“His insects lie, cheat, steal, get drunk, have affairs, and fight with each other, occupying a harsh reality where bad choices have bad consequences and dead things stay dead.”
The last ten years have seen a resurgence in animation as a popular art form for adults as well as children, both in America and worldwide. Films like Richard Linklater’s mind-expanding twosome of Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly have expanded the possibilities of two-dimensional animation beyond simple children’s cartoons. Hayao Miyazaki’s intricate and mysterious fantasies have found wildly receptive stateside audiences. Even Disney, that notorious purveyor of saccharine, conformist, feature-length Happy Meal commercials, managed to produce Wall-E, a children’s film with some darker, progressive, adult themes lurking just under its surface. Fans of stop-motion animation have enjoyed a particular renaissance in the art form’s popularity, with films like Coraline, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, The Corpse Bride, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox all breaking new technical and artistic ground while expanding mainstream audiences’ conception of what animation is capable of (as well as finding box-office success).
With all of this in mind, it remains surprising that one of the most original and masterful pioneers of the medium continues to be almost completely unknown in the West, despite having a deep and long-lasting influence on countless filmmakers from both the animation and live-action worlds. 2010 even marks the 100th anniversary of his most groundbreaking achievement, a film that audiences at the time found so shocking as to be nearly unbelievable. (It’s doubly shocking that this milestone has gone unremarked upon in the press, considering the media’s arbitrary fondness for round-numbered anniversaries.)
That filmmaker is the Polish-Russian director Ladislaw Starewicz, who pioneered the art of stop-motion animation in 1910 with his film Lucanus Cervus, and who spent the next 50 years creating nearly 100 shorts and feature-length films that comprise one of the most inventive and influential bodies of work in the history of cinema. But despite all of his technical and artistic achievements, even as we celebrate the centenary of his first triumph, in the West his name remains almost completely unknown to all but the most esoteric animation buffs.
Like all of the greatest filmmakers, Starewicz did more than just create films; he used the craft of cinema to invent an utterly unique, self-contained world, one that reflected his own unadulterated artistic vision. His films could be bizarre, surreal, funny, disturbing, and deeply touching, sometimes all within the same scene. It was sometimes unclear if they were intended for children or adults. Like the filmmakers who carry his influence (Terry Gilliam, Jan Svankmajer, the Quay brothers, Tim Burton, and Wes Anderson among them), his films exist somewhere in between the realms of disturbing adult darkness and innocent childlike whimsy.
Born in Moscow in 1882, Starewicz’s parents were still in hiding after participating in Poland’s failed “January Uprising” against the Russian empire in 1863. He apparently inherited this antiauthoritarian streak, which got him kicked out of school as a young boy. His bohemian artistic interests eventually led him to a job as a caricaturist at a local paper. He was a restless autodidact who seemed to be a natural prodigy in whatever artistic pursuit he put his hand to, including painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, acting, costumes, set design, or magic lantern shows. His natural curiosity drew him from medium to medium, but it was his lifelong fascination with entomology that would lead him to make cinema history.
By 1910, an interest in photography had led him to experiment with the nascent medium of motion pictures, and he had managed to talk his way into securing some funds to make a series of ethnographic and nature films for a museum in his hometown of Kovno, Lithuania. One day he found himself trying to film a battle between two stag beetles in his makeshift studio, but (like so many directors before and after him) he was stymied by fickle and uncooperative stars. “I waited days and days to shoot a battle,” Starewicz remembered, “but they would not fight with the lights shining on them.”1 He hadn’t counted on the nocturnal nature of his subjects — under the bright lights, they immediately fell asleep. After one of them died, the curious director was fiddling with its corpse when he hit upon an idea that would change cinema forever. Inspired by his childhood love of flipbooks, he took the carcasses of two dead beetles, removed their extremities and reattached them with sealing wax, and soon had two fully articulated models. Starewicz shot them frame by frame until he had created a film that gave the perfect illusion of life to his inanimate subjects. The resulting film, Lucanus Cervus, was a landmark in cinematic history: the first stop-motion animated film to use puppets and employ a narrative.
A brief historical note here: It bears mentioning that Starewicz was not literally the first filmmaker to employ stop-motion animation. The work of Emile Cohl in France and J. Stuart Blackton in New York, among others, preceded him by several years. As is the case with many technical breakthroughs from this era, there were parallel innovations happening more or less independently of one another all over the world, which often leads to situations where the title of “first” becomes a matter of semantics or hair-splitting. (See also Tesla vs. Marconi, Alberto Santos-Dumont vs. the Wright brothers, etc.) But while Starewicz may not have literally been the first person to employ stop motion, he can lay claim to producing the first stop-motion film to feature characters and a narrative, as we know those two things today. The film historian Marcin Gizycki puts it succinctly when he writes that, despite previous innovators, “it cannot be denied that Starewicz took his discoveries in a far more truly creative direction than any of his contemporaries; indeed, he was not to be surpassed, even technically, for several decades.”2 To put it another way, it could be said that while others may have invented stop-motion technically, it was Starewicz who invented it artistically.
