DOOZY: THE TRIUMPH OF FAILURE Benedict Morrison
About forty minutes in, just past its halfway point, Richard Squires’ Doozy (2018) explicitly raises the issue of failure. In this unconventional documentary on the life and work of American actor Paul Lynde, the issue is a key one. John Airlie and Paul Wells, two of the film’s academic talking heads, comment that failure defines the cartoon characters played by Lynde. They argue that all good villains (a pleasing oxymoron) must go on failing and ‘perpetuating the chase, so that you perpetuate the series.’ Every cliffhanger flirts with the possibility of the villain’s success, but the next episode must be predicated on the yet-again failure of the villain. This pattern of repeated failure also perpetuates the perverse pleasure of postponing the happy ending. We would not delight in the villain’s success, but nor would we delight in the villain’s permanent defeat. Both the villain and the hero must fail, and we tune in next time because we are confident that they will go on failing. This lack of resolution means that the villain’s potential for disruption is never spent.
The particular temporality of failure – repetition, seriality, postponement, deferral – is precisely what Doozy is concerned with. Judith (Jack) Halberstam explores these concerns in their extraordinary book, The Queer Art of Failure. What is success, the book asks, but a set of criteria established within a dominant cultural context. Success in a heteronormative, patriarchal, capitalist context must – rightly or wrongly – look like biological reproduction, conventional gender behaviours, and wealth accumulation. What could be queerer than to reject these criteria and to fail? The book lists a happy band of failures who have devoted themselves to the empowering (queer) politics and aesthetics of failure, namely ‘[a]cademics, activists, artists, and cartoon characters [who] have long been on a quest to articulate an alternative vision of life, love, and labor and to put such a vision into practice’.[i] Doozy – in its combination of academic comment, anti-assimilationist activism, artistry, and animation – is on just such a queer quest.
Failure may be said to define Paul Lynde himself. Of course, according to the logic of our culture, he was a success in many ways. He was a star, paid well for his voice performances and his witty panel show appearances. But for all that he was eccentric, outside the comfortable centre of convention: gay and closeted (each a failure from a particular perspective), promiscuous, alcoholic, and criminal on occasion. The documentary presents the testimony of people from his hometown, who compose a more convenient figure of almost-convention. The more challenging sides of Lynde are euphemistically described as ‘part of his charm.’ This small town rebranding is funny, but it is a sad humour, a reminder of Lynde’s failure in the eyes of many. Wells argues that this explains Lynde’s cornering of the market in waspish, bitchy animated characters: ‘the character’s humiliated because there’s a sense, I think, for the cognoscenti that Lynde is bringing his own sense of humiliation and failure to that.’
But Doozy’s play with failure goes far further than this. As I have already suggested, the documentary’s concern with animation marks a wider interest in an art form that is built on narratives and structures of failure. Halberstam argues that ‘animated films [and TV series] for children revel in the domain of failure. To captivate the child audience, an animated film cannot deal only in the realms of success and triumph and perfection’.[ii] The identification of this domain encourages Halberstam to expand the queer canon in order to accommodate animations, including Wallace and Gromit, Finding Nemo, and SpongeBob. This redefined canon also includes the Hooded Claw, Mildew Wolf, and Claude Pertwee. Halberstam’s subtle argument does not position failure simply as a necessary component of (profitable) suspense and seriality. Rather, it speaks to a fundamental element of childhood: ‘[t]he beauty of these films is that they do not fear failure, they do not favor success, and they picture children not as pre-adults figuring the future but as anarchic beings who partake in strange and inconsistent temporal logics’.[iii]
Doozy, in its exploration of the characters from Lynde’s career in cartoon, shares this sense of anarchy. The documentary stages entertaining and important discussions of criminality, gender-bending drag, and disguise – all of which, crucially, resonate with queer failure. While some queer theorists have tried to reject any perceived correlation between criminality and queerness, others have embraced it as a celebration of queerness’s constant struggle against the rules and conventions of normative culture. Contemporary assimilationist LGBT+ campaigning has made enormous progress in improving civil rights, but it has done this by substituting images of homosocial, normative sameness for the radical celebrations of queer difference that fuelled protests fifty years ago. Doozy (and animation generally) reinstates difference and abnormative strangeness. Drag and disguise stage animation’s radical statement on the failure to cement a defined body, a clear identity, a stable self. The closet – which is never fully escaped, demanding serial comings-out every time a queer subject is assumed to be heteronormative – makes drag and disguise part of the constant logic of queer lives. Doozy shows how animation is always about the queer complication of identity, the rebodying of disembodied voices, and the productively defective (mis)representation of the straight world.
Doozy’s study in failure is too ambitious, too rich to stop at the level of this thematic discussion. It is not only that Doozy is about Lynde as a failure, or about failure as a property of animation. Doozy is, itself, a failure. The film is queer in its refusal to assimilate. It is playful and perverse with convention. It seems to be indifferent to the idea of making itself easily categorisable. Is it a documentary? Or a film essay? Or an art piece? Or a biopic? Or a study in cultural nostalgia? Does it belong in a cinema? In an art gallery? Online? The answer to each of these questions must, I think, be yes, and also… It does not succeed in being any one thing. In Halberstam’s queer sense of the word, Doozy is a failure. Held against an imagined list of filmmaking norms, it is unsuccessful. The film’s most daring conceit is its re-enactments, dramatizations of (possibly mythologised) episodes from Lynde’s life in which the real-life star is played by a cartoon character called Clovis. The casting of a cartoon character in the role of an actor is a kind of perverse inversion, a delightful trespassing on the accepted way of doing things, and a recognition of the constructedness of personality. Clovis is irresistible and repulsive. He behaves rottenly, sneering and winking his way through Lynde’s scandals, eliciting the inappropriate endorsement of a laughter-track that we half-embarrassedly chuckle along to.
