Thursday, August 5

Daffy Duck And Deliverance

Every several years, at rather irregular intervals, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra stages a “Bugs Bunny Night,” in which, on a giant screen looming over the orchestra, are projected several classical Warner Brothers cartoons involving, not just Bugs, but Daffy Duck, the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, etc., etc., etc. All the cartoons involve classical and baroque music from various eras. Now, the cartoons’ soundtracks are independent of the orchestra, but the orchestra below the screen plays the music live and in real time – in miraculously perfect synchronization to the cartoons.  My wife and I attended the latest performance, celebrating the 50-year – yes! 50-year! – partnership forged between the animation geniuses of Warner Brothers cartoons and the great composers – Rossini, Wagner, Strauss, et al. – of ages past. The performance was hilarious and exhilarating at the same time. That set me to thinking about the possibilities – most of which are no doubt impossible – of using that happy symbiosis to educate kids in today’s secondary schools, perhaps even seduce them into loving the music of the composers represented in “Bugs Bunny Night,” and others – Mozart, Haydn, Bach, et al. -- they would perhaps discover as a result.

Aside from the practical problems of bringing “Bugs Bunny Night” into the classroom, there is the difference between today’s cartoons and the ones my peers and I grew up with in the halcyon days of the 50s and 60s. I honestly do not mean to sound like the classic curmudgeon lamenting how the tastes and standards of today’s culture have descended from some supposed Golden Age – which, in most cases, never even existed, anyway – to contemporary decadence. But notice that I did say “in most cases.” In the case of cartoons, that degeneration is quite real. Compare today’s cartoons with those of the 50s and 60s, and you will find at least one salient difference:  in the 1950s and -60s, the cartoon characters were … well … they were people. I mean that in the sense that they had personalities, rather well-developed personalities, at that. Bugs Bunny was a person. Daffy Duck was a person. Elmer Fudd was a person. Porky Pig was a person. Pepe LePeu was a person. Even Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner – who never spoke a word – were persons. I have yet to see contemporary cartoons that are more than simply animated line-drawings with a voice-over added. No personality. (In fairness, however, I should note that one notable exception to this insipidity are the Hanna-Barbera cartoons – the Flintstones, the Rubbles, Yogi Bear, et. al., who are also actual personalities.) When Bugs is directing the fat opera singer to sing himself to the point of acquiring a plaid facial complexion, Bugs’s voice and overall demeanor are eloquent of a kind of larceny that is all the more sly for being utterly devoid of mendacity and malice. Similar remarks apply to Daffy Duck:  there is a reason his name is “Daffy”. Ditto Elmer. Ditto Porky. Ditto Pepe. No flat, one-dimensional congeries of mere lines and sound effects is capable of assuming a personality. That these classical characters have personality renders their depiction of the music all the more convincing, because there are people behind the voices. So if a secondary-school teacher ever wanted to use excerpts from “Bugs Bunny Night” to teach her / his students how to actually enjoy classical / baroque music, contemporary stripped-down / minimalist cartoon characters-in-quote-marks would be risibly unequal for the task. My advice to such teachers: use the classical Warner Brothers cartoons or abandon the project altogether in the simple interest of not slandering the music or the cartoons. Go big or go home. 

Some examples from past performances of “Bugs Bunny Night”:

o Strauss’Tales from the Vienna Woods as the story of Porky and his dog hunting Bugs Bunny. In this case, even the dog as a well-developed personality. Porky Pig is, as usual, the hapless hunter perpetually in pursuit of his perpetually un-catch-able prey:  a porcine version of Wile E. Coyote vis a vis the Road Runner. I well remember watching this cartoon when I was a kid, and enjoying the cartoon, but also –it may well have been on a subliminal level -- enjoying the music. Only later did I find out that the music was by Strauss – whereupon I listened to just the music and learned to love it for its own sake.

o Rossini’s The Barber of Seville … which is honored by being transmogrified into The Rabbit of Seville, wherein Bugs gives Elmer Fudd the full treatment, including a shave with a straight razor wielded like a pirate’s cutlass. The Seattle Symphony, to its enduring credit, recognized the difference between real violence and cartoon violence, and left the scene in the cartoon wherein Bugs wields the straight razor with such alacrity. I have seen cuts of The Rabbit of Seville where the straight-razor sequence was edited out for fear that the kiddies would think Bugs was attacking Elmer – a problem I never had as a kid when I was rolling on the floor on Saturday mornings watching the cartoon, which I had seen dozens of times by the time I reached puberty. And I also got a good under-the-radar sampling of Rossini’s great opera, though I was not aware that I was being educated at the time.

