A blog about movies and filmmaking.

Lessons and knowledge learned from Cartoons

In Animation, comic books, cult film, drama, romance on March 24, 2009 at 5:50 am

Cartoons, like fairy tales and nursery rhymes have gone through many iterations in the time since their creation. They’ve contained subversive (for their time) material – such as Betty Boop and Fritz the Cat – as well as taught us (as kids and those that have stuck around, adults too) lessons on life, friendship and the value of not mail-ordering things from ACME. Over the past decade or so, animation has moved beyond the near century of 2-d, or flat, animation that has dominated this field; and the best example of 3-d animation – or Computer generated, is actually a better and more acurate way of putting it – would be PIXAR. A company that was founded after being the defunct and sold off animation department of Lucasfilms (yeah, that guy that did some Star Wars movie). With their release of a number of animated shorts and then their feature debut, TOY STORY – PIXAR revolutionized (American made) animation. 

Their movies have been sold as “for kids” but have contained as much material – albeit still sanitized and clean – for adults as for younger people. In recent years, especially after having brought in a filmmaker who has specialized in creating animation that was geared a little more towards adults – Brad Bird, who had done the THE FAMILY DOG section of the Spielberg-produced AMAZING TALES series as well as the still-underrated classic THE IRON GIANT – with their movies THE INCREDIBLES and RATATOUILLE; and then in 2008 releasing Andrew (FINDING NEMO) Stanton’s WALL-E. But, this post isn’t about PIXAR – as much as it could be, really. It’s about two movies that have recently (within the past two years) that are independently created – and not only that, created by two women – and not distributed widely (and in one’s case, not at all, so far) and carry very grown up tones. 

PERSEPOLIS is based on a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, and it’s about her life growing up in Iran during the 1980’s and moving around Europe to get away from the over-bearing government of the Shah and fundamentalist Muslims that took over the country. The movie is created using a stark black and white palette, with interspersed bouts of color. There are fantastic elements, such as God appearing to Marjane to explain, or extricate “his” responsibility in the terror and horrors that happen to man. The animation also works back and forth between being a cartoony-realistic, sort of roto-scoped effect – where the characters seem to move too smoothly and humanly to have been done from imagination – to the down-right exaggerated cartoony style of Bugs Bunny. 

We see Marjane as a little girl, who is often told by grown-ups, or overheard when she’s not meant to be listening, about the things that are happening in the government and how people are being taken away and jailed for long periods of time. Like her grandfather and Uncle Anouche, who comes home after being gone for years and he explains to her what is happening and what he went through. And he tells Marjane that she has to carry on these stories. Then there’s her grandmother, who seems free-spirited and non-political. She enjoys putting fragrent flowers in her bra and smoking and tells Marjane that she’ll meet a lot of jerks in life and that her first marriage is just practice for her second one. The movie is full of interesting characters, or people that we’re lead to believe will be in Marjane’s life for a long time, only to have them leave either on their own; be taken away by authorities or chase Marjane away. We see her as a young precocious child, as a quiet and out of her element (in Germany) teenager who gets into punk rock and then as a hippy, only to realize that what they’re standing for is totally the opposite of what the people she knows are fighting for their lives for in Iran.

The animation throughout is top notch. The stark black and white, adds a somber tone to the whole movie, which is deserved because even in the high notes, we know that this is not a fairy tale and stories like this don’t have “and they lived happily ever after” at the end. The acting of the characters is also really good, with the grandmother as the most memorable and the interesting portrayal of God or whoever, is also a nice take. The voice-acting, and performances are hard to gauge, because the movie is in French – with the exception being when Marjane sings Eye of the Tiger – but just the tone of the person that provides Marjane’s voice as a teenager and adult has moments of being very grating and even not knowing much french, seemed incomprehensible. 

I have to admit that I’m pretty ignorant of the whole Iran-Iraq war of the 1980’s, and the Shah and other troubles that have occurred in that country – and what I do know comes with the American slant, which interestingly the US is pretty much non-existent in this movie – but the one thing that kind of bothered me was still the polemic speeches delivered to Marjane, particularly as a kid, and seeing how even in one scene she goes from vehemently defending the Shah to denouncing him. Because of what the grown-ups around her say. This isn’t meant as a defense for anyone, but it just stuck out to me on how adults form their kids to follow the principles and doctrine that they follow. 

Overall, I really liked the movie though. I think that the message of staying true to who you are – and as a child/teenager/young adult figuring that out is the most difficult thing some people go through – and standing up for what’s right, is a good one to teach, to kids and adults.

