval pogrom images, and the ‘ragged band’ in Grimms’ fairy tales form their imprecise, pale rearguard."

So that Disney's work tends to treat violence as a natural, and positive, condition of human life. All Disney films feature a struggle of Wagnerian proportions between the beautiful and the ugly (one possibly, partial exception is Sleeping Beauty where the witch-queen has a certain haughty beauty of her own) wherein physical perfection and beauty equate with goodness and virtue, and thus a certain kind of natural order is upheld when the pure vanquish the vile.

And Harry, you raise an important point as regards the mother in Tweety, but nonetheless, Tweety Bird is one of the most fantastically sadistic charcters I can think of this side of Sade himself. And the distinction between the law and the natural order shows us only that the "law" is a sham -- because the possessors of natural rights (Sylvester) are far more sympathetic than the possessors of legal rights (Tweety) who use the law to inflict pain on those who cannot help themselves.

This distinction does help us clarify the idea that these cartoons help us see the limits of both the natural order and the law and speak to the power of individuals to both use and subvert these concepts for their own benefit (and ours!)

August 30, 2006 2:55 AM  
Blogger CK Dexter said...

"What Disney cartoons are you thinking of for the 'wrong kind'?"

Adorno specifically complains about Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. I don't recall much about Mickey cartoons, but the character of Donald Duck is supposed to be a stand-in for the average joe, where the plots revolve around Donald's rapidly rising temper and of an unending sequence of escalating misfortunes and injuries. Usually, a minor misfortune makes him angry, he blows his top, and then the chaos and misery grow exponentially as a direct result of his attempts to fix the problem. This underlines the futility of any attempt to resist or transform misery, suggests that he deserves his misfortunes precisely because he has the gall to get angry about them. I wonder if Homer Simpson follows this pattern, too?

Looney Tunes cartoons, on the other hand, really do fit the "escape from power" picture of humor that Adorno values. They relish watching power fail miserably, time after time, to catch its victims. The most delictable joy of the roadrunner cartoons is watching the excruciatingly long and painstaking preparations that go into an overly intricate trap that's doomed to complete failure.

"the baddie automatically makes sure to ultimately abort his own crime, because he knows it is wrong unconsciously and should be punished for desiring it."

I hadn't thought of the possibility that these cartoon predators are failing intentionally. But it makes sense, and it's an intriguing idea. It makes me wonder if the Looney Tunes cartoon model is so innocuous after all. Ultimately the war of the big guy against the little guy, of cat and mouse, comes off as a fun and innocent game that all participants enjoy, even the much pummelled predator--and so a game that OUGHT to be continued. The predator purposely fails, in order to keep the game going, because it's about the game, not the catch--and for the prey, the pleasure is not in having escaped but in the game of escape.

I think Joshua makes a good point about the Disney cartoon's naturalization of violence. But this would mean Looney Tunes go even further. The message is not just: what can you do? It's a dog-eat-dog world. But also: isn't this dog-eat-dog world great?

But of course it's only fun for all parties in the cartoons. I'm reminded of a horrific but funny Family Guy bit ( in which Elmer Fudd actually succeeds in killing Bugs. It's so disturbing because it fits right in, rather than contrasts with, the plot of the actual cartoons: the joy of escape and outwitting is a real moment, but only a moment, in a natural relationship between predator and prey that always has only this gruesome final outcome (which Disney has charmingly glorified as the "cycle of life".)

Less brutally, consider the old Pepe la Pew cartoons. The game of sexual pursuit is a perfect example of the joy of the chase. (Harry, does "la chasse" in French mean both "hunt" and "pursuit"?) The cartoon seemed innocuous enough in its day, but I suspect many women don't find that old-school lecherous version of the 'the chase' that delightful.

"the possessors of natural rights (Sylvester) are far more sympathetic than the possessors of legal rights (Tweety) who use the law to inflict pain on those who cannot help themselves."

