The Stupid 365 Project, Day 61: Chuck Amok

November 30th, 2010

Chuck Jones was someone I was incredibly privileged to know for a long time.

Chuck, of course, was the creator of the Roadrunner and Wile E.Coyote; as well as Pepe Le Pew, Daffy Duck, the amorous skunk; and a co-creator of the immortal Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. He was also an adult who retained the best aspects of childhood: spontaneity, enthusiasm, openness, and an unending willingness to be entertained.

He used to say of himself that he wanted to be as Bugs, but he never evolved beyond Daffy.

Chuck was the kind of guy who transformed philosophy into classic cartoons.  He once summed up Wile E. Coyote by quoting George Santayana’s definition of a fanatic: “Someone who doubles his effort when he’s forgotten his aim.”  That’s a quotation I think of often in these days of underwear bombers and suicide vests.

When he was in third grade, his teacher — a woman who should never have been allowed in the same room with children — told him he couldn’t draw.  And he didn’t.  He never drew again until college, when he nervously signed up for a drawing class. He got to the classroom, took a seat, and waited.  A couple of minutes passed, and students started talking among themselves.  Five minutes passed, and some of them were up and moving around the room.  About eight minutes into the hour, the door flew open and banged against the wall, and the teacher was standing there.

“Why aren’t you drawing,” he demanded.  “You’ve all got one hundred thousand bad drawings in you, and you’ve got to get them out.”

That’s something else I think of frequently — two days ago, for example, when the words wouldn’t come.  I’ve got a hundred thousand bad scenes in me, and I’ve got to get them all out.  A bad day just lowers the number.

I have only one regret from our friendship.  Late in life he began to paint imitations of old masters, but with his characters in them.  He did a breathtaking version of Van Gogh’s self-portrait after cutting off his ear — a really remarkable rendering, except with a bandaged Daffy.  It was funny, audacious, and heartbreaking.  I loved it, and he offered it to me for $3,000.  “I’d give it to you,” he said, “but I cling to the idea that I’m a professional artist.”

Like a complete and absolute idiot, I kept the money, which is now, of course, long gone.  If I’d bought the picture, I’d love it every time I looked at it.

He taught me (and most people he interacted with) a lot.  I might write about him again.

I really do miss him.

13 Responses to “The Stupid 365 Project, Day 61: Chuck Amok”

  1. Bonnie Says:

    This is really sick, but just the other night I was thinking of Disney characters only in the context of what if someone used them to make porn-type drawings? God knows what kind of cesspool is in all those layers of our minds when I thought of that, slowly regaining consciousness from some dream or other. But Bugs Bunny with an amputated ear doesn’t seem less grotesque, really.

    Don’t know if you remember the porn cartoon full-length movie that came out when I was probably in my late teens, so you in your late 20’s? You’d think cartoon porn/gore would be less effective than “real” but somehow it was worse. Felix the Cat? I can’t remember, but it was seriously gross.

    Anyway, too many people are teachers for the wrong reasons, and the fact that we pay them chickenfeed probably doesn’t help. I remember an assignment in junior high school to write a story based on a piece of music, and it was the first time I heard Smetana’s Moldau. The teacher didn’t like my story, she said it was “too imaginative.”

  2. fairyhedgehog Says:

    I love these reminiscences.

    I got rid of 50,000 bad words during Nano. I wonder how many more I have to go…

  3. Gary Says:

    Bonnie’s story too imaginative, eh? That’s the problem with modern society – all this imagination nonsense.

    Plenty of real problems out there in the world today, without wasting time on all this airy-fairy wool gathering. REAL problems – like how I’m going to raise all those millions I’ll need to get re-elected.

    Imagination… Fiction… Boil them in their own puddings, I say, with stakes of holly through their hearts.

    Bah! Humbug!

  4. EverettK Says:

    Chuck Jones has always been one of my heroes. Thanks for the memory, Tim!

    On a totally different note, you’ve mentioned Anthony Powell’s 12-volume A Dance To The Music Of Time in the past. The University of Chicago Press makes a free e-book available every month, and this month’s is the first volume, A Question of Upbringing. The other 11 volumes are available from them at $8.00 each as e-books. You can also download the first volume for free from Amazon at A Question of Upbringing, and Amazon has the other 11 volumes from the U of Chicago Press at a discount price of $6.40 each.

    I’ve not read it yet, so can’t give it my PERSONAL recommendation, but since Tim’s brought it up here several times, I thought others might be interested in the opportunity to try the first volume for free.

  5. Bonnie Says:

    Everett, I read DTTMOT aeons ago, when I was also reading C.P. Snow. Though they are not at all alike, I think of them the way I think of Thackery: something to fill a lot of leisure time, a bit self-indulgent, erudite, enjoyable. Thanks for the tip–it might be time to revisit them.

  6. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I like your memoir. To me, the thing propping up humor is always a lot of intelligence, perceptiveness, and, of course, a sense of the absurd. Somewhere I’ve heard that the words aren’t bad, they just need to be rearranged.

  7. Larissa Says:

    I love the idea that we have to treat our mistakes like an exorcism. Purging ourselves of all the crap words and pictures and line drawings sounds refreshing–so why does it always seem so daunting when we’re actually doing it.

    I should go find an artist leach…

  8. Suzanna Says:

    Love the story about getting the bad drawings out. I had a ceramics teacher who told me something similar. He said that the first 20 things that you make should probably just be thrown out. I think he must have been too generous, maybe it is more in the thousands.

    My father-in-law tells a story about a very tough professor in art school who he had heard made all of his students labor over a clay replica of their big toe for a number of days. When they were finished he had all the students stand around in a big circle with their “toe” in front of them. He then went around and wordlessly squashed each toe with his shoe. Terrible thing to do to beginning students but I think it says a lot about how our work will always be challenged by external or internal forces and we have to be prepared to keep going no matter what. That professor really put himself in an awkward position with his students though.

