Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Persepolis should have won the Oscar

Marjane Satrapi is pretty animated herself. I took these photos during her talk earlier this year at Smith College in Northampton, MA.

When I had the opportunity of speaking briefly with Marjane Satrapi earlier this year when she appeared at Smith College I told her she was robbed. Satrapi’s animated feature based on acclaimed semi-autobiographical comic books, “Persepolis” lost the “best Animated feature” Oscar to “Ratatouille.”

With the up-coming release of “Persepolis” on DVD, people can see what I mean. While I enjoyed “Ratatouille,” it was not a film that advances the art of animation. It didn’t push boundaries or perceptions of
the story-telling ability of animation.

“Ratatouille” was another well-made computer animated film from PIXAR that could inspire a bunch of merchandising. “Persepolis” is a film that can challenge your ideas about a country and people most of us know little about – Iran – and yet tell a universal story about growing up under difficult circumstances with both humor and humanity.

What I loved about the film is that Satrapi co-wrote and co-directed it. Seldom has a cartoonist had such control over the adaptation of a property to film. The movie truly captures the flavor of the books and yet is as cinematic in ways only animation can be.

The DVD includes some great extras on the making of the film including a documentary with Satrapi leading a tour of the animation studio and explaining the purpose of each department. It also shows her very deep
involvement in the development of the film.

The film is presented on the DVD in both its original French language version with subtitles and in an English dubbed edition with actors that include Gena Rowland, Iggy Pop, Sean Penn and several of the original French cast. Satrapi directed the English recording sessions herself.

“Persepolis” is based on Satrapi’s four-volume graphic novel or as she prefers comic book. When she appeared at Smith – her books were chosen by the college to be required reading for the in-coming first year students – she quickly dismissed the idea of any elitism.

She said that in press tours for the theatrical release of the film journalists kept asking her why she elected to produce comic books. “Whatever I don’t write I draw. Whatever I don’t draw I write,” she said.
She believes that comics should be read “without shame,” and the medium makes “art available to everyone.”

Satrapi undoubtedly surprised her audience by not only rejecting the label of “graphic novel” but also saying she didn’t like the word “feminist.” She would rather be called a cartoonist and judged equally on her work.

“Persepolis” tells the story of a young girl growing up in pre-revolutionary Iran and the impact of the fall of the Shah and the rise of a Muslim fundamentalist government had on her and her family. To escape the oppression at home, her family sent her to France and Austria to live and go to school. Her mis-adventures in Europe and her efforts to adjust to a new way of life at home make up the core of her comic books.

Satrapi didn’t expect the success her books have enjoyed.

“I thought 300 French who feel guilty about the Middle East would buy the book,” she said.

“The reason it became a big hit, besides that I very talented,” she added with a smile, “is it was written from a personal point of view.”

“When I wrote the book in 1999 I learned to be less angry, more civilized. I realized that anger was not going to solve any problem,” she said.

She didn’t grow up with comic books. She recalled with a laugh that American comic books were available in Iran and because she had lived in Europe her friends thought she could read English, which at a time she couldn’t. When they picked up a copy of a comic book with Dracula as the main characters, Satrapi simply made up the dialogue she couldn’t read. She and her friends decided if they ate raw chicken they too could become vampires, but all they developed was the mumps.

When she moved to France again in 1994, she was given a copy of Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking graphic novel “Maus.”

“It was a revelation in my life, she said. Comic books were for children she thought, but here a cartoonist was writing and drawing about the Holocaust.

Despite the often-grim sequences in “Persepolis,” Satrapi said that it is “important to tell a story with humor.”

“Laughing means understanding of someone’s thinking,” she said.

Recounting her story in the form of comics also “helped me to use a sense of humor without falling into cynicism.”

Initially she didn’t want to be involved in a movie because she views film as a passive medium while reading comics is not.

Eventually she decided to take up the offer of a group of producers and started in the process with fellow cartoonist Vincent Paronnaud, who had made some short films.

She admitted filmmaking was “very hard.”

“There were 100 people involved in the project. I hated them so much in the beginning. They wanted to draw like me, do everything like me. I got used to them. They brought so much to the project,” she said.

“It’s the story of life – you never love the people when you have them,” she added with a laugh.

She never wanted to film to be live action because she said that drawing is an abstraction to which anyone can relate.

The choice of traditional two-dimensional drawn animation came from her lack of experience. As a cartoonist she understood how to produce drawings rather than computer generated images.

Like the books, the film doesn’t shy away from the recent history of Iran, its impact and the perceptions Americans and Europeans have of the country. She sees the world press dehumanizing people and making an abstraction of the Middle East.

“Abstractions are extremely dangerous as that is the beginning of fascist ideology,” she said. “Instead of asking where terrorism comes from we fight a war against them.”

She believes the world is in much more danger from the policies of the Bush administration that of the current Iranian government.

“Democracy,” she said, “is extremely fragile.”

© 2008 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Monday, June 2, 2008

New titles to DVD


Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the guys behind "South Park," continue to surprise people with their show and the three-episode story arc of "Imaginationland" was no exception when it when broadcast last fall.

Now available on DVD, the three shows forms an unofficial second "South Park" movie and is in the tradition of their best episodes: taking sophomoric sexual humor and pairing it up with a high concept. In this story the two take the phrase "terrorists have captured our imagination" and developed it quite literally.

