May 17, 2013 § Leave a Comment
With his layered and complicated picture books, children’s writer/illustrator Peter Sis has denied the editorial doomsayers, who originally thought his books were too “cerebral” for Americans.
Sis is a multiple-award winner for books like The “Tree of Life: Charles Darwin,” “Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei” and “Komodo,” as well as a 2003 MacArthur Fellow.
He was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia, and sees his childhood as the integral part of what has made his children’s books stand out as different from the others. A life behind the Iron Curtain in Prague is a huge differentiation in experience. This wasn’t a factor when he started out illustrating other people’s stories, but once he began writing his own books, he sought commonalties in his experience and an American child’s.
“Getting a chance to do my own stories, I was reaching, all of a sudden, into my childhood,” he said. “I didn’t have a childhood in America, so I couldn’t deal with baseball or anything children grew up with here, so I was lucky that some of things did get accepted, but it wasn’t really rational thinking, ‘this is the way I will go,’ I was just looking for subjects that I thought would somehow be universal and which would translate both in my childhood and in my new country.”
Sis says that his books functioned as “diaries from the new world,” documenting many corners of American life through the perspective of someone who was a stranger within that world.
“I did books about strange animals who lived alone, which was more me trying to find my place in the society,” said Sis. “And also about dreams. When you have a dream it can be fulfilled.”
Sis admits that his approach to storytelling — described by some as “cerebral” — has been a strength as well as a deficit, especially in the face of editors who weren’t sure that his sensibility was right for kids. He came over originally as an animator, and found this reaction to be a continuity between the two fields.
“I started to shop my own ideas, and very often I would be told that it’s too cerebral and it’s not American and lots of people told me to go back to Belgium,” he said. “Then the same thing started to happen in the books. They said your ideas are way too serious, too cerebral.”
The un-American quality of Sis’ work became a reason for some editors to attempt micro-managing, to the point where they were directing him to draw bigger eyes on faces, so his characters didn’t look as foreign. Eventually, Sis was able to adapt ordinary American aspects to his stories in a more natural way.
“I think even today I do not feel like I can tell the story in the nice traditional American way,” Sis said, “but then I was very blessed because I met my wife and we had two kids and, for 10 or 12 years, I would just be observing my American kids and documenting their life.”
As an outsider — an immigrant whose creative approach was apparently different from others that the editors and art directors were dealing with — Sis embraced the stories of other people who did not fit in, but who through their difference changed the world.
“I was getting more and more into my own obsessions with people who somehow dared to change the way that everyone was thinking,” said Sis. “There was that whole sentiment of being an immigrant, leaving one place and going to another place, so I was looking for these people, if it was Columbus or Galileo or Darwin, which were different from the whole group or crowd of people, individuals who had enough courage to say things differently or do things differently. I thought it was a good example for the kids, how they have to think outside of the box, but also how it can get difficult to be different from everybody else.”
“I was celebrating what I admired in America, that people are much more free to say what they want to say. But I also have to say that in the beginning, I had seen all of America as being very progressive, and it took me a long time to find out that it doesn’t have to always be like that, so I learned my lesson. I’m still learning my lesson, which is ridiculous, because, like with the accent, after 30 years it doesn’t go away and you can still find things that you had no idea are happening.”
Sis got his start in children’s books in the mid-1980s, thanks to a misunderstanding that won him the support of Maurice Sendak. He was in the country to work on an animated project that fell through. He stayed to work on a Bob Dylan project for MTV that didn’t work out like he planned.
“I was coming from the Communist country, so difficult to explain to people here that I was supposed to come back at a certain time, otherwise I would be in trouble,” said Sis. “I was stranded in Los Angeles because I was afraid to go, as I thought I would have troubles because I was coming late.”
The head of an art gallery that had seen Sis’ illustration work took the liberty of sending samples to Maurice Sendak without asking Sis first.
“He called me in Los Angeles and said, ‘So you want to be in children’s books,’ because he thought I sent the pictures because I wanted to be in children’s books,” Sis said. “He called the number he had for me, and I was completely shocked because I didn’t quite know who Maurice Sendak was. I knew he was a well-known children’s book author, but I didn’t understand anything in America. I still don’t, but at that time, I didn’t understand what are the publishers, and I didn’t understand that I’m in Los Angeles, which is different from other parts of America.
