Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Author and Comics Scholar Paul Buhle on Who Framed Roger Rabbit

During its 18th Festival last April, The Toronto Jewish Film Festival presented a sidebar series entitled People of the Comic Book, which celebrated the Jewish pioneers and creators of comic art and animation. As part of this special programme, author Paul Buhle (Jews and American Comics and The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics) provided a special introduction to the American animated film Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), contextualizing it as a Hollywood phenomenon of a distinctly Jewish character.

Author Paul Buhle

Much of the interest in Who Framed Roger Rabbit and its role in film history, animation and otherwise, is about technique, and that is entirely proper. The fact that a combination of live and animated materials could be done so deftly, in an age before digitization, is almost incredible and the discussion of this breakthrough with all the complications, including the use of characters owned by one film studio in the film by another studio, is the heart of the discussion among filmmakers that you can find on the DVD set.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit set a new standard, but what I want to offer to you as a new idea, or anyway, my idea, is that we can see the connection with the early Fleischer Studio experiments, at the early end of film history, and the related connections of live and animated material in American Splendor, with Harvey Pekar as the indispensable protagonist.

No one has pointed out, to my knowledge, that all this--these three connected points of animation breakthroughs in what might be called postmodern modes, but has precedented and succeeded what has been called postmodernism--are also JEWISH moments, Jewish breakthroughs. I don’t think that I can prove this point, but it is something to ponder as you watch the film.

A scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit

You will be seeing, after brief remarks from me, one of the most important but also intriguing animated feature films ever made. It is important, in a business sense, for reasons that you can easily find on the web or histories of animation in film and television. It is intriguing in ways that do not usually get discussed, involving Jewishness and the complications of Golden Age Hollywood’s Jewish presence, the sudden further corporatization of Hollywood at the eclipse of both the New Deal and the Golden Age boxoffice, in the second half of the 1940s. The loss of large-scale dreams about artistic independence and a more cooperative society. And the legacies left behind right up til now.

Let’s take on the film industry business side first and get it out of the way. Animation peaked in the 1940s, like the whole film business. But crashed more definitely in the 1950s, so much so that the effectively unionized and large Jewish world of animation workers saw wide-scale unemployment, with some economic relief but also artistic disappointment in the television work of the Hanna-Barbera studios. The best animation seemed likely to be made abroad, for a very long time.

It would be intriguing to say that the experiments of Ralph Bakshi during the 1970s made a lasting impact but like assorted television special animation features, the prospects of animation for adults remained uncertain. Then came Who Framed Roger Rabbit in 1988, winning wide audiences for its innovative presentation, mixing live action and animation across feature-length, for its humor and for the strength of its story line.

It also brought Steve Spielberg into animation (he had done some cameo shots before) full scale as a producer, and with him Jeffrey Katzenberg as head of Disney animation, returning animation into the number one moneymaker of Disney enterprises, with two Jewish Americans atop a corporation once known for its hints of anti-Semitism, under Uncle Walt.

Industry professional Tom Sito, a self-made scholar of the field and a former student of Harvey Kurtzman at the New York School for the Visual Arts, told me that without Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the distinctly postmodern characters of alternative comic artist Matt Groening would never have been invited on to The Tracey Ullman Show and from there, the creation of The Simpsons. We are now more than twenty years since The Simpsons debut and it is still going strong. As social commentary, in my humble view, the Simpsons view of middle American life is unsurpassed. As animation, its success is not likely to be equaled.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

So let’s go back to Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the subtext, as Sito, inviting me to the hang-out cafĂ© of the animation workers local IATSE 839, described to me. The largest trauma in Hollywood Jewish history is of course the Blacklist, a leading subject of the 2007 Toronto Jewish Film Festival and a leading subject of my interviewing oldtimers. General readers often think of the Blacklist as being exclusively about Communists and ex-communists, and perhaps about accusations of divided loyalty among Jewish Americans. This view separates Cold War issues from all the other things going on in the film capital simultaneously. The end of the war saw another, sometimes violent, war over unionization, with thugs brought in to break union picket lines and, we learned later, actor Ronald Reagan as an FBI informer against the very largely Jewish Left in the unions and studios.

The sharp decline of revenues after 1947 was a body blow, considerably before television had reached the hinterlands and had its blanket effect on filmgoing. At the same time, hopes for independent production were still very much alive--the dream of writers, directors, grips and some stars that there would be a creative breakaway from the oligopoly of the handful of big studios, and the creation of art films that were popular. Abraham Polonsky, the great noir director and my favorite interviewee, seemed to be reaching toward that goal successfully, at least with John Garfield as his star, until the blacklist closed in on him.

Meanwhile, LA itself was being transformed in many ways, the most dramatic, to working people at least, taking place in the shutdown of what had been a superb mass transit system. It became clear later that this was a conspiracy of sorts to compel automobile sales, one of the great scandals in America’s loss of crucial human transport relative to the rest of the world and runaway sprawl.

So much happened so quickly that LA looked like a different place to many residents looking back from the middle 1950s to the middle 1940s. Jews continued to move there in large numbers, but so many democratic prospects were gone and the new residents seemed unaware how they had slipped away.

Roger Rabbit, then, is subtly about recovered memory. The Toons, animated characters, are the ordinary film workers and community, which was never as Jewish as writers, producers and even stars, but was Jewish enough for a kind of stamp of specialness, a semi-Jewish world that is losing what it had and that needs a kind of redemption. There’s a moment in the film, directly about mass transportation, the Red Cars, that makes this all clear. But you have to watch carefully for the explication.

Our protagonist seems to be on a much more normal noir detective plot--normal if we remember that the invention of the noir was largely by the Jewish Left in Hollywood--reflecting their view that the world of FDR and national unity was now gone, replaced by intrigue, betrayal and greed.

As you will see, the evil plot to take control of Toontown, to destroy it for a freeway and then force people to use that freeway by destroying the trolley fleet, is not entirely a product of fantasy. You have mostly seen the film, and won’t be surprised to learn that a crucial secret identity is involved here, or that the secret identity most common in Hollywood was the secret identity of Jews, disguised by name and perhaps nosejob, as gentiles.

There is so much to appreciate in this film, at any number of levels, that only by looking back toward the era when live-action and animation had not yet been mixed successfully (although attempted from earliest animation, as seen yesterday in Fleischer studios work of the early 1920s), we can only marvel at the smoothness and hilarity of the breakthrough. But it’s also true that animation, after Who Framed Roger Rabbit, rarely came back to the story of Hollywood itself, and the more hidden story of Hollywood Jews who did not become moguls or stars. Enjoy!

Who Framed Roger Rabbit