**Edit: I didn’t see the dubbed version of PERSEPOLIS, but apparently it has an all star cast in the English language, including: Sean Penn, Gena Rowlands and Iggy Pop. So, if you’re not into subtitles, that might be another plus in seeing the movie. Very interesting, and unusual casting there.

The other movie, SITA SINGS THE BLUES, which is a one-woman show animated movie that retells the story of the Hindu gods and their own sort of telling of THE ODYSSEY, called the RAMAYANA; along with a story of contemporary woman Nina – the artist behind the movie. The movie is created using a variety of animation techniques. There’s the “squiggle-vision” look that has been used in things like the TV Show DR. KATZ, there’s a shadow-puppet look using still images with animated mouths and eyes and different single images with the characters in different poses and also a stylized geometric look that is a couple steps up from the sort of animation used on SOUTH PARK. 

The writer, director, producer, editor and “everything else unless otherwise noted” creator of the movie is Nina Paley, an Illinois born artist who currently teaches at The Parsons School of Design. Her real life story of living in San Francisco with her husband, who is offered a job in India and then after her moving there with him he dumps her via email while she’s in New York on a business trip; is the inspiration and a sub-story in the movie SITA SINGS THE BLUES. Nina is a sort of contemporary stand-in for Sita, who is the wife of demi-god, son of a king, Rama. On the day that Rama is to be crowned king by his father, he is instead banished for 14 years and his faithful and devoted wife says she’ll come along with him. So, they go into the forest outside of his kingdom, where the king of Sri Lanka (or just Lanka, as it was apparently called then) kidnaps Sita to have as his own. 

Rama comes to her rescue, only to then question her loyalty and purity. Eventually he takes her back, knocks her up and then casts her away again, because he’s still not really sure whether she’s been honest with him; plus, his subjects also are disparaging towards her, and Rama wants to get along with his people. So, off she goes back into the forest, pregnant. All along, Sita during moments in these trials will break into song – provided by the singing voice of 1920’s artist Annette Hanshaw. The subject of the songs, having nothing to do with the actual plot of the Ramayana, but still dealing with the ideals of a scorned lover and being betrayed by them, is shown that this is a universal subject. 

All through the movie we are told the story, and given side comments by a greek chorus – although I guess it’d be a Hindi chorus – of three shadow puppets, that argue over the details and seeming plotholes of the story involving Rama and Sita. (“Why didn’t she just ride the flying monkey back to Rama, and save all those lives and not cause a war?”) These three characters, apparently taped from a discussion of three actual people discussing the story, is very funny and really helps to take the movie to another level.  

The animation works really well, the story flows -with the exception of an obviously created Intermission, designed to pad the running time and a strange psychadelic scene where we get an actual roto-scoped dancer zooming in and out of strange flames – really well. The modern day story, though, while I’m sure has profound personal meaning to the artist, doesn’t really go anywhere or clearly define what’s going on. I didn’t get that the couple was married until I looked around on the internet and was reading about the movie. It’s shown to us that the woman in the movie, is indeed the person that is creating the movie and we’re given a slight nod to the moment of inspiration that lead to the creation of what we’re watching. But, I was left a little under-whelmed with that, along with the “Squiggle-vision” which just gets a little grating after a while. (Although, for the most part those segments of the movie are short enough, that it’s not really bothersome; with the exception of wondering why smoother animation wasn’t just used!?)

Of course the fascinating thing about this movie, not only is it because of the essentially one woman show, but also in some of the setbacks that the movie has encountered. Largely, to do with the licensing of the songs sung by Hanshaw, whose music is not fully in the public-domain and the people in charge of her estate have held the movie up in being widely distributed, as well as asking for a large sum of money to allow the movie to be released on DVD. So, to this purpose, Nina Paley has released the movie, for free on the internet. The website – http://www.sitasingstheblues.com – contains links to watch the movie, to purchase merchandise and support her cause in fighting restrictive copyright law. 

Hopefully, she becomes the originator in a movement to show that by releasing art to the public for use and as a basis to create from, everyone will be able to profit and not just certain people – and usually larger corporations or persons looking only for profit and not caring about the art. So, again, I urge you – whoever might be reading this – to go to the website ( http://www.sitasingstheblues.com ), watch the movie; spread the link again to whoever you know that might enjoy the movie, or the message and show support for things like this. 

I have to admit that other than PIXAR’s latest batch of movies, I’ve really grown away from animation. I think that these coupld of examples of independent cinema, presenting mature content – while also not being vulgar or unsafe for children to watch – is a great way to reawaken cartoons and get it back into the mainstream and not just be a bastard format or relinquished as a “for kids only” artform, like the other serious artform of comic books have been, wrongly, in for so long (again, in America). These are not only good cartoons, they’re great movies in any format.

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