lördag 29 januari 2011

Jules Feiffer: Passionella and Other Stories

I don't see Jules Feiffer revered all over the world, which is a shame, because he ought to be. His brand of satire was always deeper than just clobbering ideas and people he thought wrong; his was a wry view with the full realization that people are still going to be people, with their own insecurities and failures, so you can't expect perfection. It has been said that you just can't discuss thing with people who insist on being 100% something, and Feiffer seems to have taken that insight to heart.

This collection contains four stories.

1. First, Passionella. She is in reality the somewhat plain chimney sweep Ella, who sits in front of her TV set and dreams about being a beautiful, glamorous movie star – and who is granted that wish by her friendly neighborhood fairy godmother, who resides in Ella's TV set but unfortunately only has power between the Mickey Mouse Show and the Late Late Show (the story is from before our 24-hours-of-crap-on-TV era), so during the rest of the day, Passionella reverts back to Ella. Thus, her movies are shot between those hours, and at 3 A.M., she disappears in her sports car.

Passionella is a big hit with the movie studios and audiences, but she feels empty. She wants more than empty glamour, she wants love, and she decides to learn to act and to... make a movie about a humble chimney sweep.

"Oh", say the somewhat worried studio head, but she's Passionella, so she gets her way. The very best blacklisted screenwriters are secretly flown in from England to write the movie, and for turgid realism, it is even shot in the Bronx. Passionella finds fulfillment in her art, and she also finds love, but she forgets about the conditions of her condition, so to speak...

I won't spoil the twist at the ending of this story, but it's brilliant and funny and charming, and story is amusing and ironic all the way there. As satire goes, it's far from the seething anger of Ted Rall's satire and closer to the more gentle, somewhat absurdly comical pen of Ruben Bolling. Or, as Feiffer himself said about "Munro" (more about which in a second):
"I came up with the story of Munro because I understood that if you're really in a rage and really want to attack someone in cartoon form, the least effective way is to jump up and down and scream and yell and to be polemical — something a lot of cartoonists have never learned. The best way is to go in the other direction and feign innocence, and bring the reader along in a quiet way. And so Munro tells this savage story but tells it entertainingly and sweetly and builds it up and gets the reader stressed, and as you read it, and particularly when you see the film, you feel your stomach knot up because of the obvious abuse and ignorance of authority. And people connected to their own situations with authority in or out of the Army when no one listens, no one believes you. They know, you don't, and they may even start to convince you, as they do Munro, that they're right and you're wrong."

2. Which brings us to Munro. Munro is a little boy of four year's age who gets drafted into the army. He tires to convince the people in power that he's only four, but they can't believe the army would draft a little boy of four, so they simply don't believe him when he tries to tell them how old he is. That's just about the whole story, and Feiffer still manages to make it both powerful and touching (but go check out the film at the link above – writer Feiffer and director Gene Deitch managed to translate the story into a short film without losing anything in the process, which in itself was worth an Oscar.

This is a bloody masterpiece. It is so good that it dominates the book in a way that relegates even a very good story like "Passionella" to the second-string status. Anybody who's tried to convince a rigid organization and its gate-keepers of something will know exactly what this story is saying, and it does it in such a deceptively simple and sweet way that it's a crime against mankind – well, at least against satire – that it isn't more widely spread. If Swedish television, for example, had any sense at all, it would show this every year like it does with a few other classics. If they feel they don't have space to spare in their schedule, they can give me a call and I'll give them quite a few suggestions on what they could throw out to make room for "Munro" and some other quality stuff...

3 & 4. Rounding out the book are two decent stories. The first is a psychological study of George, who lives a pretty happy if somewhat dull life on the moon until he realizes that mankind is going to come there in not-too-long, which elicits all sorts of interesting psychological reactions in him. It's an intelligent piece, well worth reading, but it lacks the deceptive simplicity and powerful punch of "Munro". The second is a darkly satirical piece on the idiocy of the nuclear arms race, but it has lost a bit of its urgency since it was written in the late fifties and is probably the weakest piece in the book.

And even the weakest piece in the book is well worth reading, so I'll simply round this off with a warm recommendation of Jules Feiffer's stuff – including his stint as a writer for Will Eisner's "The Spirit" – and more specifically, "Passionella and Other Stories".

Because it's bloody great.

Note: This is not a review of the Fantagraphics collection but of an older edition. The Fantagraphics edition doesn't contain "Munro", but has some other goodies instead (like the world's greatest athlete who gets called unpatriotic for not wanting to go to the Olympics and beat the Russians, since he finds competitions boring) and is still very much worth your time and money.

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