Monday, October 31, 2011

TinTin is global--

TinTin Movie Open December 21

Unudurti is a Hyderabad-based writer,

When I was a child, my father hit on the ultimate bribe for doing well in exams — a Tintin. Each Tintin in my library is the fruit of some maddening quest for long-forgotten knowledge. I’ve no idea of the cash crops of Angola, but I do know that the main exports of Syldavia are horses and violinists (King Ottokar’s Sceptre).

The Tintin albums were physically impressive — vivid colours, large in size, beautifully printed. In the greyness of pre-liberalisation India, they were a window into worlds unglimpsed. At a time when there was hardly any children’s literature apart from the venerable Amar Chitra Katha, Tintin stood out. For all its undeniable charm, ACK was too much in the past. One wanted to see something alien to one’s experience, something which did not draw on the common cultural pool of images and ideas.

The imagination of all those who have read Tintin is populated by false memories. The shape of clouds above Cointrin Airport, a performance of Bruno the Magician, the terror of Rascar Capac — all these are as much part of childhood memories as any other “true” ones.

Tintin was also the first window, at least a European window, to all kinds of stereotypes, national tics and racial idiosyncrasies. One learnt, for example, that Italians drove fast cars and had very long names (The Calculus Affair ) and Germans were ruthless (the recurring villain was Dr Muller). Though some of the characterisations may be wince-evoking now (for instance, the Africans in The Red Sea Sharks), the child instinctively grasped the strong sympathy for the underdog that pervaded the series.

Now, more than 80 years after he filed his first story, Tintin mania is sweeping the world. The new movie, produced by Peter Jackson, is Steven Spielberg’s directorial debut in animation. Despite its galaxy of top-notch talent, one has to ask if the nature of the project is fundamentally flawed.

Hollywood persists in thinking of comics as frozen films. Spin them a few times in the microwave and, presto, instant movie. But two entirely different cognitive processes are at work here. In the darkened cave of the theatre, you slip into a reverie as the light from truth speeded up to 24 frames a second flickers across your face. It is something approaching a fugue, a dream-state.

The act of reading comics, a marriage of images and words, differs. Comics are a collection of images or panels divided by blank spaces called gutters. Yet, the brain is able to make sense of them seamlessly — it observes the parts but perceives the whole. Influential theorist Scott McCloud terms this phenomenon as “closure”. Just like a supermarket checkout counter reads a barcode, your mind is reading the comic and assembling it inside your head. Or, as McCloud puts it, “Comics panels fracture both Time and Space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments. Closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified Reality.”

Yet, the fact that Tintin (Spielberg first wanted to make a live-action in 1983 with Jack Nicholson as Captain Haddock) still exerts such a hold on the public imagination is a stunning tribute to his creator. The world has changed almost beyond recognition since Herge’s time, but Tintin has escaped into the race memory. This is all the more impressive when one considers its unpromising beginnings. Tintin was created by 21-year-old Georges Remi aka Herge for a youth supplement to the right-wing newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle. The first two in the series —Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo — were a miasma of asinine racial and ideological caricatures.

Tintin, however, changed with Herge’s own rapid artistic and political evolution. His attention to detail was legendary: he had an aeronautical engineer design the Carreidas jet in Flight 714 (which influenced the TV series Lost). In The Calculus Affair , Tintin and Co travel to Borduria which is under the iron rule of Kurvi-Tasch. As the name suggests, the tyrant has a distinctive moustache, and characters are forever swearing “by the whiskers of Kurvi-Tasch”, but Herge’s attention to delirious detail means that even the grills of Bordurian cars are shaped like the moustache. Ominously, it is as if the world itself is remodelling to the will of the ruler.

Herge’s combination of hyper-realistic backgrounds and simple, child-like features of characters creates a peculiar cognitive alchemy that permits absolute reader immersion in the story.

At the heart of Herge’s success was his ligne clair or clear line. It is defined as a drawing style that “gives equal weight and consideration to every line on the page. By forgoing shading with ink, the artist creates a depth of field on the page that brings equal amounts of focus to the background and foreground”. But to Herge it went more than that. It was an approach to the story itself — straight lines meant straight plots. There are no shadows in Herge’s world.