The Puppet Alchemist

A centenary reappraisal of stop-motion's neglected master
by Graham Fuller  posted August 3, 2009
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It is late in the day for the consecration of an auteur who started directing films in the silent era, but the stop-motion animator Ladislas Starewicz is gradually getting his due. His rediscovery began with a retrospective at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1983. A biography was published in his native Poland in 1989, and an enthusiastic documentary, The Bug Trainer, was shown in Europe last year. While filmmakers like Jirí Trnka, the Brothers Quay, and Jan Svankmajer have kept the Starewicz spirit alive on the art-house circuit, the success of Nick Park's films, Henry Selick and Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Selick's recent Coraline has reinvigorated mainstream interest in stop-motion, bringing attention to its seminal figure. In the centenary year of Starewicz's debut, he should be recognized as a master.

Starewicz cut to the heart of cinema because, no less than his near contemporary Georges Méliès, he understood that it was an illusionist's medium and at its purest a plastic, protean art form. Although he directed live-action films, his genius was for puppeteering and anthropomorphism. It's telling that the live-action sequences in some of his animated films—including The Magic Clock, or the Little Girl Who Wanted to Be a Princess (1928) and The Mascot (1933)—tend to be simplistic or cloying. It was in infusing human life into animals, bizarre creatures, and inanimate objects, such as dancing wine glasses, that Starewicz created a peculiarly exquisite kind of magic. He was a "puppet alchemist," the Quays say of him in The Bug Trainer.

Starewicz's mature films—especially Le roman de Renard (1930-32) and The Mascot—are children's films made for adults, and sometimes their alchemy is diabolical. For example, in The Little Parade (1928), based partially on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," a yeti-like jack-in-the-box metamorphoses into the Devil, who conjures a tiny chorus line from hazelnuts, a bare-breasted mermaid with frog's legs from a slice of lemon, a sylphlike genii from a banana, a shimmying black dancer from a cigar, and a sultry blonde in a sarong from a champagne bottle; a mice band meanwhile plays for a female mouse dancing the flamenco.

By proffering the images of so many physically appealing females before the Devil impatiently furls them up, Starewicz wittily tests the waters of morality. It's hard to say whether he wants us to admire these homemade beauties or whether he's ridiculing male desire: the Devil regards them with contempt, because, suggestive of lax morals, they are no longer seducible, in contrast with the pure ballerina, who poses a challenge to him. His proxy is the leering, rotund nutcracker whose pursuit of the ballerina he aids. Only the intervention of the innocent tin soldier saves the ballerina from the Devil's clutches. For love of her, he is dispatched to the bottom of the sea. Here the amorous mermaid chases him—his reaction to her invokes the timorousness of the silent comedian Harry Langdon, whom he physically resembles. He's rescued from the mermaid by a giant fish, which swims suddenly into the frame to swallow him. His final sacrifice emphasizes his virtue and honor over the nutcracker's licentiousness.

Starewicz similarly pitched innocence against corruption in The Mascot, which evolves from a sentimental melodrama into a phantasmagoric fever dream. In the live-action opening, a woman watching over her sick daughter drips tears onto the stuffed toy puppy that she's sewing. The tears start the puppy's heart beating, and he comes alive. Traveling to a toy shop in the back of a van, he and other puppets jump, fall, or are pushed onto the street; a clown, later to be surreally resurrected, is decapitated by a passing vehicle. The puppy finds an orange, which he determines to bring to the girl, but his path leads him to the orgiastic ball thrown by the Devil from The Little Parade.

What follows is the best-known sequence in Starewicz's work: the jaw-dropping animation of detritus, discarded household items, vegetables, rats, and creatures from no known bestiary chaotically arriving at the ball, greeted there by the Devil, a vicious sheaf of wheat, and a flashing animal skull lantern, is both comic and disturbing. The presence at the ball of the skeletons of a fowl and a flying fish has prompted the film scholar Adrian Danks to liken it to the Mexican Day of the Dead, but this oneiric spectacle is also a full-blown Danse Macabre. It is presumably the nightmare of the sleeping girl, who is represented by the tremulous puppy. In its sinister couplings, it suggests an adolescent's sexual anxiety: a toy cat smooches the puppy, a girl doll is pimped by her ruffian doll boyfriend to a toy monkey—all these toys were made by the girl's mother, so she is familiar with them. (This anxiety was handled less subtly in The Magic Clock, in which a dreaming girl, played by Nina Star, one of Starewicz's two daughters, attempts to eat a giant apple, only to be encircled by a huge serpent.)

The man who created these unsettling visions was born to Polish parents in Moscow in 1882. On the death of his mother, he was raised by his grandmother in Kaunas (then a capital of Kovno Governorate) in Lithuania. As a young man, he worked as a civil servant and a bookkeeper, acted on stage, and drew newspaper caricatures. After studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, he became a director of a museum in Kaunas and there began making short live-action documentaries, starting with Beyond the River Nemunas in 1909. A keen entomologist, he attempted to film two stag beetles fighting but was thwarted by their tendency, as nocturnal creatures, to fall asleep under hot lights. His response was to take the body parts of dead beetles and reassemble them with wire and wax so they could be made to move before a camera. The resulting film, Lucanus Servus (1910), began Starewicz's 55-year career in the stop-motion animation of anthropomorphic characters. His forebears included the 19th-century French caricaturist Grandville, whose brilliant transposition of human facial expressions onto animals must have been appreciated by Starewicz. A more immediate influence was the pioneering French animator Emile Cohl, who painstakingly drew his films frame by frame.

