Archive for November, 2011

Tintin: Herge would’ve liked it

Monday, November 28th, 2011

I must confess that I approached The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, with some cynicism. One, is it possible at all to take a series so loved by so many generations into another medium and satisfy the millions of zealots who would come to the halls armed with the finest of fine-tooth combs? (To give an example, as soon as the first trailer was released on the Web, there was an outcry in Britain over why Captain Haddock had been given a Scottish accent in the film). Two, I was chary of the lethal combination of Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson (Spielberg directs and co-produces, Jackson co-produces).

Both men come from that school of action movie-making which believes in pitilessly testing how much destruction, and how many chases and cliffhanging sequences an audience can take before it waves the white flag and staggers away, mind numbed by the relentless sound and fury. But Spielberg’s last—and hopefully, final—Indiana Jones film, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, had proved that big budgets and technology are not enough by themselves to generate a thrilling experience. And some of the Big Action sequences in Peter Jackson’s King Kong went on for so long that they got boring—oh come on, kill that T-Rex, Kong, and move on!

And, now, in Tintin, they have motion-capture animation, and 3D!

I remembered those exquisite half-page panels of Herge’s, depicting a car chase through a busy marketplace, with maybe as many as 50 figures, each reacting to the mayhem all around, drawn in loving detail. You could keep yourself busy for ten minutes or more just studying a panel like that. That immaculate craftsmanship, freezing a gripping and dynamic action sequence in static two-dimensional space, would thrill but never overwhelm. What would the kings of excess, Spielberg and Jackson, do with such scenes, I wondered.

Well, I think Herge would have loved the film.

Motion-capture animation seems the perfect way to put Tintin on screen; every character—from the loyal Nestor to the dastardly Allan—looks just as Herge painted them, except that they are now flesh and blood. The way the film gives us the first glimpse of Tintin’s face is a stroke of sheer genius—a portrait of the boy reporter done by a roadside painter, and it is, of course, Herge’s 2D Tintin, and then the camera moves to show us the 3D Tintin who will carry us through the rest of the movie. It’s introduction as tribute, and a seamless move from one medium to another.

The film is peppered with exact replications of Herge’s panels—like that of an iconic full-page panel from The Crab with the Golden Claws of Tintin and Haddock struggling in the Sahara desert with Snowy carrying a bone from the skeleton of a massive animal, or Tintin, holding on to a capsized boat in the middle of the ocean, firing at a villain’s aircraft.

And the big action sequences? Take the biggest one, in a crowded Arab town (just the sort of pandemonium that Herge and Tintin lovers reveled in), involving a motorcycle, its sidecar, a tank, a hawk, busy marketplaces and lots of pedestrians, and a dam burst—it’s over the top at exactly the Herge level. The battle at sea between Sir Francis Haddock’s Unicorn and Red Rackham’s pirate ship is ferocious and awesome without ever losing a wide-eyed child-wonder aura (They must have put Peter Jackson on tranquilisers when they edited those sequences). Only one complaint: Herge would never have shown Haddock’s disarmed crewmen being slaughtered by the pirates (I suppose the tranquilisers wore off for a bit).

Throughout its 109 minutes, the film exudes the makers’ respect for the original material, and consequent restraint—this is Tintin, not Transformers or Terminator. Almost incredibly for a Spielberg/ Jackson film, the last 10 minutes are quiet (and faithful to the original story): there are no explosions, no race against time, no cheap tricks like unexpected shocks to sneeringly jar the audience’s steadily calming mind. At the end, one is left with a sense that this is the first step of a long project taken up by the faithful.

The only area where the filmmakers diverge distinctly from Herge is in making Snowy much smarter than he is in the comics. And I think it’s absolutely great that this one area of disagreement with Herge will make the fans happier. That, I think, is a triumph.

A bully in the China shop?

