Monday, November 8, 2010


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.

And fall,

and fall,

and 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,


and acceptance.

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.


Taramoc said...

Aaahh, the drama of falling. It has always fascinated me, and I thank you for this as usual great post.

I feel compelled to add two more great examples of falling in fiction, at the opposite of the falling spectrum, so to speak.

The magnificent short story from Dino Buzzati, "Ragazza che precipita" ("Falling Girl" could be the English translation), inwhich we follow to fall of a girl who decides to commit suicide. Dino manages to put in the story class commentary and a reflection of what it means to be a celebrity that is as relevant now as it was when it was published in 1968. I consider Dino Buzzati one of the best italian writer of last century, and this story is a good example why.

The other is the french movie "La Heine", written and directed by Mathieu Kassowitz, before he got lost in Hollywood. The opening line is a joke/reflection about falling that will be reprised throughout the movie, but I won't say anything more about it not to spoil the vision for those who haven't watched it yet. Personally, it remains one of the most shocking movie experiences I've sit through (and I'm not talking about gratuitous violence or gore). The movie is from 1995, but it's even more relevant now, if possible. I cannot think of a movie I recommend more to a thinking adult.

WV: kyqrnare: a quagmire, a conundrum, a predicament and a quandary, all rolled together in one single event.

claus said...

Not to forget Ambrose Bierce's "Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge", which is nto only the prefiguration of all these free falling stories, but also some kind of sardonic comment: Whatever may happen while you're falling, in the end you'll be dead just as well.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Ah, those are excellent suggestions. I had forgotten the framing joke in La haine somehow - opens a whole other can of metaphors.

Unknown said...

And then there is the son, killed by his father, or by himself?

Giovanni Tiso said...

Yes - that is getting a, uhm, separate treatment however.

Unknown said...

Falling is a special theme for me ;-)

Philip said...

There's also the innocent sperm whale in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, arbitrarily called into existence and just about able to start making sense of the world before being brought rather terminally down to earth.

Word Verification: kerthely, adv., Carefully with teeth missing.

Helen said...

W.H. Auden's lovely Musee des Beaux Arts is another one - Icarus falls out of the sky and everyone turns away, too preoocupied with life's banalities to care about anyone else's suffering.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Yes, that's the one I meant at some stage to write about - along with the painting sometimes attributed to Brueghel.

Unknown said...

Then there is the falling tightrope walker

Homage said...

In one of the Bill and Ted movies (I believe it's the second one) there is the first appearance of a subtrope that I have seen several times since in which the characters are falling for what seems like an eternity, until they become bored of screaming in hysterical terror and just sort of look about and go "well, this is not the sort of thing that happens every day," then decide to resume screaming in hysterical terror, because that is what you do when you are falling for a comically long time. I saw a recent Kiwi short that reused the entire trope with no variation whatsoever, and like to hope that it was cryptomnesia.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I was convinced I had seen that trope in one of those Warner Brothers cartoon, but if so, I just couldn't find it.

[Quietly files away "cryptomnesia"]

Merc: of course, tightrope walks are always about a fall, and none more so than this one.

Jolisa said...

James Hynes' latest novel, Next, begins with a similar sensation. Can't say much more about it without being spoilery.

(Alas, I didn't like the book nearly as much as his previous work - in fact, I didn't really like it at all - but it certainly fits into your frame and may be worth a read).

Jolisa said...

Bill & Ted's descent into Hell is indeed, excellent! (Also, the bit where they melvin Death, but that is not germane here).

Giovanni Tiso said...

Oh, that is very good. Speaking of descents into hell, my favourite Warner Brothers cartoon - or indeed cartoon full stop - is Daffy Duck's Book Revue (1945), sadly only excerpted on YouTube, at the end of which the bad wolf of Red Riding Hood slides onto the book of Skid Row and falls into the fiery illustration on the cover of Dante's Inferno.

Unknown said...

Daffy is the best duck.
I recall that the tightrope walker in Mr N's Thus Spake was in fact pushed off to fall and die with the onlooking crowd rather non plussed, apparently a comment on the dawning of an aeon of higher consciousness?

George D said...

I believe you have missed the first, and allegedly most important fall.

The question is, did that one ever stop? Did Satan hit the ground, or is hell a continual descent?

Unknown said...

D.H. Lawrence
Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell.
But tell me, tell me, how do you know that he lost any of his brightness in falling?
He only fell out of your ken, you orthodox angels,you dull angels, tarnished with centuries of conventionality.
(After Shakespeare).
It is of wonder to me that Lucifer was His favourite.

Giovanni Tiso said...

The question is, did that one ever stop? Did Satan hit the ground, or is hell a continual descent?

It's all I could do not to stick Milton there, really: "Nine times the Space that measures Day and Night to mortal men, he with his horrid crew lay vanquisht, rolling in the fiery Gulfe, confounded though immortal". And then when they finally regain their wits they look at each other, and see how changed they have become - is there a better start of the action in literature?

The titans in Hesiod too, they fall for nine days: "And amongst the foremost Cottus and Briareos and Gyes insatiate for war raised fierce fighting: three hundred rocks, one upon another, they launched from their strong hands and overshadowed the Titans with their missiles, and buried them beneath the wide-pathed earth, and bound them in bitter chains when they had conquered them by their strength for all their great spirit, as far beneath the earth to Tartarus. For a brazen anvil falling down from heaven nine nights and days would reach the earth upon the tenth: and again, a brazen anvil falling from earth nine nights and days would reach Tartarus upon the tenth. (Theogony, l. 713 ff.)

Giovanni Tiso said...

But the point is that they stop falling. In Dante, it is the fall itself that digs out Hell, and the earth displaced forms the mountain of Purgatory at the antipodes.

Unknown said...

...tha Antipodes...that be where we live now.

Giovanni Tiso said...

If the entrance of hell is somewhere in Tuscany, then the antipodes of that is east of the Chatham Islands, and if you were to approximate to the nearest landmass, then yes, that be exactly where we live.

Homage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Homage said...

That's interesting, Lovecraft also places New Zealand as the closest land-mass to the portal to his otherworldly hellscape type place. But there is no "falling" involved except possibly that of "asleep," so that is an off-topic remark.

[EDIT]: On rereading Giovanni's infernal geographies, it would seem the Mountains of Madness or some such would be a more appropriate analogue.

Unknown said...

According to a Samoan man I discussed this with, the word Palangi explode (and fall) from the sky -
So we may have fallen here ;-)
Also geographically, a geologist told me that after breaking off from Gondwanaland, the South Island literally rolled over...

Keri H said...

Merc -the south part of our archipelago SUBMERGED in part in distant aeons- rolled over? Get a grip, mate...
I'm not going to try and interpret Samoan terms except to say your mate's interpretation is highly bloody suss.

Megan Clayton said...

Now we are here
what do we do

we open wide the throat
and exhale

the long-short journey
to-from incubation

the clusters of consonants
and blinking
hidden aɪs