Sunday, April 29, 2012

Tintin et Moi (Angel Films, Finlands Svenska Television, 2003; U.S. release: PBS, 2005)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I suggested we meet at the library for the movie, Tintin et Moi, an intriguing documentary from Denmark, written and directed by Anders Østergaard, dealing with the Belgian cartoonist Hergé (true name: Georges Remy — a name he reserved hoping for eventual success as a modern painter, which never came because his artwork was pleasant and well crafted but not strikingly original and the gallery owner he shopped it to said, in essence, “Don’t give up your day job”) and his famous creation Tintin, a boy reporter (originally based on Remy/Hergé’s own career as a reporter for his high-school student paper) who got involved in adventures all over the world. Tintin was a slightly built young man with a shock of blond hair that stuck straight up from his scalp, much like the hair of a baby, and Hergé kept his age deliberately ambiguous (he did these cartoons from the 1930’s to the 1970’s and the appearance of the human characters didn’t change even though the settings were updated to remain contemporary). Hergé himself was tall, distinguished-looking and surprisingly handsome (he reminded me of the French actor Yves Montand), but the documentary’s main theme was how Tintin reflected not only his creator’s personality but also the political and social ferment of the time, particularly given that he not only continued to work during the Nazi occupation of Belgium but even published for a Nazi paper, Le Soir, after the Roman Catholic paper he’d published for previously shut down (somewhat surprisingly because it had been pretty nationalistic and anti-Semitic itself, reflecting the overall politics of the Roman Catholic church at the time).

The bulk of the film is based on tape-recorded audio interviews Hergé gave to French actor/writer/director Numa Sadoul in 1971 to 1973 and the heavily edited “autobiography” published based on the tapes — though at the end of the film it was revealed that Hergé went over the transcripts no fewer than four times, making editorial changes, so the published version is materially different from the actual tapes. Much of the film’s soundtrack consists of the tapes — in some cases a heavily stylized image of Hergé in cartoonish black-and-white sketch lines is seen with his lips animated to move in synch with what the real Hergé is saying on the soundtrack — as well as a few other talking heads and some of the original Tintin panels digitally altered to create a three-dimensional effect without actually changing their appearance as Hergé and his staff of assistants (eventually) drew them originally. The program was made for European TV and is scheduled to be shown on the PBS P.O.V. series in July (at least I hope it gets shown locally; some really great PBS shows being offered nationally this week are not being shown at all on the local station, including an American Experience on George Gershwin and “The Great Pink Scare,” about the careers of three East Coast professors in 1960 which were destroyed when they were found to have male nude magazines in their possession, as well as a Frontline on the radical Right’s success in restricting a woman’s right to abortion by driving so many clinics out of business nationwide), and as usual with P.O.V. screenings in the library it was introduced, and there was a discussion afterwards led, by a professor — in this case Phillip Gay, Ph.D., head of the San Diego State University sociology department and a particular expert in the sociology of mass culture.

The documentary was probably less meaningful to me because I wasn’t a big fan of the Tintin comics when I was growing up (one of his adventures was serialized in the Children’s Digest magazine and I recalled seeing it there, though the piece stretched out so interminably in serial form that I wasn’t at all upset to see it go when my subscription ran out and my mom didn’t renew it), whereas some of the people there were big fans and remembered getting each new adventure when it came out. One man in the audience was a retired professor who got into some intellectual arguments with Dr. Gay on his interpretations of Hergé’s messages — and also said he was happy that for the first time the Tintin books are about to be published in English translations that are actually faithful representations of Hergé’s original French rather than the rewritten ones his original editors insisted on. The most interesting person in the audience was a man with a thick foreign accent, a youngish person with a bald head (probably shaved), dressed in a yellow shirt and black denim pants, who got Dr. Gay and a lot of other people in the audience upset when he suggested that there was a homosexual subtext in the Tintin books in general and his relationship with the gruff sea captain who figured prominently in the later adventures (and who, according to Østergaard, represented Hergé’s alter ego in the later years whereas Tintin was his alter ego in the early days) — indeed, he got the same indignant reactions that people do when they point to the Queer subtexts in the Laurel and Hardy movies or the Batman and Robin comics.

The film itself was fascinating — it makes me want to go back and read the Tintin books at long last (especially in the new editions if they indeed emerge) — and it even built up to a surprisingly Capra-ish ending in which a long-lost friend of Hergé’s, a Chinese artist who helped him with an early Tintin book describing the hero’s visit to China (including drawing in all the characters in Chinese street signs to ensure that they would not only be actual Chinese words but would be appropriate to the context of the drawings), reunites with him after 42 years. I noticed that the publicity for the showing indicated that Hergé’s intent for the character of Tintin was to create someone “without fear or flaws,” which didn’t sound like much until I heard the words in French on the soundtrack: “sans peur et sans reproche,” which was the code of the medieval knights (indicating at least to his Francophone audience that Hergé wanted us to see Tintin as a modern-day knight) — and that apropos of whether there’s a subliminal Gay theme or not (Gay was much more interested in discussing the politics of the series, and in particular in condemning Hergé for having gone along with the occupation, worked for a Nazi paper and not resisted) it’s arguable that the reason Hergé never let Tintin grow up was he wanted to avoid having to depict him as having any sort of sex life, straight or otherwise. — 6/5/06