Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Stoney End

Flintstone house photographed by Pants
I've been working on some drawings to illustrate a children's book set in a rock pool. My wonderful collaborator Phil is summering in France and we have been exchanging the kind of 'process of elimination' emails one normally swaps when working with someone for the first time to establish a joint understanding of how the work might look. This means we have been talking a lot about the qualities and properties of various kinds of animation.

I was astonished to find that Phil was not a fan of The Flintstones. I didn't think that was even legal in the free world. His only possible excuse is that he was engaged in much more serious political activity at the time I was rushing home from school to keep my appointment with Wilma, Fred, Barney and Betty. And yes, I did name my globe-trotting voligarch of an owly-cat after the unassuming Mr Rubble. Fat lot of good etc.

I am now in the unusual position of having to put my thoughts together to explain what it is that makes The Flintstones so special. This has never been necessary in my experience. When the subject of The Flintstones has arisen socially before it has only ever occasioned a shared nod to unlock an entire vault of cultural references. Phil thinks it doesn't make sense that a man should be riding a dinosaur. Clearly I have my work cut out.

The genius of The Flintstones (1960-1966) lies in the perfect match of the two worlds that it combines and exploits. It capitalises on a fascination in the 1960s with dinosaurs, the ancient world and the re-invention of America. These eras may have had millions of years separating them but by overlaying one upon the other, The Flintstones assumes the artistic right to gobble up the treasures of all ages, classes and international cultures in-between. So Fred Flintstone works in a quarry, drives a dinosaur crane and mines the kind of stone that the Egyptians might have turned into bowling alleys if they'd only had the vision.

The Flintstones created a template for animated continuous storytelling far beyond any cartoon series that had preceded it, no matter how smart and sophisticated. Bugs Bunny may have been the ultimate anthropomorphic wise-guy, but his sphere didn't extend beyond the warren and his ambition was very much carrot-focussed. He could never aspire to be, say the grand Poobah at the local Water Buffalo Lodge.

There was a huge surge in public interest in dinosaurs in the 1960s and a vast mythology developed around them. It is well-known that The Flintstones' ensemble cast of the two couples is based on the television sit-com, The Honeymooners. Fred Flintstone was drawn from the disgruntled New York bus driver Ralph Kramden, (played by Jackie Gleason), who loved bowling, hated his boss and considered himself above his circumstances.

A 'modern Stone-Age family', The Flintstones live in suburbia and are always broke because they are on the consumerist treadmill and must have all the latest gadgets. The main conceit of the story is that humans have domesticated dinosaurs and by extension every conceivable minor reptile and bird. So, the bathroom is serviced by a moaning mammoth acting as the shower and reluctant pre-pelicans are employed as sinks and garbage disposal units and every kind of imagined ancient beaked creature is being used to trim hedges or chop vegetables or clip hair.

And all of them are complaining all of the time about their work and conditions. And they deliver really witty one-liner asides about whatever gross task they happen to be performing. They are functionaries to the human characters but not to us, the viewers. We appreciate the downtrodden gadgets' plights and that puts us into conflict with our instinct to empathise with the blue-collar families' aspirations. Fred and Wilma never take the time to notice that their salad servers are exhausted, and that really bothers us.

This is the unmatchable achievement of The Flintstones. Decades before anyone else could get away with an academic critique of the way Americans were living, some cartoonists had the gall to invent a greedy, fat bastard who could order a take-out of brontosaurus ribs heavy enough to collapse his car. Homer Simpson, eat your donut's heart out.