Pygmy Ignorant

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My delightful French box set of Tex Avery films is, in some ways, all the more delightful for excluding a couple of controversial titles, UNCLE TOM’S CABANA, and HALF-PINT PYGMY. These films are likely to remain problematic for as long as there are animation fans, ethnicities, and sense.

HALF-PINT PYGMY actually plays like a parody of a racist cartoon, and a parody of a Tex Avery cartoon, confusing us by trying to do both at once. The title is atypically lame, since it’s a pleonasm, lacking the built-in surprise of KING-SIZED CANARY, a brilliant cartoon and a strong title, carrying within it a contradiction which intrigues. KING-SIZED PYGMY might have made a better title and a more interesting cartoon.

Avery’s two bear characters, George and Junior, read an ad in the paper and immediately head for Darkest Cartoon Africa —

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George and Junior, being ursine parodies of George and Lenny from OF MICE AND MEN, ought by rights to be controversial too, since Avery is lampooning the learning-disabled, but nobody seems to mind, and saying cartoons can’t use dim-witted characters may be a step too far — political correctness gone mentally ill. Anyway, the idea that pygmies can be hunted and captured for display in zoos is an immediate signal that something is very wrong with this cartoon — something which just gets worse when you ponder the logic that makes bears volunteer for pygmy-hunting. This is a cartoon in which the animals are anthropomorphized and the human characters — the pygmies — are treated like animals.

It only gets worse when we meet the pygmies. The village is a nice touch –let’s say for argument’s sake we’re not too worried about the film being unfair to actual pygmies, whose legendary short stature is exaggerated to Lilliputian proportions. But then the little fellows show up. The difference in scale forces Avery to cut to closer angles on them, and most of us will wince whenever he does.

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Chasing the pygmy, the bears ask directions from a goofy squid, who points in all directions. Again, logic seems lacking. Usually, abandonment of all sense takes a little longer in an Avery toon, and we arrive at lunacy via gentle stages — remind me to analyse the gradual disintegration of reason in BAD LUCK BLACKIE sometime. Maybe the whacked-out octopus is a reference to something we don’t understand anymore, but his presence in the jungle troubles me. He’s also making fun of people with psychiatric problems but Tex gets a free pass on that because there’s a limit to how many things I can be worried about in a single six minute and thirty-two second cartoon.

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OH GOD NO — Junior tempts the pygmy — who is hiding in a knothole like Screwy Squirrel, because this is just a Screwy Squirrel film in blackface — with a slice of watermelon. The squirrel pygmy drools, and eats the watermelon and also Junior’s arms. Getting angry about the racist assumptions also causes me to notice how oddly OFF everything is — more bad stuff is happening to the hapless Junior, whereas these films usually work on the principle that George, the organizer, gets it in the neck because Junior isn’t good at following his instructions. While it’s a small mercy that the pygmy is defeating his would-be enslavers at every turn, Junior isn’t a very satisfying character to mistreat.

The characters each jump into one kangaroo’s pouch and emerge from another. OK, the dumbness of the octopus appearance is now beginning to form a pattern that kind of works — I never objected to the kangaroo in SLAP-HAPPY LION (who dives into his own pouch and vanishes into a point, an ourbouros-singularity on the wrong continent).

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The pygmy is also cunning — he inflates a huge balloon with his tiny yet powerful lungs, then uses that to inflate himself to giant size, so that the pursuers don’t recognize him. He’s now an even creepier looking racial stereotype than before. I will admit that the in-between drawings when he allows himself to deflate are interesting and disturbing in a comparatively innocent way.

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Then there’s a huge number of gags about decapitation and displacement of heads — a giraffe with two bodies and no head, just a conjoined, mile-long neck — a lollobrigidian array of camel-humps with a camel head at either end — an alligator handbag emerging from itself… Freudian analysis of Avery toons is both unavoidable — those flaccid shotgun barrels! — and pointless, because all the work is done for you — your role is to laugh — but I start to wonder what the hell is going on with the filmmaker’s own head, The movie does seem pretty desperate and last-gasp, but it occurs in the middle of Avery’s most productive, inventive and hilarious period.

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Junior gets hit on the head with an outsize claw hammer and his face falls off, feature by feature. Very strangely, this action is preceded by a line-cross, in which Junior flips from left-facing to right-facing (to no-facing). If Avery films always feel like nervous breakdowns in cel form, this one seems to be disintegrating formally as well as conceptually.

OK — the punchline made me laugh. The bears think they’ve finally caught “the world’s smallest pygmy,” but no — in a deep and guttural voice, he says, “Uh-uh, sorry boys — Uncle Louis!” and an even tinier pygmy emerges from a hut, so small the bone knotted in his hair dwarfs him, making him seem like an ant carrying a leaf.

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I guess the conflating of offensive stereotypes about African-Americans with offensive stereotypes about Africans makes everything slightly worse, though the technique of folding together two things which don’t really belong together is central to Avery’s gag-making, and is essentially morally neutral. The problem is with what he’s actually folding together. Avery was, by all accounts, a sweet man, but “product of his time” is a useful phrase here and he came by his first name honestly, so there’s “place” too. It should be admitted that the repulsive yet indomitable little pygmy is not really worse than the cutesy stereotyping of Chuck Jones’ pickaninny character, the lamentable Inki. And that Walter Lantz’s SCRUB ME MAMA WITH A BOOGIE BEAT makes HALF-PINT PYGMY, deeply regrettable though it is, look like LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS.

