The Existential Dilemma Of Wile E. Coyote

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ONE of the things I remember most clearly about my trip through Arizona on a Greyhound bus is the ubiquity of road runners - not the real ones (I never saw one), but the pins, pendants, and earrings that were displayed in all the bus depot gift shops. Golden and silver, some with jeweled eyes, they were inescapable, more than enough of them to make any visitor or tourist casually assume that the road runner must be the state bird of Arizona. In fact, it's the state bird of New Mexico; and its Latin name is Geococcyx californianus. In any case, I wasn't enamored of all this high-profile promotion for the road runner, which I knew through the classic Warner Bros. cartoon in which it appears as the b^ete noir of Wile E. Coyote. I was a Coyote rooter.

The Road Runner had always seemed to me to be virtually characterless, with a somewhat priggish manner and a loony appearance that perhaps is a symbolic reflection of the real-life bird's relation to the cuckoo. But the Coyote struck me as being a figure of heroic stature - completely dedicated, ingenious (although plagued by terrible luck), endlessly resilient and perseverant in spite of continual defeat.

The Coyote is obviously a tragic figure (note the depths of Angst in those sorrowful eyes!), but that perhaps only exacerbates his appeal. I am, to be sure, a fan. A Wile E. Coyote doll sits on the bookcase in my bedroom. He is to me Sisyphus, the Texans at the Alamo, and Cool Hand Luke all rolled into one. And there are overtones of Chaplin's Tramp and Gleason's Poor Soul.

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You can see where I stand in this seriocomic drama of predation - in this case, predation without success. What the Road-Runner cartoons do is as natural to comedy as it is unnatural in real life - they make the underdog (bird, in this case) the winner and the predator the loser. Cartoons are full of images of mice and birds outwitting cats, ducks and rabbits foiling human hunters.

This is akin to portraying jocks and muscular behemoths in general as strong and dangerous but essentially buffoons who are easily defeated. Apparently there is a strong cultural impulse to make fun of the mighty. Entertainment and art need not imitate life. And cartoons have carte blanche to express themselves in any manner - to be realistic or unrealistic, fabulously fanciful or astutely authentic.

The Road-Runner cartoons are the purest sort of entertainment art, which is to say they maximize the creative potential of their form, the animated cartoon. If, on one end of the spectrum, we have cartoons like Casper the Friendly Ghost that are cute, simplistic, and sub-juvenile, at the other end there is the Road-Runner series - drawn with impressionistic eloquence, superbly inventive in a way that draws fresh vitality out of the wellspring of the comic imagination, and featuring two antagonists worthy of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy.

The Road Runner and the Coyote are basically the creations of the legendary animator Chuck Jones, who was also instrumental in the creation of such other classic Warner Bros. cartoon characters as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and Pep'e Le Pew. Warner Bros. cartoons, largely because of Jones, were traditionally highly sophisticated, really aimed at adults rather than children - they were full of satire and parody and conceived with no less comic ambition than human performers brought to the movies.

Only two cartoon characters have been given stars on Hollywood Boulevard: Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny. Ironically, Chuck Jones doesn't have one, although you might consider him to be symbolically represented by Bugs Bunny.

I remember the impact the early Road-Runner cartoons had on me. As a somewhat perceptive kid, I had been impressed by the revolutionary things United Productions of America was doing, but here was something that gave us the ne plus ultra of what could be achieved within the familiar context of anthropomorphized animal characters. The effect was hilarious.

The settings were also stunning. The desert background in the Road-Runner cartoons, for example, whether intended to be Arizona, New Mexico, or California, had a slightly surreal quality about its starkness. As the cartoons proliferated, that landscape would become as familiar as John Ford's Monument Valley - part of the geographical iconography of the American West. The hyperbolic buttes, mesas, and cliffs were dreamlike, reminiscent in the nature of their exaggeration of the endless linear plains in a surrealist dreamscape.

As for the titular hero of the series, the Road Runner, I can't imagine anyone really admiring him. The Road Runner, in fact, never really defeats the Coyote. The Coyote is always a victim of misfortune. He is fated to be forever exploded by his own dynamite, catapulted from precipices and through space, and crushed by rocks because nothing ever works right. And these spectacular pratfalls are always executed with wonderful visual panache.

The Coyote is the ultimate fall guy, victim of gravity and velocity: One remembers him eternally falling, falling, usually falling from an overhead point of view, receding into the distance and becoming a tiny dot just before he hits the desert floor in an explosive puff of dust; falling, also, in installments - the body dropping away with his face and ears remaining in place, then the head suddenly dropping, too, the ears pulled along in its wake.

In an interview in ``Film Comment,'' Chuck Jones once said: ``In the films with the Coyote and the Road Runner, the entire situation is more desperate [than in the films in which the Coyote chases Bugs Bunny]. The Coyote here isn't merely an egotist; he's almost possessed, he's a fanatic. And now I realize, it was only in the earlier cartoons that I made much of a point about the Coyote wanting to eat the Road Runner. Later on, even that didn't seem to matter anymore, and the Coyote's motivation became even more generalized: all he wanted to do was get him, or something, because his dignity was shot.''

Of course, the Coyote never does get him, and no doubt never will. If he did get the Road Runner, the cartoons would be dispossessed of their existential acumen. Not for nothing is the bird, when it appears in the cartoons, labeled with a fractured Latin name that symbolizes its speed, e.g. Rapidus acceleratus, Birdibus zippibus. The Road Runner represents forbidden fruit, and the Coyote's attempt to get him, in Shelley's phrase, is ``the desire of the moth for the star.''

Naturally, I'm in the Coyote's corner. I realize that all of those road-runner pins I saw in Arizona were generic and not representative of Jones's Road Runner; still, I hope that by now some Wile E. Coyote pins are equally available.

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