“I remember he said, ‘What are you doing in the worst place in America?’ and I said ‘I don’t know any other place in America.’ He was assuming I wrote to him — I didn’t — and that I wanted to do children’s books. And of course, I was broke, so I said, ‘Sure I want to make children’s books.’ He said, ‘Oh, there’s no more children’s books, it’s all about the money, no more editors, but there are like three people left in children’s publishing and I’ll introduce you to these three people, but you have to move to the East Coast.’ “
Sendak was true to his word and became a mentor for Sis. The relationship drifted over the years as Sendak became more negative about the world.
“He was always very philosophical, very truthful, but also very down,” said Sis. “And I started to understand him. He was down on politics and human relationships. He was a very dark and grouchy man, but I can only see now the exceptional artist.
“He didn’t have to help me at all, and he was always there wondering why I want to do it, would I want to do it, does it have a meaning and he was very respectful about some of my books. He was a wonderful mentor, he was one of the wonderful mentors in my life who made my life what it is.”
Sis tries to help out young creators the same way Sendak helped him, although he says the publishing scene has certainly changed since he got his start, and understands that the students he guides are dealing with the publishing world that is exactly the one that Sendak predicted.
“All those houses that I used to know 25 years ago, now it’s down to three big corporations, which are merging and merging. It used to be seven different publishing houses, which had their own identity. In that sense it’s very difficult. Illustrators will be dealing with basically three art directors, who will have to decide if this fits the mainstream market.
“Maybe it’s because I’ve been around the block too long. Could be that when we get older, we get more skeptical. Maybe there will be some other new ways how to do it, but I don’t know at the moment. I’m in this situation where I feel a lot like Maurice Sendak, that there is no publishing left, there are only three editors.”
Despite that, Sis’ outlook remains upbeat, and in his own work continues to plan to challenge himself and confound those who think they have his work pegged.
“I now feel like I should try once again to do very simple, very colorful, very playful books for little kids,” he said. “I would like to see if I can do it without words, just because through the years I became maybe too serious and somehow it’s expected of me by people.”
August 1, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Subtitled “Romanian Urban Myths of the ‘80s,” the anthology film, “Tales from the Golden Age,” teams director Cristian Mungiu and his five short screen plays with four other up-and-coming Romani an filmmakers — Ioana Uri caru, Hanno Hofer, Razvan Marculescu and Constantin Popescu — for a charming and sometimes dark examination of life under Ceausescu and Communism.
“The Legend of the Official Visit” follows the efforts of one town to prepare for an official visit and the rings they have to run in order to appear presentable. In the end, it’s the official order to unwind and not be paranoid that undoes them.
In “The Legend of the Party Photographer,” one small detail can undermine the entire notion of official truth as the plight of two photo re touchers is unveiled as they deal with the government mi cro-managing their work, causing many giggles about Ceau sescu and a hat.
“The Legend of the Zealous Activist” mixes hillbilly jokes with an examination of the government’s educational directives, while “The Legend of the Greedy Policeman” examines the shifty desperation of meat rationing and the lengths citizens would go to for very fresh pork.
In the best segment, “The Legend of the Air Sellers,” the tale of a money making scam involving a boy and a girl, who pretend to be government in spectors in order to gain bottles to sell for profit – and grab a little adventure while they’re at it.
The final section, “The Legend of the Chicken Driver,” offers a trucker forced to break one of the prime rules of his job, which leads to a black market opportunity he didn’t predict that he hopes could change his miserable life.
In these tales of officiousness in overdrive, the Communist system is presented as one of the most naive and fruitless possible, one where a maximum of organization is undermined by a minimum of human nature. If communism is an attempt to put the human experience into an orderly fashion that can be overseen with proper scheduling and paperwork, it fails to take into account the imperfection of humanity and notion that to achieve what Communism strives for requires better material than what it has to work with. People, under any system, are people.
There are laughs to be had, certainly, but the strength of the film points to cultural commonalties in different countries that are reassuring; we all come up with crazy folklore about our own situation in order to undermine either those in control or the systems in place that we are supposed to trust.
Say what you will about the Ceausescu era in Romania — the title of the film refers to the last 15 years of that. The suggestion here is that the desperate charade of control foisted by the government upon its own citizens is transferable to anyone paying attention outside its borders. Ceausescu might have wanted to appear a certain way, but the spirit of humanity and its humorous coping mechanisms were destined to outlive him.