Beautiful Lukanida, Starewicz’s follow-up to Lucanus Cervus, set the tone for his most prolific period of work. Crafting elaborate plasticine sets and miniature costumes for his beetles, Starewicz wryly transposed the story of Helen of Troy to the insect world, with noble beetle knights dueling for the hand of a fair beetle queen. The resulting film was technically beyond anything audiences and critics had ever seen, and it astonished viewers in Russia and Europe. Within a few short years, Ladislaw Starewicz was the most famous director in Russia, and his stop-motion films for children and adults were winning prizes in England, France, and the United States, as well as a special decoration (not to mention a handsome cash award) from Tsar Nicholas II.
It is difficult to overstate how shocking and sensational these ingenious films were in their day. Audiences had literally never seen anything like them. The films of Cohl, Blackton, and others showed everyday objects and items moving around seemingly of their own accord, but these were easily identified as “trick photography” by audiences. Starewicz’s films showed something of another order entirely: convincing footage of alarmingly realistic-looking insects and animals coming to life and moving with a fluidity and naturalism that seemed to equal anything seen in nature. Viewers were mystified and entranced. His films seemed to embody the grandest possibilities of the medium: the chance for curious audiences to see something impossible.
Like so many inventors and innovators before and after him, Starewicz jealously guarded the secrets of his methods. The concept of stop-motion animation was not yet well known to the general public, and in an era when miraculous scientific breakthroughs seemed to be occurring on a weekly basis, no explanation for these performing insects seemed too far-fetched. Many viewers naturally believed that the insects were all alive. One awestruck reviewer remarked of Starewicz’s beetles in 1911 that “their trainer must be a man of magical endurance and patience.”3 At other times Starewicz even intimated that his insects were powered by an internal system of tiny gears and pulleys. In those early days, many in the public regarded Starewicz as less a filmmaker than as something closer to a magician.
His early stop-motion films almost exclusively feature insects, lending them more than a touch of the bizarre and grotesque — something like Edward Gorey illustrations brought to life. He disliked Disney’s neutered morals and cuddly creatures (and in fact turned down several offers from them over the years), and he made no concessions to anthropomorphism by giving his tiny beasts googly eyes or toothy grins. Instead, save for the odd hat or prop, they looked exactly as you might find them lurking in your backyard, fuzzy feelers and glistening carapaces intact, enshrouding his films with an unsettling surrealism.
But this is also where the charm and dark humor of his work comes from: the cognitive dissonance between his insects’ alien appearance and their all-too-human behavior. His insects lie, cheat, steal, get drunk, have affairs, and fight with each other, occupying a harsh reality where bad choices have bad consequences and dead things stay dead. One of his funniest and most famous films, The Cameraman’s Revenge (1911), is a tale of interspecies infidelity among two beetles, a lusty dragonfly, and a vengeful grasshopper.
His version of the fable The Dragonfly and the Ant (1912) ditches the cheesy family-friendly whitewashing Disney gave it in the 1930s in favor of Aesop’s more severe original ending: after spending his summer stockpiling food, the industrious ant refuses to share with the lazy grasshopper, who wasted the summer getting drunk and playing cards. In the final shot, the doomed grasshopper unceremoniously curls up and dies — sorry kids, no fairy godmothers or second chances here. His films might star creepily realistic insects and animals, but the catalog of foibles they exhibit is all too human.
Therein lies the cynical insight of Starewicz’s insect films. Despite the props or bits of costume Starewicz gives them, few creatures could outwardly resemble a human being less than an insect. But show that same insect cheating on his wife, stealing from his neighbor, or skipping work to get drunk, and we feel we might as well be looking in a mirror. Animator Simon Pummell describes “something fascinating and repulsive about watching these insects, encased in their hard skeleton shells, acting out our fleshly desires and manoeuvres.”4 Starewicz seems to delight in that shock of recognition that we feel when we see such alien creatures emulating our most venal behavior. And it is that unsettling shock that gives his films their unique combination of eccentric humor and suspicious cynicism about human nature and motives. (Film historian Wladislaw Jewsiewicki puts it more bluntly by calling Starewicz’s films “a protest against stupidity.”5)
In the wake of the Russian Revolution, Starewicz was forced to flee Russia for Western Europe, having been a conspicuous favorite of the Tsar and a supporter of the counterrevolutionary White Army. In France, where he would spend the rest of his life in political exile, he began making increasingly complex films that added myriad sorts of different puppets and animals to his usual menagerie of beetles and houseflies. His films began to abound with frogs, rats, and birds that walked and talked with the eerie realism of creatures out of a dream. Among his best work from this period is Town Rat and Country Rat (1927), whose rodent stars seem to be satirizing the hypocrisy of manners and class in the way they strut around in elaborately tailored tuxedos and haute couture dresses, only to revert back to their beastly nature when a hungry cat arrives on the scene.
