Lines and Frames: An Interview with R.O. Blechman

HEER: That story reminds me of something that occurred to me back when  while I was reading the Talking Lines book and maybe also a little bit of Dear James, which is that you seem fascinated by stories of fate. That’s the recurring theme in your work. Going back to even The Juggler of our Lady, it’s about a life of someone whose life is thwarted until he succeeed. That seems like the issue you come back to.


BLECHMAN: Although, like how many artists, he didn’t do anything but. And it’s not as if he didn’t want to do everything, but the only thing he could do was juggle. And I think a lot of artists can only do artwork where they speak to the world through their art. So, tomorrow when Seth and I are interviewed on stage, we damn well better speak [Heer laughs] with more than our art. I have a story in my Dear James about T.S. Eliot, who was called “dull, dull, dull both inwardly and outwardly.” He probably was. The guy was probably a misfit — a social misfit, which probably reinforced his artwork a lot. But, yeah, I suppose fate. Like any freelancer, I had a lot of tribulations, a lot of trials.

HEER: Sure, sure.

BLECHMAN: It’s just the nature of it, if you’re a freelancer, you know every now and then a job doesn’t come through or something is whatever, whatever. Freelancers live very much on the edge. I always think of myself  as semi-retired ever since  I became a freelancer at 22. People think I’m retired. So retirement holds no fear for me. I’ve been preparing for it for 50 or 60 years, so what the hell?

HEER: In the National Post interview you had mentioned that your mom wasn’t crazy about you becoming an artist and sort of tried to stop it …

BLECHMAN: No, not really. The truth of it, I wasn’t called by my mother. Yeah, but she probably wanted reassurance that what I was doing would earn me some kind of living, that’s all. I think that’s very normal for parents to be concerned, may not be very normal to make telephone calls to inquire about that. No, it’s understandable. One of my sons is studying for his PhD in philosophy and I’m concerned, but I’m not going to call up his college and ask about his chances of getting a job.

HEER: To go back to The Juggler of Our Lady, that’s also one of themes or lessons of the book. That persistence in the face of rejection or lack of success.

BLECHMAN: Very true.

HEER: You’re right though, it is natural for parents to want their kids to have a normal career where they can see what the rewards are going to be. Aside for your mom, was your dad also concerned when you went into this freelance life?

Illustration by Blechman

BLECHMAN: Well, I wasn’t aware his concern or unconcern. He just never talked to me about it. And my father was pretty cut off. Thank God I didn’t go into the family business, my older brother did and he was cut down by my father viciously. My father was, in many ways, not a nice person.

HEER: What was the family business?

BLECHMAN: Oh, it was wholesale dry goods.

HEER: So your older brother went into...

BLECHMAN: He went into the family business. But he later became a novelist and I think his novels were very affected by early life and experiences with my father and experiences with my father and with the family.

HEER: Yeah, that is always a tricky thing. I guess maybe you’ve experienced some of it as well, like a father and son are in the same business, like there is some …

BLECHMAN: Tension. I Accept that my son is an art director for The New York Times and there’s absolutely no tension whatsoever except he sometimes dismisses me as a designer, when I am a damn good designer [Heer laughs], but that’s kind of his take. So probably, he would like to have his own territory, thank you. I don’t care, I have plenty of other stuff to do. I’m not necessarily going to do design work or be known as a designer. But be that as it may … no, my relationship with my son is highly compatible and collegial.

HEER: I guess in some ways, you were lucky for not being the oldest son.

BLECHMAN: It’s true.

HEER: Your older brother took the flack.

BLECHMAN: Well, also, my older brother was gay. And at a time when it was very difficult to be that. I could see that there was a tremendous resentment. Not that it was articulated by either him or my parents, but I think that it was known but there was this terrible tension, no doubt that resulted in the antagonism. And, well, so be it. My brother was far beyond the family business. Which later became shoes, my father was a shoe manufacturer. You’re really getting an earful of the Blechman family history.

