Category Archives: Animation

The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912)

My 1912 selection is spectacularly strange, but I won’t spoil the surprise just yet.  First, a plot summary:

A restless husband and wife are bored with their day-to-day lives.  The husband ventures out to his favorite city bar to visit a dancer who ‘understands him.’  He vies for her attention as she dances, competing with a rival suitor, who happens to be a cameraman.  The husband ultimately prevails through forcibly removing his rival, then proceeds to escort the dancer to a nearby hotel.  The cameraman, now seeking vengeance, follows them to the hotel with his camera and captures their dalliances through a keyhole.  Meanwhile, back home, the wife is entertaining her own male suitor, an artist.  The husband returns unexpectedly, chases the escaping suitor, and scuffles with him outside the house.  Despite his anger, the husband forgives the wife (how noble!) and decides to take her out to the movies.  Lo and behold, the vengeful cameraman is operating the projector and broadcasts the adulterous footage for everyone to see.  The husband and wife fight, destroy the projection screen, and ultimately hunt down the projectionist.  In the final scene, they are seen in in prison, sharing their provisions while bickering.

It’s a fairly clever, self-referential revenge tale for its time, as it portrays the potential power of the camera in the hands of a scorned filmmaker.  The bizarre twist is that it’s filmed completely in stop-motion animation, starring dead insects.  By that, I don’t mean that the film’s subject is zombie anthropods; rather, the character models are literally dead bugs: grasshoppers, dragonflys, beetles, and so on.  Thus the married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Beetle, are precisely that.

It’s a remarkable work of animation, created by Vladislav Starevich, a Polish animator who made many such works throughout his career. But I don’t want to have an in-depth genre discussion, since I’ve covered animation and stop-motion in previous posts.  (Just know that Starevich’s techniques have held up surprisingly well–the settings are meticulously crafted, there are no visible signs of puppetry or armature, and the expression he draws out of his unlikely subjects is entertaining and impressive.)  Instead, I want to talk about the film’s subtext: the camera as a subject that captures other subjects.

It’s an interesting moment, at least for critics, when an art form becomes self-reflexive.  I want to be careful about the language I use here, since it’s easy to slip into vocabulary denoting art’s autonomous desires.  That’s not what I mean to imply.  Paintings don’t paint themselves.  When I say ‘self-reflexive’, I mean that artists in a particular medium begin to produce works that refer to the characteristics of the medium itself. Though I’m certain this isn’t the first example in the history of cinema, we know that at least by 1912, filmmakers were already making films about making films–or more simply, placing cameras in front of cameras.

If that is the case, what exactly is Starevich trying to say about the act of capturing events with a movie camera?  Or, if his methods were less intentional, what does his film’s content reveal about the camera as a subject?  I want to offer a few propositions, but they’re certainly not exhaustive. Bear in mind that each is related in some way to the others.

  1. The camera has the potential for power. Or at least manipulation.  If anything, Starevich shows that the camera, in the hands of the right person, has the potential to affect the subjects that it films.  Mr. Beetle’s secret affair is revealed due to the cameraman’s actions.  The camera bears witness and subsequently possesses the power to ruin or redeem lives.  In this case, the example is humorous and benign, but the implications are more radical when we consider propaganda films, wartime news footage, hidden camera shows, or documentaries.
  2. The camera is ‘truthful.’ The recorded image possesses veracity because it captures (some version of) reality.  Mrs. Beetle accepts the images of her husband’s adultery unequivocally because the camera has shown her the truth.  ‘The camera doesn’t lie’ has become a cliche, but it’s still a common maxim. Though the ubiquitous use of special effects, camera tricks, Photoshop, and artful editing have eroded our trust, many of us still maintain a certain faith in photographic or filmic images.  Thus, ‘truthful’ must remain suspended in quotes, since we believe (or hope?) it to be possible in theory, but understand that it is never really so.
  3. The camera is voyeuristic. The camera sees but is not seen.  Starevich portrays this in a literal sense, when the cameraman places his camera against the hotel keyhole and films Mr. Beetle’s affair.  Yet there is a more subtle assumption about the camera’s status as a subject that is both always present and never present simultaneously.  The entire premise of fictional filmmaking hinges upon the disappearance of the filming apparatus.  Actors must not address the camera, nor look it in the eye.  There are exceptions to this rule, of course, and genres that play with this convention, but the majority of filmmaking keeps the camera hidden in plain sight.
  4. The camera is recursive. This characteristic is a bit harder to articulate, but it’s helpful to borrow the art historical term mise en abyme, whose literal translation is something like ‘placed in the abyss.’  This term refers most commonly to the effect produced when two mirrors are placed in front of one another.  Each contains progressively smaller copies of itself, in an infinite regression.  When the cameraman films Mr. Beetle at the hotel, we are witnessing the filming of a scene which is itself being filmed.  Later, when Mr. Beetle’s infidelity is played back at the theater, we see the screen within the screen, and witness the characters witnessing themselves.  The filmed image is always available for further recursion, since it can be filmed again by another camera, which itself can be filmed, and so on.
  5. The camera is spectral. Cinema is always inhabited by ghosts, since it is necessarily temporal.  The further back we reach into the history of cinema, the more apparent this becomes.  Most everyone we see in early 20th century film is now dead, but their apparitions still inhabit our screen. Starevich has quite literally ‘raised the dead’, by using insects that were once living and are now re-animated.

