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"Accentuating the Negative"

[Click here to to my Essay page titled "Accentuating the Negative." And click here to go to the most recent posting on this Feedback page.]

The Waif of PersephoneFrom Nick Cross, a Canadian filmmaker whose The Waif of Persphone was mentioned critically in "Accentuating the Negative": First off, I just wanted to say that I both read and admired your book  Hollywood Cartoons. In fact, I read it twice. I respect animation  historians for choosing to focus on what many consider to be a somewhat unglamorous segment of the film world.

Now, to the point of my writing to you. I just finished reading the  latest post on your site, "Accentuating the Negative," wherein you  mention the comments on my blog addressing your review of my last film.  I apologize for the harshness of some of the comments. Normally I don't like to have negative things on my site, but I also am against censorship of all kinds so I felt I had to leave  them up.

The only reason I pointed out your brief mention of my film at all was that it seemed very pointed and venomous. Since you never mentioned any other films that played at that festival (except for the  Goofy short, of course), I was, to be honest, a bit confused by it. I understand that you found it overlong and ugly, which is valid; but it seemed to me a bit harsh since that is a comment that you could make  about a large number of animated shorts that play at festivals (my opinion) and not exclusively a point that you could make specifically  about my film.

I understand that The Waif of Persephone is a film  that is not to everyone's taste. I made it as a personal statement and not for mass commercial appeal.  I viewed it as an experimental  film, to try different techniques of story-telling and animation. In your opinion, I failed. I did wish that rather than writing such a  short criticism, I could have gotten some more constructive feedback, but obviously that wouldn't have been realistic in the context of your article, although the Disney short did get a much more lengthy and  positive review.

Personally, as an independent filmmaker, I feel that Disney does tend to get enough press and positive feedback but again, that is my own opinion. You obviously have a deep admiration for  Disney films (as I do), which was the clear reason for you to write  about it, but the flipside is that I did feel that my former employment at Spumco and the obvious similarities in my work to that of John Kricfalusi's caused you to circle me out as well, since your ongoing feud with him is well documented. I may have been wrong in this assumption.

I guess what I'm getting at in a roundabout sort of way is that I find  that negativity tends to breed negativity. Hence the criticism that sometimes is directed at your writings. I found the quote by your animator friend which you used to defend your opinion, that "he didn't need to waste his time watching the film because the stills from it  told him everything he needed to know," was a bit offensive for a  variety of reasons. How can someone who makes such a broadly dismissive comment about ignoring a film base [that comment] on a few stills? Is  this a valid method of criticism? A quick glance at some stills of  UPA's The Unicorn in the Garden may lead one to believe that film to  be ugly, crude, and unworthy of a viewing—which would not be at all an intelligent approach to judging a work. This seems to work against one of your points in the essay about not judging a work by cherry-picking quotes. I doubt that [the animator] would want [his] own work judged in such an offhand way.

Well, that's about it. Since you mentioned that people rarely mention their objections directly to you, I felt that I should do just that. You inspired me! So again, I apologize for the vitriol in the comments section of my  blog, I never intended to get that sort of reaction.

MB replies: And I apologize for not showing Nick's work the respect it deserves. Lots of animation deserves short shrift—formulaic big-budget features, cynical TV junk, amateurish student films—but, whether I liked it or not, The Waif of Persephone is a much more serious effort than any of those. I shouldn't have written about it so curtly.

As soon as I heard from Nick, I ordered a DVD of Waif from him, via his Web site, and I'm looking forward to seeing it again. I will be pleasantly surprised if I like it a lot better than I did when I saw it in Ottawa, but I'm certainly open to that outcome, and, whatever I think, I will write about the film much more carefully than I did before.

As for the Goofy short—I agree that it might seem disproportionate to lavish so much attention on a short from a big studio when so many other shorts get no attention at all, from me or anyone else. But, especially given the Disney studio's enormous historic importance, I thought How to Hook Up Your Home Theater deserved praise as one of the most intelligently conceived and executed cartoons, short or long, from that studio in many years. To put it another way: if Disney were turning out a half dozen shorts that good every year, shorts that people wanted to see and talked about, can there be any doubt that animation as a whole would benefit enormously, just as it did when Disney was making great shorts in the '30s? I don't think that will happen, but even the possibility is cheering.

On John Kricfalusi: I hate the idea that I'm in a "feud" with John, with all that word suggests of mindless hostility. I'm critical of John not because I don't like him—I do like him, or did—but because I dislike a great deal of what he has done in the last few years: He has made bad films, spearheaded the degradation of Bob Clampett into a cult figure, welcomed the allegiance of shameless mountebanks, and filled his blog with rabble-rousing bluster. Occasionally he shows that he is still very intelligent and knowledgeable, but for the most part he seems determined to demonstrate how self-destructive it can be to take Ralph Bakshi as your role model.