HEER: It’s interesting because you did mention in Talking Lines some of the stuff about your mother and your father. I thought a little bit about it because there are these sort of  family themes in some of the stories. There’s this theme of like fate the sort of lives people make for themselves and What sort of lives they have to make with their families. I think that comes through in the Leonard Woolf story and there’s Shakespeare’s sister …

 BLECHMAN: And Shakespeare and also Shakespeare’s father. Remember in Hamlet, he was always giving his son advice. And I wonder if — you have to remember that Shakespeare’s father was a council member and probably one who really wanted a shield of arms. There may have been some type of conflict between father and son there. It’s funny that Polonius is mocked in Hamlet. It’s very possible that Hamlet was a stand-in for Shakespeare’s father.

HEER: It’s very speculative, but I think there’s a lot of that parental-son tension in Shakespeare. King Lear as well as Hamlet. Even the Kafka story. Kafka famously had a troubled relationship with his dad.

BLECHMAN: I love doing that one. I did that one for Leanne. She had a book, I can’t remember the name of it. It was kind of a self-published book that was Xeroxed, but beautifully designed. How could it not be beautifully designed when she does it?

HEER: Was that for J& L or was that something else?

BLECHMAN: No, I cannot remember the name of the book.

HEER: That’s fine.

BLECHMAN: Now, I can’t remember it. But it was a beautiful little book, beautiful little book. And that’s where the Kafka story first appeared. And I mention it in the book, I think.

HEER: I didn’t want to pry to much into your family …

BLECHMAN: Oh, it’s OK. The ghosts aren’t going to haunt either of us.

HEER: Did your brother marry? Your older brother?


HEER: So yeah, they might have been aware. And maybe, in that era, for a man to have a gay son. He might want to berate him, or try to reform him, or change him.

BLECHMAN: Yeah, yeah. I don’t think so. I think they never acknowledged it, but they were aware of it. Once I told my mother and father, they were shocked that I would tell them this. I figured, well, you know it, what am I telling you that’s new? And I didn’t do it in terms of hostility, I just said ‘hey, he’s got blonde hair and blue eyes, can’t you see it?’ You know, that kind of thing. Occasionally, they would ask me ‘can’t you match him up with a girl?’ Well, it wouldn’t do very much good.

HEER: It’s one of these things where people will know, but don’t actually say it. I think people used to be like that about cancer. You know someone who has cancer, but to actually say the word is to break some sort of taboo. So, in terms of your ambition, you mentioned several times that your dream was to make an animated feature. Where did that come from? I mean, obviously you had a love of movies. Did that come about because of the first animated film?

BLECHMAN: No, when I was in college, I think in 1947, I thought to myself “the future art from is animation.” How I came across that, I have no idea and I was wrong. It hasn’t been true yet. Although I have to say that I ought to be seeing Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Except that I’m not very sympathetic to 3D animation, I like the 2D kind, but so be it. No, I don’t think that it has yet reached its prime. I think it will eventually happen, so many of the graphic novels that we are enjoying will one day be, I hope, turned into animated films. I hope by the right film makers.

HEER: I think the one that’s really done this — have you seen Persepolis?

BLECHMAN: Yeah, it was a good film. I thought the book was better than the film, but that was of course, because I didn’t like the opening.

HEER: Well, it’s interesting about animation not having lived up to it’s potential, because you do get a sense, going back to Winsor McCay that practitioners of animation have these sort of grand dreams for it, but that it’s been an art form that’s really been constrained by money and by other factors.

BLECHMAN: Well, I find that a lot of the constraint comes from the graphic novelists, themselves. I don’t know how many times I’ve asked Seth and Art Spiegelman. And yeah, every now and then I’d speak to these guys and if they want to have you work it into a film, they seem not to be interested. And I can understand it because their work is so self-contained and perfect as a written form, and they always think “Hey, it’s going to be ruined,” but I think if they work with the right people it can be enhanced.

