Animated Triptych (kinda like a picture in three parts, only--you know--classy): Persepolis; Renaissance; Waltz with Bashir.
The French call it B.D. (pronounced “boo-yah-bayss”) for bande dessinée, that is, not “comic strip” but “drawn strip.” These days it’s anything but comic. The Spanish for their part say “Cimoc,” that is “comic” backwards or stood upon its head, not funny at any rate. The Boc I mean Germans prefer their collocation Bildgeschichte (“picturestoryshamepleasureworldvisiondevelopmentnovel”). Then of course we gots animé, expropriated by the Japanese (translation: “little girls with big gringo eyes and big gringo umph umphs in little gringo Catholic school skirts and maryjanes,” everybody’s dream). Cartouche, carton ( > cartoon). All the familiar mechanics of the comic as we know: the standard box within which the action takes place (case), the thought or speech balloon (bulle), the strip or string of boxes (planche) in linear disposition (left to right, up to down), the movement lines, the tortured perspective, the onomatopoeia (pan! plouf! flatch! baf! vlan! and on and on). All this we take for granted when we see drawn images leap from a page, drawn images flash across a screen. We used to could identify the quality of animation by the number of cels (individual images) per minute and thus distinguish between the glorious Warner Brothers Looney Tunes and the ugly, assembly-line Hanna-Barbera or stiff, bird-like Rankin-Bass stuff of later vintage.
Those of us who lived through the Koh-rean War fifties when Mom yanked Men in War or G.I Combat out of our prepubescent mitts on account of the Comics Code Authority forbade the depiction of body parts flying as a result of bullet strike, graphic representation of dead bodies, or panels showing death agony (those convulsed fingers clawing channels into the dirt) only to watch some sober citizen from the I-know-bettern-you eighties delete all the firecracker and shotgun and tent-stake mallet scenes from Bugs and Daffy and Elmer can take some small pleasure in witnessing the “renaissance” so to speak of the genre as the comics get “animated” by real people: George of the Jungle; Dudley Do-Right; The Phantom; The Spirit and of course Batman and Superman, now Captain America and—woof!—Wonder Woman. Gene Kelley’s dance with Jerry the Mouse leads us by a commodious vicus through Fritz the Cat, a dreary spectacle (like the groovy seventies), which passed for high art in the groovy seventies, to Annie Hall where animation obtrudes into live action, then on into Roger Rabbit, Monkeybone, Sky Captain. We’ve tried it all and possibly hit the millennium when we cartoonize, then re-animate Herodotos’ Persian Wars or even Beowulf (Woody did warn us about that one).
I don’t speak, now, of computer-generated, Pixar ™ films, the craft of which is blindingly proficient if the story line nauseating (Toy Story 1-7, Shrek 1-5, Tangled, Rango, Finding Nemo and on and on) nor of the Disney stuff (Bambi, Snow White, Cinderella, Fantasia). That’s kid stuff for kids. I am curious about the kid stuff for adults, by which I mean adult adults, the ones who “fornicate and read the newspaper,” as Camus proposed for an epitaph: Us. Here, then are three flicks a feller oughta watch; kinda like reading Hawthorne… no yucks, but oughta.
Waltz with Bashir (2008). Ari Folman. Starring (the voice of) Ari Folman, Ori Siran, Romy Dayag, Schmuel Frenkel, Sohara Soloman, all evidently real Israelis if “Himself” means the guy is voicing the guy. No fee-males in this one on account of, like, only guys commit atrocities (unless you count that cheerleader back in 10th grade… which I do). Israeli but French.
Nominated for an Oscar ™ and winner of a Golden Globe, this somber excursion down memory lane traces (chases) an aging film director (Folman) whose recollections of participation/proximity (never actually clear… to me at least) to the massacre of (supposedly) innocent Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982 appear to have dissipated with time. In a guilt-swaddled effort to retrieve the verity of these events, Folman sets off on an odyssey of recovery (in the various senses of that word) among his former buds in the Israeli Army to establish what role he played if any in the commission (or omission) of the butchery, neither the reality nor the authorship (Christians… whose lugubrious history of massacring non-believers—sometimes called infidels—is only too richly documented) of which is evidently in dispute.
