Quick hits (June 2009)

It’s been a few months since the last column but it’s back. Let’s go.

Sita Sings the Blues (2009), written, directed & animated by Nina Paley. A feminist critique of the Ramayana? Fine, but why exoticize it and add white suburban angst to the mix? The old-timey songs are good as representations of Sita’s mindset but perhaps less necessary than the free-copyright activists would have you believe. Another wholly unnecessary add-on: the 5-minute music video/breakup visual—but, ahhhh, that’s more white-girl mopeyness to the mix, put (ungraciously) on top of some of the most compelling mythology/religious text ever created. One of these things means less than the other. The Flash animation is clean and colorful, with backgrounds sliding by elegantly. Paley creates a collage of sketchwork for the autobiographical segments, the modern clear-line approach for the mythology, and photos and scans for the modern-day Indians commenting continually (and hilariously, and perhaps sacrilegiously) on the nuances/contradictions of the Ramayana. But the faces and gesturing isn’t expressive at all, and only a megalomaniac would think that her breakup with her boyfriend jells well with a country’s creation myth. When the contemporary Indians crack wise about their sacred text, that’s one thing. When a navelgazing cartoonist grafts her sob story onto it, that’s insulting. B-

French Milk (2007), by Lucy Knisley. As discussed before, I’ve a weakness for illustrated books that fall somewhere between comics and prose. Even giving French Milk this handicap, though, I wonder why this book—a journal/sketchbook of a 22-year-old white girl’s (utterly touristy and eventful) six weeks in Paris—merits so much positive attention amongst the comics critical sphere. Her autobiographical ruminations don’t have the depth of Joe Matt’s Peepshow, the forceful sensibility of Julie Doucet’s Dirty Plotte, the maturity of Carol Tyler’s comics, nor the drafting chops of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. I like that Knisley likes food—a rarity amongst American girls—and there’s a sensual fervor in her descriptions of good meals. But an illustrated menu, peppered (ha ha) with milquetoast (I can’t stop myself) musings, doesn’t make for a real book. Sure, anyone who’s ever been to Europe for vacation probably filled up a diary or scrapbook with detritus. 99.5% of those remain buried in closets and basements, for good reason. French Milk’s journey to publication is probably a result of Knisley’s unspoken class privilege—she and her mom rent a nice apartment and eat out at least once a day; her dad flies across the Atlantic for a visit; another artist friend flies over, too; Knisley’s always buying stuff; we hear more about her period than about saving money. I’ll bring out my inner Marxist by noting that we also hear more about Knisley’s spending habits and consumerism than about her off-kilter family dynamics; Mom and Dad are divorced but Dad flies over to France to spend a week with his ex-wife during a mother-daughter bonding trip, and it’s not awkward at all? Knisley sketches more tourists (consumers) than residents. She draws and talks about things, and how things fashion her, more than anything else. And her things don’t interest me as much as they interest her. If this had remained a diary, I wouldn’t have minded. C

A Decade under the Influence (2003), directed by Ted Demme and Richard LaGravenese. A decent overview of the 1970s American New Wave, though it’s just as smugly beholden to the myth of the 1970s being America’s last great cinema as baby boomers are about 1960s pop music being the Greatest Era Ever (and All You Kids Are Just Amateurs in Comparison). Most of the big names are interviewed, and it’s good to see a lot of attention paid to Hal Ashby. But the omissions are startling—almost nothing about blaxploitation and its place in the rise of independent movies; relatively little on Terrence Malick; no David Lynch or Carroll Ballard or… and on and on. Plus, they blame the 1980s on Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, but don’t allow either to defend himself. C