“Tales of the Golden Age” portrays a society that wasn’t in a gloomy, horrible spiral, but one that was surviving, one that no dictator, no overbearing communist system could stamp out. They still had their subversive little fish tales that they passed around, part belief, party parody, and all humorous rebellions against the common perception of what it means to be dominated. Let’s hope our own country can show similar resolve and humanity.
March 2, 2011 § Leave a Comment
A recent documentary unveils forgotten communist utopias that existed in New York City – and reveals that their downfall didn’t come from communism but from a shift into private ownership and the system they opposed.
Michal Goldman’s documentary “At Home With Utopia” screens at Mass MoCA on Thursday, Feb. 10, at 7:30 p.m. Goldman’s film focuses on the history of the United Workers Cooperative Colony – known as the Co-ops – which was built in The Bronx in the late 1920s, when the area was still far from urban. The property was developed as the New York subway extended into the boroughs. The Co-ops was just one part of a larger movement of cooperative buildings built in the area, but it was the largest – and it was openly owned and run by communists.
“I think that the young people who were drawn to communism in the ’20s and the ’30s were responding to conditions they saw in this country,” Goldman said during an interview this week. “I think they just thought that unbridled capitalism was just not the answer and that society has to be collective to some degree to be humanizing.”
The economic spiral of the Great Depression looked far more apocalyptic to people at the time than our meltdown does now – for some in the 1930s, it was a chance not only to repair, but also to change the norm.
“In the early ’30s it really looked like capitalism had failed,” Goldman said. “It was a global meltdown, and you could see the sort of weak underpinnings – you could see the flaws in the capitalist approach. There they were; they were exposed, so it seemed very reasonable to think that another system might be better. Not just better operationally, but also better humanly – better for its people.”
The result of the United Workers Union’s efforts was a model neighborhood that knocked back the usual expectations of what urban, immigrant neighborhoods were like – this was the realization of what they could be when left to their own devices, under their own control. The Co-ops were filled with green space and gardens, were clean and safe, and offered community programs, especially for kids.
Many of the residents were people escaping from tenements, and the Co-ops offered the realization of their dreams. “People who were interested in municipalities or people who were interested in developing workers’ housing in Europe would come to the Coops and look at these places,” Goldman said. “They were known abroad, and that made the people who lived in them feel all the more that they were living in a special place.”
Residents were not required to be communists, merely working class. Goldman recalls one family that told her about their father, a postal worker. He asked his boss at the post office if the move would affect his job, even though they weren’t communist. He was assured that everything would be fine as long as he kept a distance politically. “There was one thing – you could not be a boss,” Goldman said. “One woman I interviewed, her father was a house painter, and he had one employee he would hire sometimes, another house painter to go out on a job – he wasn’t an employee exactly. Her father was not permitted to live in the Co-ops while he was in that situation. They were very conscious of issues of class.”
The population was made up largely of immigrant Jews who had heard about the opportunities at the Co-ops through their unions and did share a basic political bias with communism, even if they weren’t members. The Co-ops were known for seeking out a diversity that was unusual for the time – even reaching out in the native languages of the minorities in order to interact with networks of immigrants that would be shut off from the Co-ops’ leadership if they didn’t address a language barrier. Italians, for instance, were given materials in Italian.
Even more progressive, though, was the solid effort to bring black families into the Co-ops, and integrate them in a way that was unheard of at the time – even to the degree of couples intermarrying and being accepted.
There wasn’t any political strife from the noncommunist members – in fact, there was plenty of harmony. The biggest battles came internally and stemmed from an inflexibility in ideologies of the communists themselves, which had opposing sides butting heads over political and social ideologies that were at odds with reality as it unfolded.
“They fought all the battles that communists fought among themselves,” Goldman said. “The whole problem is, if you have a set of ideals, if you try to live those ideals, you run into problems immediately. How do you put a set of ideals into action? Abstractions into action? It’s not clear, so they fought bitterly.”
It was these divisions that ultimately lead to the Co-ops’ downfall, starting in 1943 when a battle broke out about a new mortgage that would raise rents on the tenants. It ended with the Co-ops going into private ownership, which ultimately led to a paradise lost. But the debate to that point had to do with keeping things ideologically correct versus surviving with some amount of ideological dignity.