HEER: In terms of your career, was it the early ’60s when you were involved with advertising and doing those animated cartoons?

BLECHMAN: Yeah, ‘60s, ’70s.

HEER: Yeah, starting in the ’60s, yeah.

BLECHMAN: Yeah, but remember my first job was a storyboard artist at an animation studio in 1953 and I worked with Gene Deitch. So, it’s not as if I am unfamiliar with animation even though nothing of mine was ever animated and my style of art was never used. It was always shipped out to, I wouldn’t even say other artists, I would just say artists. I don’t think I was ever considered an artist. I was a story man, who would visualize these things. And I don’t think all that well, I didn’t know what the hell film was all about. It really took me a long time to learn that I had to make films.

HEER: What do you think of the whole sort of, I guess would it be the Terrytoons or UPA revolution in animation in the ’50s — early ’50s?

BLECHMAN: Well, the UPA did some extraordinary things. I mean haven’t seen all that many UPA things, but the Thurbers, the Bemelmans are first rate because they manage to beautifully maintain the style of the original. But then they got a little pretentious with the Tell-Tale Heart. They’re probably self-contained, they had to be more high-brow. And I found that pretentious. I like Magoo a lot. I guess it always bothered me that they never went into feature filmmaking, but that might have been a projection on my part because I wanted to do it. I think I had a hard time because of the McCarthy period, you know, one of the principles was a guy called [David Hilberman] and he was considered leftist, so they may have had problems during the McCarthy period.

HEER: Your career started —’53 is right when McCarthy was running high.

BLECHMAN: I guess so, ’52.

HEER: No, I think he was, in ’53, very much a powerhouse. I don’t think it was until ’54 or ’55 that he was censured by the Senate. In any case he certainly had a lot of impact. You would have been seeing McCarthyism having an impact around you. You mentioned a couple of times.

BLECHMAN: Yeah, sure. I mean I knew of people who were crippled. At that time I didn’t know Hubley’s project. It was only many years later that I learned about it. And now, who knows? Maybe that wouldn’t have been a good film. But I think it would have been. I remember though, in 1953, seeing Hubley’s films and being aware that his humorous films were his best films. His other films struck me as being a little pretentious. It didn’t bother me. I thought that humor was a vehicle in which he did his best stuff.

HEER: The reason I was sort of bringing up McCarthyism was, it seems to me like a lot of artists that came from a radical or critical stance started to do allegorical work in the ’50s and ’60s to get around that. In some ways Dr. Seuss might fall into that, or Maurice Sendak. Like a lot of people

BLECHMAN: No, Maurice, he did what he wanted to do period. Frankly, I’m jealous as hell that today, walking down the street and on the one side I see Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs which is done by a very dear friend of mine, Ron Barrett. And across the street, Where the Wild Things Are, which was done by, I’ll tell you, a very dear friend of mine, Maurice Sendak. And here I am, in the middle, and I’ve never been able to fulfill my dream. It’s very painful.

HEER: Well, why would you say that? In terms of the films that you have done, do you feel that like a short film is inferior by nature to a feature film?

BLECHMAN: Yeah. I think that a short story is inferior to a novel. It’s just that I want to do something on the big screen. And I want to do something that was richer than a shorter cartoon can possible encompass, if you get my language. I’ve had so many projects, and none of them have ever come through. I think that maybe I’m a slow builder. I don’t think I’ve pushed hard enough. I don’t think I contact people I know with enough conviction. Maybe I feel “how can I ask people for so much money when I don’t know that it’s going to return the money, that it would be a great film, or if it will be a bad film that will make any money.” I feel funny asking people, that I know are wealthy-enough people, but I feel funny asking them or contacting them. So that’s not good.

