At the Caravana de Recuerdos, Richard has been running a Foreign Film Festival all year long. He encouraged watch-along challenges, and I responded with “The Cameraman’s Revenge” (1912, 12 min.) the landmark of animation by pioneering Polish puppeteer Wladyslaw Starewicz, available in a marvelously tinted version at archive.org.
Starewicz’s puppets are insects (and one hapless frog). Actual insects, killed and preserved and turned into puppets. They do uncanny things. The grasshopper or whatever it is on the left actually paints that portrait. At a cabaret performance, a stag beetle applauds by clicking its mandibles together while a grasshopper drums on the floor with his long legs.
Given that he has for some reason begun filming insect puppets, what did Starewicz think to do with them? His answer: domestic melodrama.
Mr. Beetle is amorous and picks up a beautiful dragonfly who performs at a nightclub. A jealous grasshopper and camera buff and, why not, bicyclist, secretly films their assignation which he later projects – the grasshopper is also the projectionist at the local cinema – for the world to see (on the right, filmed through a keyhole), humiliating Mr. Beetle and enraging his wife, who beats him with her parasol.
Now Mr. Beetle wants his own revenge which lands Mr. and Mrs. Beetle in jail, where they perhaps reconcile their differences.
What do you do with your taxidermic bug puppets? The freedom, inventiveness, and light-hearted insanity of the great early filmmakers is a thrill to see.
The real virtues of the film are threefold, first, as I mentioned above, Starewicz’s attention to detail in the actions of his puppets, as we see them paint, operate a camera, fight, and come dangerously close to an explicit bug-puppet sex scene.
Second, and closely related is the casual surrealism of seeing the insects riding bicycles, going to a movie or checking into a seedy hotel for an assignation. The décor of the Beetles’ home for some reason strikes me as especially fine, although at a small scale it may be too difficult to make out their modish Asian theme, including the porcelain monkey statuette on the fireplace mantel.
Third, form determines content in this case, as it is a movie about movies, both about the kinds of stories told in movies and about the medium itself. The movie shown in the theater up above is made of scenes from “The Cameraman’s Revenge,” and in the ensuing fight Mr. Beetle escapes by punching his way through the screen.
How did Starewicz come to make such an odd film? I will quote from his biography at IMDb.com: “fascinated by insects, he bought a camera and attempted to film them, but they kept dying under the hot lights.” So he made them into puppets so he could film them in action. And then that action turns out to be packing a suitcase and driving a car. There is a step missing here.
I hope Richard enjoys the movie! When I founded Wuthering Expectations I thought I would write about movies a lot, the good old ones like “The Cameraman’s Revenge.” But I was wrong.