The faction that did not want to raise rents was only acting in the spirit of the times, however – Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, and the tide was turning in a direction that the communists thought looked hopeful.
“They looked around them and saw that Roosevelt had put in all kinds of progressive programs in place, so they said, ‘We don’t need to own this building anymore because our whole society is evolving in a way that we think is good,’ ” Goldman said.
Like the belief that the Great Depression spelled doom for capitalism, this was another misreading of the political turns in the United States. After the Co-ops went into private ownership, maintaining the standards they had created turned into a battle.
“They were now tenants – they were not owners anymore – but they were very well organized tenants, so for quite a few years they were able to make demands and protest and so on,” Goldman said.
“At first you didn’t notice really how things had changed, that things were changing there. But things were changing there. They were not able as well to control who moved in. They weren’t able to force the landlords to maintain the buildings in the beautiful way that they themselves had maintained them.” Goldman’s film doesn’t go as far as the 1960s, but she said it was during that decade – and even more so by the 1970s – when the situation disintegrated beyond safety and repair. The surrounding neighborhoods became crime- and drug-ridden, and these elements begin to seep into the Co-ops. Gates were put up around the formerly open space to keep crime out, but that didn’t help. The control over who moved in had long since gone.
“People who had lived there, even some of the people who had built it, who had moved in 1927 and were now elderly, they didn’t feel safe there, or their children didn’t feel they were safe there, so they weren’t able to replenish themselves as a community,” Goldman said.
The lessons she takes away from the story are in regard to both the strengths and the weakness of the Co-ops and how those are sometimes different sides of the same coin. Ideology without a realistic flexibility cannot possibly survive.
“They were so ideologically trammeled; they were so hobbled by their ideology,” she said. “The ideology that made them really strong in the beginning and through the Depression, also really undermined them. They weren’t able to be pragmatic in their thinking.”
Goldman stands by the importance of the lessons from the downfall, but she also points to the positives as being just as important. The Co-ops may not have lasted forever, but they lasted long enough through their own ideals to show that they were possible – and maybe could be once again. At root is a lesson of solidarity that is proven again and again, and most recently in Egypt.
“To me, the lessons here have to do with the importance of collective and cooperative efforts,” Goldman said, “and I think the sense that I had when I cam to working on this film is that there’s a kind of ideology of individualism in this country which is just false – it isn’t really the way things happen, and it’s not really the way people change things.
“You’ve got this sense that, at a certain point, people have to show up. They have to come out of their little rooms and be counted and be on the street and be visible and be together. I think these people knew that and were able to do that in their time, and we’re a little removed from that now. We’re a little placid, or defeated. These people weren’t defeated.”
September 12, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Escaping an ex-boyfriend who had started stalking her, author Belle Yang stayed in the safety of her parents’ home and turned that experience into one of discovery that she would apply to her own recovery from personal terror. As a graphic novel memoir, “Forget Sorrow” recounts that time during which she bonded with her father and uncovered the story of his family in China — that is, her own story.
Yang’s father, Baba, weaves tales that are part soap opera, part fable, as he recounts his life growing up on his grandfather’s home in Manchuria and the familial characters that populated it, most notably his father and three uncles. Their battles and double crosses in order to gain the grandfather’s favor take up the bulk of these stories, and the lessons learned stretch across the decades to Yang’s own life.
This story of four Chinese brothers plays out like the exact opposite of the more famous one involving five who team up against a problem. Here the brothers bicker over the grandfather’s favors and, in particular, control of his rural farm land, tainting the house with intrigue but setting up a delicate structure ready to be toppled as the communists begin to move into the country in the 1940s.
Presenting no united front, thanks to the brothers’ petty concerns, nor any plan in preparation against the dire communist future that hangs inevitably before them, “Forget Sorrow” becomes a meditation on the unexpected darkness of life and the notion that our time here is too short for the pettiness.
Yang’s story is also about the passage of time and the jaded quality with which people can approach tradition. Unable to accept that their ways and values are a human construct — and therefore require their own effort to perpetuate them — Baba’s family soon finds that a crisis like the communist takeover will usher out their way of life with not much effort. It’s only then that they can really appreciate what they had, but obviously too late.