Joshua, I really like this point. It really cries out for a Nietzschean reading of cartoon morality as slave morality and cartoon law as the spirit of revenge. But I've gone on too long, already...

August 30, 2006 10:00 AM  
Blogger Joshua said...

Yes, CK, I agree that Nietzsche would probably find Looney Tunes a rather disturbing product of slave morality, even if it transforms slave morality into a kind of master morality by empowering the slaves. Certainly, the Tweetys of the world nonetheless castrate the will to power.

The difference between violence in Mickey (especially in Fantasia) and Looney Tunes that I think Benjamin would admit is that Mickey's struggles are dramatic and are a reflection of a tremendous spiritual struggle between the Hero and the forces that attempt to subdue him. This is deeply Germanic, and perhaps not necessarily fascist, but it's a far cry from Tweety Bird. The struggles there are, as you point out, games. Nothing, really, is at stake in these struggles. And the point applies across the board to virtually all Disney animated features.

August 31, 2006 3:15 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

The violence in Disney is essentially melodramatic, not as archetypal the way featured in Looney Tunes, so I wouldn't compare them on the topic of Sadism. Actually I don't get the "fascism" blame. (I didn't read Sontag's essay yet). Disney's celebration of beauty is a basic personification of Good/Evil forces, I doubt there is any fascism/eugenism in there. Maybe in the plot, I don't know, but not in the images. Beauty is a universal imagery that is more symbolic than political.

Actually I'd like to see this "fascist scrutiny" on feature films with live actors, which underlaying political agenda is more dubious than in cartoons...

"the possessors of legal rights (Tweety) who use the law to inflict pain on those who cannot help themselves"

I'm lost there. I don't recal Tweety being malicious or evil. this character is naive (doesn't believe Sylvester is out there to eat her alive), innocent (doesn't inflict pain first, only when assaulted personaly) and confident (conditionned by the rightness of punishment when you behave badly, only inflicting the pain Sylvester deserves for disobeying Granny).

Tom & Jerry is a counter example to Tweety & Sylvester, because the roles are reversed. The cat is human-friendly and fullfill his role to rid the house of the mice nuisance, yet he's the bad guy, and we empatize with the mouse.

Yes, CK, "chasse" could mean both "hunt" (which is its proper meaning) and "chase" (poursuite).

September 01, 2006 8:45 PM  
Blogger CK Dexter said...

harrytuttle, you've got a point about the different relationship between the cats and the humans in these cartoons. We've been focusing on the fact that in many cases, the predator becomes prey, which is true of both Tom and Sylvester. But you've convinced me that their relation to the humans--obedient or not, within the law or not--is important.

I suppose this does underline a theme of the tension between nature and civilization, of the wild and tamed sides of human nature. If we see the children watching the cartoon as analogous to the animals (the child as a borderline between savage and civilized, between wild and domesticated human), then they would indeed serve as a lesson in repression. Stay in your cage and obey the rules, and you'll be rewarded, otherwise, you'll get a good beating.

"I don't recal Tweety being malicious or evil. this character is naive"

I suppose Tweety is never explicitly evil, but I always had the impression that his naivite was phony, and that he enjoyed luring Sylvester to misery. Maybe I project that onto the character, or it might be a hint of sarcasm in the voice-acting for Tweety (which is pretty over the top "sweet innocent me"). In which case, maybe that sarcasm didn't translate in the French versions? If his character is in fact presented as somewhat sadistict, it would reinforce the repressive moral lesson: not only do you get rewarded if you follow the rules, you get the delight of punishing those who don't. (I'm of Nietzsche's Aquinas quote in his discussion of slave morality: "In the kingdom of heaven the blessed will see the punishment of the damned, so that they will derive all the more pleasure from their heavenly bliss.")

September 02, 2006 11:17 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

"[...]you get the delight of punishing those who don't. (I'm of Nietzsche's Aquinas quote in his discussion of slave morality: "In the kingdom of heaven the blessed will see the punishment of the damned, so that they will derive all the more pleasure from their heavenly bliss.")"

