Monday, August 06, 2007

Ladislas Starewitch at 125

I don't know that any festivals or retrospectives have been organized anywhere around the world to commemorate this anniversary, but the great Polish-born animator Ladislas Starewitch was born 125 years ago today.
A worsening problem with any commemoration of Starewitch is the correct spelling of his name, as there are several. I am using, not altogether comfortably, the spelling used on and in a book about the great man recently published in France. His IMDb page spells his name "Wladyslaw Starewicz," which is how the surname has always looked correct to me, though the given name looks a little wonky. I've seen "Wladislas" too. It's a terrible problem for an artist to have, given how difficult it already is simply to see his work.
Starewitch was born in Poland and made his first short film (LUCANUS CERVUS, about stag beetles) in Lithuania in 1910. It was meant to be a naturalistic study, but Starewitch discovered that the heat of his lighting equipment made the beetles sluggish and resistant to action, so he incorporated what were then known as trick-photographic techniques (read: stop-motion) to get them to do what he wanted. When his family relocated to Russia in 1912, he continued along this line. Over the next eight years, he continued to make animated shorts but he also made some live action shorts as well, all of a fantastic nature. Included in the Ruscico DVD of the wonderful Russian horror film THE VIY (1967), for example, is a Starewitch short called THE PORTRAIT, which remains superbly frightening and is the earliest known film to pull the proscenium trick that later made THE RING so hair-raising. Among the several Starewitch films I'd love to see, I'm most curious about a few other live action pictures he made: RUSLAN AND LUDMILLA (1915), ON THE WARSAW HIGHWAY (1916), and CAGLIOSTRO (1920). In 1920, he and his clan fled Russia to Paris, France, where he picked up his work without dropping a stitch.


In the current issue of SIGHT & SOUND, various contributors from around the world were asked to name and write a bit about an obscure film they felt deserved to be better-known. I chose Starewitch's only feature-length achievement, LA ROMAN DE RENARD (1930), known in some territories as THE TALE OF THE FOX. If not for some unforeseen technical delays and distribution problems, it would have become what it was intended to be (and, I think, really is): the world's first stop-motion animated feature with sound. Based on a fable by Goethe, it tells the story of a crafty fox, always up to mischief and talking his way out of trouble, who dares to thwart the ruling of the King that animals should not prey on one another because Love must rule the land. Not only is the script clever and the character design impeccable (in S&S I said that it looked only a step or two away from taxidermy), but the animation -- executed by Starewitch and his daughter Irena over an 18-month period -- remains the most believably fluid and antic until the introduction of CGI, especially in its incredible interpolations of blurred movement.

Starewitch serenaded by the canine hero of his beloved 1934 short, "The Mascot."

Unfortunately, very little of Starewitch's mind-boggling work is available on DVD. LA ROMAN DE RENARD and a collection of short films were issued a couple of years ago as Region 2 discs in France, and these are already hard to find. While watching one of the shorts in one of these collections, LE RAT DE VILLE ET LE RAT DES CHAMPS ("The Town Rat and the Country Rat," 1927), I was amazed to discover listed in the credits as a backgrounds artist Josef Natanson, who went on to become an important matte painter in Italian films during the 1960s. The earliest screen credit for Natanson I had been able to find was for the backgrounds he painted for the classic dance sequence in Powell and Pressburger's THE RED SHOES (1948), but this one credit elucidates a 20-year gap in this important career about which we know nothing.

Here in America, Starewitch fans have had to make due with Milestone/Image Entertainment's compilation THE CAMERAMAN'S REVENGE AND OTHER FANTASTIC TALES, which includes his best-known short, "The Mascot," a 1934 short originally titled "Fétiche." (It's also available as a $2.99 video download here.) This remarkable story of a puppy who struggles against natural and supernatural odds to fetch an orange to bring to a sick little girl is also known to some people as "The Devil's Ball," mostly due to a lengthy and untitled excerpt that used to run frequently on the USA Network show NIGHT FLIGHT back in the 1980s. That's where I first discovered the work of Starewitch and, all these years later, I'm still eager to find more.

A few of his animated shorts can be found at YouTube, and here's a link to a fine website that will serve as a more in-depth introduction to this brilliant filmmaker and his great works. Happy birthday, Maestro!

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