When you find yourself in times of trouble, historically speaking, its quite likely you’ll find yourself in a desert. For Satan in Paradise Lost, for the Israelites fleeing Egypt, for Mark Thatcher on the Paris Dakar rally, deserts are places we become lost in or are exiled to. Equally, they are places where beyond-normal things happen, things like nuclear tests, alien autopsies and what-goes-on-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas moralities. They are places beyond our normal conception of place, empty of the usual triggers and markers by which we usually understand landscape. Cartography hates a vacuum, so the deserts emptiness forces us to fill its void with invented narratives and myths.
Despite their physical vastness, they can also feel psychologically claustrophobic, maybe because they are so difficult to escape from. It’s this lonely claustrophobia that is the setting for the Wile E Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons. Each episode sees the two locked in a mutually dependent negative relationship with less dialogue than Samuel Beckett. These scenes in cartoon deserta have a kind of inescapable, unremitting bleakness where narrative is stuck in a loop, endlessly replaying the same story over and over. Just as our sensation of space is different in the desert, so is our feeling for time. Like those other desert denizens populating Vegas’ gambling halls we have no way of knowing if Coyote and Roadrunners conflict lasts a day or an eternity.
Each episode sees the Coyote attempt to catch the Roadrunner, aided by the products he orders from the ACME Corporation, that make-anything, deliver-anywhere parody of consumerisms seemingly limitless offer. Amazing products arrive crated up almost instantaneously. Things like the Do-It Yourself Tornado Kit, Dehydrated Boulders, Earthquake Pills, Jet Propelled Pogo Stick, Triple Strength Fortified Leg Muscle Vitamins, and the amazingly named Acme Future Push Button Home Of Tomorrow Household Appliance Co. ACMEs products parodied post war trends towards mechanization, convenience and consumerism. ACME might be the greatest design company that never existed apart from the fact that almost every one of its products failed. And if they didn’t, the Coyotes user error would result in disaster. Inevitably, he ends up burnt to a crisp or squashed flat at the bottom of a canyon.
Coyotes relationship with ACME echoes an idea described by Reyner Banhams essay “The Great Gizmo” on the Sears Roebuck mail order catalogue. He argued that the catalogue was pivotal in the occupation of the American West. The delivery of gadgets – stoves, outboard motors, the Stetson hat and so on – enabled the colonisation of the infrastructure-less frontier landscape. Banham argued that Sears Roebuck delivered a kind of gadgetecture, an out-of-the-box instant urbanism and for this this reason, gadgetry was “deeply involved with the American mythology of the wilderness”. It seems that Chuck Jones, Roadrunners creator, agreed though with a more skeptical view of the outcome. Part of ACMEs parody of consumerism is that its products fail to deliver on their incredible promise.
Jones established a series of rules that Roadrunner stories had to operate within (see below). These included commandments such as “Road Runner cannot harm the Coyote except by going “beep, beep”, “No outside force can harm the Coyote – only his own ineptitude or the failure of Acme products”, “The Coyote could stop anytime – IF he was not a fanatic”, and “Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote’s greatest enemy.” These are the physics of the cartoon, and perhaps the reason why Roadrunner is a minimalist masterpiece.
Roadrunner asks us to will contemporary industrial design to fail. If Coyotes traps, trips mechanics worked smoothly, Roadrunner would be killed repeatedly by innovative design. So designs failure is Roadrunners salvation – and, through our sympathy for him our own salvation. Another of Jones’ rules states “The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures. The audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote”. We identify with his constant, ridiculous Banham-esque optimism in design. If ACME products did the job they said they would, the precarious balance between Roadrunner and Coyote would be set out of kilter, and the narrative would end. Coyotes schemes – like strapping on a pair of rocket powered roller-skates – are doomed to fail because design perverts his natural state.
It’s revealing to note that the series began in 1948, three years after the first nuclear test in the New Mexico desert. In this light, the cartoon can be read as an ambivalent allegory describing the post-war relationship between technology and nature which casts design as way of chasing impossible goals rather than a way of delivering solutions.
Previously: Scenes in Cartoon Deserta
Chuck Jones’ Rules of the Roadrunner Universe:
Rule 1 : Road Runner cannot harm the Coyote except by going “Beep! Beep!”
Rule 2 : No outside force can harm the Coyote — only his own ineptitude or the failure of Acme products.
Rule 3 : The Coyote could stop anytime — IF he was not a fanatic. (Repeat: “A fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim.” – George Santayana)
Rule 4 : No dialogue ever, except “Beep-Beep.”
Rule 5 : Road Runner must stay on the road – for no other reason than that he’s a roadrunner.
Rule 6 : All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters — the southwest American desert.
Rule 7 : All tools, weapons, or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation.
Rule 8 : Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote’s greatest enemy.
Rule 9 : The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.
Rule 10 : The audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote.