The Kinematograph: a familiar and bittersweet story done better by others

Tomek Baginski, “The Kinematograph” (2009)

Here is a bittersweet story of a lone inventor labouring to produce the first moving picture with sound and colour only to lose both his wife and a claim to take out that first patent and to be forever remembered as the world’s first film-maker. The story is a familiar one – the inventor is so obsessed with his technology and his discoveries, that he forgets to care about his loved ones until too late and he is left with only his lifeless machines and memories, while the world moves on, indifferent to his sorrow and loneliness – and Baginski does it no favours by relying on a sparse and unimaginative dialogue, a flat delivery by his voice actors and trite background music that tugs at the heart-strings in an irritating way.

While the animation is quite good and transitions from past memories to the inventor’s current reality are done well and subtly – the inventor is portrayed as elderly while his wife is shown as always youthful (because the film shows him as living in the past) – it does move too quickly in parts and viewers can feel a bit dizzy from all the dynamic spinning of the point of view of the “lens” which purports to be that of the viewers. The film looks rather like a video game as a result and this detracts somewhat from the sketchy story.

The emotion is very forced and viewers can feel manipulated by the short’s plot and message. The characters are one-dimensional and seem very stereotyped: the wife as self-sacrificing to the point where she refuses to see a doctor about her tuberculosis until far too late, the husband as too obsessed with his work to notice that his wife is unwell.

For a better treatment of a similar theme, viewers are encouraged to watch Andrei Shushkov’s “Invention of Love” which has been reviewed elsewhere on this blog.

The Changing of the Guard: how love conquers social class and restrictions

Wlodzimierz Haupe and Halina Bielinska, “The Changing of the Guard / Zmiana warty” (1958)

A simply made stop-motion animation piece, this little film is a tragic tale of romantic love that crosses social class and conventions, and causes a scandal in the town where it occurs. The characters are matchboxes representing stereotypes of class. An anonymous soldier falls in love with a beautiful princess; he finagles his way into night-watch duty just so he can see her. While on duty, he gazes at her window and she appears; she comes out to him and their love, hitherto unfulfilled due to their respective social roles and the restrictions upon them, literally bursts into the open in flames.

The narrative is carried by the soundtrack and consists of various noises real people might make: snoring sounds when the soldiers go to bed, and the sighings of the soldier and the princess when they see each other and meet. There is martial music during one scene where soldiers are being drilled.

At the film’s end, the town burghers where the soldiers’ regiment was quartered put up signs stating “No Smoking!” in several languages: this is a message to all citizens to repress their real feelings and thoughts and to obey the rules.

The animation which consists of stop-motion cut-outs of match-boxes and cut-outs of props against a bare stage and background throws the emphasis on the story. The plot is easy to follow up to the point where the soldier and the princess sacrifice themselves for love. Although the mood is neutral, the denouement is quite chilling.

It’s a well-made film whose message will be clear to both children and adults on different levels: children will see it as a love story and adults will see it as an allegory about how love can conquer the strictures placed on people by society, albeit briefly. That the town throws further constraints onto the expression of love is an acknowledgement of how powerful love can be.

 

Once Upon a Time (dir. Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica): an oddball pair trying to find their identity and place in an abstract world

Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica, “Once Upon a Time / Byl sobie raz” (1957)

An amusing little cartoon with a circus freak-show organ music soundtrack, “Once Upon a Time” traces the adventures of an egg shape with four sticks for legs in its attempt to find an identity and a partner. It finds a set of feathers and a bird’s-head silhouette and together the unlikely duo encounter various cut-outs and images, and find a temporary home among a collage of live-action film shots and a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa painting in an art gallery.