The Book of Illusions (2002), by Paul Auster. David Zimmer, wounded by the death of his wife and children, begins to drink and watch the silent films of Hector Mann, and then write the first monograph about the actor/filmmaker, who disappeared six decades ago. Oh nonsense—he never existed in the first place. So, when a letter (postmarked: New Mexico) from Mann’s wife appears in David Zimmer’s mailbox, inviting him to view a body of work Zimmer didn’t even know existed, what’s surprising is how Auster makes this (non-existent) filmmaker so resonant in the first place. When a gun-wielding woman shows up to force Zimmer to go, this sudden shift in tone feels natural, too. When Zimmer’s narration gives over to film criticism (of films that don’t exist) and to a capsule biography of Mann, these shifts feel unforced as well. This novel slides through several modes—criticism, memoir, mystery, tragedy, True Hollywood story—so well and so rapidly that it’s a work of its own genre, and one that nearly moved me to tears. I’m not sure how Auster made this feel all of a single piece, despite these tonal shifts and hyperbolic action, but I think magic must be involved. There’s a pretty good meditation on Chateaubriand’s Memoirs of a Dead Man; come to think of it, The Book of Illusions becomes a pretty successful Americanization of it, too. This is my first Auster; it won’t be my last. A+

Paul Auster’s City of Glass—An Adaptation (1994), written by Paul Karasik and drawn by David Mazzucchelli. Daniel Quinn writes mystery novels under the name William Wilson, and gets drawn inexorably into a noir tale himself when a phone caller mistakes him for Paul Auster. Eventually, Quinn meets Auster who, although technically is Quinn’s creator, doesn’t offer much help and may even impede the process of the case. That’s an excellent metaphor for how Auster thinks God works upon humans, and also shows how an artist’s creations end up running away from him once a reader gets involved. (It’s the reader who’s telling this dark tale and, by the end of the mystery, he’s got harsh words for Auster.) As with The Book of Illusions, it’s writing about writers and about how the stories they construct can shape the world in magical—and maybe nightmarish—ways. If all this sounds too metafictional and heady, note how well Mazzucchelli’s bold and thick black line and Karasik’s graceful layouts keep the events grounded… and propulsive. Mazzucchelli visualizes Auster’s verbal mazes—and the sense of an ever-encroaching cage—with simple, blocky forms, and brushwork that gets progressively rougher as Quinn’s life spirals out of control. Even in the midst of these metaphysics, there’s never a sense that Auster, Karasik, and Mazzucchelli are just indulging in mind games—the adaptation is too urgently paced, and too controlled, for that. City of Glass may not improve on Auster’s original novel, but it brings his New York to dank, morbid life. A-

Parade (1973), directed by Jacques Tati. A circus goes haywire, and we get to see it being made as it’s being performed. As always with Tati, regular objects take on extraordinary, playful qualities. The audience gets involved, and the line between performers and audience members gets blurred throughout. The movie’s as democratic as Tati’s ever been, with cheap video allowing the master filmmaker to distance himself from the need to be a perfectionist. So, Parade is his cruddiest-looking movie—video’s visual limitations are obvious here—but it’s also among his most humanizing. With the shedding of celluloid, Tati also sheds M. Hulot, and reveals himself to be suave and—as he was in his youth, on the French vaudeville circuit—a brilliant pantomime. Jugglers, tumblers, set designers, mimes and more clown about on stage, but Tati’s choreography keeps things moving briskly and the stage relatively clean. It’s not as immaculate as Play Time, Mon Uncle, or Tati’s other masterpieces, but its looseness pays off in its inspired hijinks. A-

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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5 Responses to Quick hits (June 2009)

  1. brian says:

    Auster’s Man in the Dark has quite a few film references and is on par with Book of Illusions as one of his best, IMO.

  2. Thanks, Brian. I’ll check it out from the library.

  3. Mohit Sharma says:

    Good to read your thoughts on “Sita Sings the Blues”. I was surprised to see everybody raving about it.

  4. Mohit, it’s good to hear from you, man. Yeah, after all the hoopla surrounding Sita, I was surprised by how pedestrian it was, in terms of its aesthetics and Paley’s sitcom-like histrionics about her crumbling relationship. I sorta understood the parallels she was trying to make but the significance of her failing marriage does not equal that of Sita’s story, and her attempts to make it so are condescending in the extreme. (It makes the Ramayana into a mere self-help book for the middle class.)

  5. Mohit Sharma says:

    Yeah man, I agree with your assessment. You probably know that Ramayana always comes up in artwork in Indian and south-east asian cultures. So, there is a lot of good stuff around it. An older movie on contemporary social issues is “Nishant” (End of Night).

    I also felt that Sita’s character was too weak in “…sings the Blues”. Somehow, I have grown up thinking of Sita as a proud and stubborn woman.

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