    French philosopher Jacques Derrida once addressed this peculiar characteristic of cinema in the film Ghost Dance (1983).  In one scene, a young woman asks him if he believes in ghosts.  Derrida, ‘playing’ himself, replies:

    That’s a difficult question.  Firstly, you’re asking a ghost whether he believes in ghosts.  Here, the ghost is me.  Since I’ve been asked to play myself in a film which is more or less improvised, I feel as if I’m letting a ghost speak for me.  Curiously, instead of playing myself, without knowing it, I let a ghost ventriloquize my words, or play my role, which is even more amusing.

    The cinema is the art of ghosts, a battle of phantoms.  That’s what I think the cinema’s about, when it’s not boring.  It’s the art of allowing ghosts to come back.  That’s what we’re doing now.  Therefore, if I’m a ghost, but believe I’m speaking with my own voice, it’s precisely because I believe it’s my own voice that I allow it to be taken over by another’s voice.  Not just any other voice, but that of my own ghosts.  So ghosts do exist.  And it’s the ghosts who will answer you.  Perhaps they already have.

Perhaps I’m asking too much of a animated short starring dead bugs; entomology and philosophy do make peculiar bedfellows, after all.  But I’m convinced that cinema is a strange and wonderful thing, and often taken for granted.  Sometimes we need to look a bit deeper in order to remind ourselves of its peculiarity.  The camera allows us to see the world with this fascinating ‘monocular objectivity.’  It captures whatever we point it toward, including ourselves and itself.  Yet this remarkable gift of vision has filled our world with ghosts–and those ghosts are us.

Princess Nicotine (1909)

While we’re still in the realm of public domain, I’ll embed the film below:

(If you find youtube’s quality unbearable [I did], try the Internet Archive instead.)

I’m sure you’ll agree upon first viewing that the Library of Congress was correct to deem this film ‘significant’ and preserve it in the National Film Registry. As Wikipedia notes, there’s an impressive display of special effects, including the forced perspective technique achieved using a combination of trick mirrors and deep focus, as well as some stop-motion animation. Likewise, we see our first instance of tobacco product placement, as sponsored by Sweet Corporal (perhaps this was recognizable by its distinct packaging, as I don’t see any discernible product name).

Though these are important distinctions, they aren’t groundbreaking, even at this early date. We’ve already seen this level of animation in previous shorts, and Méliès had pretty much written the book on special effects with A Trip to the Moon in 1902. What’s more interesting in Princess Nicotine is its psychoanalytic subtext.

In the early 20th century, Freud’s pioneering work in the science of psychiatry was quickly gaining momentum. Much of the psychoanalytic vocabulary we take for granted today was beginning to capture the public consciousness (<– see?), especially in work concerning the interpretation of dreams, the unconscious, and sexuality. Since many of these ideas would really pick up steam with the Surrealist movement in art and literature during the 1920s, it’s reasonable to assume that their influence could filter into film as well.

In Princess Nicotine, we are led to believe that the bulk of the film takes place in a dream or a dream-like state. After the smoker nods off, the fairies appear, objects move on their own, and the scenery changes (although I’m not quite certain why this happens approximately halfway through the film, rather than directly after he falls asleep — perhaps to accommodate a change in special effects?).

As many of the film’s images were intended to be whimsical, I won’t attempt to unpack any significant meaning or symbolism from them, but I will say that there’s at least some psychosexual imagery at play. The most significant, I think, is the animation sequence, which shows the metamorphosis of the flower into a cigar. These are typical masculine/feminine symbols, made more apparent by the fairy’s concealment in the flower and the male protagonist’s identity as ‘the smoker.’ This theme of female entrapment or titillation (the bottle, the cigar box, the lifting of the skirt, the difference in scale) and male frustration (continually trying to unveil or transform the elusive feminine) finally comes to fruition in a fitting final scene: the smoker quells the flames with a spray of his seltzer bottle, which eventually bursts forth uncontrollably.

It’s the end of the dream; the nocturnal emission. Freud would approve.