I agree in principle that censorship is a bad thing, but I don't think that moderating comments on a blog, and scrapping the nastiest ones, amounts to censorship. It's extraordinarily easy and inexpensive to set up a blog these days, so anyone who wants to spout opinions in obscene language can do so without the help of another blogger.

[Posted March 7, 2008]

From B. Baker: I recall the tenure of Frank Rich as drama critic for the New York Times. Rich's standards were extremely high. When he liked or admired something, he would praise it to the moon, sometimes writing multiple essays and features on the work. But this was quite rare, of course; when he found fault with something, he'd literally get out his elephant gun. Many of the plays Rich mercilessly panned didn't deserve being blasted out of the water; they may not have been masterpieces, but they weren't quite the offenses-against-nature the critic made them out to be. Re-reading Rich's pieces from the '80s and '90s, I am struck by the excellence—and elegance—of his writing on plays and artists for which he had great enthusiasm. Much of his discussion of plays that he  found wanting is far less interesting to re-visit. His criticism in such cases seems perfunctory and (strongly) dismissive; he isn't shining any light on the work, he's simply telling us he didn't like it and that it isn't any good. When the New York Times publishes such a broadside, plays sometimes close rapidly.

The trick, I guess, is to write as powerfully and fairly about what one judges deficient (or simply doesn't like) as one writes about apparent masterpieces. Something to strive for, anyway.

MB replies: Fortunately, no one is awaiting my judgments the way they awaited Frank Rich's, and so I can concentrate more on what's enjoyable for me, and less on any effects that what I write might have.

As a rule, it's a lot more enjoyable for me to write about things favorably —movies, books, whatever—than to write about them unfavorably. I enjoyed writing about Brad Bird's Pixar films more than I enjoyed writing about Cars. I did criticize Cars at some length, however, not because I wanted to bash it, but because it was bad in interesting ways.

I've written with a certain amount of sympathy about films that I disliked thoroughly, like Home on the Range, but that didn't seem to me to deserve a full dose of scorn; I would have felt uncomfortable unloading on them. But, on the other hand, when confronted with a piece of pretentious, overrated crud like Beowulf, I can be happy reaching for the elephant gun.

[Posted March 11, 2008]

From Gordon Kent, elaborating on B. Baker's reference to Frank Rich above: Rich published a compilation of his reviews several years ago.  It was called Hot Seat and what's most interesting is that Rich spent some time talking about the shows he eviscerated.  What he did was to revisit the reviews of those plays with some hindsight. He discovered was that many of them didn't deserve nearly the scorn they got. He recognized that his reviews effectively canceled the runs of these shows. Of course, it's a bit late to lament one's power so far after the fact, but perhaps he learned something. What he did was to append new thoughts to the original reviews—small consolation to the authors, actors and investors, I'm sure.

[Posted March 14, 2008]

From Kevin Hogan: I know that this article is older, but it’s new to me! I enjoyed reading it, especially since it touches on some of the things you wrote about in “Innocence Is Bliss?”

After reading the later article, I came to understand that you truly love and enjoy cartoons, only you are able to separate yourself from the film(s) enough to objectively review them, and thus films you may have really enjoyed at one point may not impact you the same way as your tastes have become more refined.

With such knowledge in mind, I think that many people find you to be “negative” much of the time due to your objectivity. Leonard Maltin (the prominent antithesis of “your style”) in interviews, on the Disney Treasures sets, in writing, etc., seems to have more subjective enthusiasm hidden (or not so hidden) under the surface. He (and other notable historians), if I may generalize, appears to love the medium and/or the studio ultimately more than individual films, and thus their criticisms come across as “loving” critiques, while your “pure” objectivity reads more negatively.

I have always taken Mr. Maltin’s opinions with caution due to his apparent subjectivity (possibly it is unfair to judge him, as he is often employed by Disney, Warners, etc. to present information; it’s hard to bash the people who are paying you). However, you generally seem to be removed from the subject enough to give an honest opinion.

I view your objectivity now as your greatest strength. Possibly others see your apparent “lack of enthusiasm” for “Disneyana,” “Warner Mania,” etc., as a fault. I use the word “apparent” as I think you do have enthusiasm for the medium/studios, and you simply have the ability to compartmentalize your emotions. Other readers may not see things that way, and determine you to be far too negative. That is their loss.

[Posted July 12, 2012]