A Look Behind

“Different”. What kind of judgment is that? Last time I called my father, all I could hear was his complaining about how different the world is now. Hard as I tried, I could not conjure a subject that didn’t inspire the same lament. And every time he grumbled that things are different now, he meant they used to better. It isn’t true, of course, but he is eighty-one years old and I am sure he misses my mother, probably misses a world in which he was a lead character, moving freely through his days, able to manage the chaos of life stumbling forward.

No way would I trade today’s world for the one we had back then. Even with its daily dose of problems, we’ve come too far in so many ways. Not only were there no computers when I was born, we didn’t even have zip codes. Eye surgery, automobile safety, tennis rackets, Scotch tape, you name it: overall, the world is improving. Still, like my dad, I am fond of some things as they were when I was young. Like Saturday morning cartoons—the good ones.

To me, the good ones were Looney Tunes. I’d get myself situated in front of the TV with a bowl of cereal on the rug, smiling as soon as that plinky music came up. I’ve had good excuse to watch Looney Tunes with my own kids now, this time seeing something special I didn’t notice decades before—the backgrounds. Animated shorts are made by moving cartoon characters in front of a static background. The characters are drawn and painted on transparent celluloid so you can see through the action to the background painting, which doesn’t change. Instead, the action happens on top of it, independently, and if all the characters run off-screen, the quiet, unblinking background is still there.

I especially love the backgrounds painted by Paul Julian, an artist who worked for Warner Brothers in the 1940s and 50s. Paul Julian created work mainly for the episodes of Tweety Bird and Sylvester, and to me, his style evokes the private moodiness of Edward Hopper. The shadows are as solid as brick and just as important to the structural integrity. His buildings are stately but vacant-feeling. They’re like stage sets, empty, yet inviting. His urban panoramas share the dramatic skies and exaggerated perspectives of Grant Wood’s rural landscape. Long, lazy clouds lounge across sunsets as Wood’s country roads snake over rounded hills. And when it comes to a worm’s-eye view of things, one man’s billboard is another man’s grain silo.

Complexity is Julian’s choice in a palette. He is fond of what artists call “broken color”, the kind you can’t name, can’t quite put your finger on; It’s a sort of brownish, greenish, grayish… I don’t know…. That’s broken color. Paul Julian’s combinations are gorgeous, wide-ranging and expertly balanced. Look at his cityscapes: the low, lemony sunlight in Canary Row warms the faces of buildings with variations of cantaloupe, tangerine and watermelon. Adjacent walls are anchored in shadow with deeper mahoganies, Bordeaux, and puce. Here and there Julian sneaks in a green door or a roll-up window shade to keep those reddish tones in check. Shadows in the distance soften like the warm gray felt of your grandfather’s hat.

One of my favorite Looney Tunes is a story of two stray cats, Sylvester and a street-wise kitten, who, on a cold night, are taken in by a sympathetic Elmer Fudd. He can only adopt one of the cats, however, and so Sylvester schemes to get rid of the kitten by framing him for all sorts of reprehensible deeds. At one point he hypnotizes the kitten and tries to convince him to clobber Elmer Fudd while Elmer sleeps.

The episode, titled Kit for Kat, opens with an outdoor scene, the sky a wide indigo, soft as a baby blanket. The perspective is low, as though someone small were looking up at the moonlit roofs and chimneys of a quiet neighborhood. Clear and wintry, the sky is crossed with telephone poles and sweeping arcs of wires. It is not an unfriendly scene, but the possibility of loneliness is very real.

Once Elmer Fudd invites the cats inside, we get a clear picture of his spacious but cozy house. The fireplace glows and the rooms are carpeted and well-furnished. A fainting couch waits in the parlor under a painting of a desert-sunset, which is framed in ornate gold. Near the couch, dark green palm fronds have been arranged in a large jade-colored vase. It rests on a side table with slender Queen Anne legs. The interior is finished with handsome woodwork, door casings accented with rosettes and fluted plinths. No shortcuts here.

Paul Julian can make a rainbow out of browns. His are the colors accorded men’s dress shoes: Cordovan, Tobacco, Sahara, Chestnut, Espresso. To balance the warmer tones, Julian relies on a range of greens, from a bright clear green like the felt on a billiard table to bluer, minty greens, and the subtler shades of martini olives.

Without upstaging the action, Julian pushes the background as far as he can. He takes care to include details like highlights on drawer knobs and the segmented barrels of cabinet hinges. As if he knew we’d arrive on Saturday morning and he wanted everything nice for us, he designed four distinct wallpaper patterns for various rooms in Elmer Fudd’s house. And where the walls recede into the distance, those patterns shrink logically, harmoniously with art-school precision; where they are in shadow, the colors have to change again. We are guests of Julian’s painted setting, and as such, we are pampered.

Maybe after all, I do understand the past my dad longs for. Perhaps it’s like the thoughtful stillness of the background—what lies behind all the craziness in the foreground of living: the chasing up and down, doors slamming, blows traded back and forth, fur and teeth flying.

Since I was about thirty years old, feelings toward my father have been turbulent. I only started calling him again, twice or three times a year after my mother died. Before that we’d spent a solid decade—no, even longer than that— not speaking to each other. And last time, that day on the phone when his opinion of everything was disapproving, I wondered why I’d called him in the first place. The answer is like broken color. There isn’t a single reason, there are many, and they are too mixed up to define.

But the background is still untroubled. The setting for all my memories was a calm and elegantly ordinary world. A comfortable chair near the radio. The stormy foreground action has moved off-screen and the background I missed the first time remains as warm and welcoming as the smell of mom’s meatloaf in the oven. It was always so, if only I’d been able to stop and look and listen. That’s the difference; if I have been focused on the turmoil I remember, perhaps my father sees the past as something like one of Paul Julian’s backgrounds. And when I look at it that way, I can see his point. We didn’t know how good we had it.