One current through the book is the idea of meditation and enlightenment, asceticism and casting off the world. It’s a constant movement by several of the characters and a reason to offer lectures to other people. Through Yang’s personal scope of history and experience, though, the hunt for enlightenment becomes a double-edged sword, and doing nothing in times of trouble but seeking contemplation becomes its own form of ignoring problems.
Yang’s family history ends up bringing the world she relates up-to-date and allows her readers to see not only the broad strokes and tiny slices of history, but also a macroscopic view of the points where the knife has perhaps dulled, though even the furthest sections are still affected by history’s chops.
March 29, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Artist Erin Ko’s work centers around China — and now some of her creative time does as well. Ko currently has a show in Beijing, following a residency in the city — and there’s much more to come.
Her show, “Free Money,” is featured at Imagine Gallery in Beijing through March. She resides locally in the Eclipse Mill.
Ko’s imagery pulls from the classic Maoist imagery that Americans equate with the old-fashioned communist era of the mid 20th century and mixes it up with symbols of good, old-fashioned American consumption. In her work, you might encounter a mash-up of American and Chinese money or the encroachment of McDonald’s emblems on the propagandist imagery of the communist government.
Ko says the remnants of these images are only really seen in China as kitschy tourist items — a consumer commodity that speaks to her larger thesis of the transformation of Chinese culture into something closer to the American one she grew up with.
“It’s the kind of imagery that seems to hit a nerve in the American psyche,” she said, “I think because people are still from 1950s and before, they have this notion about communism — even to the degree that they don’t know how to separate that from socialism. They don’t really know what these things are, and so I feel like it’s a very easy way for me to get an emotional reaction.” « Read the rest of this entry »
March 6, 2010 § Leave a Comment
It certainly qualifies as an irony — and a pretty amusing one — that yesterday’s commie revolutionary sex symbol Che Guevara has been consigned in the popular imagination to some striking T-shirts worn by kids who probably only vaguely know who he was.
These kids are more concerned with buying into a fashion revolution than participating in a political one, that’s for sure. And it’s cute that Che’s face can still be utilized to offend somebody — like calling Obama a socialist comes off as a quaint, old-fashioned insult.
One further irony — or perhaps it’s more of a misfortune — is that Che really doesn’t inspire much more than that years later. In the 21st century, it’s his image that captures the imagination more than his ideals, fueled by his own Jack Kerouac phase. With buddy, motorcycle and memoir, Che isn’t so much inspiring progressive politics for Latin America as he is film adaptations of his book.
Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon take a dispassionate and reasoned approach in their “Che: A Graphic Biography” — one of the latest in exemplary Hill and Wang non-fiction graphic novel line — and this “just the facts, ma’am” motif is perfectly suited for younger reader.
It’s actually hard to explain in any kind of simple terms what exactly Che was. A revolutionary — what in the world does that mean to a kid in 2010? In terms of Jacobson and Colon — who have previously done fine work in their adaptation of the 9-11 Report and their self-penned follow-up, a history of the United States following that dark day — it means acknowledging the sex appeal without letting it obscure the meat on the bones in the career of a radical whose specifics are fuzzy in the memory.
Che — born Ernesto Guevara de la Serna — is a classic example of what Elvis Costello phrased as “a fine idea at the time, but now he’s a brilliant mistake.” An Argentinean rich kid with sharp intelligence, Che blamed many of the problems of Latin America — probably correctly — on the United States. For him, U.S. corporations lurked behind every corner, deep in the shadows, owning all opportunity in Central and South American countries and bleeding the inhabitants dry. No argument there.
Che’s passion for the people — and his embrace of communism as the solution — catapulted him into history, mostly thanks to the associations these led him to have. Many of these connections were made through his rich girlfriend — a woman he also took money from and begrudgingly married, even though she wasn’t quite up to his exacting standards of attraction.
No worries — even as Che winds his way into Fidel Castro’s embrace, he manages to callously betray two wives. He fights for the common man, but the women — they are another story.
The narrative cascades through Che’s career as a right-hand man to Castro onto his wind-down as a captain of his own revolution in the Congo — a disaster — and Bolivia. This last effort was where he met his fate in a naive attempt to replicate the situation in Vietnam as a way of drawing in the United States and creating a nightmare that Bolivia could climb out from somehow.