One of the really queer things about these dramatizations is that they are uncomfortably undramatic. They last just a little too long – or, in the case of Clovis’s streaking down a Hollywood boulevard, quite a lot too long. This discomforting duration shares queer properties with seriality: repetitive, unresolving, deferred, lacking in conventional closure. While Squires may inherit his limited animation style from Hanna-Barbera, his handling of duration is in stark contrast to these earlier crowd-pleasing cartoons, which one of the academics describes as ‘frenetic’. When Halberstam suggests that in the queer failure of animation ‘[r]epetition is privileged over sequence’, this repetition does not comfort or reassure the viewer.[iv] Repetition marks the failure of teleology, a terrible inability to get anywhere. The naked Clovis – pitiably/hilariously imitating Lynde – goes on running down the boulevard because it is somehow not in his power to stop. How can queerness stop when it lacks the neat climaxes and culminations of heteronormative marriage, children, and inheritance?
One of the most perversely, and wonderfully, failing dramatizations shows Clovis on an aeroplane. He is drunk. As he hiccups and rolls his eyes more and more disconcertingly, the soundtrack laughs. This is an indulgent laughter, indifferent to the rules of both good comedy and nice behaviour, a queer laughter. As her mother sleeps, the child seated next to Clovis goes walking. She totters down the aisle towards the camera, defining the left side of the frame while Clovis’s animated legs occupy a live action seat to the right. The girl is giggling, her hands flexed as though she is about to dance. She moves beyond the camera’s gaze. The film cuts to Clovis sitting in his chair, grinning inanely. Another cut, and the girl is once more in the top left of the frame, once more tottering forward, once more giggling: the shot has been repeated, despite the impossibility of its temporal and spatial logic. Clovis drinks. And then, with a kind of sublime recklessness, the film breaks rules of continuity and presents the same shot of the girl for a third time. Clovis, grinning at the anarchy, pokes the sleeping woman and tells her to ‘keep that little girl quiet.’ The laughter-track explodes. But is the audience laughing at the (rather unfunny) line? Or the mother’s (rather unfunny) startled reaction? Or Clovis’s own laughter? Or, perhaps, at the wildly queer logic of a scene which has privileged repetition over sequence? As an act of storytelling, world-building, and realism, the scene is a failure. But it is wonderful as a statement on failure’s capacity for opening up new temporal and spatial logics in which the teleology of child-centred dreams of reproductive futurity collapse.
Clovis, as the hero/villain of the dramatizations, is the eccentric-centre of Doozy’s failures. Part of his eccentricity lies in precisely the fact that he marks the absence of Lynde himself. Perhaps Doozy’s queerest failure of all is that it is a film which fails to be about what it seems to be about. It is not so much that it fails in being a biopic of Paul Lynde, but rather that it shows up the inevitable failure of all biography. Early in the film, the camera circles Lynde’s museum-preserved car while his disembodied voice seems to emanate from the car radio. The car is a kind of shell that should but does not contain Lynde’s body, and the travelling camera seems to be hunting for the film’s absent subject. Other than still images and one very short TV clip, Doozy presents Lynde only as voice and cartoon. His cartoon bodies – the Hooded Claw, Claude Pertwee, Mildew Wolf – are animated stand-ins. So, too, is Clovis, a grotesque, almost-biographical, impossible body that both occupies real photographed spaces and exists outside of time, running and scowling and laughing and winking in a duration that defies the conventions of film and goes on always for that little too long, beyond funny and into the discomforting temporality of queer failure, when everything becomes funny-sad, tragi-comic.
To conclude, I’d like to return to Halberstam:
Under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world. Failing is something queers do and have always done exceptionally well… [F]ailure allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behaviour and manage human development with the goal of delivering us from unruly childhoods to orderly and predictable adulthoods. Failure preserves some of the wondrous anarchy of childhood and disturbs the supposedly clear boundaries between adults and children, winners and losers’.[v]
On the aeroplane, Clovis seems to be out-of-step with the child and her mother, but it is perhaps a fairer, queerer reading to see his behaviour as childish, as a rediscovery of the wondrous anarchy that Halberstam celebrates. Doozy is a doozy of a failure, a film that refuses to be normal, and which invites us to revel in the unconventional, disruptive temporalities of queer failure and to continue on the quest to articulate the ‘alternative vision of life, love, and labor’ that Halberstam hopes for.
Dr Benedict Morrison is a Lecturer in Film & Television at the University of Exeter. His research interests include queer British film and TV and queer ecology. He is currently completing a book on inarticulate characters in art cinema and his forthcoming projects include a new history of queer television in the UK and a study of 1950s queer comedy.
[i] Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), p.2
[ii] Halberstam, p.27
[iii] Halberstam, p.120
[iv] Halberstam, p.119
[v] Halberstam, p.2-3