ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 5.02 - MAY 2000
Entomology and Animation: A Portrait of An Early Master Ladislaw Starewicz
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The Dragonfly and the Ant (1912-13) was particularly popular with audiences, especially the Tsar. Taken from a Krylov fable this is the story of an insouciant Dragonfly and a diligent Ant. Their common trait: both are inflexible.
The Ant is gathering wood and making preparations for the coming winter, while the Dragonfly gossips with a beetle friend, frolics in the meadows, plays her fiddle and sings the summer away. The Ant repeatedly asks for the Dragonfly's help, but to no avail. Concerned only with her present state of carefree happiness, the Dragonfly is indifferent to the future. Nearing the completion of his cabin the Ant asks the Dragonfly one final time for help. The Dragonfly sees nothing to be concerned about. Soon, however, the wind becomes chill, the leaves gather in piles, and the Dragonfly puts down her fiddle. She is cold and hungry, so she knocks on the Ant's door. He won't grant her his hospitality, and slams the door in her face. She asks again and again, but he doesn't change his mind. The Dragonfly is left alone in the graying wilderness with only her thoughts.
A scene from the Tsars favorite The Dragonfly and the Ant. Courtesy of Films by Jove.
The saddest tales are always the most poignant, because it is in sadness that we learn our hardest lessons. Starewicz makes this point clearly and elegantly, illustrating his sharp observation of behavior. His insects' nimble gestures lead one through an array of human emotions, and to a heightened sense of sympathy and forgiveness. This may be why his insects and animals are so easy to relate to, and why they are so notably Eastern European. (For example, Mr. Beetle, who is mentioned below in The Cameraman's Revenge, is perhaps the quintessential Russian husband; hot tempered but quick to forgive, and even a little simple minded. No offense Ruskies!) The Tsar enjoyed Dragonfly so much that he awarded Starewicz with a gift, which in turn drew favor toward the Khanzhonkov studio.
Most of Starewicz's adaptations are rooted in Eastern European folktale tradition, and his fervent characters and effectual storytelling strongly reflect this heritage. An excellent example of this genre, but with a modern twist, is The Cameraman's Revenge (1912). This is the story of Mr. and Mrs. Beetle whose home life is rather dull. In search of spontaneity and change, each one cheats on the other. Mr. Beetle meets the beautiful Dragonfly, and heartlessly steals her away from her lover Mr. Grasshopper. The Grasshopper, being a cameraman, begins his plot of revenge by filming Mr. Beetle's affair with the Dragonfly. Before this revenge unfolds, however, Mr. Beetle happens to catch his wife at home with another insect, the artist. The irascible hypocrite that he is, Mr. Beetle throws a fit, smashes things in the house and gets rough with Mrs. Beetle. Eventually he forgives her, and takes her to a movie. Unbeknownst to him the projectionist at the theater is Mr. Grasshopper, who runs the footage he shot of Mr. Beetle and Miss Dragonfly having their fling. The cheering, insect audience loves this spontaneous slice of life, but Mrs. Beetle has other thoughts and chases her husband straight through the movie screen and out of the theater. In the end, Mr. and Mrs. Beetle humbly return home content with their old lifestyle.
This simple, common story of betrayal and jealousy is made tangible by insects whose wit and humor we admire, and outcome we care about. Starewicz was acutely aware of strong audience response to situations set within very personal social contexts. The fact that he uses insects in such settings adds a dose of humor, and makes the subject matter easier to reflect upon. Whether or not a problem is solved within a film's time frame there is always growth and change. In Cameraman it is especially gratifying to see scenes from the beginning of the film later reappear projected onto a movie screen in the insect theater. We are brought back to the beginning, but with a new result.
Mr. Beetle catches his wife in the act of adultery. Courtesy of Films by Jove.
The War Years
By 1915 Starewicz had more than a handful of films under his belt, and at the outbreak of war a year earlier had begun producing propaganda films commissioned by Russia's Skobelev Committee. One of the most poetic of these projects is The Lily of Belgium released 1916 (?) (a.k.a., The Suffering and Resurrection of Belgium, or An Allegory of Today; most of his films had numerous titles). Combining both live-action and animation (not in a single shot, but rather juxtaposed shots), Starewicz attacks Germany's invasion of Belgium through a stark allegory that is both dark and hopeful:
After picking flowers and delivering them to her grandfather, a little girl inquires of the mysteries of nature. Her portly, sagacious granddad cheerfully acquaints her with an enchanting lily.
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