 

 

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12 Responses to “Pygmy Ignorant”

  1. This is a wise, temperate essay– a useful piece in an arena dominated by heavy-handedness.

  2. Thanks! I think such things provoke more sorrow than anger, along with gratitude at the distance we’ve come (and regret we’ve not come further).

  3. Ach, video not play!

  4. henryholland666 Says:

    I watched this mess of a movie yesterday called Any Sunday with Jane Fonda, Jason Robards, Dean Jones and Rosemary Murphy. It’s from 1966, there’s a scene where the Murphy character brings in an interior decorator named Felix (Jack Fletcher) to redo her straying husband’s love nest and Felix was so stereotypical it almost could have been a parody (but the movie wasn’t smart enough for that). It was a classic example of the femme queen, complete with snide putdowns, limp wrists and effeminate voice. Yikes.

    I don’t think the French New Wave and I are ever going to be very close. After my recent experiences with Godard and Chabrol, I had the misfortune to watch two Eric Rohmer movies after the Fonda mess.

    I absolutely loathed The Collector (not the creepy Wyler movie from two years earlier, unfortunately). A bunch of dreary hippie French people in Saint-Tropez being awful to each other, with stilted, endless reams of dialogue, non-existent motivations for their actions and dreary, TV-quality direction and cinematography. 3/10 and that’s being generous.

    Then there was the slightly better My Night at Maud’s, but as someone who has zero interest in discussions of faith or the existence of God and whatnot, what a trial to see a movie that consists of mind-numbing, seemingly endless wordy debates about Pascal’s wager and Catholicism. Jean-Louis’ love for The Blonde was totally laughable in its suddenness and the direction again was utterly pedestrian. 5/10 and only that because Jean-Louis Trintignant was really good looking.

  5. Like Chabrol, Rohmer sometimes branches off into radical detours, so I wouldn’t dismiss him outright even if you don’t like the conversational ones. L’anglaise et le Duc, for instance, and La Marquise Von O. I say check ’em out!

  6. Speaking of “products of their time” saw “Magical Mystery Tour” for the first time. My first thought was that the Beatles recalled working for Richard Lester and thought they figured it out, the way a kid watches a silent comic do a pratfall and decides he could do it. My dream is that somebody gets a non-epic budget, a thought-out script, production design, and some sharp comic performers (lip-syncing the Beatles’s songs — nothing wrong with those), and shoots a version that lives up to the illustrated story in the album.

  7. I can’t recall the story in the album — is it that good? I first saw MMT in a very fuzzy copy — the sharp restoration does help, but it’s a fairly disastrous non-film taken as a whole. “I thought they’d earned the right to try it,” was Lester’s generous verdict, as given to Steven Soderbergh. I think they should have tried directing at least one pop promo first.

    It’s a good instance of people eschewing narrative because they can’t do it, and plunging into arthouse because they don’t understand it and think it’ll be easy.

    The making-of doc shown on the BBC recently is very good!

  8. That video plays. Try it again.

    As for La Collectionneuse I’m crazy about it. What’s most fascinating is that everything about Haydee suggest she’s just a slut, Rohmer doesn’t treat her that way at all. Like All Rohmer characters she has a moral center — a genuine ethic — relating what he’ll do with her body and who. Daniel Pommurelle thinks she’s his without even asking. But she prefers to get men on her own — like Denis Berry (John’s son, Jean Seberg’s ex-husband, and Anna Karina’s still-I-gather current ) Patrick Bachau meanwhile bides his time — and loses. All this plus NYT film critic Eugene Archer (cast under his own name) dryly observing this and that.

    The way Nestor Almendros shoots Haydee’s scrumptious bikini-clad bod in the opening scene you’d swear he was a heterosexual.

  9. henryholland666 Says:

    I wouldn’t dismiss him outright even if you don’t like the conversational ones

    Sorry, I get that all the time about operas. “Well, sure HH, you can’t stand Handel’s four hours of florid arias, but if you just listen to [insert name of Handel opera or oratorio here], you’ll love it!!!”. Uh, no, I’d still rather listen to Schoenberg. Still, I’ll look for those you recommended.

    There’s two very easy explanations for why the Magical Mystery Tour film is such a mess:

    1. Brian Epstein OD’d/committed suicide on August 27, 1967. While he had his problems as a business manager, he did have a pretty good sense of what would work for The Fabs and what wouldn’t. After he died, The Beatles went in to a tailspin, the movie started filming about three weeks after he died. It was Paul who pushed the project, to give them something to do while dealing with Epstein’s death.

    2. The massive, incredible amounts of drugs being done by all concerned. As much as I like smoking pot and really enjoyed my experiences with LSD in the 70’s, I’m under no illusion that my thoughts and ideas while in such states are worthy of a 52 minute TV special.

    Still, the soundtrack is probably my favorite Beatles album after the British version of Revolver.

  10. I guess the video is unavailable in the UK.

    I don’t think I have a favourite Beatles album — from Revolver on, I find them all pretty consistently wonderful. I have a special fondness for the oddness of the White Album.

  11. […] and caricaturing of black characters. This isn’t actually too severe a problem here. HALF-PINT PYGMY is much more extreme, and portrays its black characters as a form of animal life, suitable for […]

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