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Plain and Simple

And now for something completely different. Persepolis, from France and in French, is a cartoon recap of the comic-strip memoir by Marjane Satrapi, covering her childhood in Iran under (and then out from under) the Shah, her adolescence in Austria to escape the strictures of the Islamic Revolution, her return to her homeland as a depressed and medicated young woman, then a bride, then a divorcee, and her ultimate exile in France, stretching from the late Seventies, to put dates on it, to the early Nineties. The animation is not all that animated. With stiff movement, a flat visual field, and a black-and-white palette (but for the lightly colored framing scenes in the present tense), it is the furthest thing from the limitless taffy-pull of contemporary computer animation. It is in fact quite deliberately reactionary, a return to “nature” if you will, a homespun product of the human hand, staying as close as possible (notwithstanding some decorative embellishment here and there) to the naive style of the original drawings. And since Satrapi herself is credited as co-director along with a fellow comic artist, Vincent Paronnaud, we can be sure the result has her stamp of approval.

The general effect, overriding any risk of trivialization, is something in the vicinity of the Brechtian “alienation effect,” something distancing, something cushioning, so that we experience such painful subjects as political oppression, imprisonment, torture, execution, etc., less viscerally and (for all the outward resemblance to a Saturday-morning TV kiddie cartoon) more cerebrally. In actual practice, a dramatic enactment that strives to reproduce the full horror of such things is the more prone to trivialize. Even the best of actors cannot make you forget they’re just pretending, cannot make you believe they’re in any real jeopardy. A cartoon representation, not aiming for the unattainable, can’t fall so short. To point out the cerebral bent of the film is not, however, to imply it goes in for in-depth analysis of Middle Eastern modern history. It goes at these subjects strictly from the point of view of a growing girl trying to make sense of them, starting out loving the Shah, idolizing Bruce Lee, looking forward to a heady future of shaving her legs and being “a prophet,” meanwhile fighting her own little battles as her Iraqi neighbors are dropping bombs on Tehran: “ABBA is for wimps!” asserts the partisan of the Bee Gees, soon to switch her allegiance to Iron Maiden. (Chiara Mastroianni, offspring of Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni, voices the heroine when she reaches adolescence and adulthood; her real mother voices her on-screen mother.) The pip-squeak perspective, in perfect step with the comic-book naivité, continues to run the risk of trivialization, and continues to evade it. She has her own truth, and she won’t be caught trying to stretch it.

The narrative, condensed though it is from the complete “graphic novel,” maintains a dogged and sometimes plodding chronology: and then this happened, and then this, and then this, and then, and then.... And while the happenings can be eye-opening (or anyhow, mind-opening) about what it was like to live under the Shah in a family of Communist sympathizers, what it was like under the Ayatollah (the clandestine drinking parties, the black-market rock cassettes, the daring way to wear the veil), what it was like under the Iraqi bombardment and following cease-fire (“We were so eager for happiness, we forgot we weren’t free”), the emphasis eventually shifts toward the individual, a move accelerated by her move to Vienna. If she started out to bear witness to the events of her time, she wound up in the long run a witness primarily to the witness. And she delivers her unblushingly personal testimony with candor, with humor, with self-deprecation, and with aesthetic distance — a distance commensurate to that provided by the primitive animation. Whatever mixed feelings we might have about that animation, they fall away as it becomes merely a serviceable vehicle, frugal and no frills, to convey the unhackneyed story. A useful medium, plain and simple. And on at least one occasion the medium seems more useful than any other could possibly be: the idealized Aryan boyfriend in Austria, after he has cheated on the heroine, gets radically redrawn in accordance with the fallen scales. Sometimes a picture is worth many more than a thousand words, so many more that the equivalent number of words could not be worth the time and effort. And sometimes a crude drawing is worth more than the sharpest photograph.

The Bucket List, directed by the crowd-coddling Rob Reiner, is a feel-good death trip about two terminal cancer patients, the billionaire WASP and the blue-collar black, who bond as hospital roommates and set out together to do the things and see the sights they never had time for: skydive, car-race, get a tattoo, visit the Riviera, the Dark Continent, the Pyramids, the Great Wall, and along the way open themselves up to epiphanies: “The stars — it’s really one of God’s good ones.” (Although they often have a book at hand in bed or on an airplane, you can’t expect a screen character to use his final months to curl up at last with The Pickwick Papers.) The good feelings extend even beyond the grave: the action is narrated posthumously in the first-person omniscient, implicitly settling the amicable debate on the afterlife. A fair measure of your regard for Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman would be your pain at seeing them in such pap. Perhaps the closest contact with a real concern emerges in the former’s probing question to the latter: “You always had those freckles?”

First Sunday and Mad Money, directed respectively by David E. Talbert and Callie Khouri, are a couple of caper comedies. In the First one, two backed-up-against-the-wall black Baltimoreans (Ice Cube, Tracy Morgan) go into a ghetto church with the intent to rob it, enter into endless negotiations at gunpoint with the fundraising committee, fix the air-conditioning, and come out better, and not poorer, men. In the Mad one, a demographically diverse trio of women (Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah, Katie Holmes) are of undivided mind about the wisdom and fun of siphoning off wrinkled old bills, marked for shredding, from the Kansas City Federal Reserve. The director makes a unanimous fourth. Both films are equally heedless of consequences, equally inconsequential. Between them, they rack up maybe two and a half laughs, of which the First one racks up none.

