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A Letter To A Master

Giannalberto Bendazzi writes Giorgio "Max" Massimino-Garni, who was not only a personal source of inspiration and learning, but one of the greatest figures in Italian, as well as international animation in the last 50 years.

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© Art Today.

Dear Max,

I'm not writing you just because it's been almost fifteen years since you passed away, nor because of your degree in mathematical physics from one of the hardest universities in the world (the college at Pisa), though I wouldn't miss the opportunity to note that mathematics is everything except outlines and rigidity.

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You were born in Turin on October 7, 1924, as Giorgio Massimino-Garniér (note the accent, which should require one to pronounce it "Garnierrrr," but everybody mistakes it for the French pronunciation "Garnyea" -- and you never bothered to correct them. As for the name you were baptized with, George, you allowed it to be relegated to official documents, and turned yourself universally into Max). You devoted the best of yourself to Paul Film in Modena. You died in Rome on December 21, 1985.

Why am I writing you, then? Because you were one of the greatest figures in Italian, as well as international, animation during the last 50 years. And with the century and the millennium drawing to a close, I want the young people of your and my world (animation to be precise) to know about you and not forget you. To see how, despite everything, you were successful. But let's go in the proper order.

In 1954 you founded Paul Film in Modena, together with Paolo (Paul) Campani. He would make designs, you would write plots and scripts. You enlarged the business, and made a fortune when the government television station RAI invented the advertising formula called Carousel: a minute and a half of pure entertainment with a 30-second tail containing an advertising message. It was then, from 1957 on, that the little Italian animation industry was really born, because animation became the king of Carousel, and you from Paul Film, then Bozzetto, Gamma Film, Pagot, DeMas, Piccardo, Biassoni, Cavandoli, and many others seized the opportunity to make that 90-seconds into so many little series with such delightful recurrent characters. You and Paul made Toto and Tata, Angelino, Pupa and Bob-Bob, Snacker and several others. For some 15 years you were among the most fertile and rich producers of Italian animation.

Then Paul Film dissolved, and you went to Rome to coordinate, for Corona Films, The Tales of Europe project: more than 40 short films, each one a traditional story for children from a European country, made by an animator from the country of origin in co-production with an Italian. In 1976 Ezio Gagliardo, the heart and soul of Corona, and your direct contact, died. You left the company but remained in Rome, founding a film company with the producer Aldo Raparelli and the painter/animator Manfredo Manfredi.

Then came the damned cancer. You would always say to me, joking (but not too much): "Sick? When someone's sick, I don't go to see them, don't telephone, don't write, move to another town..." or "Dying? It's only a probability based on the incontestable fact that in the end all humans are mortal. But what if I'm the blessed exception?"

You would joke in order to seem cowardly, or was it rather, ironically, in order to show how courageous you were? But from youth on you practiced fencing, and in 1952 you qualified for the final selection for the Olympic team at Helsinki. You were intrinsically a fighter. Death never had a harder adversary to subdue. You never gave up going to festivals, participating in conferences, joking, and being (not just seeming!) serene. During times you spent in the hospital you would proselytize for animation even among the medical workers; each time your x-rays were developed, you would hold them up, saying, "Here's your storyboard, doctor."

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You did story and script for highly prized advertising films that are lost and gone astray now. In your European Tales you became a kind of itinerant artistic supervisor, giving lots of guidance, but rarely getting credit as a single creator. Metamorpheus (1970), the short on which you collaborated with Czech animator Jiri Brdec ka, and which was a powerful emotional hymn to artistic freedom, hasn't been screened for decades. No festival has shown the 14 minute-long mini-films you made with Paul Campani, four in 1968 and 10 in 1973: aphorisms, gags, striking and sarcastic lyrics, brilliant, excellent -- and forgotten.

You, Max, were a true genius. One of the most intelligent and creative people I have ever met in my whole life. You knew how to inspire, correct, stimulate, make flower, teach and encourage; you knew how to free the minds who listened to you from preconceptions that had festered in them for years. You knew how to introduce Italy to post-Disney animation, from UPA to the art of McLaren and Alexeieff. You were the charismatic mainstay of the scrawniest group that admired and promoted in our country those innovative and subversive ideas on the level of style, length and technique, so that the personal animation of the '60s and '70s developed to world-class level. You were the mainstay of the best festival of Italian animation ever organized: at Abano Terme (1970-1971), then partially moved to Lucca to combine with a comics convention. You were so cultured that any encyclopedist of any era would have envied you. There was no subject, scientific or humanistic, that you did not make yourself familiar with so that you held an original (fresh, not banal) viewpoint.

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However, please note, you weren't an author. Even though your surviving files are few, and locked away in cabinets. You were a scenarist, or rather, as you taught Brdecka to say in Czech, a dramaturg. You knew how to tell stories. And you told them better, much better, aloud than in writing. In conversations you had no equal in the world, and a story told by you, person to person, was a gift of the Gods. Especially when they involved anecdotes about mathematicians with superior but disorderly minds, like Albert Einstein, Evariste Galois or Blaise Pascal.