Monday, November 21st, 2011

18 November 2011

So Barack Obama has decided to talk tough about China. “Enough’s enough,” he said at a news conference of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit at Honolulu on Sunday. “We’re going to continue to be firm that China operate by the same rules as everyone else. We don’t want them taking advantage of the US.” He said that China, which often presents itself as a developing country, is now “grown up” and should act that way in global economic affairs. It should stop “gaming” the international system and create a level playing field for the US and other foreign businesses. The deliberately undervalued yuan, he asserted, gives Chinese products a 20-25% price advantage in global markets.

That’s a long way from the low courteous bow Obama had greeted Chinese President Hu Jintao with when they met for the first time, nearly three years ago.

Of course, the Chinese were having none of this. An official said that China was hardly going to play any game by rules that were devised without consulting it. And the Chinese state media accused Obama of “scapegoating” Beijing for his country’s economic woes to attract votes, so he could have a second term as president. “Squeezing China, especially on the yuan, is an old trick in the run-up to the US presidential election,” said an editorial. “The US intends to solve economic problems by exerting political pressure on China. Such a mission is hollow and ultimately doomed to failure,” it harrumphed. The comments stuck to the issue of the yuan—the resulting cheap exports took the US trade deficit with China to more than $270 billion in 2010—and were obviously silent on other matters such as intellectual copyright and human rights that have exercised the West for years now, and which secretary of state Hillary Clinton—it’s a ritual now, with no expectation of any impact or progress—spoke about last fortnight.

But how serious was Obama when he bared his fangs? How much of it was just American politics, as the Chinese media dubbed it? Obama faces re-election in November next year, and it’s hardly going to be a cakewalk—the economy still teeters, and the contest between the Republicans running for the presidential nomination seems to be more about what a sissy Obama is than about anything else. And what Obama said to US Inc just a day before his China snarl doesn’t help his tough-guy case much.

According to The New York Times, in a meeting with US CEOs, Obama encouraged them to invest in China, telling them that “we should be rooting for China to grow”. The logic: the millions of Chinese to whom US companies had outsourced their work “are potential customers for us in the future”. The CEOs, including those of Google, Johnson and Johnson and Eli Lily, later met Hu Jintao, who told them that China’s goal was to move up the economic food chain “from ‘Made in China’ to ‘Created by China’”.

In his public statements, Hu Jintao spoke the language that Chinese statesmen are so skilful at, with allegory hinting at ancient wisdom bathed in confounding confucianism. “We especially need the world to cross the river in the same boat, and respond hand-in-hand with a spirit of cooperation and mutual benefit,” he said. Beat that, Obama, for placebo semantics.

Anyway, the US can do little to pressure China (other than growl belligerently). Beijing is America’s biggest foreign creditor and third largest export market. The US can hardly resort to punitive sanctions, because it is in no position to handle a Chinese retaliation—and the trouble is, the Americans can’t even predict how those inscrutable and superiority-complexed people would retaliate. If the US uses bodies like the World Trade Organization to attack what it—and most of the world—sees as unfair trading practices, such as Chinese government subsidies to state-owned enterprises, it’ll be a tedious long haul.

In the meantime, China points out that its current account surplus fell 43.5% from a year earlier to $57.8 billion in the last quarter. As a percentage of gross domestic product, the surplus in the last three quarters fell to 3% from 5.1% in the same period in 2010. So, the Chinese are asking, why are you griping about the yuan—isn’t it basically at fair value? In fact, at the G-20 summit last November, the US argued strongly for 4% as a benchmark to judge whether countries’ currencies were undervalued. No agreement was reached on this (a principal reason being China’s vociferous opposition), but today China can throw its 3% figure back at the US’ face and preen.

Of course, the surplus will go well beyond 4% once the global economy recovers, but for now, it’s China that is smiling. Even as it sucked in $95 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) in the first 10 months of this year, up 15.9% from the same period last year—at this rate, 2011 will break earlier records for FDI inflows.

While there’s just a year left before Obama goes for re-election to an electorate that’s bruised and confused, he has to be John Wayne, but with six-shooters that are unloaded.