The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics (1965)

Directors: Chuck Jones and Maurice Noble

Dot%203.jpg

By Marilyn Ferdinand

To the vector belong the spoils.

Chuck%20Jones.gifOne of the greatest, most inventive creators in all of filmdom was Chuck Jones. In a career spanning well over 60 years, Jones was responsible for creating such cultural icons as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote, Roadrunner, and most of the rest of the Warner Bros. pantheon of two-dimensional stars and directing them in shorts of the highest quality. During World War II, his amusing Private Snafu shorts caught the attention of enlisted men as no dry lecture could and gave them valuable information about hazards they didn’t realize they might face in theatres of war, from malaria to venereal disease.

In 1965, during his fruitful later years with MGM, Jones created an illustrated literary adaptation running approximately 10 minutes that won him his only Academy Award. The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics showed the kind of sophistication that Jones and his frequent codirector Maurice Noble used to appeal to both children and adults.

Written by Norton Juster based on his own story, The Dot and the Line tells of a line who falls in love with a bouncy, lively dot. It may seem strange that a relatively representational illustrator/animator like Jones would turn to abstract forms to tell a story, but what could be more natural to him that paying homage to the building blocks of his profession and when better than during the explosion of pop and op art of the 1960s. But what about the subtitle, “A Romance in Lower Mathematics?” Putting that label on any film, let alone an animated short, would be unthinkable today if you wanted the film to reach beyond the festival graveyard. Fortunately, anti-intellectualism hadn’t reared its ugly head in 1965—for example, scientists working on the space program were among the heroes of the day.

Narrator Robert Morley begins, “Once upon a time there was a sensible, straight line, who was hopelessly in love, with a dot.” Unfortunately, no matter how he tried to ply his suit, the dot brushed him off as boring and rigid, and bounced away to spend time with the spontaneous, fun-loving squiggle. Despite entreaties by his fellow lines to forget about the dot (“She’s not good enough for you.” “She lacks depth [a nice joke on a sphere versus a dot].” “They’re all alike anyway. Why don’t you find a nice, straight line and settle down?”), the line knew only how wonderful she was. He had to find a way to make her happy.

“He tried and failed and tried again, and then, when he had almost lost hope, he found that he could change direction and bend wherever he chose. So he did, and made… an angle.” With intense concentration and practice, he found that the variety of shapes he could make—box, triangle, parallelogram, and so forth—was endless. Giddy with the discovery of his prowess, he gave himself a hangover from changing shapes willy nilly all night. Finally, the day came when he felt ready to approach the dot and try to win her away from the squiggle.

Dot.jpg

Much like the Private Snafu shorts, The Dot and the Line doesn’t skimp on the geometry lesson, though the idea really is to show how a simple line can become so many dazzling things with a little practice. The urging toward creativity is unmistakable, and wrapping it in a tale of romance allows viewers of all ages to understand the tangible rewards of literally thinking outside the box.

Many viewers of The Dot and the Line have commented on how shallow the dot is, concurring with the line’s friends that she’s not good enough for him. I can’t say that I blame them; this simple story doesn’t allow for much nuance of characterization. Nonetheless, it’s plain to see that the dot comes to see beyond the limitations of the immature squiggle, and for his part, the line understands that he cannot just rigidly go along in one direction, but needs to be able to bend and adapt if he wants to be part of a loving team.

These days, people lament how far the United States has fallen behind the rest of the world in science and technology. Perhaps if the talents of our most creative minds were made more available to the general public—as The Dot and the Line was—there would be a lot more young people turned on by the idea of creativity with a purpose, as eloquently expressed by the line:

“Freedom is not a license for chaos,” he observed the next morning. ‘Oh, what a head!’ And right there and then he decided not to squander his talents on cheap exhibitionism.”

  • Ed Howard spoke:
    21st/11/2008 to 4:42 pm

    I love this ‘toon, too, Marilyn. I see it as Jones taking a bit of a potshot at both the counterculture and abstract art. It’s an ode to technical virtuosity and the control of technique, a re-affirmation of classical artistic values in an era when many artists were increasingly starting to embrace improvisation and raw expression, setting the groundwork for the punk and DIY movements to come. I don’t necessarily agree completely with this message, but the animation is fantastic and the displays of the line’s new abilities are so much fun to watch.
    As for late Jones, though, I prefer the incredible Now Hear This, which is very experimental in both soundtrack and visuals.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    21st/11/2008 to 6:44 pm

    That was terrific! And here I thought your line about vectors and spoils was just a delightful non-sequitor when I saw it earlier.
    I love things like this from the sixties. I have the Tomorrowland DVD from Disney (the only Disney I have) and the cartoons also do a superb job of explaining nuclear energy and atomic structures and do it all in an entertaining way. But this I’d never seen. And Robert Morley’s voice is so wonderful for the narration. Thanks for highlighting this.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/11/2008 to 9:40 pm

    I suppose it is a swipe at the counterculture and improvised art, though some would argue (including me) that Jackson Pollock opened the door to that particular school of art some time before. I prefer, I suppose, to see it as less a reaction and more a love letter to the line. I was at the Met in NYC with an artist friend of mine and was struck by how rhapsodic he was over a single line in a painting. There is definitely something of a love affair between artists and geometry, exemplified to some extent by the relationship of the dot and the line. (And I always thought of squiggle as a proto-Pigpen from “Peanuts”.)
    There’s not much to say about Now Hear This besides a one-word description: genius. Talk about playing with form, and the brilliant sound. Well, it doesn’t get much better than that. Again, there does seem to be a nostalgia for the old ways, seen again in The Dot and the Line. Even making the old boy an Englishman hearkens back to Tradition with a capital “T”.
    Jonathan – I don’t have Tomorrowland stuff, but I do have 1950s civil defense films, which are almost as good. My favorites, of course, are Duck and Cover and The House on the Left.

  • Pat spoke:
    23rd/11/2008 to 1:34 pm

    Marilyn -
    I don’t think I’d ever seen that before, but it is delightful.
    It struck me that the squiggle could have made itself into about any of the same shapes that the line achieved had he possessed the same discipline and drive. And I was also impressed by the ways the movement of the shapes – combined with the color and the music – seemed to imbue them with genuine emotions. (Though I agree the “)dot is the least interesting of the “characters.’
    And how great is that last line: “They lived happily ever after – at least, reasonably so”!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/11/2008 to 1:41 pm

    Yeah, Pat, that last line shows just how mature this film really is, even in its simplicity. Perhaps the line gets tired of the dot’s frivolous, demanding nature and refuses to create shapes for “mere exhibitionism.” This is always the struggle between couples that have different natures.

  • McAllen spoke:
    2nd/03/2010 to 8:45 am

    This reminds me of a favorite poem of mine:

    It’s by Martha Collins, and it’s called

    Lines

    Draw a line. Write a line. There.
    Stay in line, hold the line, a glance
    between the lines is fine but don’t
    turn corners, cross, cut in, go over
    or out, between two points of no
    return’s a line of flight, between
    two points of view’s a line of vision.
    But a line of thought is rarely
    straight, an open line’s no party
    line, however fine your point.
    A line of fire communicates, but drop
    your weapons and drop your line,
    consider the shortest distance from x
    to y, let x be me, let y be you.

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