6 minutes and 2 seconds into The Big Snooze (1946), Bugs Bunny and a cross-dressing Elmer Fudd walk off the edge of the dream they’re sharing and begin to fall.
Such an exquisitely unnerving spectacle. I believe it was Warner Brothers, rather than Disney, that perfected it: the extended free fall – a full forty-two seconds, in this case – towards what one might call an uncertain death. For you knew that there would be a gag in it, but not always safety. In Devil’s Feud Cake (1962), Yosemite Sam is actually killed when he hits the ground, whilst often at the end of a Road Runner cartoon it’s hard to be sure if Wile E. Coyote is going to be okay. A favourite example comes from Gee Whiz-z-z-z-z-z-z (1956), where the coyote successfully pleads for the spectacle to end before he reaches the bottom of the cliff.
But what makes the most exquisite prolonged fall scenes so unnerving is the existential terror that grips the cartoon avatars as they stare at what looks to them like real death. Those forty-two seconds in The Big Snooze are filled with the screaming anguish of Elmer Fudd, made even more jarring by Bugs' nonchalance, while the one-minute plane nosedive in Falling Hare (1943) gives the latter enough time to go through several stages of grief, including anger,
In the end the plane runs out of gas, screeching to a halt inches from the ground, and Bugs is back to his wisecracking self before 'That's All, Folks!' has had time to flash across the screen, but the swift, silly resolution doesn't completely dissipate the tension, nor make you forget the time you were given to contemplate the end of life.
You’re also left with a philosophical quandary: are toons in fact indestructible? Wile E. Coyote obviously feels pain, he falls resignedly but with no apparent fear of death. He’s going to make a hole in the ground, and climb out of it, or heave up one big puff of canyon dust and return in the next scene. In the magnificent Russian Rhapsody (1944), Hitler actually tries to hasten his free fall to get out from underneath a nosediving bomber, and lands on his feet unharmed only to be crushed by the plane. But when Bugs falls out of the sky, he needs a device, a pun or a stratagem to stop him from actually hitting the ground at speed. In The Big Snooze, he has no fear because he carries a bottle of scalp tonic that ‘stops falling hare’. In Hare Lift (1951) and Devil’s Feud Cake, he pulls an ‘air brake’ and the plane comes to a miraculous stop. In High Diving Hare (1948), he remains suspended in mid-air and quips
I know this defies the law of gravity, but, you see, I never studied law.
The greater the danger, the sillier the punchline, or the bigger the cheat. Clearly what counted for the filmmakers was the fall itself, the chance to play with the expectations of the viewers and build up an unlikely, almost unbearable suspense. Comedy at the edge of a precipice of course was nothing new even back then. Harold Lloyd had made it into an art form, most famously in his Safety Last of 1923, whence this celebrated image:
Lloyd, Keaton and Chaplin were cartoon characters avant la lettre, only marginally less elastic and ultimately more destructible. They could take a lot of physical punishment but you just couldn’t push them off a plane or a building for there would be no way to save them. In 1988, Robert Zemeckis mixed it up by making Bob Hoskins fall off a cartoon building, in a long sequence – over one minute – of explicit homage to those Warner Brothers wartime cartoons. And Joel and Ethan Coen were obviously thinking of both those precedents, and Harold Lloyd’s to boot, in the two falling scenes in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994). The first one, lasting forty-four seconds, follows Hudsucker Industries CEO’s Waring Hudsucker suicide jump in front of his board of directors; whilst in the second one, that lasts several minutes in between other sequences, new CEO Norville Barnes slips off a ledge off the same building only to be saved by the janitor, who jams a broomstick between the cogs of the giant tower clock thereby stopping time.
Formally speaking, the Coens’ film was a filmed cartoon, and a mannered one at that. In 2007 the makers of Mad Men reverted to the actual form to stylishly metaphorise on the fall and fall of Don Draper.
But what these recent examples have in common is that the drama has been drained out; the calculation behind the spectacle is far too evident, like the ropes that support the abseiling artist in Don DeLillo’s Falling Man as he re-enacts that most iconic still image of a man falling off the North Tower of the World Trade Centre.
Yet in the age of slapstick they took falling altogether more seriously. Harold Lloyd, by doing his own death-defying stunts, and by representing the Roaring Twenties as a decade spent on a ledge; Robert Clampett and his fellow artists at Warner Brothers, by undercutting the march towards victory of wartime propaganda with their heroes and villains alike dropping interminably, torturously out of the sky. Not just images of falling, but images of the Fall, just as the Soviet troops marched on Majdanek and then Auschwitz, the Allies on Buchenwald. There is a temptation of course to read all of the art of that era as a sinister allegory, at the risk of overstating one’s case, but conversely it’s hard to know what else to make of the deep weirdness of those Warner Brothers’ cartoons, their manic swinging between the silly and the deadly.
Seven decades later, we live in different end times. We’re no longer falling headlong, but just as inexorably, and we need to update the imagery to suit. In this respect I find the title of James Meek’s latest novel very suggestive: We Are Now Beginning Our Descent. It will likely be a drawn out affair, with a lot more time for anger and for bargaining. And then perhaps at the end we’ll touch down gently and safely, only to open the cabin doors onto a world we can no longer inhabit.