The Big Snooze

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 31, 2015

Here’s Elmer, hunting a transitional Bugs Bunny. It’s not going well for him, as usual. At one point he is subjected to a series of indignities by means of that hollow log. These gags struck me as being Jerry Lewis excessive. Then I thought that might be inapt, since Lewis was just then starting his film career, and hadn’t yet established any particular influence. I then put on my professor toque, and found that the gags now struck me as reflecting Henri Bergson’s ideas about mechanization (here:, as discussed most thoroughly in the 1st chapter). That, and cruelty. What’s the proper source of that? Not Antonin Artaud, who is up to something else. (I checked back, and he’s not the right one to blame; however, being wrong can still be productive, bibliographically speaking! Artaud’s sort of or indirectly relevant ideas are the most concisely/famously in the first and second manifestoes, here:

Then I realized that I needn’t have strained myself so much. This was directed by Bob Clampett, just as he left the studio. And doesn’t it echo and anticipate Tex Avery, who had just preceded Clampett, and would go on to visit so much cartoon mayhem on the world? Or, if you want, Itchy and Scratchy. Cartoons are red, in tooth and nail!

Not just violent, but structurally/formally on the cutting edge. Made for kids, or at least, seemingly, for undiscerning bourgeois audiences. And yet, so comfortably Modern. We have the usual preposterous impossibility of Clampett’s gags. (Get a load of Elmer in that gown!) We have these matter-of-fact jump cuts, not all that far from Paris, 1960.

Rememering J. Hoberman’s phrase (and book, 1991), this modernism doesn’t seem at all vulgar, which is to say it is inadvertent or accidental as it exposes that apparatus. Maybe this cartoon, as well as so many other distinguished WB productions, is more culminatory than anything. Old Comedy, New Comedy, disgruntled employee, vaudevillian fourth-wall-breaking. They just call attention to themselves, as antic storytellers always have. (Mind you the winking reference to contracts and Mr. Warner are no less smug and fawning than usual.)

I wish to point out and praise a crazy, digressive, reflexive dream sequence. Again, very Pink Elephants, or Harold’s purple crayon. The things Bugs does to Elmer are really grotesque, humiliating, and hilarious. “Run this way!” In the end he even makes Elmer into Red Hot Riding Hood, which is to say that their intertextuality is now actually reaching across studio boundaries. Clampett oversees a collective, continuous flying off at the handle. And yet, there’s order, isn’t there?

In Bugs and Elmer’s final descent Bugs takes some Hare Tonic, which, as you might have expected, stops falling hare. That fall is so beautifully rendered. At the end of it, Elmer wakes up and finds that he has been having a nightmare. He suppresses any dissatisfaction he might previously have felt, and hustles to re-sign that contract. Ah—modernism defeated after all, by strike-breaking paternalistic capitalism.