The tale—like a good many—begins with a dream, this one of dog-shooting, theme I think I recall from what …Enemy at the Gates? Mostly these guys seem to remember pretty tame stuff yet all seem to feel vaguely guilty by reason of complicity? …indifference? …non-feasance? Did they know what was happening? Did they report it? Did they suspect that the report would die in transit to higher authority? …that higher authority would disregard, raison d’état (“C’est gratuit, raison d’état”)? Maybe. Soldiers’ guilt has always seemed to this soldier of a different order and rather directed toward other soldiers than (pfui!) civilians who’ve always seemed (once again, to this soldier) neither completely innocent when bad things happen to them nor terribly grateful when some dumbo (soldier) intervenes on their behalf. Furthermore, though the film received mostly plaudits, I suspect that any number of Israelis had no trouble imagining what would be the outcome for Israelis held unarmed in a refugee camp to which their various adversaries had free access and did they count on, say, the Dutch Army to protect them.
In any event, the graphics in this film, shadowy, tenebrous, swirling in smoke and fog (of battle we guess) as befits memory in a haze, illuminated by flares and headlights, streetlamps along darkened, abandoned streets strewn with rubble, feature barely animated figures (middle-aged men, hey), graying, sedate, sober, sedentary, sedulous, recounting without visible passion events now history to which they were witness, in which they were actors, each contributing a scrap to the midden, unnnnnnnntil… wham! bam! …the animation evaporates and we get real life newsreel footage of the swollen bodies, the ululating women, the corpse-clogged alleyways... and in color. This isn’t Kansas anymore, Schlomo! But that’s the end of it. No resolution, no indictment, no clarification, no dénouement... and when did you ever see a French flick without a dénouement? Be like ris de veau à la financière without pommes allumettes, for Pete’s sake.
Persepolis (2007). Written by Marjane Satrapi (good Persian name and a hint at why democracy might be a problem over there: they never got over the satrap stuff… or is it parsang… aw, hell…what’s the difference?), purportedly the story of her family, her life. Directed by the subject/object of the exercise along with Vincent Paronnaud. Starring (the voice of) Catherine Deneuve (no kidding), Danielle Darrieux (no kidding) in the French version and (hold on tight...) Sean Penn and Iggy Pop in the English-language variant (so stand by for a couple of cheap shots at us dumb gringos, responsible for everything from trans-fat to Savat). Iranian but French.
Won the prize at Cannes and snagged a nomination for Oscar (Tm). Think it got beat out by Ratatouille (French, too, at any rate since “ratatouille” is the sound made by a pointy-toed European shoe with a cardboard sole crushing a ripe camembert under foot). Lesson there.
Parallel descent of a not-terribly-likable, sulky little girl and of the brutish regime of the Peacock Throne in 1950’s Iran (for which Persepolis stand in as both city and culture) into night, as a consequence (or not) of which the not-terribly-likable, sulky little girl grows into a not-terribly-likable sulky adolescent and thence into a not-terribly-likable fee-male expatriate who, witness to the considerable courage of her family, seems to find none herself. At first oblivious to what’s going on around her, little Marjane dwells in a fantasy world much like that of her well-off father and mother and her apparently aristocratic mami (voice of Deneuve) in an ambience of privilege and what appears to be relative comfort. The dark intruder into this halcyon moment is Uncle Anoush (or something), who appears to have got afoul of the temporal powers and wound up in the clink where we have to understand ugly things happened to him. Released on the eve of the Islamic Revolution, Anoush attempts to impart to the insouciant child some hint of the somber life lived by another element of her people.
Come now the mullahs (or imams…can never keep them straight) with their do-right minions, who prowl the streets sporting Kalashnikovs and beards, setting straight the odd unbearded truant and unveiled fee-male in a spectacle of oppression to make the years under the shah seem, well… halcyon by comparison. As the parents stagger under the new regime (but somehow maintain an apartment and plausible life) and Uncle Anoush, now afoul of the ecclesiastical powers, vanishes back into the slammer, mami becomes counselatrix, consolatrix to Marjane (no more likable than previously, alas). Life grows bleaker and bleaker until the parents decide to shoot the girl off to Germany of all places where as an orphan and Gastverschnuffler (German for “sulky fee-male expatriate from the Ostlicher Diwan”) she undergoes humiliation and despair, reaches puberty, learns to smoke, remains unlikable. Alone and homesick (Ruckheimverkehrsweh in the Boch German), she decides to return to Iran, where things have gone from (Islama)bad to Perse (…urf! urf!). Now a “sister” under sharia, she chafes at the suppression of her sulkiness and gynitude, mouths off at the Guardians of Rectitude, decides to punch out (again) this time for France.