Relocating to Moscow in 1911, Starewicz continued to make animated films featuring insects for Aleksandr Khanzhonkov's production company. They include The Cameraman's Revenge (1911), the best known of his early works and the most artfully self-reflexive of his career. Fluently animated, it's a cynical fable about the perils of adultery enacted by a cast of arthropods. Bored with his domestic life, Mr. Beetle leaves for town in a cab and heads to a nightclub. When a grasshopper starts a dalliance with the star attraction, a beautiful dragonfly, Mr. Beetle knocks him to the ground and takes her to a hotel. Their liaison is filmed by the angry grasshopper, a cinematographer who lugs his camera around on a bicycle. The shot of him filming the amorous couple through the keyhole of their room is doubly voyeuristic since it implicates the audience in the peeping.

Mrs. Beetle meanwhile entertains her affected artist lover, a cricket, who is attacked by the hypocritical Mr. Beetle when he unexpectedly comes home. The Beetles make up and go to a movie theater, but it transpires that the projectionist there is the grasshopper, who vengefully shows his film of Mr. Beetle's indiscretion. Mrs. Beetle throws her husband through the screen; he, in turn, attacks the grasshopper, setting the projection room alight. The Beetles wind up in jail. Starewicz's assault on movie paraphernalia is an assault on the process of image-making and looking. It would be risky to suggest that he was attempting a deconstruction of the gaze, but he probably had something similar in mind.

During World War I, Starewicz made propaganda films. Most of them were live-action, though The Lily of Belgium (1915), an allegory about the Belgian resistance to the German invasion, notably combined animation and live-action footage. After the revolution, he moved to Yalta, then emigrated with other artists and filmmakers to Paris, where he worked briefly, and serendipitously, in Méliès's old studio. He subsequently opened his own independent studio in Fontenay-sous-Bois and, focusing on animation, embarked on the richest phase of his working life, completing a further 29 films before his death in 1965. He embraced sound and color, but at heart he remained a director of silent black-and-white movies.

In 1922, Starewicz adapted The Frogs Who Wanted a King (aka Frogland), a wry political allegory from Aesop, and in 1927 The Ant and the Dragonfly (aka The Ant and the Grasshopper), from an Ivan Krylov fable. Among his adaptations from Jean de La Fontaine are The Town Rat and the Country Rat (1926), The Old Lion (1932), and the fox and the crow fable, which he folded into Le roman de Renard. In Fleur de fougère (1949), he slowly pans along a medieval banquet table of Aesopian animals, stopping by each one for a quick comment or joke. Choosing to film fables at a time when cinema was embracing brash and sophisticated modern idioms, Starewicz might have seen himself as a preserver of an ancient tradition. It was as if he were drawn again and again to shedding light on the frailties of mankind by endowing the small animals he animated with the lineaments of human behavior. And he did it lovingly. He made his puppets himself—from wire, wax, chamois, straw, and cork—and one imagines they "told" him as much as he told them.

Starewicz did not always tell his stories seamlessly: the Devil's ball in The Mascot comes out of nowhere, as does the playful faerie dream involving a Puck-like character and a humanoid female amphibian that interrupts The Magic Clock's tale of chivalry. There is nothing so jarring, however, in the feature-length Le roman de Renard, Starewicz's acknowledged masterpiece. Based on the anthropomorphic 12th-century fable, it's about a cunning red fox whose tricks have gotten so out of hand that the court of the lion king Noble is inundated with petitions demanding that he be arrested.

Chief among Renard's victims is a wolf. Sent by his angry wife to go foraging one glistening winter's night, he chances upon Renard cooking fish—we see the firelight dancing on Renard's fur and a thread of drool hanging from the wolf's mouth. Renard guilelessly explains that fish may be caught from a nearby pond by breaking a hole in the ice and sticking one's tail in it. This the gullible wolf promptly does as Renard hotfoots it to a local village and raises the humans by banging on the doors of their houses and inns and taunting them when they answer. As with the final pursuit of the puppy in The Mascot, the villagers' pursuit of Renard is achieved through fast-moving rear projection. Zooms and dollies often seemed clunky in Starewicz's hands—a hazard of stop-motion animation—but his characters move horizontally with speed and élan.

Returning to the pond, where the wolf's tail is firmly stuck in the ice, Renard conceals himself in a hole on a hillside and trips or barges the villagers down the slope and straight onto the wolf. When the wolf comes home, without his tail, he finds that Renard has shoved his wife into a trunk and is reeling a joint of meat up the chimney. But it is the thrill of outsmarting his fellow animals that appeals to Renard rather than a tangible prize. In Starewicz's hands, the fox has an energy and vigor that, for all its misuse, is more creative and life-affirming than the decadent behavior of the court, which is best summed up by the wooing of the languid, smitten lion queen by the cat minstrel. Renard's ingenious defense of his tower, under siege from the king's army at the end, alone justifies his survival.

Although Starewicz throws in the odd anachronism—a touch of jazz and Josephine Baker, a sportscaster's microphone—in inhabiting a fully realized medieval world and maintaining a robust tone, Le roman de Renard comes as close to the spirit of the European folktale as any film ever has. Folk and their moral truths were central to his cinema. As much as he "made strange," Starewicz "made human," too. In the way Renard gently but matter-of-factly presses the salivating wolf's jaw shut with a finger under the chin before leading him off to be duped, there's an unerring understanding of the way things are in the world. 


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The Mascot, directed by Ladislas Starewicz
Photo Gallery: The Puppet Alchemist


Graham Fuller has written about movies for The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The Village Voice, Film Comment, and Sight and Sound.

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