The animation style looks crude and childish but the execution is ingenious and cuts across notions of identity, function and narrative. Small children may not really understand what’s happening here: they will appreicate the egg shape drawing a line on the blank page so it can walk over the line but not understand why the set of feathers behaves rather erratically, at once accepting the egg thing’s friendship yet ever ready to abandon its friend. There’s sly humour and the duo of the egg shape and the set of feathers behave like a Laurel-and-Hardy or Abbott-and-Costello pair. There may be an absurdist message in the narrative of the twosome as they eventually find a home and become virtually invisible in it, however comfortable and well-defined their new surroundings are.

The use of collages prefigures Terry Gilliam’s use of cardboard cut-out figures and it’s possible this and similar creations by Borowczyk and Lenica strongly influenced the Monty Python man in his own animated work.

The Adventure of a Good Citizen: a plea for tolerance, celebration of eccentricity and relating to the world in new ways

Franciszka and Stefan Themerson, “The Adventure of a Good Citizen / Przygoda czlowieka poczciwego” (1937)

Experimental film-making got off to an early start in Poland in 1930, the year that the writer-painter couple Franciszka and Stefan Themerson made the first of five short experimental films together before travelling to Paris in 1937 and settling there. “The Adventures of a Good Citizen” is the fifth of these films. There is a strange little narrative in the film: a man discovers that if he walks backwards, the sky won’t fall on him so he adopts his new backward-walking habit into his daily routine. A remarkable adventure results – he collides with two men carrying an empty wardrobe with a full-length mirror on the door and he ends up replacing one of the work-men. The two carry the wardrobe, walking backwards of course, into a forest. Some irate citizens protest at this act, fearing the new gait will become an unwelcome fashion trend, and follow the two men.

There’s a message about how changing one’s routine even in mundane ways can result in a completely new and different way of seeing the world and appreciating its beauty and joy. The centre-piece of the short film is in a series of nature shots for which animals were filmed through a translucent glass covered in paper: the effect is to create lively silhouettes of a squirrel and various birds flapping their wings. Some silhouettes are black against white backgrounds and others are white against dark or changeable backgrounds. The effect is often painterly and abstract. This photogram technique was developed by Stefan Themerson. There is also a general theme of reversal and mirror effect throughout the film as ways of enabling people to step outside their comfort zones, to think laterally and to see familiar things in a new light. Early shots of people walking in one direction, left to right, and their mirror images walking in the opposite direction, often in film negative, illustrate the theme.

The wardrobe and its mirror are distinctive characters in their own right: the wardrobe becomes a companion for the Good Citizen and a portal to another world, as the protesters discover when they pass through the door and see the Good Citizen literally flying high over them.

For its time, the film was highly inventive in plot, filming techniques and visuals. The music by Stefan Kieselowski does not sound very original or experimental to modern ears and can be very intrusive. There’s not much dialogue and what there was, was in Polish with no English sub-titles so a part of the film went over my head when I saw it. It’s worth seeing for the photograms that Themerson used to stunning effect to encourage people to take a renewed interest in familiar objects in nature. There is some animation used in the film as well.

A plea for tolerance of eccentricity, to question old and accepted ways and habits, and to renew and re-energise one’s relationship with the world as a result might well be the film’s ultimate message to viewers.

 

The Eye and the Ear: an assertion of Polish rebirth in an abstract and experimental short film after years of war

Franciszka and Stefan Themerson, “The Eye and the Ear / Oko i Ucho” (1944 / 1945)

Abstract and experimental animation has a long and illustrious history in Poland, to judge from this 10-minute short made by writer-painter pair Franciszka and Stefan Themerson. The short portrays in visual form what four songs composed by Karol Szymanowski (1882 – 1937) of a particular opus “Slopiewnie” (this actually consists of five songs but for some reason only four songs received animation treatment) might be like. The first song “Green Words” shows white silhouettes of twigs and leaves growing across the screen against a background of blurry images on film exposed to light. More images of silhouettes of leaves and branches, black this time, appear over backgrounds of concentric circles rippling over water and blending with one another or more misty clouds of blurred objects. “St Francis” features animations of white lines and geometric shapes moving across the screen while soprano Sophie Wyss’s singing is represented by images of mediaeval singers and musicians. “Rowan Towers” is distinguished by constant shifting and flashing white geometric shapes representing various orchestral instruments over a black backdrop while Wyss’s vocals are portrayed by moving and fluctuating horizontal bars. “Wanda” uses more water ripples and a silhouette of an arm and hand in reference to the subject of the song, a woman who drowned herself in the Vistula river to avoid an arranged marriage.