Our young heroes Stan, Kyle and Butters travel to Imaginationland where all of the fictional characters of our collective imagination from Mickey Mouse to Mighty Mouse reside. When terrorists attack the character they also unleash the evil characters of our imagination.

Stan, Kyle and Butters have to save the good Imaginationland and bring it back into the forefront.

Like their best offerings, their savage satire pokes holes at our pop culture and politicians. Although the uncensored DVD is certainly not for everybody especially children I certainly enjoyed it.

Parker and Stone offer a revealing commentary about the film as an extra.

Drawn Together: Season Three

While "South Park" still has something to say after being on the air over a decade, "Drawn Together," the animated parody of reality shows, long ran out of anything to say.

But because the hallmarks of the show are attempts at scatological, racial and sexual humor, obviously there is an appreciable audience. As long as there are 14-year-old boys out there, shows like "Drawn Together" will always have fans.

The Comedy Central show is lacking in any humanity, wit or charm. If the filmmakers are at a loss, they have a character vomit or perform a cheap sex gag.

"Drawn Together" is a nasty, very unfunny joke.

The Animation Show Volume 3

As regular readers might remember, I've loved animation since I was a kid and still do. In my role as an editor and co-owner of two animation magazines and as the author of "Escape! How Animation Broke in the Mainstream in the 1990s" available at all online booksellers I've had the privilege and pleasure of seeing the public warm up to the notion that cartoons just aren't for children.

This new collection of animated shorts put together by Mike Judge the creator of "King of the Hill" and independent animator Don Hertzfeldt underscores the diversity of animation styles and content.

Some shorts, such as "Rabbit," are surreal nightmares. "Collision" is a subtle political commentary. "One D" plays with the concept of a world with one dimension. "Game Over" by Pes is a brilliant homage to 1970s and '80s video games with a pizza and two fried eggs forming Pac Man.

There are also some very funny shorts such as "Versus" in which rival samurai armies compete for a tiny island.

There are two shorts from one of my favorite animators, Bill Plympton, and Hertzfeldt's own "Everything Will Be Okay" is simply amazing.

Anyone interested in animation needs to see this collection.

Attention Scrappy on!
If you're a horror film fan than you've undoubtedly heard of Hammer Films, the British company that produced many great terror flicks from the late 1950s to the early 1980s. Their two lead stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, became best known as Dr. Frankenstein and Dracula, respectively, although both actors performed many other roles.

And Hammer made many non- horror films and four of them are in this new collection from Sony Home Video. Two are pirate adventures, one is a thriller set in Hong Kong, while the other film deals with the Thugee cult in India.

Hammer was not a big budget outfit and one can only wonder if a writer came up with the titles "Pirates of Blood River" and "The Devil Ship Pirates" first and then worked backwards. The titles are classic B-movie titles promising fights at sea and other action that one expects of a pirate movie.

Well, "Pirates of Blood River" has plenty of pirates, but no boat and no ocean adventures. Lee stars as a pirate captain who is convinced a group of Huguenots who escaped religious persecution in France to set up their own society on a deserted island are guarding a treasure. It's much more of a siege movie than a pirate film.

The direction by John Gilling keeps the plot rolling right along and as a low-budget film it is quite acceptable. Lee is very good as the philosophical pirate and character actor Michael Ripper a mainstay in Hammer films almost steals the show as a member of Lee's crew.

"The Devil Ship Pirates" looks much more of a pirate film as at least there are a few opening scenes at sea. The pirate ship Diablo has been commissioned to be part of the legendary Spanish Armada that was defeated by the British and the captain again, Lee decides to bring his damaged ship in for repairs, tricking a remote British village into thinking that the Spanish won and they must do what he says.

Don Sharp makes the most of his cast and locations and at least has a boat although it can't sail!

"The Terror of the Tongs" is one of the worst Hammer films I've ever sat through largely because of its misuse of Lee as the leader of a murderous Chinese crime syndicate. All Lee does is sit and make announcements and stand and make announcements.

Most of the cast members who portray Chinese characters are British actors with really bad make-up. The political correctness of the film is pretty questionable in today's society. The film could easily be seen as racist.

The plot revolves around a strong and steady English boat captain whose daughter is murdered by the Tong. He's one of these heroes who goes into almost every situation unprepared and ill advised but he prevails.

"The Stranglers of Bombay" is not set in Bombay but in a smaller Indian community where the local British plantation and business owners are trying to figure out why their caravans of goods are going missing as well as dozens of people.

What they don't know is a cult worshipping the Hindu goddess Kali is murdering people as a way to show their devotion. Only one English army officer has discovered the answers, but no one is listening to him.

Based on history, "Stranglers" fascinated me as it has a very similar look and tone to the second Indiana Jones feature. I wondered as I watched this if George Lucas or Steven Spielberg had seen the 1959 film as children.

Three watchable films out of four isn't a bad score and the folks at Sony Home Video have added some bizarre extras that include an Andy Clyde two-reel comedy that has nothing to do with pirates, a color Scrappy cartoon which marginally has pirates and the first chapter of the 1951 serial "The Great Adventures of Captain Kidd," in which Kidd is a pirate and his "great" adventures include murder and pillage.

There are also commentaries from key Hammer personnel including director and writer Jimmy Sangster.

© 2008 by Gordon Michael Dobbs