Very true. That's my interpretation of the spirit of Looney Tunes' (simulated) violence.

September 02, 2006 5:57 PM  
Blogger Joshua said...

I agree with CK vis-a-vis Tweety. He is definitely sadistic. His innocent act is a sham. We know this because all his innocent features are immensely exagerrated (those wide eyes, that little voice, the shy way he blinks flirtatiously through those lashes!) and because he is so feminized. Tweety's one of the great prettyboy femmes fatale! He knows Sylvester will pursue him relentlessly and loves the pursuit, but in a twist of the hunter-hunted notion of sexual relations, also loves knowing that the pursuit will end very badly for his suitor.

[There is, surely, another reason for Tweety's exagerrated feminity. And that's to up the sexual ante implicit in Sylvester's hunt. The cartoon Tweety bears the most resemblance to is Betty Boop, an icon of cartoon sexuality.]

But, I still like Harry's invocation of parental authority, always a useful angle in such close readings. I'm not convinced that Granny in Tweety has much authority (she seems to represent the corruption and ineptitude of the ruling class) but it's certainly interesting.

September 05, 2006 2:18 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

I love Love LOVE this conversation and the fact that it's kept going, though I feel like it's on a plane of cartoon interpretation I just don't have it in me to really contribute to.

But I thought it might be interesting to interject a little historical context about Tweety you may already know, but that seems to go along with what has been said about him so far.

His first three cartoons were wartime cartoons directed by Robert Clampett: a Tale of Two Kitties (1942), Birdy and the Beast and, best of all, Gruesome Twosome. The character design was based on a baby picture of Clampett that he'd always had around as a child and hated. In these cartoons he was undeniably sadistic; almost certainly moreso than in the later pairings with Sylvester. He was also a wild bird: a hatchling with no feathers, and rather pinkish in color.

After the relative leniancy of wartime cartoon censors, it was decreed that he be given feathers because he looked too "naked" as he was. By 1946 Clampett left the studio and Freleng decided to take over the character, clothing him in canary feathers, giving him eyelashes to bat, and exaggerating his "babyface" features, reportedly in order to make the charcter appeal to women. Freleng also gave him the "Tweety" name (Clampett's cartoons had not referred to the bird by name, though on at least one character model sheet he was called "Orson"), domesticated him, and set him against the cat character he'd created in Life With Feathers (1945) and by now named Sylvester.

Though Freleng and the other Warner directors had made domestic-set cartoons before, the Sylvester-Tweety combination was probably the first big success the studio had had with recurring characters in an indoor setting (perhaps in part inspired by MGM's popular domesticated duo Tom and Jerry). Of the studio's previous stars, only Porky and Elmer ever really seemed at home indoors, and even they usually worked better on adventures afield. Though Bugs and Daffy occasionally would be used in a homebound cartoon, the tension of the cartoon would often arise from just how out of place they seemed in that environment (Freleng's the Wabbit Who Came to Supper (1942) and Tashlin's Nasty Quacks come to mind). Cartoons based on outdoor adventure were a natural during the wartime period, but as the troops came home and American interests turned more toward domesticity it made sense that the cartoons would follow. And as theatrical cartoon budgets began to shrink in the 1950s, indoor settings became increasingly in vogue as an alternative to limited animation: you could reduce costs because the backgrounds for indoor cartoons were often less elaborate. After Freleng's sucess with Tweety and Sylvester, Chuck Jones turned to domesticated characters with his Marc Anthony/Pussyfoot series, and Robert McKimson with his "Honeymousers" recurring spoof.

Hope that was reasonably interesting, and not too much of an interruption. As you were saying...

September 05, 2006 4:58 AM  
Blogger Joshua said...

