Monday, 31 October 2011

The Trouble With Tintin

I'm a blogger, it's my opinion!
Much to the dismay of the few with whom I have discussed it, my experience of Steven Spielberg's new film The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn was not a happy one. The short version is that I got bored and left early. Given that many are talking about this film as the Indiana Jones outing that the Crystal Skull should have been, this seems difficult to imagine. Was the story flat or poorly told? No, not that I noticed - there was barely any pause for breath with episodes blending into one another logically and with no dip in pacing. I might add that I don't know the comics, their stories or the spin-off animations, so I'm not prejudiced against the alleged abuse of the source material. That's not an issue.

No, I think my problems start and end in animated characters. That's any animated characters, not just in this film. Firstly, this is to do with the motion - sorry - performance-capture process in which the actual performance of an actor is recorded and rendered as a digital image. It's a process of diminishing returns, neither one thing nor the other. It looks as if the performance is caught behind some sort of membrane - neither part of the the animated world and certainly not set free within it.

Secondly - and consequently - it's to do with the nature of animation itself. Tintin is not a photographic record of people acting out the relationships of characters but a series of drawings. As Hergé's contemporary compatriot, the surrealist painter René Magritte might have said, Ceci n'est pas un Tintin. Magritte's famous highlighting of 'the treachery of images' can be an important guide for those of us who simply cannot invest in Tintin. Not only are we not looking at Tintin but a picture of him, it's actually worse - Magritte based his pipe on a pipe but Tintin is himself only based on a picture and does not relate to an actual person.

Naturally one argues, and with some force, that this is immaterial to telling a story. Well the story is competently told. It's what happens to the characters within the story, providing the dramatic content that is insurmountably challenging.

The performance capture that (co-director) Peter Jackson made successful with Andy Serkis (Haddock) in other projects stands apart for two reasons: Serkis played an animal in The Lord Of The Rings and King Kong; and that animal was placed in a realist environment populated by people. Furthermore, in James Cameron's Avatar, not only is the film co-populated by digital images and people, but part of the function of the story is to show the principal characters being rendered in their synthetic form.

In all these examples, extending one's empathy to various characters is given context. We know Gollum and the ape have a proportion of humanity given the way they interact with the actual humans also on screen; Cameron turns the metaphor into a demonstrable process.

In Tintin, everything from the characters to the environment is a synthetic reproduction of reality. The reality anchor, if you like, has been brought aboard this Unicorn. We are totally at sea - the human-to-synthetic metaphor has no basis from which to operate.

One cannot underestimate the effect that this has. It goes beyond the incredibility of the characters' motion in their landscape, let alone bouncing between driving cars or being hit on the head with a cosh. Unwittingly a metaphor for trying to get a grasp on the gravitational centre of the film's realism is provided by the way the 'camera' itself flies free of the earth. The framing and angle of the image is constantly on the move in Tintin as if generating the action rather than observing it.

This is just as apparent in the title sequence of the film. Reprising a similar sort of stylised animation to his earlier Catch Me If You Can (so here a meta-animation), John Williams also provides tension-coiled, jazz inflected music (1960s thriller harpsichord and Le Hot Club-style central European jazz). However, though this starts off as a passacaglia, i.e. based on a long riff in the bass, this riff is abandoned all too soon as the music takes flight - in exactly the same way that the titles sequence itself and subsequent film abandon its grounding.

By now many will have heard the marvellous story of animator James Curran who constructed his own title sequence, a premature fan letter to Tintin. On seeing the animation, Spielberg promptly hired Curran for his next project. One can see why - unlike the title design for the film proper, Curran's animation is based around a single unmoving trope, that of the circle (or globe). It's this central immutability that grounds the sequence and makes it interesting:



Perhaps the perpetual motion of the image in Spielberg's film is necessitated (aesthetically) by the 3D process. I found nothing intrinsically interesting about the 3D. Rather like the performance-capture process we are left in a mutually detracting hinterland.

Not by any means without wit, Spielberg has used the source material to create some sort of ontological relief for his production. The cariacature artist in the first scene draws a picture of Tintin which is a straight reproduction of Hergé's art. There's also a reproduction of the cover of the book from which this story is taken in the title sequence. Yet just as Hergé never revealed the full name of his eponymous hero, so we are never given access to the real character in this animation. Tintin remains empathetically isolated, a two-dimensional character, which is of course deeply ironic for a film constructed for 3D presentation.

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