Suffering From ‘Importantitis’

Cultural critic Terry Teachout wrote a thought-provoking piece in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal about how artists with extraordinary promise like Leonard Bernstein, Orson Welles and Ralph Ellison failed to live up to their potential because of the dreaded “importantitis.” Who in the animation world has suffered from the same ailment? The most notable example who comes to mind would be Richard Williams. Teachout contrasts these artists with choreographer George Balanchine:

Contrast Ellison’s creative paralysis with the lifelong fecundity of the great choreographer George Balanchine, who went about his business efficiently and unpretentiously, turning out a ballet or two every season. Most were brilliant, a few were duds, but no matter what the one he’d just finished was like, and no matter what the critics thought of it, he moved on to the next one with the utmost dispatch, never looking back. “In making ballets, you cannot sit and wait for the Muse,” he said. “Union time hardly allows it, anyhow. You must be able to be inventive at any time.” That was the way Balanchine saw himself: as an artistic craftsman whose job was to make ballets. Yet the 20th century never saw a more important artist, or one less prone to importantitis.

In the animation world, the likely parallel to Balanchine would be directors like Tex Avery, Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones, who produced animated shorts year in and year out, practicing their craft consistently and rarely ever looking back, and ultimately ending up with some of the most beloved classics in the history of the art form.


  • http://mayersononanimation.blogspot.com Mark Mayerson

    The problem in animation is not importantitis, it’s the reverse. How many animators or directors currently working have Balanchine’s luxury of working steadily on things that they have a modicum of control over? Avery, Jones, etc. were in a position to keep honing their craft because there was always another cartoon to direct with no break. In animated features, how many directors have 3 films to their credit? In TV, how many people (with control) have created 3 projects in a row without a gap of years between projects?

    The current industrial set-up that animation labours under is such that it is difficult to aspire to craft, let alone art.

  • http://tbgloops.blogspot.com/ Mr. Trombley

    Dear Sir, Leonard Bernstein, Orson Welles and Ralph Ellison failed to live up to their potential? What the hell does a man have to do to live up to his potential if they do not?

    You do realize that Ellison’s single novel was written while he wrote non-fictional essays? And that Bernstein composed as he made his living as a professional conductor? And that Welles somehow managed to continue making movies despite a massive smear campaign?

    While it is important to be able to be fluidly creative, attempting a purely psychoanalytic reason why they slowed in their later career is going to be incomplete.

  • http://hitlersbrain.deviantart.com R

    Everybody gets old, andconsequently works less/takes longer to complete things as they do. So I guess the answer would be, ‘everybody’.

  • http://www.cartoonresearch.com/gerstein David Gerstein

    This is a pretty subjective thing. I’d argue that Chuck Jones actually had “importantitis” working against him from the mid-1950s onward, and Bob Clampett caught it from him, though essentially after his salad days were past. Feuds rage even now between supporters and friends of one or the other, each of whom usually can’t see importantitis in their man (and whom, in a few cases, have their own cases of importantitis, some of which the Clampett-Jones feud is manipulated to serve).

    I would strongly argue that Walt Disney had a kind of importantitis. It led him to favor feature films (and later, theme parks) and ignore a painful devolution in his short cartoons—a huge number of which ended up as stultifyingly cookie-cutter conflicts between Donald, Pluto, and cutesy little animals.

  • http://mymedicatedlife.blogspot.com/ Bitter Animator

    I think I have to agree with Mr.Trombley here. I think the whole idea of the article is flawed. I mean, Orson Welles… didn’t he do the voice of Unicron? And that song about knowing what it is to be old? Throw the odd side project in like War of the Worlds and Citizen Kane in there and I have to ask what more do you want?

  • http://www.mbproductions.biz Mike

    Yeah – I’d be happy if I ever reached the fame and sheer skill of Orson Welles.
    And an industry which is known for its financial instability and low-satisfaction, sometimes ‘importanitis’ is the only thing keeping you going! Sure Richard Williams might have had this combination of vanity and ego – but if he didn’t – would he ever have tried The Thief and the Cobbler? I don’t think so. Certainly not during the sixties, when most thought animated features were dead.

  • robiscus

    I have nothing but admiration for Richard Williams, and i suspect his inability to finish The Thief And The Cobbler might be the reason people think he stumbled upon some kind of bloated ego when failing to finish it. All of the facts suggest that he was a maverick in tackling a feature on his own and in delving into this rare, seldom treat territory he had the odds stacked against him. In short, its completely understandable. I recently worked with a veteran of the industry who worked for the studio that cannibalized all of the work from that film after it was taken away from Mr Williams and rereleased as some pathetic mess. When i was asking her about the events, she said the producer called the film “animators masturbating”, which struck me as another allusion to ‘importantitus’ on the part of Richard Williams and the lone studio that worked on it. Needless to say i could not disagree more with that take on the work. It is STILL as fresh and inventive an animated movie as has ever been imagined and it not being made is both a catastrophe and a black eye on all of animation. One needs to simply watch any 2D Disney feature from the last 25 years to witness endless exercises in needless fluidity of animation to see a real example of “animators masturbating”. The movement in those films makes me sea sick.

