Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Criticism

I'm close to crossing the finish line on my thesis, which is why things have been somewhat quiet here. However, I've come across two pieces of jazz criticism that make me reflect on animation.

Gary Giddins' book Natural Selection contains a piece on Billie Holiday entitled "On Her 90th Birthday." It opens with this:
"We live under the sway of artists who haunt our lives, who take hold at an early age and never let go; they inform us of our progress in the world as our perceptions of them change. Faulkner once said that Don Quixote had to be read three times, in childhood, adulthood, and old age, because it is really three books and aspects of it are available only in stages. Over time, we bring more connections to works of art - connections that belong to us, not necessarily to the work or the artist."
Over at Slate.com, Clive James writes about Duke Ellington. The entire article is worth reading, but this quote really hit me.
"The alleged progession from mainstream to modern jazz, with bebop as the intermediary, had a political component as well an aesthetic one and it was the political component that made it impossible to argue against at the time, and makes it difficult even now. The aesthetic component was standard for all the arts in the 20th century: One after another they tried to move beyond mere enjoyment as a criterion, a move that put a premium on technique, turned technique into subject matter, and eventually made professional expertise a requirement not just for participation but even for appreciation. The political component, however, was unique to jazz. It had to do with black dignity, a cause well worth making sacrifices for. Unfortunately, the joy of the music was one of the sacrifices. Dignity saw enjoyment as its enemy."
I find both these pieces to be elegant. They offer insights through precise, well-crafted prose. The insights, with some adjustment, can be held up against animation to see if they offer new and useful perspectives. The Giddins quote makes me consider the films that I constantly return to. The James quote raises issues about the nature of non-narrative films and films that are dominated by design.

I deeply regret that so little writing of this sort exists about animation, but what's worse, I suspect that more such writing would exist if only animation was good enough to inspire it.

4 comments:

Michael Sporn said...

You said a mouthful. The writing for animation is dreadful. As I get older I get to enjoy the wordplay as much as the meat of the writing, and there are just too few people out there, with a genuine understanding and appreciation of animation who can write intelligently. I don't need all the fingers on one hand to count all of those I think capable of it.

Keith Lango said...

Animation writing can be summed up as primarily a clumsy clash of allegiances, turf wars of style preference or pendantic re-iteration (and subsequent lionization) of historical figures, times and facts. In such a climate, combined with the general low view of animation as an artform worthy of high minded critique, it's near impossible to expect that great writers will endeavor to put their shoulders to this particular wheel. Jazz has a cachet among the intelligencia. Painting and cinema (the auteur version) as well. Even photography enjoys a high level of intelligent appreciation that is utterly absent in animation from those who are given to cultural critique. After all, it's just cartoons for kids.

Ironic that while animation has certainly suffered the downward pull described by Clive- the almost painful resistance of entertainment in favor of technical execution- it has enjoyed next to none of the subsequent elevation from the low view as mere entertainment for the unwashed masses to a cultural influence worthy of thoughtful critique. It's a strange breed of film. Wildly successful in the marketplace, yet utterly dismissed in the halls of the thoughtful and eloquent. Even among it's kinfolk in the world of cinema animation is seen as the country bumpkin cousin- or worse, the loud belicose American tourist filling his plate with hors d' ouvres like he's at some kind of an all you can eat buffet line at the mall while the cultured crowd merely gazes on in horror. Perhaps it is the one artform where you find a crushing weight of joyless technical focus on the micro level (scenes, movements, textures, elements, etc.) combined with an almost mind numbing insipidness in the macro (story formulas, simplistic cinematography, dull editing, scatalogical gags, etc.).

Perhaps it's just as well. Anytime something is deemed worthy of eloquent cultural critique and commentary it has passed beyond the veil of accessible entertainment. Maybe it's good that animation remains the low minded entertainment that it is. Would jazz have ever been worthy of such cultural critique if it had never abandoned the sheer fun of Ellington and moved on to the technical suffering of Coltrane? I have my doubts. If qualification for eloquent cultural critique means that animation needs to lose the last shreds of joy it still holds then I say let it remain un-loved by the critic. I'd rather try and go backwards and find more of that raw fun again, not sacrifice what little remains so that animation is finally seen as something high minded enough to bother writing about.

Sorry about the comment length. I have my own blog, I probably shouldn't clutter up yours. Heh.
Anyhow, great stuff, excellent topic of conversation for sure.

SW-H said...

How absolutely and sadly true. I can't add more to the comments above but we can be grateful for sites like this; they certainly help. Thankyou.

Sean said...

Hi Mark,

I've got a question not a comment. You write towards the end of this post "makes me consider the films that I constantly return to". What are the films you return to?