It is with great pleasure and necessity that I write Chuck Jones tribute essay one jillion and one. I didn’t know it then, but I was lucky as hell to be born when I was, and not two or three years later. For I had grown up in sort of a golden portion of the 80s, before ABC Saturday morning became the all-pimple channel and the NBA pre-game show had to begin at 5 am in order to cover adequately Shaq’s myriad interests. Now this may be hard to imagine, but they actually used to show Looney Tunes every Saturday morning on ABC, and we would watch them.
By high school I had somehow turned my attentions away from cartoons. Apparently there were other things. In college I quickly discovered two more of them—drinking and regret. Still no cartoons. Hmm. But then summer came, and I went home to discover my parents hadn’t stopped paying for cable. Now cable means two things: supporting tyranny and an unlimited supply of cartoons, some loonier than others. And now I was smart. It didn’t take long before I recognized the rightful place of the cartoon short in the pantheon of higher art. So I watched. And I watched. And I taped. And soon I had compiled enough tapes to fill a small sink if I wanted. I noticed I was gravitating mainly toward two things: the insane joy of the early Daffy Duck character and anything done by a guy called Chuck Jones. Here, it was the entire product—from the animation to the story, from the backgrounds to the spills, between the desire and the timing, and basically damn near close to perfection of it all.
So I saved some money and bought a bunch of Chuck Jones cartoons on laser disc. It was all you could do at the time since they weren’t on DVD. I didn’t even have a laser disc player. But if the great flood did come for any reason, I wanted to at least have something to hold up and say, “Hey, don’t look at me.” But you know I did end up finding a laser disc player, at R University near where I lived, in a special section of the main library called the Brown Fine Arts Library, or as I called it, the 3rd floor. I would bring my discs in a little canvas bag and make a time of it. And it’s actually good to watch them like this, when you’ve committed to be with them and only them. No snack breaks (this ain’t no damn movie theatre). No steady stream of commercials to distract your bones. Like listening to your favorite music on some good tight headphones. It’s better.
I also note Michael Maltese’s name on many of the great Chuck Jones cartoons. I wouldn’t know how the two of them got along, but it was obviously productive. And what about Mel Blanc, carrot hater? And what of the sublime richness or abstract sparseness of the backgrounds (Noble? de Guard?) and how they are integrated them with the primary action? From the breathtaking pink and white (abstract columns, flowers, the big staircase) in ‘What’s Opera Doc?’ to the Road Runner deserts to the quaint French villages in Pepe Le Pieu to the Citizen Kane-like perspective in cartoons like ‘Beanstalk Bunny’ (“He’s Jack”). And what about the way there are many carefully-drawn people in the scene, like in a saloon or London pub, but yet, they never quite seem to fully engage in the primary action. This invisible divide between foreground and background characters creates a particular sense of loneliness, which I crave.
Dear Mr. Jones,
Whenever I look for a standard—a guide—I look to your work. But it’s more than just that. It’s a way of living, of moving, physically I mean. The other day, I found myself, in the shower, soaping and singing in time with Rossini, “Welcome to my shop, let me cut your mop…daintily…daintily.” I believe from watching so many of your cartoons I have actually absorbed your rhythm and timing into my being. And for this I am saved.
When I think about my life, about retiring—I am so young—I think about the day I can finally take the time to read some books—not just pages of books—and watch the movies and cartoons I still haven’t seen enough times (fifty or sixty being scarcely sufficient for something like “Rabbit of Seville” or “What’s Opera Doc?”). Whenever I meet someone I think is really cool, I show them your cartoons. Not so much as a litmus test, but when I get excited about someone, I want to share with them the best things I know. And I know what they are.
I wrote you a letter in my last year of college when I had figured it out. To not hear back from you was at first a cause of some distress. But then I realized you must not have gotten my letter. But now I hear about a Chuck Jones tribute project going on. To cheer you up! At first, I was going to just send a copy of my old letter. But then I couldn’t find it, so I had to write this instead.
Not a part of the actual letter, just wondering aloud
Most of this I wrote on the construction site for this new house going up down the street from where I live. The fence was only a gesture, knocked down in parts, which I walked over. I carried the blueprint of my letter into the structure and quickly made the second floor. There was a third floor, but the second was good enough. Naked 2x2’s, 4x4’s, jacks, tens, concrete wells, stairs without rails, sockets, sprockets and dangly things, crumpled cigarette boxes bought by the carton, washers, nails, would-be splinters, big open frames—almost like windows. Good enough.
I sat in the future second-story window watching people push their way down the street. Chuck Jones? Wasn’t he the thirty-second president? I spit out the future window for no good reason. It was Sunday, but today was Saturday. Some day a couple paying nine-hundred dollars a month, good rent, will have their spat in this very room, while a tender four-year old plays quietly on the carpeted floor. This child will have the benefit of knowing what it’s like to be Allen Iverson, to be lost and then found, and all in 3D Slam Vision.
I dreamed this construction site was the set for some new Bugs Bunny cartoon. They were planning the big pie throwing sequence right here, and just through that hole, there—the stick of dynamite would be handed, wrapped up like a gift for Troy. And I was there alone, way before the man said, “Action!” It was cool. These cardboard boxes are popping up everywhere. The tenants prize their walls painted gray, giving the impression of real stone, which makes a wonderful sound of hollow plywood when you knock it. This is my favorite architectural style—American throw-up. Gee Pa, they sure don’t make ’em like they used to. Said the little sign on the chain link fence, “Keep out,” but I didn’t. “Don’t doubt,” but I do. At first, I was going to send a copy of my old letter, but I couldn’t find it, and had to write this instead.