You could make people listen, too. Once you met Osvaldo Cavandoli in the square in front of the cathedral in Milan, at 10 in the morning. Osvaldo was in a hurry, a business appointment. By 3 in the afternoon, he still hadn't gotten to the subway -- he was still transfixed, hanging on your every word. Another time at a festival you started telling some paradoxical legal anecdotes at 5 in the afternoon. We ate dinner together, had coffee, sat in the lobby of the hotel. At one o'clock that night, I admitted to myself: "I'm 22 years younger than he, I can't give up before he does!" At 5 am, I interrupted you while you were explaining to me the differences between Picasso and Braque, and wrenched myself off to bed, fully clothed.

You spoke French and English (with an awful accent, it must be said). You came from a mixed marriage, half-Catholic, half-Protestant. And all that gave you a broad perspective and natural tolerance rare in your generation. For me, born after the war, it was much easier to follow in your footsteps. Animators were your family: Alexandre Alexeieff, Norman McLaren, Lotte Reiniger, John and Faith Hubley, Jiri Trnka, Jiri Brdecka, Yoji Kuri, Ion Popescu-Gopo, George Dunning, all of the artists of the Zagreb school but in particular Zelemir Matko, Jan Lenica, Peter Földes, Ernest and Gisèle Ansorge, Paul Grimault, all the Italians. Your favorites were the American Bill Littlejohn and the British-Hungarian John Halas -- your colleagues for decades on the ASIFA International administration. Halas, who would concede to friendship only with heroes and demi-gods, esteemed you as perhaps no other.

For all these people, in greater and lesser degrees, you were a stimulus, an example, a point of reference. For me you were also a friend, a teacher -- along with two other of the great departed (quite different from you), the illustrator and pin-screen animator Alexandre Alexeieff, and the professor from Chicago Robert Edmonds.

When you realized that animation had entered my blood (and it got me quite quickly), you did everything, with absolute discretion but without the least hesitation, to make sure that it never left me again. You escorted me into ASIFA. You counseled me freely and articulately about what to read (not just related to animation; you placed Umberto Eco into my hands...), and feigning to ask my opinion, you would manage to correct my inexperience. You introduced me to dozens of filmmakers so that I could interview them. And at every festival, conference, discussion group or cocktail party you would take me to one side and talk, talk, talk... Thus offering me another great lesson: You must doubt whether it is a historical truth when it comes from the anecdotal memory of a creative artist, even the best one, whether a filmmaker, or even yourself. Subjected to scrutiny and verification, your own memories more than once proved inexact. But you, Max, were an author of fiction, and nothing in the world could have made you give up changing a story with your imagination if the change would make it more entertaining than the truth.

As happens with father and son, professor and student (as Freud teaches), so happened to us who were in opposition. Italian animation flourished, requiring the creation of an ASIFA Italy. You were the Italian representative to the ASIFA Board, but you deferred to the group who organized the Lucca Festival, so Bozzetto, Cavandoli, Giannini, Luzzati and Manuli didn't feel represented. I met you in Milan during one of your lightning visits, and pleaded with you to be our representative, and speak on our behalf. You considered it for a few weeks, then said that you felt it would be unfair. So at Zagreb in 1980 it was you and I (as I was the delegate for ASIFA Italy), who collaborated on the selection of an international director. There were days of dispute and bickering, luckily none between you and I. Finally both of us were elected, and the first thing that you did was to unfold a little trick of a meeting of the board. We were on opposite sides, but nothing had changed between us.

The last time I saw you, you were in Rome, in September 1985, when I came to do some work that had nothing to do with animation. You came with me to Fiumicino airport when I returned to Milan. Above Fiumicino rumbled an awful storm; you were in good humor and didn't seem to me to look bad.

Two weeks later you phoned me, begging me to come to you since you had books and graphics you wanted to give me. I knew perfectly what you wanted to say, but health problems (my own), family matters and work forced me to decline. I'll regret that forever.

When you died in December, I was doing a residency in Berlin. That was when I had just begun writing furiously on my history of animation, which would appear in 1988 under the title Cartoons, then in French in 1991 and English in 1994, enlarged and corrected. I dedicated the English edition to my teacher Robert Edmonds. I wanted to dedicate the 1988 version to your memory. But I didn't. I was still too timid, and confused. This letter also aims to remedy that.

Giannalberto Bendazzi is a Milan-based film historian and critic whose history of animation, Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation, is published in the U.S. by Indiana University Press and in the U.K. by John Libbey. His other books on animation include Topoline e poi (1978), Due voite l'oceana (1983) and Il movimento creato (1993, with Guido Michelone).

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