Archive for Half-Pint Pygmy

A laugh is an elegy for the death of an emotion

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on March 7, 2016 by dcairns

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From UNCLE TOM’S BUNGALOW, directed by Fred “Tex” Avery.

A cartoon apparently so beyond the pale it’s available only on low-quality bootleg, nth-gen VHS imparting a seedy porno look to the capering.

There are two problems with this film. Some other Tex films have a lot more problems than that.

First problem: use of stereotypes 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 exhibiting in a zoo. In a cartoon where all the characters are stylised grotesques, the African-American ones don’t come off any worse, and true to the source, they are sympathetic. I don’t want to tell anyone else they aren’t entitled to be offended by this, I just wasn’t overly offended myself.

Second problem: making fun of a serious issue. But really, Avery is making fun of a serious book. His target is sanctimony, and he can’t help but be delighted by how easily the bubble of high seriousness bursts. Like so ~

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Facing the lash, Tom declares, “My body may belong to you, but my soul belongs to Warner Brothers!”

A gobsmacking and hilarious line, and one wonders how Avery got away with it, not because it’s offensive to black people but because it’s offensive to his employers. My hat just has to come off. This isn’t a very good cartoon overall — too much narration, with gags simply showing action that contradicts or puns on the VO, a common Avery technique and not one of his most inspired — but the bits that are funny are the bits that go too far. When the two little children are menaced by Simon Simon Legree (so named because he says everything twice) the black girl turns white with fear and the white girl turns black. They stand frozen, alternating shades for long seconds. It’s an unacceptable joke, elaborated upon nonsensically until the “un” falls off the “unacceptable” and “unfunny” through sheer metal fatigue.

Even the VO comes into its own at the climax, when Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous chase across the ice is commented on in the breathless manner of a horse race. “Hounds and Legree coming up fast on the outside!” Again, sanctimony is the target, and poor Stowe is almost too easy for Tex to deflate. At the end, Uncle Tom rides to the rescue in a typically distended Avery limousine — all that money he won shooting craps. “And there you have the story of Uncle Tom’s Bungalow — or have you?”

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Pygmy Ignorant

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 23, 2015 by dcairns

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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.