It’s the candor with which Colon and Jacobson deliver Che’s story that makes the book. They are obviously interested in presenting a complicated situation — one involving legitimate views presented through a sometimes stumbling messenger. They capture both the rightness and the wrongness of Che and the revolutions — including Cuba’s — that he stood at the center of.
Half a century later, communist revolution did not move like a fury through the world, freeing ordinary workers from tyranny — quite the opposite. With this in mind, it is perhaps best that Che is relegated to the flimsy adoration brought from T-shirt design, effectively placing him somewhere between Winnie the Pooh and Spongebob Squarepants in importance.
December 7, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Director Jan Sikl’s Czechoslovakian epic of love, family, betrayal and political struggle “Private Century” — which saw a screening at the Museum of Modern Art earlier this year and is now released by Facets Video — captures decades in the lives of several families, peering into their personal nooks and crannies with a precise passion.
Most astoundingly, not only is every story presented true, but their on-screen realizations bypass actors and sets, opting instead for the original players.
How is this done? Through hours and hours of original home movies, letters and diaries, piecing together the ups and downs of ordinary citizens living through both world wars and the communist takeover — revealing that, no matter the political and social climate, personal lives the world over are essentially the same.
“Private Century” runs in eight episodes, each covering one specific story, with the various pieces brought together by Sikl into cohesive wholes. The general timeline of the series follows citizens through World War 1 on through World War 2 and the Nazi occupation, into the aftermath of the war and up to the late 1960s and the corrupt domination by Russia and the communists. Despite the heavy rumbles of history through their lives, the people revealed still have time to love and to cheat, to bicker, to raise children, to have hobbies, to struggle with parents — to be real, whole people. « Read the rest of this entry »
April 3, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Saul Landau’s 1969 documentary “Fidel!” takes the viewer into a world that is not only lost but quite unknown. It’s a largely uncritical portrait of Cuban revolutionary leader Castro as he goes about his day, allowing him to rattle off the Gospel According to Fidel and the cameras to take in the reality of Cuba 10 years after the revolution.
Americans older than me can probably conjure up memories of Castro as a scary, unknown quantity — a forest guerilla attacking the solid forces of big business and American interests — but for many my age, he was a hat, a beard and a cigar that added up to something frightening.
Or, at least, we were told it added up to something frightening, and it seemed so, since Americans weren’t allowed to go to Cuba. It was that bad — we couldn’t even step on its soil. Or buy its cigars. In the 1970s, this put Cuba on the same level as scary East Germany — the epitome of the mysterious bleakness that communism caused on a society.
Decades later, it’s a far more complicated picture — Cuba is a place populated by real people and has its good and bad. After years of representation by the expatriates in Florida, a more measured view of the country has come into play for many Americans.
Landau’s film certainly doesn’t examine any of the larger questions. Instead, it allows Castro to lead the crew around on a charming site visit that gives viewers the greatest hits of Cuba at the moment in time. It’s a struggling country, trying to tie its resources and keep its people on track as they forge to a future of education and progress that is part of a national collective.
The real importance of the film is its unusual access to Castro himself. Not only does Landau and his crew get to follow him as he checks in on collective farms, building projects and baseball games, they get to hang around for his breakfast, his strategy meetings and indulge in picking his brain for some extended monologues in regard to his philosophy of rule. With a twinkle in his eye, the revolutionary often reveals himself as intelligent and charming, if fairly intense.
And if the film threatens to drift toward one-sided celebration, Landau includes scores of scenes with a dissatisfied citizenry complaining about conditions and services to Castro’s face. He also gets to talk to some political prisoners who gripe about their sentences. There’s plenty of surprise dissent in here, which makes this a valuable timepiece, capturing what became of the legend after the revolution and the Russian missiles.
It’s an unapologetic and extremely unique window into a person and life cut off from so many Americans — mandatory viewing for anyone seeking out a ring-side seat to history, or just a clear-headed examination of the realities of a collective society.
July 29, 2008 § Leave a Comment
When Estonia won its independence from the Soviet Union after half-a-century under its thumb, it was largely through peaceful resistance that was fueled by one of the most important obsessions of their culture — singing. In the film “The Singing Revolution,” directors James Tusty and Maureen Castle provide a thorough overview of the the Soviet chapter in Estonia’s history that highlights its musical enthusiasms. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 3, 2008 § Leave a Comment
The Belgian reporter Tintin — the creation of Herge — has charmed children and adults worldwide for decades, from the first adventure in 1929, to his final complete one in 1976. For French cartoonist’s 100th birthday, three volumes of adventures that had never been released in the United States beyond some limited edition, small press hardcovers were announced for release. In the end, the controversial “Tintin in the Congo” has not made it to release amidst charges of racism and a rather ill-advised embrace of the sort of colonialism that has been happily relegated to history. The two titles that have been presented are exciting for their historical significance, for their revelations of the artistic process, and for their simple enjoyment.
Plain and simple, Tintin is the way that so many of us learned to read graphic novels and accept them as part of the realm of literature — they were not open-ended, seat of your pants superhero monthlies, but self-contained, fully-realized adventure books that could be found in any library alongside the classics and contemporaries of the prose world. In fact, Tintin books were the exception — there just weren’t any acceptable graphic novels for anyone in America and their release here pioneered a form that has been embraced wholeheartedly by such ventures as LIttle Lit, and at least partially by the phenomenons of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “Hugo Cabret.” These books might not be as successful without Herge and Tintin to pave the way.
What these new release have done is create book-ends to the adventure series, revealing where Tintin came from and showing where he ended up. Much like his readers, Tintin’s adventures begin from a more facile world view — politics and societies slowly unfold through the decades of intrigue and by the time Herge conceived of “Alph Art,” the audience is able to look at something like “Land of the Soviets” as one would a naive kid — charming, filled with bravado, but with so much to learn about the world.
Almost everything is primitive about “Tintin in the Land of the Soviets,” from the lack of nuance in its politics to the spare and clunky, black and white art. Herge redrew all the earlier adventures except this one, and it works as a document to the way his hand moved on the page prior to his trademarked style, which has cast a net on so much comics work in the world. Hardly as tight as any of the later adventures, the book has Tintin going on a loose journey of discovery to Soviet Russia, essentially amounting to an extended chase scene that allows Herge to create satire around the Soviet system and its claims of being a successful and superior way of governance. On one hand, this means the story plays into propaganda of a certain stripe — on the other, years after the bohemian glamor of American communist groups and the instant sympathy created by the witch hunts in the 1950s, it’s easy to see that Herge was not far-off in his lampoons of the country. And old style anti-Soviet satire makes for some nostalgically pleasing cartoons — it seems so far away from the terrorist-fearing, security state we currently live in.
On the other end of the scale, “Tintin and Alph-Art” is an unfinished adventure that Herge began working on in the late 70s, but died in 1983 before it was anywhere near completed. In this new edition, the story is presented as a script, embellished by reproductions of Herge’s unfinished page layouts and various sketches. The script leaves off before the end, but is followed by pages of development sketches and notes that show how Herge arrived at the story he did begin producing.
Strangely, this is a compelling volume and as a script, the story is entirely delightful. The adventure involves the world of contemporary art — ripe for satire despite Herge’s apparent embrace of the form — and a link with the usual litany of international crime, this time revolving around art forgery and new age swindles — there’s one great mystical character who wields electro-magnetic energy on his new age followers. The fact that Herge’s passing left Tintin in a cliffhanger couldn’t be more fortuitous or symbolic — Tintin stories are compilations of cliff hangers, they are one perpetual cliff hanger, and it’s a fitting tribute by the gods of coincidence that its at a cliffhanger that he leaves us. To boot, the circumstances of the cliffhanger itself, in which Tintin might be united with a piece of art and put on display in a museum forever, is such a perfect summation of the character’s fate in literary and cartooning history that, in some ways, “Alph-Art” takes on a Dennis Potter style quality with in mine, the character leaping from the pages and actually being preserved in our world through art.
The downside of these volumes is that they are works that can be only really be recommended to fans — but that really shouldn’t dissuade anyone from thinking it’s too late to become fans. They are around to be enjoyed after you’ve introduced yourself to the other 22 books in the series. There’s bound to be plenty of opportunity — Steven Speilberg and Peter Jackson have announced their joint venture, a trilogy of Tintin films, which is sure to unleash a bombast of interest and product in the boy reporter from Belgium. Do yourself a favor and get a head start before the movies obscure your view of the real Tintin, as presented by Herge.