(This is a guest post by Wired writer Scott Thill)
The late, great animation legend Chuck Jones passed in 2002. But his childhood, and its influence on his immortal cartoons, is coming to life Tuesday in Peggy Stern’s kindhearted documentary Chuck
Jones: Memories of Childhood. Combining one of the last interviews ever conducted with Jones with new animation, directed by his friend John Canemaker, the half-hour documentary is a moving reminder that a child’s imagination is not just a terrible thing to waste, but also a surprisingly resilient animal.
Kind of like Wile E. Coyote and Daffy Duck, come to think of it.
Those characters and more will celebrate the documentary’s premiere on Turner Classic Movies in some of his finest films like What’s Opera,
Doc? and One Froggy
Evening, which screen across seven hours directly before and after Memories of Childhood‘s three airings. In other words,
Tuesday is a great day to be a Chuck Jones fan.
Memories of Childhood opens sweetly, with Jones recalling early years spent at the beach, anticipating the flight patterns of seagulls and crashing of waves, conducting the marine world with a sweep of his arms. "I’m not known particularly known throughout the world for being a conductor of oceans," he laughs. "But
I bet I’m one of the best."
The documentary agrees, arguing that it’s not a long ride from that imaginary symphony to the memorable animated ones he directed. In fact, as Jones explains in Memories of Childhood, studying the habits of his environment, whether it was the beach and seagulls or Sunset Boulevard and Mary Pickford, came in very handy when it came time to dream up an award-winning cartoon.
Something as simple as scrutinizing the bizarro behavior of the family cat, which would paddle in the ocean with Jones and his three siblings and leap, soaked and scary as hell, on unsuspecting swimmers was an art school of an entirely free kind. The cat alone, Jones admits, helped him "become a better animator than I ever thought
I would be."
Of course, when it came time to enter a proper art school, the self-described shy and skinny kid was freaked at the possibility of seeing a naked woman for the first time in his life. It was a moment of personal and artistic maturity that nevertheless made its seductive way into Bugs Bunny’s drag moments in "What’s Opera, Doc?"
and other immortal toons. And it was an awkward maturity bred equally of unconditional love and repeated physical abuse, the former coming from his mother and the latter from his father, who Jones describes in
Memories of Childhood as a "terribly frustrated intellectual."
"I kept away from him," he confesses matter-of-factly.
"He worked me over pretty bad."
That merge of compassion and violence has always been a matter of parental debate, cool and otherwise, when it came to Warner Bros.
remarkably violent cartoons. Wile E. Coyote dies any number of ways in his incessant pursuit of the Road Runner, Daffy Duck is continually ruined in his competition with Bugs Bunny, the list goes on. It is very rewarding to trace the history of violence in Jones’ own life down into his animation, from the early brawls of his directorial debut The
Night Watchman to the greater global annihilation of Haredevil
But as Jones’ quotes Gertrude Stein — "Artists don’t need criticism, artists need love" — his measured delivery of his deeply personal life is imbued with that love. Indeed, he even concedes that his father redeemed himself by choosing to put his oldest son into art school — "he served a purpose," Jones concludes — after it became obvious that he wasn’t going to shine in high school. As in toons, we humans also survive our violence even luckier to be alive, still willing to stand out from the crowd.
And Jones stood out like a sore genius, along with other Termite
Terrace animation legends like Tex Avery, Friz Freleng, Robert
McKimson and the simply unhinged Bob Clampett.
When it came to their quickly popular cartoons, Jones admits that they had to strip away the rules of childhood and adulthood alike and just try to crack each other up.
"We couldn’t make them for children because we didn’t know what children thought," Jones says. "And we couldn’t make them for adults because adults weren’t any brighter than we were."
Which, in the end, is the finest lesson of Stern and Canemaker’s relaxed but revealing portrait of Jones as an artist at the end of his road: Make each other laugh. As Jones explains, clutching his Oscar but speaking of life in general, "The road is much better than the end." So why not spend it laughing?
Jones’ life ended in 2002, after 90 years of groundbreaking work, which has gone on to influence art and culture in ways that are yet to be fully measured. Memories of Childhood is a compelling glimpse into the fertile imagination behind that work, as well as the unstable youth from which it emerged, battered and bruised but still resolute in its pursuit of timeless, hilarious self-expression. Don’t miss it.
Photo courtesy Turner Classic Movies