Fantasmagorie (1908)

Fantasmagorie was the world’s first fully animated film. Emile Cohl, a Frenchman, constructed the short over several months by hand-drawing and photographing each frame of animation, eventually assembling around 700 individual drawings. Capitalizing on the popular Vaudeville trend of white-on-black chalk drawings, Cohl drew with black lines on white paper, then reversed the negative of each photographic frame to achieve the desired effect.

Even today, it’s a brilliant little bit of animation that benefits greatly from its improvisational creation. Eschewing any set script or storyline, Cohl opted rather to generate the animation on the fly. The result is the free-flowing, one-line-leads-to-another feel that’s pretty remarkable for the very first cartoon. And, since the short is readily available on youtube (and seemingly nowhere else), have a look before reading further:

Although incredibly brief, there are two interesting bits of content worth noting. First, the artist’s hand appears in the frame twice–once to begin the animation and later on to re-assemble the main character. Although this is a common animation trope today, it may have served a more subtle point of reference for early film audiences. It very clearly demarcates the film space as material that is literally ‘hand-drawn’. The artist’s hand conjures the animation into being and then later intervenes to keep it moving smoothly. For a viewer unaccustomed to animation and its blatant disregard for conventional laws of physics, time, space, or even the coherence of the body (lessons most of us now learn through a childhood immersion in Looney Toons and Nickelodeon), it may have made the transition less jarring. Keeping in mind that early cinema-goers were fooled by shots of oncoming trains and cowboys firing guns into the camera, featuring the artisan’s hand could help ground the fantastic in the realm of the ‘real’.

Second, around ten seconds in, we see two characters seat themselves in some sort of theater. Of course, the front row occupant is a lady with an enormous hat (glad to know some things never change, right?). It’s not clear whether they’re watching a stage show or a movie, but I’d like to think that it’s the latter. If so, it would be a clever self-referential trick for the theater viewer to watch a film with another set of viewers watching their own film. A minor detail, but fun nonetheless.

The “Teddy” Bears (1907)

This bizarre silent reel, helmed by Edwin S. Porter (photographer of the technically impressive Great Train Robbery) and produced by the Edison Mfg. Co., was a contemporary re-imagining of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Though only thirteen minutes in length, Porter manages to pack in a fairy tale narrative, an oddball political satire, and even an impressive bit of stop-animation. The bulk of the reel is a straight-forward re-telling of the Goldilocks tale, interrupted by a short animated section with acrobatic, Exorcist-esque teddy bears, and finishing up with a Teddy Roosevelt-impersonating hunter ‘saving’ the day by massacring Ma and Pa Bear. Fortunately, the cub is spared, alluding to Teddy Roosevelt’s real-life compassion toward a bear cub that led to the ‘teddy’ bear craze of the early 1900s.

The reel is obviously crude, with its few highlights including nice costuming and set pieces, the painstaking animation process (apparently shot frame by frame during a grueling week-long filming session), and a set of exterior shots in the snow. The real point of interest, I think, is the compelling amalgam of genres and narratives at play within such a short film. Such bold dismissal of coherence rarely exists today, nor did it exist much further into the subsequent decades, as films became longer and more complex. Part of this is due to technological limitations; the short reel format didn’t have a lot of room for storytelling, and therefore relied heavily upon an audience’s understanding of the narrative. Thus, we have the odd mixture of fairy tale, marketing, and politics.

This is also important to keep in mind when we consider the emergence of film as its own unique art form. As with any new media, there are initial struggles to be taken seriously as ‘art’ and also to distinguish itself with unique contributions independent of other media. We see similar experiences throughout the 20th century: photography’s effort to find a footing within the art world, then eventually supplanting painting in the realist genre, instigating painting’s move toward abstraction; the gradual acceptance of Internet art into the museum system; and even the current debates questioning whether video games can be art (Ebert says no, in case you haven’t heard).

Each genre reaches a certain critical tipping point or threshold, often represented by a landmark media event (e.g. Birth of a Nation, Citizen Kane, etc.). In 1907, film hadn’t quite reached that point. However, many critical indices were falling into place, and some of the most important of these were the ability for mainstream capitalism, politics, and popular culture to appropriate the new art form for its own uses. All are present in The ‘Teddy’ Bears: Teddy bears were a popular fad and a clever marketing device (no surprise, coming from Edison’s studio) and New York department stores featured the reel after its initial theatrical run. And, though its satirical potency is difficult to gauge now, we do have some form of commentary on President Roosevelt as well. This, and other shorts like it, showed that the emerging media of film was available for use as advertising, popular culture, and propoganda, and therefore taken seriously by an increasingly mainstream audience. These are all important milestones in the transition from novelty to art.