Still a stranger, wandering the “ruelles creuses et pourries” of the métropole, she stumbles into not love but passion, then betrayed, ultimately depression, solitude, twilight… whereupon the movie ends! Not sure with this one what has justified the appeal to animation save that, I guess, one couldn’t film in Iran nor why there’s no story save that, I guess, this is evidently what happened, the girl now a woman left idling (on what source of income?) in precarious limbo, not French, no longer Persian… entre-deux, in the nice phrase coined by French colonials on the sill of liberation or Homi Bhabha (or Homi Baba or Homi Bahbah… he signs all three) who says “between two stools,” ambiguous reference perhaps more suitable to (Two)Third(s) World cesspool if “stool” mean what I think in Indjuh… or Pakistan what’s the difference?). The mood of the décor remains stark, washed, opaque, even in the Euro-segments, a suggestion perhaps that this lost soul is consigned to the netherworld, the marge, the ill-lit alley of exile and not the sun-lit allée of homeland no longer extant. Worse yet, despite the sacrifice of her parents (not to mention of Uncle Anoush), Marjane has done little enough for her people… except mouth off and animate her own distress. In a curious way, Ratatouille just may have done more to elevate the human spirit than this film, a rare enough clamor de profundis but not a terribly compelling one.
Renaissance (2006). Directed by Christian Volkman. Starring (the voice of) Daniel Craig (Bond, James Bond), Jonathan Pryce, Ian Holm in the English variant; bunch of French guys in the French. Futureworld but French.
Cast in black and white only (no gray, even) but spattered here and there with a dollop of color (see Shindler and Sin City for most recent) in case you missed a key scene, you dummy, by a process they’re calling motion capture, so the silhouettes (French for “silhouettes”) move with plausible grace and fluidity, render facial expressions true to life, seem to glide through yet another dystopia (Greek: dys = leather; topos = crevasse”; see above Lebanon, Iran for visions of cesspool-topia), this time of future vintage. Oh, and by the bye, if this motion capture stuff is derived as I suspect from the tracing of real bodies in movement somehow electronically, I’d like very much to meet (somehow) whoever it was stood in for Bislane on account of woof! ...they got the right little person to model those crevasse-seeking future leather britches for the computer elves.
Apart the novelty of black-and-white (might call it film noir except we already did that with real people and real black and real white, but hey…), the tale is pretty tired. A scofflaw agent of the law, Karas, Berthélémy Karas, emerges from the dark shadows of the next-century’s demi-monde to pursue its denizens. In the event, though, it’s denizens of the beau monde this time he’s after, a slimy, urbane bureaucrat (Dellenbach, Paul Dellenbach) obsessed with immortality (didn’t we do this before with Sky Captain in the World of Tomorrow, Indiana Jones in the Last Crusade, Lara Croft in the Cradle of Life, Big Trouble in Little China?) who expropriates the laboratory work of Dr Muller, Jonas Muller, and his amanuensis (French for “Got her Spandex in the same store as Brislane) Tasuiev, Illona Tasuiev (sister of Tasuiev, Brislane Tasuiev, both vaguely Eastern from sommeres with funny names), all agents of the sinister combine Avalon, which promises a future-public new to longevity everlasting beauty to go along with those extra years. Somewhere in this mess, we have a ooops… can’t say “retarded” anymore… troubled brother, Klaus, a wild card of unpredictability, not to put too fine a point on it (and Klaus appears intent on putting that fine point into the flawless throat of Illona, by the bye).
Karas, unequal to the task himself, draws upon his roots in the forbidden world of vice and addiction, enlisting the underground services of his childhood companion now renegade Farfella, Moslem if the mutual salamalecs mean anything. Can Illona be saved? Should she be saved? Are we gonna get any skin outten the comely Brislane? Can Karas be saved? Whaaaaa…? You got a black and white flick, faces and (nubile) body parts emerging only half-way and half-heart from the darkness, what do you think are the chances we’ll fetch up with a happy ending? Only question is: How bad will the bad ending be? One consolation: Kidnapped by Avalon and marooned in a sort of parallel dimension, Illona mysteriously sheds her tailleur, winds up in a crevasse-seeking future-synthetic body suit.
Memo to self: Stay out of Lebanon, Iran, Future.