Friday, January 04, 2008

Cartoon Violence

Some comments in my last post have gotten me thinking about the question of when cartoon violence crosses the line: what makes cartoon violence horrific rather than funny?

Many of the violent acts in Tom and Jerry cartoons and most of the violence in Famous Studios cartoons are famous for provoking disgust instead of laughter; the violence in The Simpsons "Itchy and Scratchy" cartoons is a parody of that kind of violence (they were inspired in part by Herman and Katnip), violence that is so horrible and painful that feels real, and therefore sickening. Warner Brothers, Tex Avery at MGM, and to some extent even Woody Woodpecker were better able to do violent gags without making them feel like real, painful violence. But what's the difference, and where's the line that bad violent gags cross?

As I said, I think that T&J's success helped make cartoons more violent at every studio; the Warners directors were doing more violent gags, both in terms of number and the degree of violence, after 1945 or so. But while the stuff that happens to Daffy Duck in "Rabbit Fire" is probably the most extreme violence that Chuck Jones had done up to that point, I think most people would agree that it doesn't cross that line. (The one possible exception is when he gets scalped by a bullet and we see the bullet hanging from his ripped-off scalp; when I saw that gag with an audience, the audience laughed, but there was some audible discomfort in the laughter.) So why is it funny rather than horrible to see Daffy get a part of his body blown off?

I don't know if there are any immutable rules about when a violent gag is funny and when it isn't; it's all about context and timing and many other things. For example, one of the few Warners gags that is truly horrible rather than funny is in "Sahara Hare" when Sam gets split in half. That's really not funny at all, at least for me and other people I've watched it with. But there are plenty of other cartoons where characters get scratched in half by cats' claws, cut in half by accident, and it's funny. There's just something about that particular moment that doesn't work.

Still, if there is any rule at all, it's probably that the most important issue in cartoon violence is how the character reacts. If a character reacts as if he's in agonizing pain, it's hard to laugh. The more realistic his pain, the more we associate the gag with what would happen to us if we were in that situation (namely, that we'd be in pain). Warners was famous for taking the edge off cartoon violence by placing the emphasis on the character's reactions, which were not reactions of pain but of humiliation or irritation. Daffy is always just pissed-off when he gets shot; he's not in pain, he's just angry that Bugs tricked him again. We instinctively understand that the shooting isn't a "real" shooting, just a punchline to the real point of the scene -- Bugs one-ups Daffy again. To get back to that "Sahara Hare" gag, one of the reasons it doesn't work is that Sam has his back to the camera when it happens and the scene blacks out immediately, so we never see Sam's reaction to the incident and we don't see him reconstituting himself. So the scene isn't about him getting outwitted by Bugs, it's just about a guy getting chopped in two, which isn't very funny at all.

Tex Avery's way of doing cartoon violence was a bit different at MGM, I think: he'd have characters act like they're in pain, but make their reactions so over-the-top that it, again, doesn't seem like real pain. I think the most crucial thing for a violent cartoon gag is that we should not relate it to anything that could happen to us (or worse, anything that has happened) to us.


Edward Hegstrom said...

The Warner cartoons may not have featured so much on-screen physical violence, but the psychological cruelty was often intense. I'm thinking of "Chow Hound", which irises out on a character as he realizes he's probably about to die, or most of the mind games Hubie and Bertie played on poor Claude Cat, made so much worse by Claude's believably freaked-out reactions. Chuck Jones could really be a mean bastard sometimes.

Krishva said...

I've always loved the ridiculously violent gags in Tom and Jerry. Gene Deitch's are the only ones I've really found disturbing--in part because Tom cries in so many of them.

J Lee said...

Treg Brown also played a role in keeping the Warners' violence from really crossing the line with his use of sound effects, which tended to veer away from realism into noises that got the point across, but did so in a funny way more than what MGM did (I'm thinking here of one particular scene in "The Flying Cat" where a falling Tom cuts a tree in half with his groin and we're given the accompanying sound of a buzz saw. Ouch to the 10th power). A lot of the sound effects in the Herman and Katnip cartoons at Famous also served to make the gags more painful than funny.