  9. Phil Hanson Says:

    Bonnie, Felix the Cat was absolutely puritanical compared to Fritz the Cat, whom I believe is the cat you have in mind. Raunchy, for sure.

    And Tim, is there anyone in the entertainment/publishing business you don’t know? Delightful stories, all.

  10. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    God, have I really not responded to any of these? All I can say is that I’m back in Santa Monica and writing as fast as I can.

    Bonnie, it was “Fritz the Cat” by a pervert named Ralph Bakshi, and it was crude in every meaning of the word, as well as taking a truly disgusting view of sexuality. Revealed more about Mr. Bakshi than he probably knew. A real welt on the history of animation. And, yeah, as much as I’d like to believe Chuck’s teacher was unusual, it’s not always easy to do so – as your own teacher, may he/she rot in hell — makes clear. Gotta fight that imagination wherever it pops up. Let them eat multiple choice.

    Thanks, FHH — they’re fun for me to write, too. And CONGRATULATIONS on finishing NaNoWriMo — I keep wanting to do it, but not this year, thanks. I doubt your work was that bad — although I still seem to get rid of about 1,000 bad ones every day or two.

    You’re right, Gary — imagination is the bane of modern society. And it’s being successfully driven out in places — look at Jay Leno, for example. And very appropriate to quote Dickens, maybe the greatest defender of the imaginative life, especially for children.

    Thanks, Everett — I went on one of the Kindle forums and talked about DANCE, and about 15 people backed me up, all competing for the title of who loves the books most. I want to hear the audio books from Audible and will probably download them just to hear what the narrator (who is apparently tremendous) does with Kenneth Widmerpool and the character, Dr. Trelawney, who’s based on Aleister Crowley.

    Bonnie I read all 12 every 8-10 years and have since my mid-twenties. They change as you grow older, which makes sense since Powell himself grew older as he wrote them. BTW, I’m reading the Letters of Kingsley Amis right now, and as waspish as Amis was, Powell and Philip Larkin are the only two people in all of England Amis never says an unkind or unadmiring word about. I would have loved to have met Powell. (Amis would have scared me, but God, do I love his books.)

    Thank you, Lil. Chuck was an amazing guy. His default setting was amusement. I haven’t met many people I can say that about.

    Hey, Riss — you bleed yourself enough without finding a leach. (If that’s an inappropriate comment, I apologize — I’m talking about a trait of my own that I think I see in you.) The only thing to do with writing is to write. Good, bad, awful, boring, rapturous, ringing with truth or duller than Brazil nuts, at the end of the day, it’s just your daily words. Sometimes great words have no place in the book for which they were written. Sometimes the scene toward which the whole book builds is flat and unconvincing. It’s just your most recent book, and it’s infinitely malleable; it can always be improved or even ruined. I’m going to write a blog about knowing when to quit — I’m not sure I’ve read many writers talking about that.

    Zanna, Clif and I both had a teacher in theater named William Schlosser who got up at the beginning of every semester and gave his “Theater is a demanding mistress” speech in which he essentially told us there was no way we were going to be able to live up to the enormous commitment of time and energy, coupled with a brutal lack of reward, that theater was going to demand from us. This from a guy who never missed a lunch in his life, who ended his rehearsals at 8:30 no matter what was happening so her could get home, etc. etc. etc. I think some professors in the arts hope to discourage any student who could challenge their frail claim on competence. Sounds like this jerk was a member of that club.

  11. Bonnie Says:

    How can you not like the guy who wrote this (of a hangover):

    “A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night and then as its mausoleum.”

    (from Lucky Jim

  12. Larissa Says:

    Lol. No, you’re right. I don’t really need any help. Hopefully I don’t come across as too emo around here hehe…that’d be bad. (c:

    I do have to make a sticky note or perhaps a tattoo that reminds me not to take it all so seriously. Not. All. The. Time. It’s an easy way to burn out. The truth is if you write crap or draw crap or whatever it is you’re doing-you just start over later.

    I’ve been hooked on these road biking videos put out by the Cervelo bike company for a while now-they’re all about their test team riders and their journeys and attempts to win and all that jazz that you don’t see when you’re watching cycling in real time-and the owner said something to this effect:

    If you set out to test yourself there are two things that can happen-you can succeed or you can fail. But if your goal was to test yourself, then it is always success.

    That’s a fair paraphrase I believe. And it’s true.

  13. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Bonnie, nice to see another Amis fan out there. He’s one of the unshowiest and funniest really top-drawer writers I know, although he was certainly a difficult person. His son, Martin, has inherited some of the talent but not much of the humor. I accidentally stole from him in THE FOURTH WATCHER — just a straight lift, and no, I’m not going to point it out.

    Hello, Riss: You definitely don’t come across as emo. Obviously, I take writing seriously, too. It’s just that I’ve done enough of it to know that no single day, or week, or even an entire book, means that much. What matters is that we keep growing and learn from the times we don’t achieve what we aimed for. I think the only way to learn to do something new is to try to do something we don’t know how to do. Writing growth (this is off the top of my head) is of two kinds: getting better at the basics, and stretching toward new territory. Raymond Chandler once said of his own development, “It was a year before I could get his hat off.” Learning how to write a character walking across a room is the beginning of understanding that there are ten thousand ways to write a character walking across a room, and the better you get at that level, the better qualified you’ll be to go on tiptoe and have the person who is walking across the room someone you don’t know how to write, crossing the room to get to a scene, a situation, you don’t know how to write. And the only way to get there is to write and write and write.

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