Sunday, December 15, 2013

Simple Gifts (1977)

New York at Night, 1979

R. O. Blechman (born Oscar Robert Blechman, 1930) is an illustrator and animator, you probably recognize his work. He made a name for himself creating sequential editorial cartoons for the Village Voice in the 1970s, later for The New York Times and plentiful covers for The New Yorker.

DID YOU KNOW ..? Like all great men, R. O. Blechman graduated from Oberlin College.

Without actually doing any research on the subject, I imagine the artist he is most closely compared to is Jules Feiffer, because of the shaky line. However, whereas Feiffer's people have detailed faces of angst and giddy nervous energy, Blechman's characters visages are so glyphic they are almost childlike, often succumbed by wonder.


His most-seen animation is probably something like the Alka-Seltzer commercial (1967) in which a man has an argument with his own stomach. My favorite work, however, was when he produced an hour-long holiday program for PBS called Simple Gifts. Seven animators presented works on the theme of Christmas.

Blechman's own piece, No Room at the Inn, retells the story of the Nativity with social commentary familiar to those who treasure his work. This acknowledgement of economic disparity and the plight of the poor is also reflected in Maurice Sendak's Introduction where a shoeless, miserable boy sacrifices his life to become a tree that brings joy to others.

Artist Chwast gives life to a bizarre tale from the bizarre novel Orlando by the bizarre Virgina Wool, and there is an silly Toonerville Trolley cartoon. Three pieces, however, are biographical, and summon up Christmases from America in the 1860s (rich future President Teddy Roosevelt's My Christmas) and in the 1910s (poor future playwright Moss Hart's A Memory of Christmas)
and the tale most haunting, that of the "Christmas Truce" of 1914. story told in this letter from by Sir Edward Hulse was only one example of soldiers, largely British and Canadian, emerging from their trenches to meet and greet Germans (there are far fewer records of any French participating) in no-man's land. First they arranged to retrieve their dead, which led to the singing of hymns, then carols, the sharing of family photos and stories and finally playing soccer and exchanging of gifts.

The afterward to this animation, that Sir Hulse perished in the trenches, doesn't make the story any more poignant, if you are familiar with the wholesale carnage of the Great War. He died on a godforsaken field in France. Of course he did.

Following this dangerous breach of continual murderous violence, those at the top mandated that strict punishments would be meted out if there were any further peaceful gestures made toward the enemy. And once poison gas was introduced in 1915, most Christian amity was successfully broken.

A commercially produced video for Simple Gifts was last released commercial in 1993, and is currently available on VHS for around $130. It has never been released on DVD.

Happy Christmas.
Talespinner Children's Theatre presents Adventures In Slumberland by David Hansen, Nov. 30 - Dec. 22, 2013.

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