Saturday, December 15, 2007

Bugs Bunny, Postmodernism, Sadism, Nabakov, Characterization--Duck Amuck

One of the benefits of parenthood is getting to revisit films, cartoons, and stories that have been long forgotten from childhood.

Today, we saw a matinee of Bugs Bunny cartoons, and I was struck by the variety of postmodern sensibility (that's a high falutin' word for this fare, and yet it's accurate).

There's an authorial consciousness and meta narrative that's noticeably at play in many of the Bugs Bunny cartoons. In fact, the opening of this film started out with the well-known ending, "That's All Folks!" which was then corrected by Bugs to say, "That's Not All Folks!"--a phrase that included copyediting marks. So we know from the start that the narrative is all a game, that beginnings and endings (or any traditional narrative arc) shouldn't be taken seriously, and that Bugs will always toy with our expectations.

One episode stood out spectacularly. In Duck Amuck (created in 1953), Daffy Duck is exquisitely tortured by his creator. In the course of the film the animator messes with and changes the scenery, interchanges props, replaces the soundtrack, mutes Daffy, and even erases and physically alters Daffy himself. For example, as Daffy strolls with a ukulele, singing a lazy, tropical song, he's tossed into a variety of climates, ending up in the snow (you can almost hear the animator laughing--at Daffy and in celebration of his artistic, cruel freedom). Daffy keeps trying to live--and entertain--but he can't maintain any constancy or control of his surroundings, or even his body.

The cartoon reminded me of Nabokov's approach to characterization--the way he kept his character under his, or rather God's, thumb. Torture them. Make them uncomfortable. Give them no joy. No freedom. Daffy kept attempting to liberate himself--to be a naturalistic, realistic character, in short, to serve the expectations of the audience--but he was ruthlessly denied such a life.

An interesting tension in the cartoon, in fact, is the audience's desire to see Daffy entertain in a straightforward way and the pleasure of seeing him thwarted and frustrated.

The cartoon brought up questions of identity as well. According to Wikipedia, Chuck Jones, the
director, is asking, "Who is Daffy Duck anyway? Would you recognize him if I did this to him? What if he didn't live in the woods? Didn't live anywhere? What if he had no voice? No face? What if he wasn't even a duck anymore?" He's always Daffy, of course, even without a body or voice. Except that he's also something else: a character, a fluid and malleable identity who, well, loses himself, as we all do, I suppose.

The cartoon ends by revealing the sadistic creator, Bugs Bunny, who appropriately says, "Ain't I a stinker?" Yes, he is a stinker--especially since he says this with no remorse. It's a funny little line that says so much. Many postmodern narratives could be summed up with this line, in fact. Yes, Bugs, you're a stinker.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Wes Anderson: Prop as Character

What interests me most about Wes Anderson is that his stories seem to originate from his props—the story serves the prop, in other words, instead of the prop serving the story, as is the usual tendency.

It’s an interesting place to begin a story. Kundera admired Broch’s definition of character through gesture, but this is entirely different: the definition of character through obsessive attachment to an object. Anderson is a fetishist, and all of his characters follow suit.

In the Darjeeling Limited, the prop that plays the starring role is an exquisite collection of suitcases (designed by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, with “suitcase wildlife drawings” by Eric Anderson). The luggage (and the baggage they represent) are the legacy of the three sons’ father. The supporting cast includes an expensive leather belt, ornate loafers, the father’s glasses, with a cameo by the dad’s razor.

As the main characters disembark the train for their first spiritual experience of the journey, they get sidetracked at the market to buy, well, props. Even the shoes they buy are more prop than footwear. Even the snake they buy--and later mourn when it's taken away, as a child mourns a lost toy--is nothing more than a prop, something to carry, something which their life flows into.

All of these objects are beautiful, works of art in their way, fanciful and surprising, as the story is—as the film is as well. Anderson’s frames are similar to his props in their preciousness and stylization. Everything is so well staged, even the unexpected—his characters move through life as if between a dressing room and a fashion ad. They’re conscious of always being watched, and watching themselves, which is why they need some damn good props.

As A.O. Scott wrote in the Times, Anderson’s “frames are, once again, stuffed with carefully placed curiosities, both human and inanimate; his story wanders from whimsy to melancholy; his taste in music, clothes, cars and accessories remains eccentric and impeccable.”

Of course, getting rid of the props, ditching the style, is the key to happiness (at least the Buddhists would say this), and the three brothers in the film, after their spiritual journey, their attempt to be “brothers like we used to be,” to “say yes to everything,” leave the prized suitcases behind in a dramatic ending that might be called a Buddhist chase scene.

I wish he’d make a sequel starring the luggage that has been left behind. As much as I enjoy his kooky, singular vision, I sometimes can’t help but think that the guy is too damn cool, even when he’s on a spiritual journey. He can’t take off his sunglasses. He doesn’t know how, or if, people can be people without their affectations, obsessions, and fetishes.