Introduction by Alex Dueben
French cartoonist Blutch is well known in Europe. He’s published more than a dozen books since his debut in 1988 and is widely considered one of the most important and influential creators of his generation because of books like “Mitchum,” “Peplum” and “Le Petit Christian.” In 2009, he was awarded the Grand Prix de la ville d’Angouleme at the Angouleme International Comics Festival. For American audiences, Picturebox has just released the first full length book of Blutch’s to be published in English, “So Long, Silver Screen.” It’s an incredible book, but difficult to define — part essay, part fever dream of the movies, the book invokes Paul Newman, Burt Lancaster, Tarzan and others. It’s a structure and approach that’s likely more familiar to prose readers than comic readers, but even for those who don’t know every name or film referenced, it’s an incredibly rewarding experience. “So Long Silver Screen” is primarily about how people relate to the movies, to images and how they define our lives and dreams.
American cartoonist and educator Matt Madden spoke with Blutch about the book and his work, discussing perspectives on the United States, Orson Welles and Blutch’s movie recommendations. [Note from Matt Madden: “What follows is not a translation, more of an paraphrased recap of our conversation.”]
Matt Madden: When was the last time you were in the U.S.?
Blutch: 1997. I was supposed to come over on September 12, 2001 but, uh, that was cancelled!
Is the U.S. important as a historical place for you, or is it more an imaginary territory as it is for [Argentinian cartoonists Jose] Muñoz and [Carlos] Sampayo? (Who’ve done tons of “Alack Sinner” stories set in Manhattan even though they’ve never been there, nor do they have any interest in going.)
The U.S. exists in the imagination for me. I consider what I do to be a kind of literature as opposed to journalism. I make no pretense of talking about the real U.S. or any other place I might write about. In literature, people and places are charged with meaning, they represent something in the imagination — that’s what I’m interested in. And the U.S. is closely associated with the cinema, especially to Europeans. Film is the most efficient way to spread your ideology around the world. And the Russians may have made the most innovations in film grammar, but it’s the Americans who invented “sex appeal” [said in English]. It’s a secret weapon! [Laughs] It’s seduction: they created seductive images that made viewers — especially Europeans like me — identify with the stars and want to be like them. And the Russians never got that.
“So Long, Silver Screen” is a tough read, as it doesn’t really offer the reader a clear way to read it. Is the reader a concern of yours, or do you just pursue your images and ideas, leaving it to the reader to make of it what he or she will?
No, no, I definitely care about my readers. I want to communicate with people, that’s why I do this. It’s not just to pursue my obsessions. I’m writing for the “readers of tomorrow,” you know what I mean? I hope people can read this book and get something out of it fifty years from now.
Do you have some advice about how to approach reading “So Long Silver Screen?”
Well, first of all, don’t read it with one eye on Google, you know? Don’t try to look up the references very third panel, that’s not the point. Just immerse yourself in it, feel it. Don’t try to understand it because there’s no single message or meaning to get out of it. It’s not a film encyclopedia and it’s not a graphic novel. I think of it as an essay about film.
Yeah, I see it as a sort of poetic essay, is that fair?
Yes, maybe, though I’m reluctant to take on that word, “poetry.”
Did you do this book as a stand-alone project or did you serialize these stories somewhere?
Well, one story appeared in the magazine “Pilote,” but I completely redrew it for the book. And I incorporated a few pages I’d drawn previously — you know, I resisted doing this book, but I kept coming back around to it. Film is a facet of everything I’ve done. In the end the pull was too strong so I threw myself in. That’s why I chose such a resentful title [Note: the English title nicely paraphrases this irony, but the French title is quite dismissive — “Pour en finir avec le cinema” roughly translates as “To put an end to cinema”]. It’s a bit of a provocation, too: film has such a big influence, so much power and money are involved.
Film has been part of your comics as long as I’ve been reading your work. It’s even in the title of your anthology series, “Mitchum.” There’s an amazing fever dream about a Robert Mitchum-monster in an early issue that seems to me like a preface to this book.
Yeah, sure, could be.
You also did “Peplum,” based on “Satyricon.” I’m sure you know Fellini’s film, yet it’s strangely absent from that book.
I adore “Fellini Satyricon” and I’ve watched it a bunch of times, but I made a decision not to look at it while I was working on “Peplum.” In fact, I had Orson Welles on my mind instead.
Orson Welles? How so?
I was especially looking at his low-budget Shakespearean films — “Othello,” “The Chimes at Midnight” — that he made with little money or resources. I love how economical he is in those films, those minimal sets, that whole esthetic was really what I was after. I didn’t want a lavish epic. I wanted something simple.
Of course, that makes complete sense: the sparseness of the drawing in that book — I’m going to have to go back and re-read it now from a Welles-ian perspective.
Yeah, I really wanted it to feel like a B-movie.
The references in your book are to actors from several generations back. Even film buffs our age don’t necessarily know the work of the actors and directors you explore in this book. Do you worry about whether it might seem irrelevant to a young, American, non-film-buff audience?
Not at all. It’s not about the individual actors, it’s about their work. In the chapters on Burt Lancaster and Michel Piccoli, I avoided biographical anecdotes and concentrated on their work and what it means to me. You don’t need to know who they are to appreciate it.
The book gives a sense that we’re past some golden age that’s never coming back —
Did I say that?!
Well yeah, I think it’s strongly implied by the Blutch stand-in character when he laments the death of Paul Newman and complains that no one thinks about William Holden or Robert Ryan anymore. Do you feel that way? Are there no young actors your excited about?
Look, this book isn’t arguing that things were better in the past. That’s not true, anyway. And I don’t believe there is a “golden age” or any “age” at all. There’s just the “age of humanity.” I’m just a man of a certain age and these are the films that affected me. I’m a 20th century guy, Matt, that’s all. So when Paul Newman dies, it’s part of my youth that dies.
Are there some younger actors out there today that you think have the kind of star quality you talk about in your book?
Sure there are lots of good actors these days, especially in television. Off the top of my head, I like Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman. On TV, I love Bryan Cranston on “Breaking Bad.”
One last request: would you like to recommend a few films, American or not, that readers might want to watch before or after reading your book? For example, what’s a Burt Lancaster film that you would recommend?
Oh there’s a late Visconti film I’d like to see again, with Lancaster in it, called “Conversation Piece,” from 1977. I think it’s been reissued recently.
Your chapter on Luchino Visconti is one of the most far out in the whole book. I don’t know much about Visconti, so that’s one I just read for the drawing and compositions, which are beautiful and mysterious.
I was just following my inspiration, you know, it’s a reverie. Drawing is a way of thinking, you see, and I didn’t want to just illustrate a life, I was trying to go beyond mere illustration. I find straight narratives of peoples’ lives told in pictures really tedious, you know? We need more danger! [Chuckles] “Excitement!” [in English]
Okay, some final film recommendations.
I love Robert Duvall. I’d recommend a lesser-known film of his called “The Outfit,” directed by John Flynn. Another great American film is Robert Altman’s “California Split.”
What about a European film? What would you recommend of Michel Piccoli’s?
Definitely “Mado,” directed by Claude Sautet.