Moving Pictures

by Clarinda Mac Low

In this quest to determine the traces of performance, one of the most important questions is…what is performance, anyway?

This is a mushy question, and even attempting to answer it could bog me down in a series of unprovable conjectures, so I will posit the absurdly subjective statement—it’s performance if it feels like performance.

What is “feel?” If I experience it in the way that I experience that which defines itself as performance? I’ll leave it at that for now, but have no doubt we will return to this question often. Right now, this is really my back-door way of getting to a discussion of the film animation version of Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi. Persepolis is a graphic novel based on the life of Ms. Satrapi that tells (in two books) the story of her childhood and adolescence in Iran and Europe. The two volumes were recently made into an animated version, and, unlike many graphic novels and comic books brought to the screen, the film enlivens and enriches the graphic material.

Ever since I saw it, I’ve been puzzling at why it struck me so forcefully as a live performance, more so than most live action films. I felt deeply drawn into the physical circumstance of the characters, and the simple line drawings had a strong expressive power. It was as though, within the shapes and lines, I felt the body of the maker. The physicality of the original line drawings held the breath and expression of the artist, the motion of the hand of the maker revealing in the chosen shapes and flow of the material her inner life.

When I was struggling with this articulation, and starting to doubt my own perceptions, imagine my delight to find, in an idle exploration using “performance theory” as my search term, at the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library, a paper titled “Unveiling: Persepolis as Embodied Performance.” It is worth quoting from the abstract for the article at length. Jennifer Worth, the author, “… examines…Persepolis 1 and Persepolis 2 as examples of unconventional solo performance, and argues that these personal narratives can be read as a type of embodied performance that might otherwise be denied Satrapi. The traditional novel is regarded as an outlet for women denied a public presence; the graphic novel goes a step further, allowing presence both vocally and physically through repeated self-portraiture, which deals frankly with distinctly corporeal issues of visibility, sexuality and identity…I contend that graphic novels may best be understood as occupying a middle ground between the novel and the theatre, where their formal liminality frequently echoes the liminal states of their protagonists.” [1]

I am especially intrigued by the idea of the graphic novel (and by extension animated film) as “…allowing presence both vocally and physically through repeated self-portraiture.” The books and the film of Persepolis have the peculiar force I usually associate with a really powerful solo autobiographical performance, where you feel the force of the story told in your bones and skin. In reading the Persepolis books and watching the film, there is a sense that I am listening to a voice, a compelling voice that holds me in thrall by deftly alternating humor and pathos, holding my attention by both telling it straight and allowing space for reflection and relief from pain.

In a highly mediated culture, what is “live” performance? I value the face-to-face intimacy of the performers’ and the audience’s bodies in the same place and the same space at the same time. However, in the age of the machine-made, the mass-manufactured, and the computer-generated, it’s possible that the revealed hand of the graphic novelist carries some of the same poignancy and immediacy that we reveal through our bodies and voices when we perform live. The literal, minimally mediated movement of the hand of the graphic novelist creates a small puppet stage where we feel the low-tech, actual body and mind of a vulnerable individual, revealed and concealed in that way that is unique to performance.

[1] Jennifer Worth. “Unveiling: Persepolis as Embodied Performance.” Theatre Research International. Oxford:Jul 2007. Vol. 32, Iss. 2, p. 143-160.

Next week: Creating an atmosphere…

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