Mar 29, 2008

Tex Avery and Mike Maltese: a Double Centennial Tribute

My friend Sharon Colman asked me to an evening put on by the Academy last Monday. I accepted immediately and it's a good thing I did(and that Sharon thinks ahead)because by the time 3/24 rolled around the event at the Linwood Dunn theater had completely sold out.

I think the practically-new Dunn theater seats 600, but the staff was resorting to pulling out folding chairs and holding up the start of the program to try and accomodate everyone. Just before the lights went down Tom Sito was spotted doing a Grouchoesque run in front of the screen heading for the last of the seats. I saw Dave Smith, the longtime Disney archivist, and Jerry Beck(natch). There were enormous gourmet cookies and coffee beforehand, but no one needed caffeine to last through the 14 shorts. Joe Adamson, an author and film historian I greatly admire, chose the cartoons screened. Joe would win my undying gratitude if all he'd done was write "Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo", in my opinion far and away the best book about the Marx Brothers(and absolutely the funniest). But he's also done a few other classic titles, most notably Tex Avery: King of Cartoons" and "Bugs Bunny: 50 Years and Only One Grey Hare".

The evening's program; CLICK the image to open in a larger size

It was a good selection. I'd seen all but one of the shorts before(as had Sharon). Some I'd seen many, many times. As great a cartoon as it is, I'd have said beforehand that I could probably skip "What's Opera, Doc?" only because I have seen it about 3,000 times--and I'd have been wrong in my imagined saturation-point-reaching. Because for all those viewings I've probably only seen it on the big screen 3 or 4 times. What a revelation. It's incredible to see Maurice Noble's color and design the way he meant them to look. And of course there's the added factor of having a real, large, live audience.

I love the romance and mystery of the film experience. It's kind of sacred to me, if that's not too strong a term. You sit in utter silence(well, hopefully) in a darkened theatre, the curtain parts, and you hold your breath a moment. And boy--the beauty, spirit and vibrancy of that Warner Bros cartoon shield leaping out at you accompanied by the most terrific studio orchestra ever...that's got to be the king of all intros. It's interesting to enjoy it today, in the respectful company of hundreds of AMPAS members and cartoon fans, and think of how those guys--Maltese, Avery--felt about their careers while they were working at them.
The program (whose cover is pictured above) contains a couple of excellent essays on the honorees, both offering food for thought and perspective. By the early 70s Tex Avery was a bit of a broken spirit due largely to tragedies in his family life, and he apparently considered his brilliant work for Warner's and MGM as just so much silliness--disposable, even "embarrassing".

It's one of the merits of our latter-day media overload that we now give Tex Avery the credit he earned and deserved as a genius of film comedy and an animation innovator. He wasn't completely overlooked at the time, certainly--but his reputation was mostly limited to his own small industry. He didn't break out beyond the confines of a tiny community in notoriety as, for instance, Frank Tashlin eventually did--but Tashlin left animation for live action and thereby merited wearing long pants, figuratively speaking, in the eyes of critics and writers--and even then, he too remained in yet another segregated category, comedy.

Added to the cartoons shown Monday were a couple of clips of both men reminsicing--Avery from "Bugs Bunny Superstar" and an audio-only clip of Mike Maltese spinning away in a distinctly New Yawk accent. It was especially nice to have them represent themselves a bit among their own work. After the shorts a panel of colleagues and one daughter--Maltese's--sat in front and offered their thoughts. Stan Freberg was a last minute additon to those listed in the program and reincarnated his voice for Pete Puma, as well as recounted his entry into voice acting(although he and/or I were fuzzy about the dates and circumstances--somehow he had Bob Clampett standing next to Chuck Jones at the time he auditioned for Pete Puma. Not too sure about that!). The speakers' remarks all gave the honorees that much more of a real presence, although there's no doubt their work spoke loudly for them. What a unique legacy is the short cartoon.

I have to do a plug of sorts for one of my favorite organizations: the Academy does a full roster of great screenings and programs open to the public--as is their fantastic research library located in Beverly Hills. The Dunn theater complex is a relatively new addition, and its location makes the Academy events there all the more accessible and attractive to attend. And the tickets cost about $5. You can't miss. Usually the only attention they receive is for the glitzy TV show that's on every spring, and that's understandable--but they do a lot more, and it's a resource we in L.A. should really take full advantage of.
In the foyer on the Dunn theater, by the way, there was a great display of vintage and modern matte paintings. A must see if you're in the area.
ADDENDUM Indispensable animation pro and blogger Hans Perk, who was also present, reminds me that it it's also the 100th anniversary of another cartoon great: Mel Blanc. In additon, clicking on Hans' name will take you to his own list of other animation notables who'd be celebrating their 100th anniversary in 2008. Check it out..

Mar 28, 2008

A Class By Himself

in Paris last May. I made up the french and have no idea if it's accurate.

I haven't updated The Blackwing Diaries for more than two months and it's about time I jumped in and posted.
I never meant that the gap would be such a long one. Part of the struggle to get back in the swing and just go on and hit "publish" is due to my ambivalence about whether to address why I haven't been writing.

This really isn't a personal blog. It's meant to be as widely inclusive and journalistic as I can manage regarding my vocation, animation. The easiest option would be to skip over the personal and get right back to Topic A.
But first I'm going to ask your indulgence as I write a bit about this blog's number one follower, the real audience I am always writing for, my husband Peter Bateman.

Pete last August at the beach in Ventura

He wasn't in animation but he certainly knew plenty about it, and not just from being around me. He couldn't draw for beans, at least not as we usually judge these things. I used to kid him that his development as an artist had coalesced around the 5th grade from the evidence(which was pretty entertaining to see)--but he had excellent taste and a great eye.

