Monday, 10 December 2007


PERSEPOLIS Satrapi & Paronnaud, 2007

My initial doubts about adapting Marjane Satrapi’s acclaimed autobiographical comic into an animation are summed up by one panel. Told her Uncle has been decapitated by the Iranian regime, her child’s mind immediately pictures a doll pulled apart. The naïve drawings, flat and often verging on hieroglyphics, portray her child’s perception of events that couldn’t be more adult. Moreover the story is told in an episodic fashion, almost deliberately anti-seamless, just in the consequenceless way events can imprint themselves on a child’s memory. All that adds up to a fabulous comic, but doesn’t sound much like the making of a movie – even an animated one.

It’s an understandable sensitivity. We’re used to ‘mainstream’ (ie superhero) comics being treated merely as an incubator for Hollywood blockbusters, keeping characters kicking over in copyright until they catch some mogul’s eye. Worse, you can see the same submissive relationship happening to alt comics and indie cinema, with the portentous language of ‘art cinema creeping into comics. (If something happens slowly it means it’s profound etc.) The notion that comics are their own form and might have their own language seems to grow dimmer and dimmer.

Happily this animation (co-directed by Satrapi herself) knows exactly when to be loyal to the comic and when to take its own approach. The naïve style, which might have been too limited for a an hour and a half animation, is given a little more of the third dimension, a touch more style and finesse - but never so much as to be entirely lost. In a trivial yet telling detail, white-on-black borders in the comic are depicted with thick wedgy lines. In the film they become neat white pencil lines, making objects look like they’ve slipped into negative.

The film is also happy to play fast and loose with the comics continuity; reshuffling scenes, expanding, compressing or excising them as the new medium sees fit. Scenes often morph into one another, making the vignettes feel more linked and flowing. Moreover, the animation feels no compulsion to become more ‘realist’ than the comic. When the child Satrapi has Iranian history explained to her, we see it acted out with flat puppets on sticks. Her continually moving house in Vienna is depicted by her leaping from rooftop to rooftop, toppling buildings like dominoes as soon as she lands upon them.

And better still, films get noticed more than comics even these days. The Iranian regime officially complained about the way they’re depicted here – a badge of honour if ever there was one.


Of course some seem to see America’s place upon the map as something akin to Mordor’s in Middle Earth. Not a place with it’s own histories, complexities and contradictions but a beacon from where pure evil is transmitted. Partly it’s simply to annoy and confound such people, but I’m always drawn towards anything which endeavors to unpick America’s own radical history. So Gianvito’s documentary, on this very topic, grabbed at my interest.

It’s an “essay film” which visits the graves and monuments of progressive political types, to film the plaques and inscriptions without further comment. There is something poignant in seeing these weatherbeaten monuments surrounded by the signage of modern corporate America, ignored by passers-by (in one case ridden with bullet-holes), forgotten but not gone.

But we got all that from Miller’s Sacco and Vanzetti documentary (already reviewed here); indeed, it gave us that quite incidentally, without striving for effort, merely by revisiting locations such as the scene of the robbery they allegedly took part in. Do we really need this rubbed in for nigh-on an hour? And let’s be honest, reading those endless plaques… doesn’t the repetition ultimately make for a plain boring viewing experience?

The film finally cuts from those windswept tombs to the Infernal Noise Brigade at a lively modern-day demonstration, clearly making the link between past and present. But it’s not history we’re shown here, it’s heraldry. If Sacco and Vanzetti spent too much time on their personal quirks and too little on their political milieu, this film does neither. The people in those graves were real people who led real lives, and what we need is a real relationship to them. That would include examining what they did, celebrating their successes but also acknowledging their mistakes. The worst thing we could ever do would be to elevate and venerate them, by comparison even forgetting them would be a better option. To make a more local comparison, you could stand all day in Highgate Cemetery but the experience wouldn’t teach you much about Marxism.

Perhaps it’s just a side-effect of living in Brighton, surrounded by stone plinths supporting eminent Victorians, but I don’t even particularly like statues – at least not the commemorative kind. Don’t they always look better after some drunk’s stuck a traffic cone on their head? Isn’t there something inherently stuffy and officious in them, something ossified in their frozen poses? I always enjoy seeing footage of a statue being pulled down. (Even the propaganda pics of Saddam’s statues getting leveled after the Iraq invasion had their appeal.)

The fact the ‘left’ want their ‘own’ statues and memorials in some ways serves to confirm the notion they’re just a poor reflection of dominant society, keen to burden themselves with their own bureaucratic bodies holding procedure-bound meetings. Some inscriptions here seem deliberately intended to mitigate that effect, with not only calls to arms (“don’t mourn, organise”) but unexpected humour (“don’t iron when the strike is hot”). It left me wondering how many of those grave’s occupants were turning in them at this content-less essay, this pious and dull movie. My feelings ultimately lie closer to the Redskins.

“The first act of freedom
All over the world
Is to topple the statues
Kick the bosses over!”

If it was a mixed year at CineCity, that’s only to be expected from a film festival – and there were undoubted highlight.s In some ways it gave me refound faith in film festivals. 4 Months, 3 Weeks won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, while Perespolis shared the jury prize. (Then again, its co-winner was Silent Light so maybe film festival juries don’t know so much after all.)

My only complaint would be that the increased number of premieres are taking the festival away from its own theme – how is Silent Light, for example, in any way a “city film”. That might just be my fixation, one of my interests has always been the relationship between modern art mediums and the urban environment. (Yeah, I’m a hit at parties…) And worse still, without this connection the festival could fall back upon promulgating the absurd Council-inspired myth that Brighton is now a City.

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