ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 5.02 - MAY 2000
Entomology and Animation: A Portrait of An Early Master Ladislaw Starewicz
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It was around 1918 that he left Russia, and spent some time in Yalta, and then Italy before settling in Paris within the Russian emigrant community. He employed himself as a cameraman, and in 1920 founded a small animation studio in Fontenay-sous-Bois. There he remained, and continued with his art, while earning a living making advertising and publicity films.
The Parisian atmosphere was nurturing and supportive. Starewicz often produced two or more films a year; his work growing in scope and content, and drawing heavily from children's literature. One can see how certain stories and characters are universally influential. Film titles such as The Scarecrow (1921), Frogland (a.k.a. The Frogs Who Wanted A King, 1922), The Voice of the Nightingale (1923), The Town Rat and The Country Rat (1926) and The Tale of the Fox (his first and only feature-length animated film produced throughout the 1930s) each invoke memories of such popular children's books as Motorcycle Mouse, The Cricket in Times Square, Charlotte's Web and the Frog and Toad series. The witty, spirited animals in these films and books are endearing, because we are given an opportunity to see them grow and to learn with them.
The Voice of the Nightingale is probably my favorite of Starewicz's work. The Nightingale is a legendary figure in storybook history, known for its mellifluous night songs that influence the dreams of children.
In this lyrical tale, a young girl discovers a Nightingale accidentally trapped in a cage meant for a mouse. The overjoyed girl decides to keep the Nightingale as a pet and puts it in a birdcage to hang beside her bedroom window. Later, while the girl is asleep, the Nightingale's melodies resonate within her dreams, and it is here in the land of Morpheus that its songs are translated. The first dream is a heroic, fairyland tale where Tinkerbell-sized people live within the Kingdom of Flowers. One particular fairy gets caught in a spider's web, and another must fight the gigantic spider to save her. The second anecdotal dream is a personal account of the Nightingale's own tale of woe.
The Nightingale, we discover, has recently exchanged vows with his mate in a beautiful woodland ceremony. Not long after, a baby bird arrives, and the spring days and nights were theirs to share. One day, while looking for worms for her baby, the mother bird stops to chat with a grasshopper who points out a worm in a tree. Sitting in the tree she becomes the target for a boy and his bow and arrow. The arrow only grazes her, but she falls from the tree injured. Back at the nest the father Nightingale is worried, for his wife has not returned. He must leave the baby momentarily to search for his mate. The baby cries, "I am so hungry. Who will feed me?" (Starewicz was an expert at eliciting sympathy from his audience.) The father checks the place where he and his wife were married. She is not there. He bumps into the grasshopper, who doesn't know where she is, and he eventually comes upon the garden where he is snared in the deceitful trap.
The girl wakes up sad, understanding that animals are not playthings, and decides to free the Nightingale. Upon returning to his nest he finds his wife and child safe and sound, and as a reward to the little girl for her kindness lends her the gift of song.
Fables of Relevance
Starewicz wanted his films to appeal to children most of all, and kept the depth of his subject matter simple. In the case of the Nightingale the moral is just as is stated: Animals are creatures with emotions and behavior not unlike humans, and they should be treated with respect. Like poetry, though, this film has many shades of meaning. The bird, for example, is a messenger -- perhaps a divine presence taking on an animal form -- disseminating universal lessons. Its entrapment was its destiny, in order that a young girl could benefit from its life experience. The story is also an excellent example of how spontaneous events, especially unfortunate ones, can lead one on a pathway to greater good; out of suffering comes knowledge and truth.
The aspect of dream, of course, plays a big part in the shaping of the little girl's mind. Like a Shaman receiving prophetic visions, the girl understands the importance of the gift that is being sent to her, though on a much more modest scale. In a way, the Nightingale is the personification of all that it displays: truth, love, knowledge and respect -- a moral outline perhaps of Starewicz's most basic principles. It matters little if all this was in Starewicz's head when he made Nightingale. Intricate weaves of meaning are always inherent in any great artist's work, forming a complete, singular design.
In the farcical politics of The Frogs Who Wanted a King (1922), irony once again makes its voice heard. This film is not so much a critique, but a mocking of the fickleness of societies. It reveals that Starewicz's strengths comprise humor as well as profundity:
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