He knew more about film and loved movies more than anyone I've ever known, and that's saying something as I've known some people with incredible credentials. He was also a reader of prodigious scope, enjoying everything from Michael Crichton to Malcolm Lowry, from Ann Beattie and Claude Lévi-Strauss to MAD magazine, Sgt Rock and Martin and Lewis comics.
His senior paper at NYU film school was on Howard Hawks and he had a great love for French new wave cinema, in particular the lesser-known works of Jacques Rivette and Agnes Varda and the better-known Renoir, Godard and Truffaut. His taste was wide-ranging, eclectic, informed--he seemed to know everything. I'm a pretty big film buff and I know a lot of trivia, but I'm sure I learned at least half of what I know from Pete. The other half I probably get wrong in the details. Pete never forgot the details.

Every entry I made here was read by him first, as it went into his email inbox the second it posted. Many's the time I'd get a phone call at work from Pete and hear a reaction to something I couldn't believe he'd read so soon. Usually he complimented me--okay, he actually complimented me every time whether I deserved it or not. He was a cheerleader.

This time for the first time I'm going to have to go into his email myself and see the message from Blogger that Blackwing Diaries has been updated, because Pete can't. He died on February 13th. His death ended 15 months of unbelievable courage on his part, enduring treatments, several operations, and living life with that large heavy other shoe poised and liable to drop--we knew not when.

Some readers may remember that in October of 2006 I was on a panel for a talk organized by the Animation Guild (my union) involving Geena Davis and her research into gender representation in animation.
I had been flattered and excited to be part of a panel with Geena, Dean De Blois, Jill Culton, Brenda Chapman and Fred Seibert moderated by the union president, Kevin Koch. But came the day, Pete and I had just heard that afternoon from his doctor that something awful was wrong with him, something that would be confirmed after test results came. But they wouldn't be ready for several days. All we could do that evening was wait. It was pretty horrible.
As I sat on the dais I could see Pete's face framed between the shoulders of the row in front of him, terribly pale. I wondered as the various questions were fielded and answered between panelists and audience what our lives were going to be--how much life did we have? Could it be something not so bad? Would it be the absolute worst news imaginable?
Some old friends and colleagues I hadn't seen in ages came up afterwards to say hello. I don't know what I said. I felt a million miles removed from Burbank, in fact from anywhere normal and familiar on planet Earth. It was all incomprehensible, surreal.

The following Tuesday the boom was dropped: Pete had kidney cancer, and it was advanced. He'd have to have one kidney removed immediately, undergo aggressive treatment...and that was that. His only symptom had been a loss of about 10 pounds over several months, which he'd put down to being extra busy and on his feet more than usual at a new job. He was fit. He'd never smoked. He was otherwise--otherwise!--in great health. He had no history of cancer in his family. It was just bad luck, "one of those things." He was 48.
Thus began our lives "A.D."--after diagnosis.

2007 was a very full year for us. Everyone at work (where I was in the thick of storyboarding and voicing a lot of bees) was so supportive-tactful, accommodating, and compassionate. I was and am quite emotional about the loyalty and love my studio friends who knew the situation showed me. Work really is a great tonic--one Pete had too little of as he'd had to leave his own job soon after the year started. But he continued to work: on a long-planned coffee table book of rare film stills he'd collected over the years; proposals for articles; appraisals. Together we sold and wrote a lengthy article for FIRSTS magazine, on author Betty MacDonald. We went to Paris last May, a place neither of us two francophiles had been, and loved it (of course).
We did what I know a lot of people in our situation do--take life not just one day at a time but one minute at a time. There's no tomorrow to fret about, just now. It doesn't always work in practice but one tries.
In hindsight things were pretty great until late October, when the downhill trajectory became faster and steeper. As usual we shared Halloween, our birthdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Always there was chemo, transfusions, different cocktails of drugs side by side with our own plans for trips, for projects, for little bits of future fun.

In January there was a weeklong trip to Stanford for a treatment that proved futile. Then there was the hospital, then we were home, and then it was obvious that he wouldn't rally. This is when I stopped feeling as if I could write anything, or indeed do anything.

He got a horribly rotten deal but he never, ever complained about it. He made friends of his doctors and nurses. He went from a typical guy who hated needles and all things medical to a stoic, blase patient with the highest pain threshold imaginable--even his specialists were staggered that he'd managed as well as he did for months. To some people he barely referred to his illness--to others, not at all. He hated to burden people or bring them down.

He had the happy talent of being kind, encouraging and likable to anyone and everyone. He was great with kids and dogs, cats and birds and horses. He loved good wine and knew all about it. He played a serious game of chess. He was a great listener and he'd laugh at all my inanities.
There isn't a thing--whether in two dimensions or three--in the world as I know it that doesn't have a connection with him for me. He's left an incomprehensible hole behind him. I'm still constantly on the verge of asking him something, of wanting to tell him an anecdote or run something by him. Again I think of that inbox and I'm reminded of my dependence on his thoughts about things.

By the way, I know he would want me to insist that all of you guys and girls act on the first hint of any differences in your health, no matter how insignificant they might seem. Trust your intuition--and most of all, get a regular physical. Much better to be safe than sorry. Kidney cancer is called "the silent killer" for a reason. It's one of several forms of cancer with few or no early symptoms. Take care of yourselves.

Thanks for your indulgence, and for all your feedback and interest these past years.
I'll be returning tomorrow to my regularly scheduled nonsense. I enjoy doing this blog, and I know my biggest editor, critic and sounding board's gentle spirit will remain with me as long as I'm around.

Thank you, Pete.

Under the big Irish sky.