North Adams Transcript
Acme Novelty Library 20:
Lint by Chris Ware
(Drawn and Quarterly)
Even after the graphic novel explosion that has seen intellectually and creatively rich comics released by major publishers and embraced by lofty publications like The New Yorker, few creators have come close to surpassing one of the pioneers in exploring the art of the form and using it to tell a story beyond any narrative.
Creator Chris Ware has blazed a trail by making books that are entirely his own unmatched vision. With "Acme Novelty Library 20: Lint," he reveals the level to which comics compete with film and may actually be capable of filling in for the venerable old European art film styles that are now part of a bygone era.
Part of his continuing Rusty Brown narrative, "Lint" doesn’t so much chronicle the life of Jordan -- or Jason, as he prefers -- Lint, as it does let it happen in front of the reader.
Abandoned as a child by his mother and raised by a hostile father who seems to hold a grudge against his son, Lint spends his early years as a messed-up loser for whom all roads lead to disaster and meager expectations from the world around him. Like so many, Jordan the younger might not be superficially recognizable in the face -- or even lifestyle -- of Jordan the elder, but there is a ghost of a ne’er do well inside that haunts him, and sometimes seems to take control.
Ware tells this story through a series of episodes in which only part of the information is revealed but all of the impact.
Whereas many comics flit between grid-style storytelling and free-form paneling, Ware’s page layout reflects the levels by which he measures reality. Large panels are broken into smaller ones piled on top of each other as the narrative flows, sometimes disintegrating further, to the point that the details are lost in the tiny frame.
Other times smaller panels surround larger ones. His panel progression can be entirely instinctual, reflecting more than 100 years of comics-reading training in our culture. It can switch suddenly to a more alien structure that begs the reader to decipher the order, even as it presents visually the jumbled recollection of time that so many of us have.
The way Ware makes use of sequencing, layout and minimalist dialogue, and mixes them into sequences that are better described as visual poetry than dream sequences, bring to mind filmmakers from Peter Greenaway to Charles Taylor. Both of those filmmakers understand that the tools of their medium are really part of a coded grammar that can extend beyond the narrative to relate so many things words could never touch. Ware embraces this pursuit better than any comics creator alive today and, in doing so, reveals himself as one of our most potent artists and storytellers.
In The Shadow of Jew Suss
In examining the work of so-called Nazi filmmaker Veit Harlan in the film "Harlan: In The Shadow of Jew Suss," director Felix Mueller revisits his films but wraps them in the painful monologues of Harlan’s family.
Struggling to come up with a reason for his work, particularly the infamous "Jew Suss," they finish the documentary exhibiting no better insight to the matter in any uniform sense. For them, there is just the horrible understanding that humanity is complicated and motivations, while sometimes knowable, are often hard to comprehend.
Harlan made "Jew Suss" in 1940 at the request of Joseph Goebbels. A historical drama based on the life of a real German Jewish banker executed in the 18th century, the film was structured as racist propaganda meant to ignite fears of Jews.
In particular, it was designated as mandatory viewing for all SS members. If not directly leading to deaths, it’s hard to argue against the idea that this enormously popular and lauded film contributed to the mob mindset that resulted in the near slaughter of an entire race.
For his involvement, Harlan was charged with helping the Nazis -- the only creative person from that era to be officially charged. He successfully defended himself with the claim that he was forced by the Nazis to make the film. Harlan reiterated this explanation in his memoirs.
His post-war film career was not very illustrious and very much in the shadow of "Jew Suss." Harlan would spend the rest of his life justifying his actions.
At root in this documentary is the attempt to understand the motivation of Harlan and the family’s resulting divided view that is built less from inside information than instinct and deduction.
As hard as it is to excuse Harlan’s actions, there is a case to be made for his explanation, though it is obvious that he did not even remotely attempt to test the waters of rebellion by declining Goebbels’ request.
Harlan’s other films do not exhibit the same over the top racism as "Jew Suss," nor do they appear as agenda-driven. As an exhibition of overt hatred, "Jew Suss" does seem to be a blip in his creative career.
If he held any anti-Semitic feelings, they don’t seem to have been much more powerful or motivating than the general wave of European anti-Semitism at the time -- certainly not an excuse for making the film, but a contextual point that shouldn’t be dismissed. Such emotions might be heinous, but they were common in pre-World War II Europe.
Think of it the same way Americans view racial stereotypes in our own films from the ‘20s and ‘30s -- "His Girl Friday" takes great leaps in the presentation of career women but less so in its presentations of slurs toward black Americans. Unfortunately, this, too, was common for the times.
"Jew Suss" was the only occasion when Harlan seems to have exhibited extreme Nazi-like sentiments towards Jews, but that is also the point of the concern. It may have been a blip, but isn’t a blip quite enough to damn a man in that scenario? Isn’t the vivacity of the racism in the film that is so troubling, since the implication is that hatred can be part of a cold methodology, the result of craft and calculation? And isn’t that far more chilling than the vision of Harlan as just another hateful monster? Not only did he just follow orders, he hijacked his own mode of expression to do so.
Harlan’s innermost thoughts and motivations are unknowable, even with his official explanations. What is important are the struggles of his children and grandchildren in their attempts to grasp their family’s dark legacy.
Some react with visible rage and make use of what seems to be a sort of amateur psychology that brands him an overt, Jew-hating monster. Others attempt to take his guilt as their own and work to make up for his crime, devoting their lives to it, thus sacrificing their familial comfort. Still others look at Harlan’s actions as doing what he had to do in order to survive an ugly era.
It’s a reality of anyone’s family history that we never truly understand it. Anyone can know where they come from, but often we are left with incomplete views of that vista. Hard for anyone to grapple with are the people beyond our personal relationships with them.
Imagine any modern southerner struggling with personal family stories against the knowledge of how the family might have behaved in regard to slavery or the Civil War or the Civil Rights movement. My beloved grandmother from Georgia once told me that I shouldn’t spend the night with my black friend. How do you rectify this emotionally?
Personal history is less than perfect, and the Harlan family must struggle with that reality and the understanding that they may never uncover any satisfactory answer.
But it’s to the artists and cineastes in the wider viewing audience to whom this film might speak more darkly. "Jew Suss" was at heart a 1940s costume drama at its most banal, and this documentary stands as an indictment of the destructive power of popular culture in any setting.
Creative people need to accept that they cannot claim the positive effect of their work while dismissing the negative -- creativity is a responsibility that we are too often taught is about expressing ourselves. Veit Harlan found out the horrible truth, and his family is still paying for that.
John Mitchell is the Transcript’s arts and entertainment editor.