Brian's history lessons throws me even more far afield, which is to think of how Tweety's childishness (hatchlingness?) plays into his role in the sado-drama. I think his most childish features actually sexualize him, but if we ignore that for a moment then I can rant about children for a minute. Children often occupy the position of the innocent to be protected in our society. The amount of power The Child asserts over the adult world is startling when you begin to catalogue the number of things we do "for the children." Everything from environmental protection to pension reform is discussed in terms of "our grandchildren's grandchildren" (who aren't even yet alive!) and censorship almost always takes the "protect the kiddies" approach. But children, as anyone who has spent any time with any know, are hardly "innocent." In fact, they are rather savage, anarchistic beings who must be "tamed" by society in order to be of any use at all. Tweety, I think, fits the bill pretty well. But the social force (the cat) can never quite tame him. Or else, pick your reading, the social force (Granny) can never adequately protect him.

In this sense he's both the threat to and justification for Granny's authority (note also: The Siamese Cats in "Lady and the Tramp") and that's what makes him so unsettling.

Obviously, I'm not a fan of children (though, oddly, I am a fan of savage anarchism) but this little turn of the discussion puts me in mind of a phrase coined by Lee Edelman in his book "No Return": "the fascism of the baby's face." No matter how vile Tweety is (and he can be very vile) our desire to protect him because he's cuter than Sylvester is overwhelming to the point of being neutered and allowing us to feel sorry for poor Sylvester. Tweety only exagerrates what is ever and always true of the baby's face.

September 06, 2006 2:30 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

I think your interpretation of Tweety's hatchlingness is absolutely right on, Joshua. Even if unconsciously, the character and his popularity surely is a manifestation of social insecurities over the post-war Baby Boom.

See also: Clampett's Baby Bottleneck (1946), Tashlin's Swooner Crooner and Brother Brat (both 1944), Jones's Three Bears series (1944-1951), and later on in the boom period, McKimson's introduction of a "Junior" character for Foghorn Leghorn in Little Boy Boo (1954) and for Sylvester himself in Pop 'im Pop (1950), as well as Jones's Rocket-Bye Baby (1956), etc. I don't think there were nearly as many cartoons exploring parent-child relationships until the mid-forties, at least not at Warner.

Interestingly, in the later films the babies/children are not seen so much as a physical threat like Tweety, but as an intellectual one; the kids are precocious compared to the fumbling adults, who are routinely demoralized by their inadequacy in relation to their offspring.

If "the fascism of the baby's face" makes us want to protect and suport the next generation, what happens when the next generation is in less need of protection and support than we are? It's a theme of every Sylvester/Junior cartoon in which inevitably Junior must put a paper bag over his head in shame.

September 06, 2006 10:26 PM  
Blogger Joshua said...

I'm glad you brought up Junior, even though that brings us even further further afield into basically unrelated territory. I agree with your interpretation of this as a kind of reaction to the baby boom but would add that it's also a reaction to a tremendous shift in the nature of the world -- namely focusing on technology. The fathers are invariably of the "working class" sort and their kids are eggheaded nerds -- who need physical protection but also prove that the era of physical power is over. So they reflect a profound uneasiness with changing masculinity and the labor. The 1940s-60s were the era of intellectuals as heroes, and so the social reaction is obvious.

But this concept of the brilliant new generation is hardly new to cartoons -- its a staple of science fiction from the period and at least one great example can be found in much earlier "serious literature" and that's Little Father Time in Hardy's "Jude the Obscure." After LFT kills himself and his siblings, the attending doctor says he is seeing this "more and more" and that soon there will be a whole generation of humans who kill themselves rather than live in this dreadful world. It's not as optimistic as the science fiction super-races were and not as jocular as the cartoons, but it's the same vision, of progress walking hand in hand with doom.

September 08, 2006 2:16 AM  
Blogger Squish said...

Blog-A-Thons are great, and since I didn't participate in this one, I thought I'd invite all of you over to my place for my own. Check it:

September 13, 2006 10:19 PM  

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