The poster for Blechman's 1-hour animated film, The Soldiers Tale, broadcast on PBS in 1984

HEER: This issue of not having made a feature film, or a feature animated film, it comes up a couple of times, and I’m not sure if I would agree that a novel is necessarily superior to a short story. I think a story like James Joyce’s The Dead and compare it to someone with many novels, like Stephen King, which are inferior.

BLECHMAN: It does seem a little bit funny there. You’re absolutely right. It’s just that you can develop so much with a feature. I mean part of it is … well I’m a little concerned about my age. I’m full of energy and ideas but I’m going to be 80 years old. Who knows that if a feature ever gets launched I’ll have the stamina for it. I probably will. There’s always this fear that when you’re undertaking anything large, you know, can I do it? No matter what the hell it is. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in the artistic field. But so be it, I’ll be all right.

HEER: In terms of the stuff that you have done, is it also an issue of television versus the big screen?

BLECHMAN: Yeah, it is. Television is one-time only, goodbye. Or a few times only, that’s it. I guess I am crazy-in-love with film. I suppose it’s as simple as that ... well we’ll see what happens. I mean, I’ve got a lot of projects still out there and some might happen. One of them for example is Sempe´ and I have been in contact with one another about doing a feature based on one of his books. It would be in his style. I’ll direct the damn thing — story board it. But he may not agree to it because I’m taking his book and made the changes necessary to adapt it to film medium. And he may feel “Hey wait a minute, that’s not my book.” Well, it is and it isn’t, it’s a film, based on your book. He might be quite difficult with these things. On the other hand, he may say, “Yeah, sure, fine, go ahead.” I would like to do it because I like the story I’ve made out of his book, I think I’ve enlarged it. I put a lot of myself into it, so I think that, hey, it’s a double bill in the form of a single film. I like that phrase.

HEER: [Laughs.] “Double bill in the form of a single film,” it is nice. One thing that came through in Dear James is this issue of being a commercial artist and whether that’s inferior to being a fine artist and whether you’re always working in the service of someone else. I think that actually comes through in the stories as well in Talking Lines. Including the story of the guy that sells the gun. It’s like being a hired gun.

BLECHMAN: Yeah, for example, I love getting commercials. They pay very well, and I still have a lot of bills to pay. I really need to do commercials. But right now a client, I’m told by an agent, is here in Toronto. So I stepped into the studio and asked what’s happening with this particular project. I was told that the advertising agency has done a storyboard or an animatic and is being tested. Then it comes to me, and so I’m going to have to struggle to make the damn thing work. What of course they should do, but this never happens, is: me, I should do the storyboard and the animatic. That’s what should be tested. But forget it. They naturally would go to staff to do it. They have these people on staff, so that they work for their pay. But it’s a backwards thing. I have to work like hell to see if I can make something entertaining out of it. But, it could be a piece of junk I’m given, so I’ll do a piece of junk. Entertaining junk. You know, I have to earn a living.

HEER: Sure, of course. We all do. But it seems like in your career, in advertising, you’ve done this serious balancing act of working within the constraints of what a client wants, but then also doing so in your own voice. I think the Dear James book there’s that add for Look magazine which is not a magazine you’re crazy about – it’s not an assignment you’re crazy about. But you did something very inventive that I think only you could have done.

BLECHMAN: That’s true, I don’t know about the “only I could have done.” But in a way, I don’t give a damn about advertising. I’m free to do something that’s playful. I think the state of play is essential for the production of any good art. So I have fun. So I always push to the limit. Which is very funny, because I’m a very conventional guy.

I watched a very interesting film two days ago. It was a documentary on the acidification of the ocean and one chemist took sparkling water and put a tooth in it and after a few days showed the tooth. And it was all broken up in the carbonated water. And so the point is that there’s a lot of bad shit in carbonated water. [Heer laughs.] How about that?

HEER: Very distressing.

BLECHMAN: Very distressing, but here we are drinking carbonated water. Better we should destroy our livers with wine.

A print for the literary journal Story, by Blechman


Transcribed by Hans Anderson