An entire modernist canon encompassing Eliot and Beckett might be grouped under the heading “The Art of Futility,” but where does this art find more eloquent, succinct expression than in 1955 Looney Tune One Froggy Evening? A seven-minute cartoon squib containing the quintessence of frustration and despair, Froggy features a construction worker whose sanity begins to unravel when he discovers an ebullient performing frog that he might make a fortune from—if it didn’t turn taciturn and morose the moment anyone else is watching.
The author of One Froggy Evening, Charles M. “Chuck” Jones, is the subject of a four-day BAMcinématek tribute occasioned by the centennial of his birth. Born in Washington State, an ambitious young draftsman Jones worked straightaways through the ranks of the cartooning industry, eventually joining Leon Schlesinger Productions, the home of Looney Tunes.
The majority of BAM’s three shorts programs is drawn from Jones’s 1950s output, for his creative peak was hitched to Eisenhower and Rocket Age futurism. This is most evident in Jones’s signature Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner shorts—the art of futility, again! Chains of breakneck blackout sketches with proto-rockabilly titles (Stop! Look! Hasten! and Ready, Set, Zoom!), they made comedy through defying everything that kids were learning in physics classes. Like Al Jaffee at Mad magazine, Jones and his worthless Acme products lambasted the needless complexity of much-fetishized innovation.
The subversion doesn’t stop there: 1957’s What’s Opera, Doc? declared open season on the contemporary middle-class rage for classical music while continuing the sexual anarchy of cross-dressing Bugs Bunny’s serial seduction of Elmer Fudd. A Bear for Punishment (1951) revisits the Three Bears’ cave as a vision of the nuclear family as hell. And speaking of nuclear: 1953’s space-race romp Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century contains the finest visualization of mutually assured destruction set to film—and all of these shorts, it should be noted, will be screening in actual 35mm.
BAM’s three shorts programs are supplemented with a selection of features displaying Jones’s influence, obviously and less so. Onetime Godard affiliate Jean-Pierre Gorin’s delightful 1986 Routine Pleasures, dedicated to Jones, visits with the Pacific Beach and Western club of model-train enthusiasts and critic/painter Manny Farber—obsessive creators of imagined landscapes that owe much to Jones’s deserts. A curious mix of knockabout comedy and Robert Towne conspiracy—”Forget it, Jake, it’s Toontown”—Robert Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit homages the “duck season! rabbit season!” routine from Jones’s Daffy and Bugs shorts, among much else. It made a star of Kathleen Turner–voiced Jessica Rabbit, with Cyd Charisse legs, Veronica Lake peekaboo hair, and a bosom never seen on this planet; less so the grating title character. An altogether more satisfying live-action-and-‘toon mash-up might be found in Joe Dante’s 2003 Looney Tunes: Back in Action, playing along with the rare sequel that outdoes the original, Dante’s 1990 Gremlins 2: The New Batch, which ransacks ’80s pop culture for satirical targets as thoroughly as Jones did the ’50s. Criminally, Dante’s latest, The Hole 3-D, had its theatrical rollout confined to a few theaters Georgia—we never learn to respect our native geniuses in time. But in the case of Chuck Jones, it’s better late than never.