o Wagner’s Ring cycle … with Bugs cast as Brunhilde and Elmer Fudd cast as Siegfried in What’s Opera Doc?  This is arguably the iconic instance of the symbiosis of Warner Brothers cartoons with grand opera. I vividly recall, as a kid, watching – over and over and over again – Elmer Fudd hunting Bugs and singing “Kill da wabbit! Kill da wabbit! Kill da wabbit! Kill da wabbit!” to the tune of Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyrie. This was my first exposure – though I did not know it at the time, of course – to Wagnerian opera and Wagner’s great Ring mythos. I still do not care for Wagnerian opera. In fact, I agree with Oscar Wilde’s remark that Wagner has “some wonderful moments but some terrible half-hours” – a remark also attributed to Rossini. But, in any case, What’s Opera Doc at least enabled me to become interested enough in Wagner’s rather heavy-handed, and Teutonically ponderous work to arrive at that same conclusion on my own – and to appreciate Wagner’s fury when he read that Nietzsche in one place described Wagner as a “maker of miniatures”.

o I am also especially fond of Long-Haired Hare, Part 1 and Part 2, in which Bugs torments a rather stuffed-shirt opera singer who refuses to allow him (Bugs) to sing to the accompaniment of the banjo, which the opera singer summarily broke over Bugs’s head. The last straw was the opera singer’s bashing of Bugs’s head against a tree limb, whereupon Bugs looks out at the viewer of the cartoon and solemnly vows “Of course, you know this means war!” The war is fought in the Hollywood Bowl, but I will leave it to you to discover how the narrative unfolds. My advice:  before you view either Part 1 or Part 2, make sure your bladder is empty. The point of all this is that art can be fun, something I have argued elsewhere – granted, with due qualifications and exceptions (e.g., MacBeth is not “fun”, nor is Julius Caesar). In fact, Long-Haired Hare is, in some ways, the most valuable of all the instances I have cited, because it is an antidote to the tendency of virtually all concert-goers and aesthetes to approach art with an expression on their faces and a general deportment that tells others they are dying of terminal hemorrhoids. I have seen people at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival actually hold their hands over their mouths to suppress laughter at, e.g., A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Long-Haired Hare is a modest but significant step in curing that pathology.

o Wile E. Coyote and The Roadrunner as existentialists born out of due season … This is not a matter of music, but of philosophy. In particular, it is a matter of a kind of proleptic anticipation of the thought of, e.g., Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus.  Ditto the even more pessimistic writings of, e.g., E. M. Cioran in On the Heights of Despair, Drawn and Quartered, The Trouble with Being Born, et al.:  the futility of the search for Meaning outside ourselves. Just as “the meaning of life” eludes us the more assiduously, and the more frantically, we search for it in some external source, that very Meaning escapes us, just as the Road Runner escapes Wile E. Coyote:  just when we think we are closing in on it, at the moment we think we perhaps have a solution to the Puzzle, the solution to the Puzzle sticks out its tongue at us, Road-Runner like, and flashes ahead of us at an eye-boggling, vertiginous speed, leaving us, like our spiritual counterpart, Wile E. Coyote, panting in a cloud of dust. I would even go so far as to say that there is something deeply, profoundly Buddhist in Wile E’s pursuit of the Road Runner:  a vivid illustration of the first Great Noble Truth that life is dukkha – suffering. Furthermore, and to extend the parallel with Buddhism, even our most strenuous efforts to capture the Road Runner of Meaning and to hold it still ultimately eventuate, not in peace and satisfaction, but in even more suffering. That is why the stock price of the Acme Co. – to say nothing of that of birdseed vendors -- has increased exponentially during Wile E’s eternal pursuit of the Road Runner. This is a valuable lesson, not only for kids, but also – arguably especially – for ostensibly mature adults:  do not make yourself miserable by trying to nail Jell-O to the wall or by trying to catch the eternally un-catch-able. And to think Coyote / Road Runner cartoons teach us this, not by way of somber Schopenhauer-esque meditations on the Will to Power, but through the medium of human laughter. Absurdity is often the best teacher. And certainly the most entertaining!

In conclusion, I fully realize that the following suggestion is wildly impractical, but … if there is any way for humanities teachers in secondary schools to introduce into their curricula and lesson plans anything like the marriage of vintage Warner Brothers cartoons and classical / baroque music and grand opera, I  urgently recommend that they do so. School curricula, even at the college level, are increasingly subject to the dollars-and-cents imperatives of the late-capitalist marketplace, and students are encouraged to use their education to make a living to such an extent that they lose sight of education as a way of making a life. The mentality of the cost-benefit analysis is, in most places and in most school curricula, especially at the college level, now dominant to such an extent that art ends up being grossly short-changed, partially because art and music are seen as unapproachably abstract – and, frankly, not “fun” anyway. The Seattle Symphony’s “Bugs Bunny Night” decisively refutes that paradigm. The more people who are exposed to this alternative, and the younger they are when exposed to it, the better for the kids – and, ultimately, for all of us.

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Daffy Duck … Looney Tunes Collection : Les meilleures aventures de Daffy Duck et Porky Pig … Public domain
Bugs Bunny … Mark Anderson … CC BY 2.0
Wile E. Coyote … Flavio Ensiki … CC BY 2.0
Roadrunner … Rosenfeld Media … CC BY 2.0
Roadrunner and Coyote … Serendigity … Public domain

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