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Accentuating the Negative

By Michael Barrier

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An accusation I hear repeatedly is that I'm too "negative," that my writing doesn't have the warm fan-friendliness of, say, Leonard Maltin's. My critics may have in mind passages like this one, about Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising:

Engaging visual designs cannot take the place of stories and characterization. Personality animation is a notable achievement, but not when every personality is the same. Hugh Harman was more adventurous than his partner, but even he seemed content with hackneyed story situations once the basic concept of a cartoon was established. What's more, as their own producer-directors, Harman and Ising could indulge themselves and devote as much as eleven minutes to a single cartoon—when the story lines weren't strong enough to sustain half that length.

Pretty harsh, I have to admit. But wait! My mistake! I didn't write that! It's from Maltin's Of Mice and Magic (second edition), page 282. Oh, well, there are plenty of other examples of my negativity, like these remarks about Bob McKimson:

But for all his talent as a draftsman and an animator, McKimson was the least imaginative of the Warner directors. ... [T]he body of his work includes a much higher percentage of duds than Jones's or Freleng's. Many of his shorts seem to represent cartoon business as usual, and the viewer looks in vain for Jones's innovative spirit on Freleng's flawless timing.

Son of a gun, I did it again! That's not from one of my books, it's from Charles Solomon's History of Animation, page 160. How could I make such a mistake?

Well, there's one point on which my critics are surely right, that I'm guilty of exhuming stale gossip that makes some of animation's heroes look bad, as in this passage about how Joe Barbera was hitting on Mary Blair at the MGM studio, until her husband, Lee, came to her rescue:

Mary was hired by the Disney story department in April 1940 at Lee's suggestion. "She would come home ... all upset," Lee once wrote to a friend, "because Joe Barberra [sic] ... was making passes at her, so I got her a job over at Disney's."

How cruel to bring that up, many years after the fact! Can you imagine John Canemaker writing something like that? Wait a minute—John Canemaker did write that. It's on page 120 of Before the Animation Begins. And, horrors, that book was published in 1996, while Joe Barbera was still very much alive! Poor Joe—he died ten years later, in December 2006, at the age of 95. If he was so unfortunate as to read what Canemaker wrote about him, I don't doubt that his untimely death was hastened by at least five minutes.

Obviously, I'm having some fun here, and I'm cherry-picking, too; but there's a lot of low-hanging fruit in the books I've mentioned—a quick skim of each gave me the foregoing examples—and in many others. Even so, I rarely if ever hear the charge of "negativity" leveled at other authors the way it's leveled at me. So what acounts for the difference?

I sometimes hear suggestions that it's my choice of words, that my language is too pointed, but almost no one offers examples. The only one that comes to mind is my use of "sadistic" in connection with Bob Clampett's cartoons; I've never suggested, though, that Bob himself was a sadist. I'm reminded of the complaints about my use of "ten-dollar words," when the only example anyone ever offers is "kinesthetic" (a buck-and-a-quarter word at best).

Another frequent complaint is that there are too many "opinions" in my writing—again, a strange charge to level at me but not at other writers whose books on animation history are at least as opinion-heavy as mine. If my opinions ruffle more feathers, perhaps that's because I try to have good reasons for them and to state those reasons as clearly as possible. (To see what I mean, go to almost any of my Commentaries, although this one, which was among the first I posted almost five years ago, still strikes me as a particularly good example.)

It's true that sometimes I lay down bald, unshaded opinions. For example, I dismissed Nick Cross's Waif of Persephone out of hand when I saw it at the Ottawa Festival last September. I feel some regret now that I did that, although I have a vivid memory of just how unpleasant it was to sit through Cross's film.

I didn't get any feedback on that decidedly negative expression of opinion, except for a note from a well-respected animator friend—someone who is not at all a mossback—who said that he didn't need to waste his time watching the film because the stills from it told him everything he needed to know. But I learned later that what I wrote triggered a flood of angry comments from visitors to Cross's blog, some of them obscene. For example: "haha mike barrier can eat a fat dick. hes just a cartoon history snob, but he cant draw for shit." Etcetera.

What's most puzzling about the hostility toward me is that I so seldom hear directly from people who object to what I write. Instead, anger bubbles to the surface elsewhere, and in strange ways.

As I wrote in January 2008, one blogger's particularly savage attack apparently originated in what I wrote about Joe Grant in Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. I may have gotten hard looks from some of the Disney people at Ottawa last fall for the same reason (believe me, Mark Henn knows how to glare). But this is, unavoidably, conjecture on my part; I've still not seen anything, online or elsewhere, that explicitly condemns my treatment of Joe, in person or in the book. Figuring out that some people seem to think I betrayed Joe's trust—I didn't—has been like deciphering the Rosetta Stone.

This reluctance to state a grievance plainly may have its roots in the state of today's Hollywood animation industry, whose prevailing tone, I've suggested, is a "smothering coziness ... punctuated by spasms of savage resentment." Perhaps the people who complain so bitterly about me—but never to me—are simply adopting protective habits developed over the years. Maltin, Solomon, and Canemaker all have one foot in the business, as do some other writers; best to tiptoe past them, as so many animation workers tiptoe past other people who may be dangerous to cross. But I have no industry ties, and although what I write gets read by a fair number of people who work in animation, it has no discernible influence with anyone's boss. And so, I'd guess, I'm a convenient proxy, a handy target for accumulated anger and frustration.

I've worked in places where things happened that way all the time, and it's hard to imagine any healthy art form thriving in such a poisonous atmosphere. Maybe that's the real point of this piece.

[Posted March 5, 2008]