Tuesday, November 20, 2012

“We Interrupt This Commercial To Bring You Your Regularly Scheduled Program”

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on November 20, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Corn flakes, sliced peaches, and Emilio Estevez in Repo Man

Reading Catharine Charlesworth’s recent review of Wreck-It Ralph on Critics at Large got me thinking about the remarkable way that brands and commercial products have so effectively permeated our lives – becoming so much a part of who we are, and the stories we tell about ourselves. For some, this may be a kind of tragedy, but I don’t really think it is. The degree to which popular culture and personal identity has become bound up in particular brands and products isn’t in itself something to mourn or something to embrace with any enthusiasm, but it is a reflection of our particular moment of modernity. Apple versus PC, Coke versus Pepsi, iPhone versus Android – these choices genuinely matter to many people, and running from it in the popular representations of our reality only serves to make those representations less, well, representative.

Catharine notes, rightly I think, that the integration of certain real video games into Wreck-It Ralph seems to genuinely add to the universe it portrays, and even gives real entertainment value to the viewers, who (like anyone) are always delighted to see themselves, and their interests, reflected back to them in the movies and television shows they watch. Of course, that isn’t the only reason why we are seeing more and more product placement (what is often more politely now called “brand integration”) in our TV shows and movies, but nonetheless it is worth pointing out that there are still better and worse ways of going about it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Rabbi’s Cat: Conjuring Joann Sfar’s Imagined Memories of Algeria

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on November 6, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

A scene from The Rabbi's Cat

With over a hundred separate titles since he first began publishing nearly 20 years ago, Joann Sfar is one of France’s most prolific graphic novelists. His topics range from the historical to the fantastic, but his most compelling comics remain those that draw on his Jewish heritage, and his mixed Sephardic and Ashkenazic background. Many of those titles have been translated into English: all 5 volumes of The Rabbi’s Cat, as well as Klezmer: Tales of the Wild East (the first of a three-part series), and Vampire Loves. A recent documentary currently making the festival circuit, Joann Sfar Draws from Memory, offers a glimpse into the mind and personality of a remarkable artist, and an extremely charismatic individual. Still most famous for his comics, Sfar has more recently turned to filmmaking. In 2010, he wrote and directed a uniquely imagined biopic of Serge Gainsbourg, Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, which mixes fact and fantasy to paint a complex and compelling portrait of one of the most controversial figures of French popular music. Although the movie was not an adaptation of a graphic novel, its production coincided with the publication of Sfar’s sprawling 450-page comic homage to the singer/songwriter, and Sfar’s surrealist-inspired visual eye is evident in almost every frame of the film. In 2011, The Rabbi’s Cat (Le chat du rabbin), Sfar’s film adaptation of his extremely popular series (published in France from 2002-2006, and currently translated into eight languages), was released. It was his second feature film, and it marked the first time he’d attempted to directly translate one of his illustrated narratives onto the big screen.

Despite premiering at Cannes in 2011, and winning the César (France’s equivalent of the Oscars) for Best Animated Film back in February, The Rabbi’s Cat simply hasn’t yet received the distribution it deserves in the English-speaking world. An accident, perhaps, of it coming on the scene in the same year as another much better publicized 3-D animated film also set in colonial Africa and based on a French-language comic, also with preternaturally intelligent animals in tow: Tintin, with the full might of Hollywood and Steven Spielberg behind it, certainly guaranteed that it would get most of our attention in 2011, but The Rabbi’s Cat is as different from Tintin, as, well, cats are to dogs.