Amid these difficult times (how’s that for an opening cliche?), I’ve determined that it’s time to address an important matter that has hitherto been ignored: the meaning of the roadrunner and of course, its relevance, like that of Dr. Strangelove, to the strained realities of the present day. Roadrunner? Yes, the roadrunner, as in the long-running (hey, a pun) Looney Tunes cartoon that began in the late forties and persisted well into the 21st century, tirelessly representing themes of obsession, futility, as well as split-identifications.
To fully appreciate the roadrunner one has to be a child, or at least inhabit the childlike state that intuits all of the following: namely, the roadrunner rules. Rules were important when I was first watching cartoons. Pre-teens know rules, are governed by rules, and don’t know the possibilities of breaking rules, generally, yet they know how to identify. The world of the roadrunner, plus its (gender?) nemesis, the seemingly male Wile E. (not so wily) Coyote, is likely the American southwest, given the resemblance of the landscape to that of the Grand Canyon or Monument Valley. The rocky, arid spaces suggest the starvation that motivates the salivating Coyote, while the roadrunner figure, wide-eyed and spry, seems ever comfortable, well-fed and unthirsty. The rules are that no dialogue exists between these characters, only the non-verbal utterances between enemies (the roadrunner’s impish “beep-beep”, for example, which made it seem like a car), such that a western “duel” is conjured.
In its cartoon physics, rules apply to the Coyote that don’t apply to the underdog roadrunner: For example, the roadrunner can stop on a dime while the Coyote cannot, which often leads the latter to fall off precipices that he doesn’t see until its too late. Interestingly, a sub-rule that relates here is one in which the Coyote is spared the full consequences of his impending fall until he realizes his error. What does this mean? Are we to infer, or absorb into our childlike state that reality only hits when reality hits? That psychic reality (coming out of denial) will coincide with material, or physical reality? Furthermore, in the cartoon, the Coyote enjoins the audience into his psychic acknowledgement, as if the collective witnessing (by the viewer) is also necessary to activate the actual fall. What typically follows is the changing of our position to that of a God-like aerial view. We see the Coyote fall, and as he looks up at us and disappears towards a sandy earth and a presumably dusty death, he appears more humiliated than terrified. He has, after all, been fooled again.
This recalls another rule: that the roadrunner never directly harms the Coyote. It just seems to ever know something the Coyote doesn’t, like the apparent fact that a painting on a rock will allow its entry, such that the roadrunner can continue along a road that has been painted on a surface, while the Coyote gets flattened as he runs into the same surface. And what does that mean? Is this really the roadrunner’s world, and does it have special powers that defy physics? Are we to infer a social allegory in this hint that rules are applied selectively? Again, the roadrunner cannot directly harm the Coyote, but it can manipulate or take advantage of nature’s whimsy, the apparent flexibility of gravity, and of hallucinatory objects. Of course, it’s also possible that the roadrunner itself is not real, and that its disappearance into the painting on the rock is itself a hallucination.
The most important rule in the roadrunner cartoon appears to be that the Coyote cannot and will not ever capture the roadrunner. Why? And if he never captures the bird (?) why does he never give up. Why does he not move on, start chasing lizards or something, or at least hire some company other than ACME to supply the weaponry that will invariably let him down. What…was ACME like the Amazon of its day: were brick and mortar stores all gone and did he have no choice but to order from this one supplier of all that is needed? For children, it’s not clear who is meant to be identified with. It’s not clear who is the hero and who is the villain, which for me is the secret of the cartoon’s lasting appeal: though it borrows motifs from the genre of the western, it otherwise mocks its landscapes and binary paradigms. In it, the underdog is a pest and a flirt; it is implicitly female in a pre-feminist sense: teasingly appetizing, but with no appetite of its own. Okay, not quite true: occasionally, the roadrunner stops in its tracks, tempted by a petit cairn of seeds that its adversary has placed in the middle of the road, but it can easily eat and run, and more importantly, it may seem to the viewer that the would-be prey can give or take sustenance. The Coyote, meanwhile, is deceptively powerful and nasty–a rapacious derivative of the big bad wolf–and a desperate fanatic who does not know when to stop.
If we are to identify with the roadrunner, then this identification is the reason the bird is never captured. The reason: the consequences are unthinkable. The roadrunner will be eaten. He, she–whatever–will be torn to shreds, and cartoons can’t allow that. That’s for adult entertainment, horror films and the like, and children must be protected from the dire consequences of the chase. Sorry Coyote, this means that you must lose while we empathize with your need. You are a villain, but a likeable one because you never seem to actualize your villainy. Also–again, because of cartoon rules–the Coyote is not destroyed by this necessary sparing of the roadrunner. Each episode ends with the Coyote unfed, which is sad but not fatal. The episode, and therefore the Coyote’s loss and humiliation, will soon be over, only to begin again the next time.
If children of a happy or safe upbringing, we watch the roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons, allowed by adults to enjoy their never-ending chases, their darker-than Tom and Jerry drama, because unlike the mouse and cat, the roadrunner and Coyote are never friends in domesticity–they are rivals amid desolation, and perhaps the last creatures on earth. But this again is too much imagination for the childlike mind. The episodes only last a few minutes, so we’d know, or learn, about stopping, but not death. Kids are often told when to stop, when recess is over; when play time is to become work time, school time; when dinner, as provided reliably, is ready. On some things, adults encourage children to not give up on that which is frustrating, and sometimes be told that one doesn’t always get what one wants. That’s all, folks! No one explains obsession to a child, or fanaticism; an addiction never satisfied, much less starvation. The need of the Coyote, and the ambiguous need of the roadrunner, must ever exist in tension, unresolved and co-existent. No one seems to understand–at least not with words–pursuing a goal through hallucination, at some point forgetting what pursuits are even about.