Another masterpiece from this period is The Frogs Who Wanted a King (1922), a retelling of an Aesop fable about frogs who tire of their ineffectual democratic government and appeal to Jove for a king. Annoyed by their dissatisfaction, Jove eventually sends them a stork that begins devouring the hapless frogs, who realize the moral too late: “Leave well enough alone.”
Aside from its technical merits, The Frogs Who Wanted a King is also frequently praised as Starewicz’s strongest political statement, although critics often seem to misinterpret its message. Perhaps colored by Western anti-Soviet feelings, the film is often incorrectly taken to be cautionary tale about the evils of totalitarianism. But by taking into account Starewicz’s personal situation — a tsarist forced to leave behind a thriving career and live in exile after a violent revolution — the film becomes something different entirely: a cautionary tale about the evils of revolution and the fickleness of the mob. When considering it alongside the dim view of human nature that Starewicz expresses in his other films, we can easily see his true moral: when left unchecked, humans’ ignorance and shortsightedness will inevitably lead them to ruin (a favorite theme of his). The film is indeed the most bluntly political statement in Starewicz’s filmography, but that statement is perhaps not as uplifting as viewers often assume.
This period of Starewicz’s career continued until his death in 1965, and peaked with what he considered to be his masterpiece: the world’s first feature length stop-motion film, 1937’s Le Roman de Renard (The Story of the Fox). Starewicz considered it to be the pinnacle of his career, the culmination of his life’s work, and was so taken with the results that he grandiosely declared “if this film had been made by somebody else, I would have given up continuing in this direction entirely.”6 (To make sure no one missed the point, Starewicz includes a title card at the beginning of the film that reads: “This is not an animated cartoon. This is a revolution in the history of cinema.”) As haughty as his self-regard was, though, most viewers would probably agree that it was not entirely unjustified.
Seventy years later, Wes Anderson would openly acknowledge borrowing Starewicz’s hyper-realistic character designs from Le Roman de Renard for his own film version of The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Most reviews of Anderson’s film remarked on the mesmerizing, unsettling realism of his menagerie of woodland creatures, all of whom looked like they had just jumped off the wall of a hunter’s trophy room. “That fur is so real,” marveled Roger Ebert in his review. “I’ve rarely seen such texture in a film.”
And sadly, as long as Starewicz’s films remain out of print and unknown, few viewers will. Although he made close to 100 films, most of them are thought to be completely lost, among the estimated 80 percent of silent-era films that have disappeared or been destroyed. Those films of Starewicz’s that have survived (around 40 in all) are largely unavailable in the West, victims of poor preservation and legal wrangling between his estate and various film companies and rights holders.
Still, good films always find an audience. The curious can find some of Starewicz’s work streaming on sites like YouTube and the essential avant-garde clearinghouse UbuWeb. A retrospective collection of six his shorts entitled The Cameraman’s Revenge and Other Tales, distributed by Milestone Film & Video, cycles in and out of print every few years. (This collection includes his unforgettable short, the 1933 The Mascot, truly one of the most bizarre and surreal children’s films ever made. It’s probably no surprise that Terry Gilliam names it as one of his ten favorite animated films of all time, describing it as “cosmic animation soup.”)
But unfortunately, that paltry sampling of his vast body of work is about all we’ll have to be content with for now, unless Criterion or some other noble group of curators are able to exhume Starewicz’s work from the cinematic graveyard to which it’s been consigned. Until that day comes, one of cinema’s most talented and unique visionaries will remain among its best kept secrets.
- Quoted on Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0823088/bio. [↩]
- Pilling, Jayne (ed). Starewicz, 1882-1965. Edinburgh: 37th Edinburgh International Film Festival, 1983, 10. [↩]
- Tsivian, Yuri (ed). Silent Witnesses: Russian Films, 1908-1919. Pordenone: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, 1989, 586. [↩]
- Pummell, Simon, “Of Rats and Men,” Sight and Sound (May 1995), 61. [↩]
- Tsivian, 202. [↩]
- From Starewicz’s unpublished memoirs, excerpted online here. [↩]