Tuesday, June 15, 2010

City of Ashes

Most people have one or two really, incredibly, annoying habits. Habits so annoying that you only find out about them after you move in with them, and you're like, why are you not required to wear this printed on a t-shirt so that everywhere you go, everyone will have due warning of your incredibly irritating habit?

I am, of course, speaking of my habit of watching DVDs at double speed with the subtitles enabled, so I can get through them faster and read instead of having to listen. This habit is probably enough to drive most people to homicide, and I can't imagine any jury would convict them.

That being said, I love subtitled films, because I prefer to get information through text than any other way, and my tiny brain tends to get confused and overstimulated when I try to watch movies. I also like to watch movies on mute and just read lips. In fact, if all movies could just be a black screen with the screenplay projected onto it, I would be happy, and Michael Bay would be out of a job. Win win win, all around.

So. I like to read graphic novels, because it's sort of like TV, but, you know, without the TV. And with words. And when you like graphic novels, it's hard to tell people that, because they usually roll their eyes and assume you mean anime (no) or the Sandman series (sort of, I thought the quality of the artwork veered all over the place and was unfortunately distracting to the narrative, instead of supporting it). Sadly, even with the publication of the excellent Maus and Berlin: City of Stones, graphic novels still don't get the respect they deserve.

Persepolis is one of those great graphic novels, and when it was turned into a movie, it was with some trepidation that I finally watched it. Fortunately, Persepolis' author and illustrator, Iranian Marjane Satrapi, jealously controlled her work, and the film, also titled Persepolis, benefits.

Persepolis the graphic novel is the story of Satrapi's childhood in pre-revolutionary Iran, observation of the fall of the shah and installation of a fundamentalist Islamist regime, adolescence in Europe, and eventual return to the stifling Iranian regime as a young woman. Satrapi, the only child of indulgent, politically astute, left-leaning parents, rides the initial wave of euphoria during the overthrow of the shah. Euphoria turns to horror as the new Islamic regime begins tightening control over Iran and its citizens.

Marjane, fluent in French, is sent to Vienna by her parents to escape. Her misadventures in Europe are alternately hilarious, horrifiying, and sad. Bounced from a convent, Marjane falls in with a group of disaffected, posturing teenagers who adopt various radical political positions. However, Marjane's friends have the freedom to sneeringly dismiss capitalism and bourgeouise aspirations because they have parents who support them; Marjane ends up homeless and returns to Iran after being hospitalized with a lung infection following a winter on the Viennese streets.

Although Marjane is eager to return to her parents and beloved grandmother, Iran's regime has become even more stifling, and eventually Marjane has to choose between a life under the grip of fundamentalism, or a return to the relative freedom of a Europe where she remains forever a foreigner.

Persepolis the movie was hand-animated by a small studio in France, a departure from the computer-based animation that has become standard. In the entertaining and enlightening interviews with Satrapi, she explains why Persepolis would not have worked as a live-action film - the drawings maintain an abstract aesthetic that prevents the film from being pigeonholed as an ethnic film and instead emphasizes that the events in Persepolis can happen anywhere, not just in the Middle East.

The animation style stays true to the book, but cuts out a lot of the content and adopts some stylistic flourishes, such as showing the shah and ayatollah's forces as jerking hand puppets that look like they're cut out of paper. Wisely, the movie doesn't try to animate the frames of the graphic novel, but keeps the same aesthetic and adds an enaging musical score (the rendition of "Eye of the Tiger," sung in English, is rather jarring).

Seeing Marjane Satrapi in the flesh during the movie's various interviews is weird. I have the same feeling when I watch Seth Mcfarlane talk, because my brain is trying to juxtapose Brian's face onto Mcfarlane's, but the interviews are not to be missed - Marjane's bouyant personality is clearly the force behind the film.

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