Others Include Magritte and Brel

TINTIN: Hergé’s Masterpiece/The Mysteries of Marlinspike Hall (Terrace Rooms, Somerset House, 12 November 2015-31 January 2016)

photoToward the end of this exhibition is a photograph of Hergé and Andy Warhol.

One of them is an artist. The other one worked in reproductions.

Ah, but which is which?

I remember the large format Tintin books from my junior school, back in the day before graphic novels were a thing — but I don’t recall reading any. I must have done. Nothing stuck. There were cartoons, too, right? HERGÉ’S ADVENTUUUUUUUUUUUURES OF TINTIN. Oddly enough, I did read the book on Tintin by Tom McCarthy.

A few years ago, my local Waterstone’s — one of them, the one which produces authors — had a boxset of all twenty-four volumes in a medium format in a slip case at a daft price, but one which was clearly cheaper than buying twenty-four individual titles. All or nothing. And then, several months before the film, they reduced it considerably. So I bought it with the intention of reading them before so the film. I didn’t read them. I didn’t see the film.

And so when there was news of an exhibition at Somerset House, I thought that was an excuse, but I’ve still only read about five. I’ll go back now and work through. Tintin appears to be a journalist, although I’ve yet to see him file a story. There seems to be a pattern of receiving a telegram or travelling to another country and running into men with guns, and an encounter with the local police who throw him in prison thanks to the villains misleading them. Captain Haddock may turn up and the identical (non?)twins Thompson and Thomson and chaos ensues before Tintin unveils the criminals. Snowy, his dog, does the full Timmy’s-down-the-mineshaft business, but nobody listens to him.

photo (1)Hergé was born Georges Remi in Etterbeek, Belgium in 1907, so he would have been seven when the Germans invaded and devastated the country. He went to a Catholic school and excelled, although not apparently in art. More significantly, he joined the scouts, and started drawing a strip, Totor for a scouting magazine. The moral code, the respect for authority and the doing a good deed every day — along, perhaps, with Catholicism — feeds into Tintin. Hergé had found work with a Catholic newspaper, Le Vingtième Siècle, and was invited to draw a weekly strip for its children’s supplement, Le Petit Vingtième from 1929.

The new technologies of the age — electricity, cars, gramophones, telephones and cinema all contribute to the strips, with Hergé apparently taking inspiration from early cinema as much as earlier comics. Among the latter we must presumably include Benjamin Rabier’s Tintin Lutin. Hergé aspires to realism; he did a lot of research on the Destination Moon (1950/1953) and Explorers on the Moon (1952-3/1954), getting the rocketry as right as was possible then. (The former predates George Pál’s film as far as I can see, assuming Objectif Lune appeared in the serialisation.) On the other hand, the action twisting action, Tintin’s survival and the constant defeat of criminals stretches credulity. Hergé has very basic ligne clair (clear line) which is nonetheless efficient.

The initial strips — Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (1929-30/1930, Tintin in the Congo (1930-31/1931) and Tintin in America (1931-32/1932) — have a crude, conservative, xenophobic, not to say racist feel, and it’s worth remembering that Belgium was a colonial power in Africa. (See, say, Heart of Darkness.) However, on becoming friends with Zhang Chongren in 1934, he started doing more research into the background locations of his adventures, beginning with The Blue Lotus (1935-36/1936). The exhibition calls him Chang — minus his personal name — and calls him Hergé’s “spiritual guide”, which brought me up short. As I read on, I am going to have to be aware of the degree to which Hergé avoids xenophobia.

Meanwhile, the Nazis rose to power and invaded and occupied Belgium, closing Le Vingtième Siècle; Tintin continued in the Nazi-controlled Le Soir and I’ve vague memories of where Hergé was politically. McCarthy must have discussed this in his book. This is presumably at the same time as Paul de Man’s work for the same paper? There is clearly the risk of an appearance of collaboration on Hergé’s part. After the closure of Le Soir, he established his own magazine with Raymond Leblanc, a resistance fighter.

