Pick & Mix: Bugs
This is Pick & Mix, In which we ignore the distinctions between feature, short, promo, commercial, viral, art film and more, in order to focus on the moving image; this column is a weekly, in-depth presentation of works which, in some cases, you may not have seen and which, in other cases, you may have watched, but not from our perspective.
What’s Opera Doc
Chuck Jones (1957)
When was the last time you saw Mickey Mouse? The odds are, it hasn’t been long – on a mug, a t-shirt, a bus, plastered to the cover of a DVD or video game. Like the Golden Arches of McDonald’s, the three dark, overlapping circles which constitute that rodent are one of the most recognisable symbols in the world. But when was the last time you saw Mickey in a cartoon? I, personally, can’t remember. But I guarantee you that when I did, I didn’t laugh. The Mick’s not fun. He’s a pompous, moralising older brother, with a high, whooping, teeth-grating voice.
Try his long-time rival, Bugs Bunny, instead. Bugs eked out an existence in the suburbs of the Warner Brothers cartoon catalogue, in the late 1930s. He launched himself from rabbit holes to outwit an increasingly irritated Porky Pig, and played victim to a couple of cartoon dogs. Then, as the Second World War edged nearer, Bugs’s star rose into the firmament of cultural popularity, where it remained for several decades. He evolved into a kind of cross-dressing Groucho Marx character, a trickster with a cultural root as deep as the woodland creatures that piss around in the margins of medieval manuscripts. His greatest moment – the single moment that you should investigate, if you’re a rabbit virgin – is What’s Opera Doc?
Swap Errol Flynn for Elvis Presley – having been around since 1938, by 1957 the Bugs formula was getting a little tired: Elmer shows up, disturbs Bugs’s peace by announcing that it’s ‘wabbit huntin’ season’, and Bugs tries to get along with him until he’s pushed too far. He announces that ‘of course ya know, this means war’, and the two duke it out for the next five minutes.
Changes to the formula weren’t new – the early 50’s saw the production of Duck Amuck and The Rabbit of Seville – which are both worth checking out, if What’s Opera Doc? whets your appetite. But the latter movie is the place to start. In it, Chuck Jones – a long time Bugs director – takes the pathos and the pomposity of Wagner’s entire oeuvre and packs it into seven minutes in which we see Bugs and Elmer fight, marry, kiss, fight again and, ultimately, come to blows in a conflict in which Elmer is – for once – the victor. I dare you to not shed a tear.
As parody, the cartoon is impressive enough. It inhabits a pseudo Germanic world – a theatre set come to life. Its art style is a surreal combination of angular castles and gravity defying trees and shrubs, presided over by an art-deco rainstorm that shoots down heavily-designed lightening; the characters themselves are quickly swept up into operatic stereotypes that can’t help but propel them towards a tragic end.
Toy Story 3 aside, there aren’t many cartoons that can effectively comment on the nature of fate and pre-determination, before making you cry. Ahead of Akira, Pixar and Studio Ghibli, What’s Opera Doc? makes a legitimate case for cartoons as a serious art form, a medium that can move beyond generic conventions into truly mature, engaging entertainment.
This was written by Fred Rowson, a freelance filmmaker and music video director. You should check out his work by visiting www.fredrowson.com