Warners did have a few other misfires on their gags besides Sam's cleaving in "Sahara Hare". Even though we see Wile E.'s face in "Beep Prepared" during the machine gun gag, the thought of his middle section being completely disintegrated in a hail of bullets before the top half of his body drops down to meet the bottom is still a little uncomfortable to watch.

Anonymous said...

Very astute analysis. A few years ago, I had an accident, in which I fell more than a dozen feet down from a height, and was severeley injured for months. As a result, for a long time thereafter, I felt acutely uncomofrtable and disturbed whenever I watched an action movie or other live-action film in which a character falls from a great height, even if there's a last minute rescue or acrobatic landing. It brought back the terror and physical sensations of my own fall.

In contrast, Wile E. Coyote doesn't bother me, even though he *does* plummet, because of the reaction, as you mentioned. It's seldom an anticipation of pain and terror so much as a "Why me?" or "Here we go again," a sort of blend of self-pity and resignation (and Treg Brown's sound effects, as noted, helped, since they final crash was really fairly understated).

Thad said...

Meh. It just must be me, but cartoon violence has never irked me. They're just celluloid. If anything, I wish more traditionally animated cartoons were more graphic with their violence, like the punchline of the "Now I've seen everything!" gag ending with blood spilling from the character's mouth.

Larry Levine said...

In the case of Wile E. Coyote, he is always the victim of his own actions and is usually more humiliated than in actual pain, and unlike Tom, he's always physically healed in the next scene.

The worst cruelty to the 1950's Famous cartoons is that they subjected audiences to their 3rd rate 'forgot everything we learned from Max & Dave' junk.

Thad said...

The worst cruelty to the 1950's Famous cartoons is that they subjected audiences to their 3rd rate 'forgot everything we learned from Max & Dave' junk.

By most accounts, Seymour Kneitel is the one who held things back at Famous, sticking with a 'sure thing' and not trying anything new.

The problem with the Famous cartoons is entirely in the story department. There is nothing third-rate about the animation or music.

J Lee said...

There was a 1952 letter that was posted online several years ago just after Art Davis' death that showed Izzy Sparber asking Davis where he could find Sid Marcus, since he wanted to hire Sid for the Famous story department (this was just about the time Marcus was rehired by Warners to work with McKimson). So at least Sparber understood that by the early 1950s, the stories at the studio were in need of some new ideas.

Combined with Kneitel's desire for bland, evenly paced animation, it meant the cartoons lived and died on the gags that the story department gave them, and in terms of cartoon violence, there was nothing in the way of off-beat timing or funny reactions to make the pain of a Herman & Katnip or Baby Huey short feel a little less uncomfortable to watch. The sad part is Famous did upgrade their story department by about the end of 1955, at the same time the animation budget was being cut to the bone, so the late 50s plots are much better and less repetitive, but that's offset by the much weaker animation.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Jaime, I couldn't disagree more. I've never been disgusted by violence in cartoons, it's not like there was blood in them or anyhting. Even when Jerry did something to Tom's eyeball or smash his teeth with a hammer it got a laugh.

Anonymous said...

The "wrongest" gag I can remember is in a Friz Freleng cartoon (I think "Dr Jerkyl's Hyde", but I might be mistaken) where a dog gets sliced into pieces and falls apart into a series of dog coloured cubes. hat really felt off. Otherwise, I can;t think of a WB example that really crossed the line.

I don't know the T&J shorts nearly as well, but from what I've seen I don't necessarily find them disturbing so much as just wearying in their relentlessness; the WB cartoons usually had a bit more going on. I find the T&J shorts just sort of depressing in much the same way as the weaker WB cartoons (like the Hippety Hopper series).

Yeldarb86 said...

For some reason, I found a gag from The Little Orphan, where a candle burning Tom's tail spreads to his whole body, a little nerving. Not because of the ethnic stereotype, but just the way it was step up, and how, he was still burnt when the scene moves to the next gag.

Unknown said...

I was not able to send you an email for my request to mention you in my paper for psychology. I do not have the right mail server. Anyway, I found this article intriguing, and it hit the nail on the head when you said it provoked disgust and not laughter while watching the cartoons. We had to do a mini experiment with watchin two saturday morning cartoons and a primetime show. Collect data, and such. Proper credit will be given in the paper if I quote anything you said in the blog with in my paper. It is only for educational use in class, not publically published or anything like that.