The exhibition mostly consisted of black and white panels from the original stories, mostly minus the dialogue. These were described as facsimiles — but I wasn’t clear whether this meant modern copies of the archive or these had been made in the production process. There were also small photographs — some I suspect photocopies, not all clearly labelled. And then in each room there is either a vitrine containing a three dimensional recreation of a frame from the strips or a model — Marlinspike Hall or Tintin’s flat. On the side wall were further reproductions, as well as on the windows and in fireplaces. Information boards included scans.

As scanning and printing technology has improved, I’ve noticed more and more use of facsimiles in exhibitions. Does it matter that they are copies? Am I fetishising the original with its aura of labour — Hergé’s steps in putting a strip together? Tintin was mass produced — in newspapers, in collections — and so the hand of the artist is lost in what we’ve seen. Should it be brought back? In an interview, Hergé said that not only did he have fun, he was paid to do it. And that photo of a meeting with Warhol — he of the Campbell Soup and Brillo Pads and silkscreens and chat shows as art — is telling.

I don’t think there were any examples on show, but apparently Hergé embraced abstract art in later life. In 1976 he bought a Calder mobile — coincidentally there is a show of that artist’s work at Tate Modern. There’s much more to be said about Hergé, I suspect; I seduced myself into buying the book, so no doubt I will say more.

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Shit Academics Say

Having finished all three lectures for Monday by close of play Thursday, I can take the weekend off.

Well, I have a meeting on Saturday, which doesn’t count.

 I can take the weekend off.

There are the portfolios that need marking, and I can get a few done on the train. But apart from that  I can take the weekend off.

And I’m going to see a comedian Sunday night, which might feed into research. But that doesn’t count.

And I’m so close to the library, I might as well look for the other book I wanted yesterday.  I can take the weekend off apart from that.

And I want to read the book I did take out.

But apart from that, I can take the weekend off.

Making the Green One Red

Teaching across several modules brings about odd juxtapositions. And that is especially so of Laughing Matters and Horror.

This week, I was lecturing on the Comedy of Remarriage, using Stanley Cavell’s (problematic) Pursuits of Happiness, where (drawing on Northrop Frye) he discusses the green space that characters go to in romantic comedies to work through the chaotic phase of desires. Obviously this goes back at least as far as A Midsummers Night’s Dream and the forests around Athens, but it comes right up Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Montauk Beach. Cavell notes that in three or four of the comedies of remarriage he discusses the space is called Connecticut (“this locale is called Connecticut. Strictly speaking, in The Lady Eve the place is called ‘Conneckticut,’ and it is all but cited as a mythical location, since nobody is quite sure how you get there, or anyway how a lady gets there.” I’m assuming it was a location where people thought they could get quicky marriages just outside of New York.

Meanwhile, with a certain amount of trepidation, on the Horror module I showed The Last House on the Left as a video nasty, a film that was only passed uncut in the UK as recently as 2008. I suspect the three students that showed up found it tame… Robin Wood argues “The reason people find the violence in Last House so disturbing is not that there is so much of it, nor even that it is so relentlessly close and immediate in presentation. It is these three positions – the position of victim, the position of violator, the position of righteous  avenger – and the interconnections among them that Last House on the Left dramatizes.” Martin Barker suggests “The film puts us on the side of a sense of the characters’ failure. There is no hope in their world. There is no one in the film who can be our point of view”. To me one aspect of horror is what it makes “nice” people do (compare the end of Let the Right One In) and the estranging impact of the sound track.

The basic narrative is one about two (sexualised, drinking) teenagers who go to the city for a concert and are kidnapped by the quasi-family of criminaks they’ve attempted to score drugs off. The two are sexually assaulted and raped, with one killed and the other left for dead. And then, in a twist of fate that bekongs in Dickens or a fairy tale, the criminal’s end up with one of the teen’s parents and revenge is taken.

The parents live in Connecticut.

I’m not saying that The Last House on the Left is a romantic comedy but…

Just as Craven’s film disturbs with its comic relief, so there is a dark side to the romantic comedy. I suspect — it’s been a while since I studied the period — that some attention has been paid to the sexual politics of the seductions of Hermia and Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not to mention Titania. Someone, I think Laraine Porter but it might be Frances Grey, notes the gender imbalances of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque, where women are more likely to be exposed to sexual violence in a period of sexual licentiousness and suspended rules. No must not be deconstructed.