  • NancyB

    I agree with Mr. Trombley. Orson Welles and Leonard Bernstein continued to produce outstanding work for many years. It’s just that not all of them were CITIZEN KANES or WEST SIDE STORYs.

    Richard Williams made many groundbreaking films and produced some of the best animation of his generation. Why damn him because of the failure of one film?

    The only case of ‘important-itis’ I can see here is Terry Teachout’s. (despite his marvelous name)

  • http://www.stephenneary.blogspot.com stephen

    I think Woody Allen could beat Orson Welles in a fight. But as Welles knew very well–you only need one hit to make a lasting impression. There’s a mystery and an allure to producing one great thing in your life, while those who can repeat their successes (or not always) are seen as echoing themselves or sticking to a formula.

    I’ll always value quantity over quality. I just think it’s more interesting to track an artist’s work that way. A lone masterpiece can easily become a fetish, in or out of context. But yeah, I wish I had that level of skill, even if only once.

  • http://thethief1.blogspot.com/ Holger

    While I do wish that Williams had made many more films than he did, I can’t look at his career and work without the utmost respect, admiration and continued fascination.
    After his Raggedy Ann experience he realized that he was craving final control over his work and he tried to achieve this.
    He was and is continuously working and doesn’t fit into the mentioned category.
    I also don’t see how it applies to Welles and Bernstein. It’s an interesting thought, though. It reminds me a bit of Michael Caine, who preferred to continuously work even on bad movies if he had no other choice, rather than “saving” himself just for perfect scripts.

  • Bob

    Duke Ellington is a musical example of a creative genius who did not suffer ‘importantitis’, despite what some might think. He was capable of composing anytime, anywhere, and he did. In advanced age, when his eyesight was failing, the Duke simply wrote bigger. And he died doing the very thing he loved to do.

  • Killroy McFate

    “In animated features, how many directors have 3 films to their credit?”

    Off the top of my head…
    Don Bluth
    Musker/Clements
    Wise/Trousdale
    Brad Bird
    John Lasseter
    Ralph Bakshi

  • gene schiller

    For his early successes (“Citizen Kane”, “The Magnificent Ambersons”) Welles relied heavily on the superb craftsmen and big budgets provided by the Hollywood system – lacking these in his later productions, the magic is gone, though he remained a very capable director. As for Bernstein, “importantitis” didn’t prevent him from making numerous attempts at a “big statement” (“Mass”, “Kaddish” Symphony, “The Dybbuk”, “A Quiet Place”) though these, for the most part, lack the freshness of his youthful, groundbreaking “West Side Story.”

  • http://www.autodaddy.blogspot.com tom

    “I’ll always value quantity over quality.”

    AH, the Ray Kroc standard of excellence!

    I respectfully disagree. The reason there is so much lousy animation on television is that the nets have a need for product- massive quantities of product- and quality consequently is rarely an option.

  • TStevens

    Welles will always be primarilly remembered for Kane even though Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil and a few other projects were quite good. When you hit a homerun on your first time “up to bat” the public often expects bigger and better results. Had Brad Bird failed on the Incredibles he may have been relegated to the “shoulda’ coulda’ woulda’” file as well.

    Williams will always be a contraversy in this industry. Though he is an artistic genius he has always been associated with poor storytelling skills wether he deserves it or not. Remember, talent does not necesarilly dictate the ability to lead a project through to completion or success. In the case of Williams, my impression is that he tends to micro-manage to a degree that prevents him from seeing the overall picture.

    Prodigies in any arena (wether it be film making, sports, or art) are always judged by thier first time at the plate. Having that pressure attached to your name is pretty tough for people who are in general, very sensitive to what other people think.

  • Johnny Quicksilver

    Ha!! You must never have met Chuck Jones — he was the greatest at trying to seem important. Anyway, the WSJ piece is idiotic drivel, especially considering how prolific Welles was in the face of opposition from Hearst’s powerful right-wing friends. Perhaps it’s only coincidental that the WSJ is also right-wing. If we’re going to look to the WSJ for our art memes, just shoot me now.

  • Ogg

    Welles is a terrible example. He continued to make great (or at least good) films up until his last completed one. The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil, The Trial, and F for Fake are as good (or maybe better) than Citizen Kane.

    In terms of animation, Chuck Jones almost entirely lost his touch as soon as he left WB. His only real feature, The Phantom Tollbooth, is a bit of a failure considering how ripe the original novel was for animation. Actually, it would have been the perfect feature for Richard Williams given the demand for striking visuals needed for the story.

