Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Friday, December 30, 2011


I am a longtime Tintin afficionado—since at least the age of 4. So it was with some slight anxiety that I sat with my daughter waiting to watch Spielberg and Jackson's effort today. Especially since the British press had dissed it so roundly. I assumed, as did several others, that this was just typical anti-American (and anti-Spielberg) sour grapes.

So it turned out to be. Tintin is great fun. The reason it works is because it isn't a slavish imitation of the books—the very reason why the British reviewers didn't like it. Sadly, this kind of hauteur becomes compulsory after a few repetitions in the UK, where about five fairly predictable opinions on any topic are rigidly enforced by the voraciously consumed daily papers. When I go to the UK I inevitably get caught up in the game of jumping to one of these prefabricated conclusions as quickly as possible. Sometimes I wonder whether all the news and current affairs shows over there should be retitled Jumping to Conclusions with [Name of Presenter], just for clarity's sake. “And now, the news, after which it's time for Jumping to Conclusions with Jeremy Paxman.”

It's better than a slavish imitation: it's a metaphor, a translation (in Harman's terms), almost a parody (a very well meaning one) of the original. Thus it reveals something of the original object that slavish mimesis could never do. (Did you like how I did that?!)

As if to make clear that this is not the cartoon, a stylized silhouetted Tintin weaves in and out of the credits, to be replaced by the three-dimensional one as he gets his picture painted in a market. The painting is an Hergé cartoon. The “real” Tintin is off the hook. 

This version evoked the disturbing intensity one felt as a child at the almost-realistic drawings of, say, a drunk Captain Haddock setting fire to his row boat on the high seas with Tintin and Snowy aboard. Tintin and Haddock were both palpably people, though not quite human and not quite flesh and blood, as were the Thompson and Thomson, who bounced off lampposts like rubber (as cartoons do) but with a wince-inducing thud (like cartoons don't).

Nonhumans are radiantly real. The fire burns, the bullets and wallets and paper and tires do their bulletty, walletish,  papery and tire-ing business, the ocean is very wet, the cranes are horribly violent. Then there are the reflections. Realistic ones, juxtaposed with mannerist moments in which characters are reflected in drops of water are used to flow from one mise en scene to another.

The way the movie pushed an edge between realism and something more expressionist was very pleasing, a little bit like bad acid. The original Tintin could be quite nightmarish like that. In this version, you saw a person, then you looked again, and saw the too-much-protruding nose, and realized he was a cartoon—then you saw his teeth, and wondered again whether he might actually be real. And so on.

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