February 15, 2012

Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora (1912)

Amongst the early animation pioneers, the name of Wladyslaw Starewicz stands as one of the most revolutionary animators of all time, as his work in puppetry and stop motion animation has proved to be enormously influential. Born in the Russian Empire (in what is now Lithuania) Starewicz entered animation while working at the Museum of Natural History in Kovno, back in 1910. Trying to make short educational documentaries for the museum, Starewicz found himself unable to film a battle between two stag beetles, which as nocturnal creatures weren't too keen of the lighting needed for filmmaking. An inspired Wladyslaw Starewicz decided to recreate it through stop motion animation and the result was "Lucanus Cervus". To this first puppet animation with insects followed many more, which earned Starewicz international acclaim thanks to the great care he put to his animation. Amongst his oeuvre, his most famous films remain his shorts with insects, of which the best known is a funny masterpieces titled "Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora" or "The Cameraman's Revenge".

In its barely 12 minutes of runtime, "Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora" tells the tale of Mr. and Mrs. Beetle, a normal looking marriage between insects. However, behind the apparent happiness of the Beetles household, Mrs. Beetle is having an affair with another insect while Mr. Beetle is at work. As soon as Mr. Beetle leaves the house, she calls her lover, an artist, to spend the afternoon with her. Nevertheless, the cuckold husband Mr. Beetle isn't exactly an example of fidelity himself, as he leaves work early to visit his favorite club, "The Gay Dragonlfy", where his mistress (a Dragonfly) sings and dances. However, a Grasshopper is also in love with the beautiful Miss Dragonfly, which results in him getting beaten by Mr. Beetle. However, Mr. Beetle doesn't know that the Grasshopper is a filmmaker, and he films Mr. Beetle's extramarital affair in order to have his revenge. Going back home, Mr. Beetle finds his wife's lover and also beats him out. After his violent outburst, Mr. Beetle decides to forgive Mrs. Beetle and takes her to the movies, not knowing that the cameraman is ready to show his film.

Written and directed by Wladyslaw Starewicz, "Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora" is apparently a pretty simple story about an adulterous couple (in fact a common topic in short comedies of the era), however, there's more than just that in Starewicz' film, as the movie also presents the possibility of film as evidence of an act. Cinema as a weapon of sorts as in a way, Mr. Grasshopper's camera becomes the instrument of his revenge revenge on Mr. Beetle. In his writing, Starewicz also shows a taste for irony in his sharp criticism of the hypocrisy of the social values of his time. This is best represented in the moment when Mr. Beetle discovers his wife's infidelity, as the cuckold husband becomes furious and, after beating the lover, shows his "generosity" and forgives his wife, even when it's already clear that he is not really an innocent beetle. Certainly, her posterior violent outburst is not caused by her husband's infidelity, but by his blatant hypocrisy.

However, beyond the film's touch of comedy (which is great), what truly makes "Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora" a remarkable movie is without a doubt the innovative use of puppet insects to tell the story. In "Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora" can be fully appreciated the great amount of care that filmmaker Wladyslaw Starewicz put into his projects, not only in the extraordinarily detailed props and costumes built for the movie (to the point that the Beetles wear boots), but in the extremely fluid stop motion animation he achieves. It's almost as if the insects were really riding motorbikes or operating a camera. Also, using purely visual narrative, Starewicz manages to give personality to his insects, he fully humanizes them in remarkable ways. This isn't an easy feat, because since Starewicz' puppets are real insects, they obviously lack facial expressiveness, so what Starewicz does is to use their actions to tell who these people are, showing an enormous understanding of cinema as a storytelling medium.

As written above, the work of Wladyslaw Starewicz would give the Russian filmmaker international acclaim, and the chance to keep improving his technique. Eventually, Starewicz would experiment with many other styles, including directing live action films (like "Noch pered Rozhdestvom"). The October revolution would briefly pause his career, as he and his family fled to Paris. It would be in France where Starewicz would polish his style and move towards a more surreal vein. Of great influence for animators across the globe, Starewicz' "Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora" remains a testament of its maker's great imagination and his great domain, not only of stop motion animation, but of cinema's purest visual narrative.


No comments: