Review of John Canemaker: Marching To A Different Tune

Animated Films, 1978-1998 Museum of Modern Art 11.6.1998 By Eugene Salandra

In the nearly twenty six years since John Canemaker began his career in animation, he has earned for himself a singular place as the foremost historian of the medium. In animation circles, his books and articles on everyone from Winsor McCay and Oskar Fischinger, to Disney's famous Nine Old Men, are well known and widely respected. A gifted storyteller, John has a unique ability to illuminate the lives of the individuals who have shaped the art of animation. He makes their stories real, with his profound sense of humanity and his keen eye for dramatic irony.

What is less widely known about John Canemaker is that he has produced an animated an astonishing number of personal films and commissioned works during his career. This may further explain the richness of his historical and critical writings on the subject. Drawing on his decade-long experience as an actor, John has made a graceful transition from the stage to the pegboard. Furthermore, his strong sense of story and his unique graphic style (think Mary Blair meets John Hubley, with a touch of Klee and Miro) create a perfect balance of ingredients that boldly coalesce in his lively works. The Museum of Modern Art pay tribute to John's animation in a recent film retrospective. The show opened with an amusing sampling of live action television commercials in which John has featured. His propensity for broad comic acting, of the sort one might have seen on a vaudeville stage, set the tone for the charming personal animation that would follow. For this actor, the switch to being an "actor with a pencil" was clearly a natural one.

In "Confessions of a Star Dreamer" (1978), John begins to explore the use of animation as an editorial tool in documentaries. More effective than talking heads and cut away shot of old dusty photographs, animation allows a filmmaker to go directly to the heart of the matter at hand. John has taken full advantage of this. His subjects' "subtext" becomes his visual "text", and the result is both hilarious and genuinely human.

This graphic representation of his subjects' vulnerabilities and emotions is what allows John to treat sensitive matters with great success. Few other animators could accept the challenge of addressing issues such as nuclear war, terminal illness, or child abuse without sentimentalizing or over-dramatizing. John takes the audience past the cliches and puts the viewer in direction contact with the plain truth. Despite the deceptive simplicity of style, John's films are at their core far more realistic than the most naturalistic animation. They portray powerful inner truths. For example, John's treatment of a boy's struggle with cancer in "You Don©&Mac246;t Have to Die" (1998), grabs the viewer by the throat and tugs hard. No other medium or approach could have conveyed the depth and confusion of the child©&Mac246;s experience in the face of a fatal disease.

In the realm of fantasy, John treats subjects as diverse as Mendelssohn's, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in "Bottom's Dream" (1983), human creativity in "The Creative Spirit"(1982), and the cycle of the seasons in "Bridgehampton" (1998). John accomplishes what many concept artists dream of. He brings the rough and painterly vitality of "inspirational art" directly to the film screen. At this he excels.

When John attempts to emulate traditional animation techniques and forms in "The Wizard's Son" (1981), he is at his weakest. His talents for free and whimsical expression are stifled beneath layers of rules and conventions, and his spirit is obscured. What does remain is his uncanny sense of timing and performance. These qualities run through all of his work.

The two aspects of John Canemaker's prolific animation career, scholarship and production, have complimented each other beautifully. One has fed and informed the other in a seamless organic way that has earned John a unique and respected place in the animation pantheon.

ASIFA EAST newsletter, Fall 1998. © John Canemaker 2001, 2003. All Rights Reserved.