    I hate the look of Jones’ animation at MGM and his independent work in the 1970s. Then again, the only Tom & Jerry cartoons I really like are the Gene Deitch shorts from the early 1960s.

  • http://robcatview.blogspot.com robcat2075

    Bernstein had a full career as a conductor. The less fully realized roads of composer of ballets, operas, musicals, film scores, symphonies and author, educator and lecturer should be taken as interesting pluses, not failures.

  • Daniel J. Drazen

    I would nominate, not Richard Williams, but Don Bluth as a sufferer.

    Bluth’s talent was evident even before “NiMH,” with Disney’s “Small One.” And absolutely no other animator IMO has ever been as successful in animating water or using it in a symbolic manner; in that, I would rank him with Frank Capra (the John Doe convention in the rain, the fact that the snowfall becomes a visual cue in “It’s A Wonderful Life” that George’s nightmare vision of a world without him is over). In looking at Bluth’s work, though, I have to wonder not how he did it, but why he settled on the writers and material. Some of it, especially “Rock-A-Doodle,” was downright cringeworthy material that shouldn’t have been animated by ANYBODY!

    That said, the WSJ Teachout piece misses the point. Mere numerical productivity isn’t a fair gauge of genius. If that’s what it’s all about, then the hacks who produced the Nancy Drew and Tom Swift series would be counted among the literary giants. A true genius, whatever his or her output, always takes their work to the next level above that of their peers. That’s what sets them apart from the herd.

  • http://www.filmjourney.org Doug

    As many here have noted, anyone who thinks Welles “failed to live up to his potential” clearly hasn’t seen “Touch of Evil,” “The Trial,” “F for Fake,” or “Chimes at Midnight,” and many lesser but still brilliant works. Dumb!

  • Mike Fontanelli

    It’s also known as “Charlie Chaplin Syndrome”.

    I think it has less to do with living up to one’s potential than it does with delusions of grandeur clouding one’s creative judgement. (That’s why an artist should never read his notices, or at least never take them seriously.)

    It’s a double whammy when it happens to a humorist, since comedy is usually best when it’s least pretentious.

    Adding pathos or drama to a comedy is just medicine-coating the sugar. Chaplin actually pulled it off, but he’s more the exception to the rule. Woody Allen certainly seems to have fallen victim, as had Jerry Lewis before him, and – famously – Harry Langdon.

  • Butters

    It’s not “delusions of grandeur”.

    When you have thousands of fanboys on the net analyzing your script, artwork, choice of underwear, etc with a fine tooth comb, it would be enough to send anyone over the edge trying to make everyone happy.
    It’s a lose, lose situation and very few are lucky enough to have one piece of work that can be considered a masterpiece by the masses.

  • http://www.candlelightstories.com Alessandro Cima

    I think ‘importantitis’ needs to be defended and encouraged since it is so sorely lacking today. I can’t imagine Citizen Kane being made by a filmmaker who did not have this lovely importantitis illness. Must a filmmaker make more than one Citizen Kane in order to reach his or her potential? Perhaps if he or she produced nineteen Citizen Kanes he or she would reach full potential? Chuck Jones made hundreds of animated shorts. I can sit through three before I’m bored silly. If I strung a whole bunch of his cartoons together, would I end up with a Citizen Kane? Norstein has importantitis and a single minute of any one of his films makes the entire Pixar output look like an animated bathroom cleaner commercial. Animators are always talking about their jobs and work and oh my gosh what if I make it impossible for me to ever get hired because I’ve insulted someone. People who don’t feel important are not important. It’s simple. Orson Welles knew he was important and he wasn’t afraid to say it. We need more of that. Mark Twain had importantitis. He published his own books, as did Walt Whitman. Such self-importance! I say, be important. Say you’re important if you are. And when someone tells you to stop being so self-important, tell them to go fill out an application at Pixar where everything is just so gently charming and smooth and funny and just the right touch moving. I’m sure they can find some unimportant work there if they are just self-deprecating enough.

    I was at a party recently where someone asked me who my favorite directors were. I said Kubrick, Bergman and Tarkovsky. He said, “If you will forgive me I must say that your choices seem somewhat pretentious.” I said, “Well then I must immediately start watching more Ron Howard movies.”

  • gene schiller

    Bernstein was once quoted as saying, (according to Samuel Barber), “I’m so talented, I don’t know how I’ll ever live up to my potential.” Bernstein never considered himself as a conductor first, but rather as the great white father of the musical masses. To revisit the subject of Orson Welles – Robert Wise, his editor for both “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons” actually had a more distinguished directorial career – his “The Haunting”, in fact, is as “Wellesian” as anything Welles ever produced.

  • David

    Bill Watterson!

    I rate him as the contemporary artist with the healthiest perspective.

    Norman Rockwell!

    Call me a cheeseball, say it’s sappy and maudlin and go watch your Tarkovsky. I like him a lot.