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Beware Falling Pianos

Thursday, 3rd May, 2001

Psychoanalysts have long puzzled over the categories used to pigeonhole the lot of us. My humble suggestion to that trade is that we can all be broken down into our constituent parts and somewhere in there, lurking quietly or raging menacingly, is our favourite Loonie Tunes character.

It's a vague generalisation, I grant you, but I contend that it's an accurate one that does suggest a core psyche. My girlfriend loves Pepe Le Pew; my best friend Daffy Duck; myself, well it's always been Wile E Coyote for me.

I think part of it is an instinctive admiration for Michael Maltese and Chuck Jones, and the sheer unparalleled twisted genius that created the fanatic coyote. Much of it has to be that he's the most put upon character in the history of fiction, but he's only ever been put upon by himself. And, of course, he never, ever gives up.

Wile E, my hero.

The coyote provides the ultimate in audience participation. That's a heck of a power to have as a cartoon writer/director. I'd hazard a guess that more people scream at the tv during a Roadrunner cartoon than during 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?'

It's a different type of tension, of course: not the outright frustration of 'It's b, you idiot! C'mon, it's b! You can't go c, it makes no sense! Say b! Say b!' Rather it's a growing sense of a whole bunch of emotions at once: as we watch the coyote's latest plans unfold, we gradually come to a stark realisation of what the writer has in for him. We can't believe that he's really going to do something so stupid and we can't watch something so horrible happen. But through our fingers we have to see it, just to make sure and the most horrible thing in the world is the most hilarious.

I can't think of any creative force that I respect more than Michael Maltese for consistently inventing new and unique, yet always consistent, ways in which the coyote could meet his comeuppance. Always he succeeded, always, and under strict guidelines, not least that there was no dialogue. That's a major handicap for a writer right there.

My copy of 'Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist', Chuck Jones' autobiography, arrived yesterday from Amazon. I've only flicked through so far, stopping at various sections to study in more detail, but naturally I found the coyote section. He lists some of the rules they followed when writing the series, and I got to wonder what sort of effect they would have if applied to reality.

That's been a thought that's spent many a year bouncing around in the echoing caverns of my skull. How would you cope if the man upstairs rescinded the laws of physics, with effect from midnight? Everything you know or understand by instinct ceases to be applicable.

First of all, the road runner cannot harm the coyote. Ever. Any time a plan goes wrong, it's either the coyote's fault for doing something so pointedly stupid in the first place, or Acme fails again, in yet another stunningly original manner. Of course, Acme is the only company there is, as far as the coyote goes. Just as many rural American families spent many a year early this century buying from nobody except the Sears Roebuck catalogue, the coyote is only aware of one company, who naturally fail with every product.

Could Acme be an astute prediction on the part of Maltese and Jones? Could they really have had some kind of vision of the future and renamed Microsoft so as to be free from any sort of retroactive court cases? Could the ever elusive Marvin Acme turn out to be Bill Gates?

It's not quite a perfect monopoly, but it's an incredible chunk of the market that has been carved out by Microsoft. As a professional IT consultant, I understand just how frequently the software goes wrong, and how illogically too. My job is to deal with it. Sometimes it's as if the laws of physics have just as much of a disdain for Microsoft as they do for Acme.

I can often see the laws of physics as a sentient being, grinning inanely as it throws another spanner into the works. 'Oh look, a working copy of Windows 98. It's been working for how long? And with no system error? We'll have to do something about that,' it cries, and suddenly alters the rules by which the software works, crashing everything with thorough efficiency.

Admittely, user error is the fashionable thing sometimes. Combine the two and you're right back at the original Road Runner guidelines. The coyote only comes to harm by his own actions or the failure of Acme products. User error or Microsoft Bug 2000.

Another rule is that whenever possible, gravity becomes the coyote's greatest enemy. I'd reinterpret that with a different sense of the word. Most of the people in this world (incredible and unwieldy generalisation time again) can be lumped into two categories: those who grew up and those who didn't. I like to think that I'm part of the minority category number three: those who grew up enough to survive in modern society but who kept enough of a child inside me to enjoy it.

I believe that every child should have some essence of adult inside, and every adult should contain some essence of child. Otherwise you're lost.

I like rule four: no dialogue ever, except 'Beep! Beep!' Can you imagine what that would do to any office? It's already applicable to the phone system as any time I ring anyone up all I get is voice mail and a 'Beep! Beep!' It would do wonders for office communication though. Everything would have to be visual, which would confuse most and fluster even more. Every budding actor would have the time of their life, but every embarrassed actor wouldn't dare. 'No way! Someone might see me...'

This ties in to the last rule, that the coyote is always more humiliated than harmed. It doesn't matter what goes wrong, you're always going to survive and come back for more. That's such a basic key to life that it still stuns me that people don't understand it.

Humiliation is a state of mind. If you don't feel humiliated, then you're not. It doesn't matter what anyone else might feel about it, as you can just note with a sly grin that the laws of physics will be having a word with them shortly too.

It's also an art form, as Wile E has demonstrated. Rule three declares that the coyote can stop at any time, if he weren't a fanatic. Chuck Jones quotes George Santayana: 'A fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim.' I'd agree, but I'd add that the aim often isn't important - it's the ride that matters. Any journey isn't about a destination, it's about the journey itself.

You might start at Point A and mosey on over to Point B, but the journey is about Points C to Z in between, as much as A or B. I've always had a sneaking suspicion that Wile E realised that too. Maybe he knew inside that each succeeding attempt at catching his ever-elusive road nemesis was bound to fail even before he came up with the idea. Somehow though, he didn't care. He was enjoying the ride.

I don't know where you're heading today, solitary reader, but don't forget to enjoy Points C to Z, and if someone laughs at you, laugh back quietly in the secure knowledge that before long, the laws of physics will drop a piano on their head.

That's all folks.

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