May 20, 2008

Waltz with Bashir looks like one of those films that could be simultaneously fascinating and trying. Fascinating because the Israeli autobiographical feature focuses on writer/director Ari Folman's experiences as a 19-year-old soldier in Lebanon during the early 1980s. Trying because feature-length Flash-animated films can, depending on how they're made, make your eyes bleed.

The key, of course, is the phrase "depending on how they're made." Watching the YouTube clip from the film, Waltz with Bashir might be quite watchable, and I'm always fascinated by documentaries that look at wartime through the lens of individuals rather than armies.

I am a bit irked by publicist Richard Lormand's claim in Israel21c that Waltz with Bashir is "basically the first animated documentary ever." Clearly, he hasn't read our first PDF issue, which focused on animated documentaries. And what about the more recent Persepolis, which was also autobiographical and the darling of independent animated cinema last year? It seems to me that everyone involved—including the article's writer—was so excited at the prospect of this film being a "first" that no one bothered to question the assertion. And besides, who bothers to fact-check articles on animation, anyway? Certainly not mainstream journalists.

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November 7, 2007
The Grand Haven Tribune, a West Michigan newspaper, ran an interesting story yesterday. Animation pioneer Winsor McCay was born in the village of Spring Lake, and his earliest drawings date from when he and his family lived there; so the Village Council is mulling erecting a monument to McCay on the former site of Union School, which he had attended.

I love the idea. I'd like to see greater public recognition of the many people who forged this art form aside from Walt Disney. One problem, though: according to the article, the aim appears to be calling Spring Lake "the birthplace of animation," as McCay was animating before Disney. It's true that he was, but as those of us who celebrated animation's centenary last year know, he wasn't the first. (I suppose one could make the case that his films were the first drawn, animated narratives, but that sort of hair-splitting is usually reserved for academics and fans.)

It's hard to say where the misinformation springs from, but the tone of the article suggests that the appeal behind the notion is that McCay's work predates Disney, that Disney "reportedly borrowed techniques" from him, and that, as Spring Lake Village manager Ryan Cotton says, "[t]hey say he didn't make a lot of money like Walt Disney because he was more into the art of it as opposed to the commercial." So what we have here is a mix of hometown pride and supposition, neither of which makes for a great monument. I'd like to see McCay get more recognition, and I like the idea of an annual animation festival to honour him. I just hope that when the council realizes that McCay wasn't the first, and that they're not, in fact, "the birthplace of animation," that they'll still be interested in recognizing his work.

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October 13, 2007
We're all animation fans here, right? And there are probably few things that irritate us more than people who think that all we watch are the juvenile antics of anvil-toting funny-animals. I've said before that the mainstream press (and marketing departments) are a big part of the problem, as they help perpetuate a limited (and often inaccurate) view of animation's content and process.

As it happens, today I spotted two articles that both refer to their writers' limited views on animation. One of these is predictably disappointing; the other is surprisingly encouraging.

I'll start with the good news. In yesterday's New York Times, Stephon Holden summarized the New York Film Festival's highlights, and he led off with (and praises) Persepolis despite, as he put it, a "longstanding resistance to animation":
Because it is animated, Persepolis is a bold choice for the festival’s closing-night selection. "A cartoon?" you may sniff. "How dare they?" But the movie is so enthralling that it eroded my longstanding resistance to animation, and I realized that the same history translated into a live-action drama could never be depicted with the clarity and narrative drive that bold, simple animation encourages.
This is a refreshing and commendable report. Confronted with an animated feature that challenged his preconceptions about the medium, Holden adjusted his worldview in light of this new experience, without once feeling the need to denigrate the rest of animation's offerings. If only more film critics, fans and artists did the same.

Montreal's Al Kratina, on the other hand, gives a typical backhanded compliment in yesterday's Montreal Gazette:
In September, Anchor Bay Entertainment released a slew of anime titles, including Perfect Blue, a film that avoids most anime clichés. It's not futuristic, there are no robots, and at no point is a schoolgirl threatened by some sort of pulsating sex monster. Instead, it's a complex story of a young pop idol who's stalked by a crazed fan, with exaggerated themes of obsession and paranoia that feel like Alfred Hitchcock directing a Road Runner cartoon.
More of the same old, same old. Kratina has, like most mainstream critics (and more than a few in the animation press, as well) seen only a sliver of all that anime has to offer, and yet he figures he already knows "most" of its tropes—sorry, "clichés." So far as he's concerned, it's not typical anime if it's "not futuristic, there are no robots, and at no point is a schoolgirl threatened by some sort of pulsating sex monster." And of course there's the inevitable comparison to Disney films or Looney Tunes.

Enough is enough, already. As I wrote eleven months ago, if we want to see better animation writing we need to tell writers and editors when they've screwed up. I encourage you to write to newspapers, magazines, radio shows, TV shows and websites when this kind of lazy criticism occurs; it's the only way we'll ever see real change. Here's what I wrote to the Gazette:
Sad to say, I'm not surprised that Al Kratina makes the backhanded compliment to Perfect Blue that it "avoids most anime clichés. It's not futuristic, there are no robots, and at no point is a schoolgirl threatened by some sort of pulsating sex monster" ("'In' films for 'out' crowds," Oct. 12). There are many anime productions that don't fit into his preconceived categories, but as is often the case with people who don't take the time to understand a genre or medium, he figures a few generalizations will suffice.

The irony here is that Kratina reviews comic books, another medium that is often unfairly judged. If I said, "The Sandman is a title that avoid most comic clichés, because it doesn't have spandex-clad muscle-men whaling the tar out of each other in adolescent power fantasies," he'd probably tell me about how comics have become more mature and/or complex in content over the last three decades, and that there's a whole world of non-superhero comics that go beyond that tired stereotype.

In short, he'd be asking me to look at the medium with an open mind. He might consider extending the same courtesy to anime.
Have you come across anything egregious in the media lately? Let us know about it.

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