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Locarno Blog. The Graphic Novel and Beyond

Locarno Film Festival’s Artistic Director writes on exploring the cinematic universe of the graphic novel from a different perspective.
The Notebook is the North American home for Locarno Film Festival Artistic Director Carlo Chatrian's blog. Chatrian has been writing thoughtful blog entries in Italian on Locarno's website since he took over as Director in late 2012, and now you can find the English translations here on the Notebook as they're published. The Locarno Film Festival will be taking place August 3 - 13. 

Blutch's “Pour en finir aver le cinéma”
Recent years have witnessed an invasion of cinema screens by the graphic novel and its hyper-realist style. After a few half-hearted false starts, the world of comic book superheroes – backed up by the firepower of large-scale distribution and the burgeoning potential of digital – has also migrated successfully into theaters, completing what now seems a perfectly natural process. The first comics took their inspiration from the silver screen and its impact on the collective imagination and now, when the cinema finds itself in need of fresh blood, it seems only right that its younger brother should be a donor. Whether you see it as just a little emergency care or a massive, highly organized transplant, one thing is for sure: film programming has been deeply affected by the phenomenon, which, with its easily recognizable universe, reaches out and touches even viewers less susceptible to its language.
One possible conclusion is that the Marvel Universe simply provided a suitable arena for the digital revolution. Removing the subtleties and weaknesses that make men and women different from superheroes, 21st century cinema seems to have appropriated the kinetic tension that vibrates through the comic strip, in which movement is crystallized in graphic lines and recurring expressions. The kind of cinema that results from this idea is one with a pre-formatted language, based on a fixed set of solutions. The familiarity of its characters is its principal gambit – it’s no surprise that its narratives require an infinite multiplication of new figures and an infinite series of returns. It is not a cinema of special effects but of special semantic structures that repeat themselves. Apart from a few happy narrative tricks, superhero films have very little to say in cinematographic terms but are extremely effective in aesthetic terms, and therefore in their iconographical impact. Needless to say, the complete picture is rather more complex than that. There are instances in which the auteur brand is contaminated with the strong imprint that comes with the comic model, with fascinating results (for instance the early Batman movies or Sam Raimi’s work on Spider-Man). Of interest to us here, however, is the overall vision and force of impact of the phenomenon.
With the idea in mind that part of the mission of a festival like Locarno is to provide a counterpoint to the dominant trends, we decided to explore the universe of the graphic novel from a different perspective. Setting aside the phenomenon of migration to the big screen, we have tried to dig down to the roots of the rapport between two media of expression that have always been in conversation. The image and the word vibrate jointly in the cinema, making it almost impossible to analyze them separately. The comic, on the other hand, offers the possibility of comparing images and words without confusing them. Any graphic novel reader knows that the initial reading is text-based, while the second ranges across the panels in search of the messages hidden away among the colors and shapes that make up the images. There are panels with words only, and others that are conceived as exclusively pictorial.
The dual pathway followed by Blutch and Mattotti moves toward a rediscovery of the language of the graphic novel, but scoured free of any serial patina, so as to allow free expression to its primary, original components. Although both have created memorable characters – I’m thinking of Spartaco for Mattotti and Blotch for Blutch – the two artists do not become confused with their creations but instead enter with them into a dialogue of endlessly fascinating forms. Distance is exactly the question they raise (the ‘right’ distance of the documentary filmmaker), and each time they find a different solution. Creating a comic means conceiving a world that is expressed through the character. Both authors strain to see the inner world as a canvas on which to draw shapes and the relations between things and people.
As authors Blutch and Mattotti are hard to categorize, both animated by a unique, visionary style. As artists they have contributed to the discourse that has been barely touched on here, pushing it in directions as enticing as they are remote. The presence of the two artists, both of whom have long been fascinated by cinema, but producing work that is difficult to adapt for the big screen, has been of great help in our task. Which, let me say once again, is not that of carrying out translations from one language to another, but that of reading cinema under a different light. Creating a graphic novel, when done organically, involves resolving issues very much like those faced by a filmmaker: how to give form to a world? What position should be taken in that context? What role should be assigned to the viewer?...
Talking about the graphic novel as a model for a film as yet unmade is one way of accentuating the fact that even the most straightforwardly realistic practice requires a preliminary effort of mise en scène. A landscape, a face, a scene always exist as a function of the subjective gaze that decides to represent them (or not). Pick up any work by Blutch and Mattotti and the effect – at least on such as myself, after months of wandering through random viewings – is the salutary, powerful return to center stage of fundamental aspects such as the off camera or ellipsis – not to mention the primordial role played by color. These are questions that cinema often takes for granted, following the so-called flow of the real – which is really just the way the market research people want us to see things. In such a context, the visionary, radical power of comics and the graphic novel is truly precious.
I leave it to another time and place to give a more precise critical examination of our two guest authors. For now I would just like to conclude by noting that the trait which drew us to their work and led us to invite them together – without any intention of reducing them to a single entity – was their skill at varying tone and register, style and language. Which is one way of restating that, as with the kind of cinema we admire, there is never just one kind of comic, because comics, like films, are never the same. Because comics, with Blutch and Mattotti, can explore the most unexpected corners: sometimes they peek out from the twists and turns of reality, or else take it upon themselves to settle accounts with the cinema; sometimes they challenge the most routine kind of adaptation, or else tell their story in the first person like the most modern character-voiced film narrative. The fourth edition of L’immagine e la parola pays tribute to that variety – and the freedom it brings.

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