Last night’s movie was “Persepolis.” It’s a cartoon. That is, the images are drawn rather than photographed with actors. The story is simple but subversive. A little girl growing up in Tehran (once called “Persepolis” -- which rather echoes Persephone, that daughter snatched to the underground by the god of Death) goes from being the emotional little monster we all are in the beginning through passages of danger, death, and inconstant love to emerge an adult, much saddened but finally not paralyzed by depression. It is her grandmother who constantly urges her to sanity and integrity.
The voices are famous but we see no faces.
Persepolis is also the name of a website (http://www.persepolis.com/) meant to knit together the “Persian” community, which has become a diasphora like so many other national and racial populations. The movie could easily be interpreted as being about the origin and dynamics of populations scattered by war and politics. This makes the second “universality” of the movie. The Mediterranean communities have been scattered through the world for millennia, ever since the sea returned to that basin when the glaciers melted and pushed the first agriculturalists to the north through Europe. Yet it has persisted as a parallel culture to the now solidifying European union. (I see all this through a Blackfeet prism, though I actually belong to the Scots diasphora. Clan Strachan also has a website. The Blackfeet have many.)
This is the second movie I’ve watched that is “graphic” by which I mean both drawings like a cartoon (though not for children) and containing explicit material. I can’t remember the title of the previous one, though the content is entirely indelible, another Middle East war. I tried googling and discovered that if you ask for “adult graphic movies” what you get is entirely depictions of sex. I’m talking about war. The two seem linked in the American computer mind. It also appears that sex depicted by line drawings is “okay.”
Catharine Deneuve and her daughter are two of the main voices in “Persepolis” which is French: the heroine Marjane finally took residence in France. The obvious reason the film is “drawn” rather than being acted by real people is that Maryane Satrapi, whose memoir this is, shared a studio with Vincent Paronaud, who is a cartoonist. But I think there are more subtle causes and consequences for the choice.
In the first place we are so in love with celebrities and their attached aura that they interfere with a purer philosophical or analytical experience. I don’t know about you, but when Catharine Deneuve is on screen, I can’t think of anything else. I just watch her face for clues to her true reality. And the fact that her daughter with Mastroianni, Chiara, is playing Marjane would entirely derail me into trying to see how the two famous actors have melded into a new person. Danielle Darrieux is likewise so embedded in a history that it would be impossible to take her very seriously as the courageous and spicy grandmother while watching her “real” face for signs of age. Sometimes casting people we know so well is an advantage, throwing us into the story right away. But this is a distilled experience.
The clarity and composition of the drawing also contribute to the universality of the experiences. We aren’t saying to ourselves, “Hey, she doesn’t look that Iranian,” or “Gee, that could be my cousin.” We aren’t in real time so time can be collapsed or extended. The sequence showing Marjane’s maturation: suddenly growing long bones, developing bust and butt, lengthening face, happens in a burst of instant changes -- feet suddenly poking out the bottom of the bed, the bust tipping her over frontwise and then the butt pulling her back erect. It IS comic!
Cartoons have a strong convention of making characters drastically change appearance. (In the daily comic strip called “Rose is Rose” the characters morph according to their inner state and significance, most often Rose herself -- a nice Italian mama -- transforming into a motorcycle babe whenever she longs for freedom and excitement.) When an Adonis of a lover turns out to have the character of an ugly selfish oaf, he is transformed as surely as by Circe’s wand.
The political content is quickly obvious, for instance when two identical European armies interfere in the ongoing wars between Iraq and Iran for the purpose of selling bombs and securing oil for themselves. The two rush towards each other, eliminating Iran and disappearing down a hole, arms and soldiers alike. The force and clarity here is that of editorial cartoons. Sometimes, on top of being drawings, the personalities are clearly puppets. We can see the difference between the personal narrative and the schematic explanations of the bigger picture. The narrative speaks of individual relatives and friends, their positions and the consequences for them, but then the illustrated commentary makes mordant simplicity of history.
Western viewers need this. We are no more capable of keeping in mind the difference between Iraq and Iran than we are separating Iowa and Ohio. Just a vague sense of some undefined area out there. The Iowa/Ohio boys give their lives for something bad Iraq/Iran is doing. That’s about the sum of it. Lost are the sense of the primordial Biblical books forming there, the idea of the cradle of civilization, and any reflection of how modern people survive at all in the midst of oppression. Most eerily, it rapidly becomes clear that the impulses that have created so much suffering there are clearly present in the US today. Religion in service of a military state is just another version of constantly recurring oligarchies, fascism, nepotism, or whatever other name you want to give them.
These hand-drawn and passionate tales are meant both to testify and to illuminate from an irrefutable personal life. They are not religious but the seed and corrective for religion. The same longing for reform drove Jesus to overturn the tables of the money-changers. (now called “prosperity-based Christianity.”) All the wrong things get demonized and all the wrong things get exalted. We don’t end up knowing what Marjane Satrapi really looks like, which is a safety for her. Her little cartoon face with its clenched teeth or delighted smiles becomes ours.
While watching I often thought of the New Yorker cartoon of the puffed-up general with all his medals. Up walks a child with a pin and punctures him, deflating him into a puddle on the floor.