Monday, December 18, 2006

Joe Barbera R.I.P.

In the preceding thread, Dag tossed in a bit of advice that really impressed me with its wisdom:
"Doing our best, getting over our failures, and moving on to the next task is simply better than weeping over our failures..."

Coincidentally, that life lesson can be personified through the venerable artist and filmmaker Joe Barbera, who passed away Monday at the ripe old age of 95.

Joe Barbera was an admirable man, for many reasons that the online obituaries seem to be missing. He was so creative, it was said by his co-workers that ideas could flow out of his pencil like water from a tap. He was unusually optimistic, believing that it was worth keeping a positive attitude through life. And he was capable of successful adaptation: his world kept changing around him, yet he persevered and kept pace.

I was profoundly impressed when I read his autobiography, many years ago. One particular passage, on Barbera and his co-worker Bill Hanna having to confront a catastrophe in their lives in the mid-1950s (paraphrasing from memory here): "We built this impregnable monument to success, and suddenly the whole thing is taken away with a telephone call".
The "monument" he referred to, was his Tom and Jerry series, successfully earning MGM the prestige they had long wanted for their animated shorts department. Barbera, working hand-in-glove with his creative partner Bill Hanna, had to suffer through a rare indignity when they first were teamed up to work together; the boss had insufficient confidence in either one of them to inherit a director's empty seat, so both were made to work together instead. Confounding the embarrassing situation, they were to "make their films before they made them", by filming the preliminary production drawings in such a way that the producer could verify that the duo's tentative first project was actually worth producing.
Instead of being resentful for the intimidating conditions, however, the co-workers decided to make the best of it. And that humility allowed a partnership to blossom.

They discovered they were a great fit, each one's strength remarkably complimenting the other's weakness: Barbera was the idea man, Hanna the skilled organizer... a wonderfully balanced "right brain/left brain" combination. And they discovered that the imposed production technique offered them unprecedented insight and control over their work, to the point where they not only kept their tool long after the boss relented on its need, they eventually turned thorough planning into the cornerstone of their television empire. (How else do you make so much work so fast, with so little loss of quality? By Knowing What You're Doing)

In the 1950s, studio after studio closed down their animation units, regardless of how many Academy Awards their cartoons had earned; business is business, and it was simply taking too long to make back the investment on the average theatrical short cartoon. Even after giving MGM Tom and Jerry, a fateful phone call still left Hanna and Barbera facing unemployment, alongside most other cartoonists of the time. Again paraphrasing from Barbera's autobiography: "I watched my son playing baseball, and wondered, how am I going to take care of my kid? I wasn't a young man anymore, I'd been through a career..."

Television had the answer. The team analyzed the traditional production system and found many ways to streamline that system, cutting costs by increasing the amount of pre-planning that would go into every film, necessity being the mother of invention: they **had** to find a way, if they were to continue in the line of work they so deeply loved. The ingenuity with which they approached their new careers, as pioneers in the medium of television, is so admirably American: deliver inexpensive but quality goods that can appeal to as wide a potential market as possible, usually meaning a family and not just children. Find a way to offer Value for Money, Getting the Most from the Least: is that not the very lifeblood of economics?

One success beget another, and another, until soon they were responsible for turning out several hours of animation each week, compared to the single hour of animation their group had to turn out each year, back when they were making Tom and Jerrys for MGM. Their world changed, and they found a way to change with it. Barbera could have whined about the increasingly absurd standards that year after year the know-it-all network executives imposed upon them, he could have cried about the tight budgets, the impossible demands, the forced compromises on quality required for these demands and these budgets to be satisfied. Instead he just decided to do his best, and see what would happen. Impossible situations were still no excuse not to do your best.
Both Hanna and Barbera have stated in interviews how proud they were of the new monument they built, a gigantic studio employing hundreds of artists. Bill Hanna once defended his studio against artistic critics, by pointing out how many of his employees were raising families by making art, compared to the options he faced in the 1930s during the Great Depression. How many families were these art critics supporting?

We don't have to pretend that Joe Barbera made great art; he made what he made. Yet he gave hundreds of artistic people a regular job where being organized and disciplined was to go hand in hand with being creative and resourceful. He cashed in his MGM pension in order to finance his and his partner's humble studio at the dawn of television, taking the kind of risk that his critics, we may presume, are unfamiliar with, for how else to explain the venemous envy in the tone of their criticism?

