Persepolis

PersepolisCover of the 1st volume of the French edition of Persepolis. Persepolis, directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud based on Satrapi’s series of four autobiographical graphic novels, has just opened here in Atlanta after earning considerable praise elsewhere. These include nominations for Best Animated Feature Oscar and Annie Award, a Special Jury Prize at Cannes, and being the official French entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Though I feared these accolades might be due more to the film’s intentions than its qualities, I am delighted to say they are well deserved.(The fact that it was a low-budget, $8.1 million cel animated film, done mostly in black and white, might have also helped its reputation.)

Caroline invite ses amis a same soiree de merde by Winshluss (Vincent Paronnaud). The film recounts Satrapi’s life in Iran both before and after the Shah’s overthrow, as well a stay in Vienna, where her parents send her to escape the Islamic Revolution. This politically-aware coming of age tale is certainly a refreshing change from conventional, Hollywood-style animated movies. It is Satrapi’s animation debut, though Paronnaud has had more experience in the field, mostly on TV series. Their relative lack of filmic experience occasionally shows through, but the power of the narrative soon makes one forget about its flaws.

It is hard to say who was responsible for what, but Paronnaud looks to have put himself at the service of Satrapi’s art, which bears little resemblance to his own underground comic style done he does under the name of Winshluss (see sample above).

Pietro Germi's Sedotta e abbandonata (Seduced and Abandoned)In Michael Guillén’s interview posted on Twitch, Paronnaud says the two were influenced by Italian comedies for the family scenes, as well as “German expressionism for some of the décors.” The reference to Italian comedies, if he means the delicious social satires of Persepolis Pietro Germi, like Divorce Italian Style and Seduced and Abandoned (see picture on left), does ring true. As to German expressionism, the one thing that springs to mind is not so much the film’s décors but its frequent use of silhouetted figures, which cannot help remind one of Lotte Reiniger silhouette films. In any case, the influences seem to have positive.

Paul Fierlinger's Drawn From Memory Though much has been made of the autobiographical nature of Persepolis, especially as it follows the autobiographical tradition in the world of the graphic novel, one should realize that strong biographical films have also been emerging in animation. For instance, two of the past three winners of Best Animated Short Subject Oscars have been biographical films: Chris Landreth’s Ryan and John Canemaker’s The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation, both of which are exceptional films. However, in terms of approach, Persepolis is more like Paul Fierlinger’s feature-length Drawn from Memory (pictured above) made for PBS, as both deal with life under oppressive political regimes. (Fierlinger’s film recounts his life as the son of a Czech diplomat who grows up in America and becomes miserable when his parents bring him to Communist Czechoslovakia.)

Needless to say, I find animated documentaries to be one of the most exciting areas in animation and is something I hope to talk about more in the future. In the meantime, Persepolis is an easy film to recommend.

An Aardman Chronology/Filmography

Cracking ContraptionsFilm historian Kristin Thompson is trying to compile a rather extensive chronology/filmography for Aardman Animations. The results so far have been posted on her and David Bordwell’s blog in hopes of filling in the blanks, so to speak.

The project arose as a byproduct of Thompson and Bordwell’s work on revising their Film History: An Introduction (which I use in some of my classes). She notes that,

In setting out to update the section on Aardman animation, I ran into difficulties pinning down the dates of certain television series or the director of a given short film. Indeed, I was quite surprised at the dearth of complete chronologies or filmographies for such a famous and important company.

She has, however, set some limits, indicating that,

Aardman has produced many ephemeral animations for station-identification logos, credit sequences, and websites, as well as perhaps hundreds of commercials. I’ve made no attempt to include commercials, apart from the Heat Electric series, which are available on DVD. The [list] primarily includes television shorts and series, as well as films.

As someone who has faced similar difficulties in compiling my studio filmographies, I must commend Thompson’s efforts, especially since it also includes an evaluation of Aardman films on DVD and the Internet.

Oh, Anime!

Grave of the Fireflies 02[11] I just noticed that the story The Schenectady Daily Gazette reporter Pam Allen interviewed me for a month ago about the popularity of anime was finally published on December 30. In response to her questions, I noted one of the reasons for anime’s popularity was that its fans appreciate the wider subject matter versus what’s usually offered by American studios.

As an afterthought, I recounted the time an undergraduate came to see me and I saw he was carrying several Japanese-language magazines and a handheld translation computer. When I asked him about it, he told me he was teaching himself Japanese. When I then mentioned this in a graduate class, a Taiwanese student said he did the same when he was younger.

As Americans are traditionally phobic about learning foreign languages, let alone one so different as Japanese, this sort of thing is nothing short of amazing. And it an aspect of anime fandom that the animation community generally overlooks and bodes well for anime’s continuing popularity.

It is really not surprising that Japanese language instructors would use a film like Grave of the Fireflies (pictured above) as a teaching aide, just as a French instructor might use The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. For instance, see the article “‘Those Anime Students’: Foreign Language Literacy Development Through Japanese Popular Culture,” in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. More to the point is a recent article in California Educator (also here) about “Kimie Matsumoto, who teaches four levels of Japanese language classes” at Los Alamitos High School. It notes that,

Years ago [her] students wanted to take Japanese because they felt it would help them succeed in the business world. Today’s generation of students, however, is drawn to the Japanese language because of anime, the hugely popular animated cartoons produced in Japan.

… Matsumoto, wisely, has decided to incorporate her students’ interest in anime into the curriculum whenever possible, and sponsors an Entertainment Club that includes watching anime in her classroom during lunch.

Though this increased interest in all things Japanese is healthy and can lead to a broader approach to animation in general, this is not always the case. For instance, in my graduate Media Theory and Animation class, I usually start by having students analyze a classic live-action film, such as The Blue Angel, and talk about how it reflects its time and the culture which nurtured it; I then do the same with an animated movie like Dumbo. The reason is that I find we tend to look at animated films as more of a pure aesthetic experience than anything else, while it easier to look at a live-action in a broader context. In this, there does not seem to be much difference between anime fans and non-anime fans, despite the former’s seemingly more catholic approach.

This sort of tunnel vision extends to other matters as well; thus, most of my animation students seem puzzled by the question, What film genres are represented by David Hand/Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s Akira? (Answer: Musical and science-fiction.)

This narrowness of vision is comes from nearly a century of bad habits, though animation and film schools do help. In this regard, one should take advantage of the intellectual curiosity anime fans profess, rather than dismiss them out of hand.