But it brings me back again to a sense of how comedy can be subversive and conservative, horror can be subversive and conservative and comedy and horror are a flea’s bite apart.

And Then One Day Things Weren’t Quite So Fine

The Danish Girl (Tom Hooper, 2015)

And oddly, it was only later, that I pondered which one it is.

I mean, the film is clearly meant to be about Danish artist Einar Wegener, seen fingering dresses from early on in the film, forced (not entirely unwillingly it must be noted) to wear female clothes for his wife Gerda Gottlieb’s paintings and who begins to realise that he is really she, and begins a journey to becoming Lili Elbe.

Except, it’s not taken directly from Elbe’s own diary, but rather a 2000 novel by David Ebershoff, which plays hard and fast with the truth, apparently making Gerda Greta, an American. At least some of the facts get reinstated, as far as I can see. Not all, mind. Hans Axgil (art dealer and Einar’s childhood friend) and Henrik (artist and Lili’s friend) are not real people.

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Moby Duck

Moby Dick (Trey Stokes, 2010)

Curiously the DVD has a trailer for another version of Moby-Dick, with Danny Glover and … dragons. I want.

In this version we have Captain Ahab (Barry Bostwick) as one of two survivors of an attack by an incredibly huge white whale on a submarine in Soviet waters in 1969. Ahab has stolen, or at least acquired, a nuclear sub and kidnaps the leading whale expert to try and track the behemoth down. He has a tape of the whale he wants her to play to call it into a position where they can kill it.

So the whale goes all bat-shit and attacks tourist boats and a cruise liner until a fight with the USS Essex and a showdown with the Pequod. Ahab rants hilariously, as the other characters exchange looks of disbelief, perhaps at his madness, perhaps at the dialogue. Derek Scott as the whale expert’s assistant manages to steal the film from beneath their noses.

Oh yes, this is bad, but in a way that Jupiter Ascending can only aspire to.

Splash II

In the Heart of the Sea (Ron Howard, 2015)

Moby-Dick doesn’t have the weight of heritage on me that I guess it has on Americans — default answer, got but not read, and I confess I never got much beyond the stuff by the sublibrarian at the start, let alone to “Call me Ismael.”

Phones in the nineteenth century?

Odd.

I gather it’s about a man chasing a whale and it’s responsible for a coffee shop chain; post-Rainbow Warrior and Heathcote Williams you cannot help be feel sorry for the whale.

I mean, he’s not event credited in the cast, for fuck’s sake.

So this is the story behind the story of the hunt for the Dickster — Melville (Ben Wishaw) turns up at the guest house owned by the drunken Thomas (Brendan Gleeson), sole survivor of the ill-fated Essex whaling expeditition, in search of a story. (We really don’t want to know what he did to get hold of the idea for Billy Budd.) The camera wobbles, as if we’re at sea.

Get it?

So then we flash back to Thor and his pregnant wife; he’s going to sign onto a whaling ship, e pectins to be captain, but usurped by someone who is someone’s son. These guys are gonna clash. And behind them is Nantucket, all CGI and stuff, and alongside them are all kinds of prominently-boned actors who can only act in nineteenth-century era movies.

Hi ho — the life of a sailor and rum, buggery and the lash.

Little of all three.

There’s a storm to test them and then the first whale, before they hear tell of a majorly big behemoth, who is minding his own business in the Pacific. Who gets understandably narked when they disturb him.

And then it’s all boo hoo hoo.

Of course, this is all told from the point of view of greenhorn Tom the Cabin Boy, even though he isn’t in every scene.

And lots of CGI.

Indeed, there’s a moment when you forget yourself and wonder why a hobbit and Aragorn have gone to sea.

Of course, Wishaw and Gleeson are almost in a different movie to the rest of the cast. Me, I was rooting for the whale.

Maybe I need to go away and watch Moby Dick.