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And now for something completely different. Persepolis, from France and in French, is a cartoon recap of the comic-strip memoir by Marjane Satrapi, covering her childhood in Iran under (and then out from under) the Shah, her adolescence in Austria to escape the strictures of the Islamic Revolution, her return to her homeland as a depressed and medicated young woman, then a bride, then a divorcee, and her ultimate exile in France, stretching from the late Seventies, to put dates on it, to the early Nineties. The animation is not all that animated. With stiff movement, a flat visual field, and a black-and-white palette (but for the lightly colored framing scenes in the present tense), it is the furthest thing from the limitless taffy-pull of contemporary computer animation. It is in fact quite deliberately reactionary, a return to “nature” if you will, a homespun product of the human hand, staying as close as possible (notwithstanding some decorative embellishment here and there) to the naive style of the original drawings. And since Satrapi herself is credited as co-director along with a fellow comic artist, Vincent Paronnaud, we can be sure the result has her stamp of approval.

The general effect, overriding any risk of trivialization, is something in the vicinity of the Brechtian “alienation effect,” something distancing, something cushioning, so that we experience such painful subjects as political oppression, imprisonment, torture, execution, etc., less viscerally and (for all the outward resemblance to a Saturday-morning TV kiddie cartoon) more cerebrally. In actual practice, a dramatic enactment that strives to reproduce the full horror of such things is the more prone to trivialize. Even the best of actors cannot make you forget they’re just pretending, cannot make you believe they’re in any real jeopardy. A cartoon representation, not aiming for the unattainable, can’t fall so short. To point out the cerebral bent of the film is not, however, to imply it goes in for in-depth analysis of Middle Eastern modern history. It goes at these subjects strictly from the point of view of a growing girl trying to make sense of them, starting out loving the Shah, idolizing Bruce Lee, looking forward to a heady future of shaving her legs and being “a prophet,” meanwhile fighting her own little battles as her Iraqi neighbors are dropping bombs on Tehran: “ABBA is for wimps!” asserts the partisan of the Bee Gees, soon to switch her allegiance to Iron Maiden. (Chiara Mastroianni, offspring of Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni, voices the heroine when she reaches adolescence and adulthood; her real mother voices her on-screen mother.) The pip-squeak perspective, in perfect step with the comic-book naivité, continues to run the risk of trivialization, and continues to evade it. She has her own truth, and she won’t be caught trying to stretch it.

The narrative, condensed though it is from the complete “graphic novel,” maintains a dogged and sometimes plodding chronology: and then this happened, and then this, and then this, and then, and then.... And while the happenings can be eye-opening (or anyhow, mind-opening) about what it was like to live under the Shah in a family of Communist sympathizers, what it was like under the Ayatollah (the clandestine drinking parties, the black-market rock cassettes, the daring way to wear the veil), what it was like under the Iraqi bombardment and following cease-fire (“We were so eager for happiness, we forgot we weren’t free”), the emphasis eventually shifts toward the individual, a move accelerated by her move to Vienna. If she started out to bear witness to the events of her time, she wound up in the long run a witness primarily to the witness. And she delivers her unblushingly personal testimony with candor, with humor, with self-deprecation, and with aesthetic distance — a distance commensurate to that provided by the primitive animation. Whatever mixed feelings we might have about that animation, they fall away as it becomes merely a serviceable vehicle, frugal and no frills, to convey the unhackneyed story. A useful medium, plain and simple. And on at least one occasion the medium seems more useful than any other could possibly be: the idealized Aryan boyfriend in Austria, after he has cheated on the heroine, gets radically redrawn in accordance with the fallen scales. Sometimes a picture is worth many more than a thousand words, so many more that the equivalent number of words could not be worth the time and effort. And sometimes a crude drawing is worth more than the sharpest photograph.

The Bucket List, directed by the crowd-coddling Rob Reiner, is a feel-good death trip about two terminal cancer patients, the billionaire WASP and the blue-collar black, who bond as hospital roommates and set out together to do the things and see the sights they never had time for: skydive, car-race, get a tattoo, visit the Riviera, the Dark Continent, the Pyramids, the Great Wall, and along the way open themselves up to epiphanies: “The stars — it’s really one of God’s good ones.” (Although they often have a book at hand in bed or on an airplane, you can’t expect a screen character to use his final months to curl up at last with The Pickwick Papers.) The good feelings extend even beyond the grave: the action is narrated posthumously in the first-person omniscient, implicitly settling the amicable debate on the afterlife. A fair measure of your regard for Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman would be your pain at seeing them in such pap. Perhaps the closest contact with a real concern emerges in the former’s probing question to the latter: “You always had those freckles?”

First Sunday and Mad Money, directed respectively by David E. Talbert and Callie Khouri, are a couple of caper comedies. In the First one, two backed-up-against-the-wall black Baltimoreans (Ice Cube, Tracy Morgan) go into a ghetto church with the intent to rob it, enter into endless negotiations at gunpoint with the fundraising committee, fix the air-conditioning, and come out better, and not poorer, men. In the Mad one, a demographically diverse trio of women (Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah, Katie Holmes) are of undivided mind about the wisdom and fun of siphoning off wrinkled old bills, marked for shredding, from the Kansas City Federal Reserve. The director makes a unanimous fourth. Both films are equally heedless of consequences, equally inconsequential. Between them, they rack up maybe two and a half laughs, of which the First one racks up none.

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