Wednesday, August 27, 2008


D: Chuck Jones, USA, 1953, approx. 7 minutes.

Duck Amuck is one of the great cinematic treasures of the United States. At face value, it is unadulterated fun (on a personal level, bringing me back instantly to memories of my youth watching Saturday morning cartoons). When I was in college, I had the pleasure of meeting the master, Chuck Jones, who said that he and his colleagues never made these films for kids, nor did they make them to satisfy anyone else: they did it to crack themselves up.

So it says something about the group at the Termite Terrace that many of these throwaway shorts shown in front of Warner Brothers movies should be so terribly sophisticated. Duck Amuck is hilarious chaos on screen -- and yet the very reasons why it is so hysterically funny come from how much we as viewers know about film. The short is about -- well, nothing. Literally. Poor Daffy Duck starts acting in what seems to be a send-up of
The Scarlet Pimpernel when all of a suddent the background changes. He seems confused, then shrugs and starts over as another character to fit the scene. Everything after this point pits Daffy's desperate attempts to get a story (any story!) going against an unseen illustrator/director, who keeps changing everything about the filming, seemingly at random. The sound disappears. The scene disappears. Daffy himself disappears, to return in a different form entirely. The art, however, makes the majority of the film appear as an uninterrupted single take (with several cuts toward the end). We laugh at what we see, because we recognize that this isn't supposed to be what we see. "This is a close-up??" Daffy screams for the far-off deserted island -- and we know it's not a close-up, but rather an iris-in, even if we aren't familiar with the cinematic terminology out of hand.

Towards the end of the film, Jones does something particularly radical with the screen image. While trying to reason with the illustrator, all of a suden the top of the screen caves in. This seems simple, but the effect is rather sophisticated: in effect, Jones eliminates the screen. By that, I mean the rectangle that allows us to comprehend everything that happens in movies to begin with. This both demonstrates the pliable power behind animation that would prove implausible in live action -- and that higher film theory can be demonstrated with wit beyond compare. In just over six minutes (as he did over and over again), Chuck Jones demonstrates his intelligent mastery of the form and how utterly effective the short film can be. Not to mention that such shorts can also be, well, fun. Think of how utterly disappointing the feature-length Looney Tunes films have been and you'll know what I mean.


kylos said...

this was a treat (even in spanish - as i dont speak it). i too remember this cartoon from my youth on saturday mornings.

i recall it taught me a little bit about the elements involved in making films/animations. when you're young everything is just magically there to watch. for example, the fact that the sound doesnt match up at points actually educated me to the manipulations of the creator, while being fun at the same time.

and i agree - watching older looney toons emphasizes the lack of sophistication in alot of more recent animated series, in my opinion anyway.

Jeremy said...

If you told someone on the street that the definitive experimental film was a Looney Tune, they'd probably be pretty shocked.

This has me thinking about animation vs. live action. Is animation inherently experimental? Pure live action - no CG, no effects - is limited by, well, REALITY! You can only light and stage so many different ways, and not all of them are equal.

Animated stories are completely free-form. You can make the most ridiculous visuals work via any number of creative decisions - IF you are using CG or animation. My favorite example is The Secret of NIMH. The book - I love that Don Bluth out-experimented the author of the book his movie was based on - ends with the rats successfully moving Mrs. Frisby's house. The movie throws that out, puts in one supernatural telekinetic rat with glowing eyes, and then throws in this supernatural amulet that allows Mrs. Brisby (whose name has been changed to avoid copyright infringement) to move her house like THIS!

Have you ever seen that before on film? I haven't. That's still my favorite scene in any film ever. Oooh... shiny.

p.s. I would be supremely annoyed that I didn't claim Duck Amuck if I had a spot in either the animation block or the experimental block (coming later this semester).