Meanwhile millions of children got to spend a few pleasant hours in their early lives never appreciating all the sweat and pride of craftsmanship that goes into making the impossible, possible. (As with the sacrifices of parenting, that's a revelation that comes with age and adulthood)

When you watch his films, recognize you're not seeing great art. You are still seeing art that is a darn sight better than it should have been, given the impossible circumstances set against its creation in the first place. Art carefully made better than it might have been, by the care and skill of a good man.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Barbera. And thanks for living your life by doing your best.


truepeers said...

When you watch his films, recognize you're not seeing great art. You are still seeing art that is a darn sight better than it should have been, given the impossible circumstances set against its creation in the first place.

People are less and less interested in seeing "great art" and more and more interested in craftsmanship because of the kinds of stories the latter tells. Even when highbrows get together today they have a hard time being passionate about any shared interest in art because this is for them more and more a specific professional interest in a single historical (often government- or academy-subsidized) discipline than it is a conversation about cutting-edge innovation in human self-understanding that is open to the participation of all learned people regardless of their own professional discipline. Today that shared conversation barely exists, unless you want to count those postmodern indulgences in ironic cool and victimology.

In other words, Charles, I really apreciate this eulogy because it identifies the key lesson in the craftsman's life: the practice we are today interested in is less the means by which a solitary genius speaks his revelation, as the means by which skilled and dedicated people can come together and make things happen in a way no single genius could. You give us a sense here of how human self-understanding will likely now advance largely through covenant zones. Oh what I would give to have been trained in a team discipline...

dag said...

I'm really big on climbing monumental edifices. I don't seem to be a tactile guy in pereson, but thee truth is i love touching stones as I climb, feeling the vibrations coming from the blocks, feeling the work of other hands as mine pass over them. I can get right lost in a stone hewn by a group of men and set atop another stone. i feel the presence of those who came before us, and I feel very good about it. I like traipsing around lost jungle cities, wandering out of my mind from heat-stroke in deserts seeking out hidden oracular sites, brushing my hands over stones of cathedrals. Because all of these things are the workss of men who have combined their skills and their resources and their life-time to make some great thing to the glory of something more than any one person can be; and yet each and every anopnymous person involved is important as a person, the thing not being possible if someone won't or can't contribute his part. The great comittment to building sosmething onee knows one will never see the completion of, such as a cathedral, that is beauty and what I'm coming to see as an act of faith and humility. I like pressing myself against this great work that Man does.

Two building projects impress me more than others: the Latrun Road and Ha Kotel. When the Romans destroyed Israel and enslaved and expelled the Jews, they left one wall of the Temple standing, and they gathered up Jewss as slave-labourers and made them build a military road north. The despair of the Jews makes me weep to think of, them dying to construct a road for those who would kill them in slavery. but, that was of the time, and though it must have seemed to be the tragedy of an evil end without hope, that very road was the salvation of Israel in the War of Independence nearly 2,000 years later when the Israelis dug it out of the rubble of time and used it to save Jerusalem from the Muslims . and thus they saved Israel from destruction. I cannot look at anything now without thinking that I have no idea what it will mean in 2,000 years. I'm not gifted with that kind of foresight, so I simply sit and think I can do my best for now and let the future take its course beyond me.

The second great thing of building is Ha Kotel, the Wailing Wall. M. Yourcenar writes of "... the silent cogitations of stones," when she writes of Hadrian's Wall, but this Wall is something those who touch stones cannot describe in words. It is the work of Man and more.

People can do such great things, and often they do without having any idea what it is they do. Those who work by the day don't always seem to know the great thing they will leave behind. Nor should they. Those who try often seem to leave behind embarrassing nonsense, things they know are rubbish, and thus they set out in advance to be "ironic," knowing they are petty and silly and worthless. Romantic feeling sucks. Passing a heavy load to a man to pass on knowing he will carry the weight, knowing you can trust him not to drop the load, that is the feeling one finds in a monument. It's the bond that holds together the stones. One can feel it. It ain't Romance. It's real and tried trust in others. You can climb on it and feel it. You can also feel other people who've come before and who've left themselves in the stone. It's that way with people, and I suspect it's that way with cultures and nations. I would live for a thousand years if I could. What a great thing Life is.