The music and the singing can sound a bit shaky and shrill at times due perhaps to the age of the film and there may be some wear and tear on the images but the photography and animation work are well done. The visuals and sound coordinate beautifully though I must admit I would have liked to concentrate more on the visual part of the animation: considerable thought and imagination went into the shapes used and the images flow quickly and smoothly. The spoken word introductions to each of the songs and their associated images were the only part of the film that was unneeded as these disrupt the flow of the imagery and music and to an extent dictate to viewers what they must see and hear during the film.

Modern audiences may grouse that the film isn’t in colour, doesn’t make use of three-dimensional shapes and imagery and looks quite cheap and tacky without the wonders of CGI. Bear in mind though that at the time the film was made, Poland was just emerging from a devastating war (World War II) in which nearly all the country’s major cities were destroyed, millions of people died in horrible conditions in concentration camps and the country’s borders shifted dramatically westward forcing thousands if not millions of people to migrate. The film might be seen as an assertion of Polish national identity, defiantly reborn after a harrowing six years of war.

Tango: cycle of life with 36 disconnected characters from young to old playing out in one room

Zbigniew Rybczinski, “Tango” (1981)

Winner of the 1981 Oscar for Best Animated Short, this 8-minute film is a collection of live-action film clips, all of which are repeated over and over in parallel in an artful way. In a plain setting of a room with three doors, a round wooden table surrounded by benches, a cupboard without a door, a bed in the foreground, a window opposite and a baby’s cot to the right-hand side of the screen (from the viewer’s point of view), a ball is tossed through the sole window into the room. A boy climbs through the window to retrieve the ball and then returns outside the same way. The ball then comes into the room again and the boy repeats his action; almost immediately a woman comes through a door to the left of the window into the room to nurse a baby and then place it in the cot before returning to her original spot through the same door. As with the boy and his ball, the woman repeats her action over and over. With each repetition, new people, one by one, enter the room: a burglar climbs through the window to steal a case on top of the cupboard; a schoolgirl comes into the room to dig about in the cupboard; a courier arrives to place the case on top of the cupboard; various workmen arrive; a man balances upside down on one bench; another man stands on the table to touch the light, screams and falls onto the floor, recovers and goes off with a limp; a naked woman enters the room to put on her clothes; two lovers make out on the bed; an elderly woman lies down on the bed; and somewhere in all of that to-ing and fro-ing, two other women enter the room (separately of course), each with a small child in tow.

Viewers quickly lose track of who goes in and out and does whatever in the meantime. A gorilla could have entered to face the audience, beat its chest with a roar and then exited without being noticed. The crowd of people go about their actions repeatedly without any one of them noticing what everyone else is doing. The courier does not notice that the burglar has stolen his case. The burglar need not have worried about anyone noticing him. The schoolgirl appears to throw something at the burglar but he does not notice. Nobody comments on the naked woman in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen. The two lovers go about their business openly. The man who is electrocuted receives no help. No-one laughs at the fellow doing his headstand on the bench. A workman brings a toilet-bowl into the room. What’s significant here is that people are doing outrageous things and everyone else rushes by!

Eventually people stop performing their obsessive actions and it’s only at the very end that something new happens: there is a connection between an action performed by someone and somebody else noticing the result of that action. But that second person does not know who performed the action that led to the result – because the perpetrator has vanished. This might say something about how fragmented and impersonal our society has become.

Mini-narratives might be seen: the burglar and the courier might be two spies vying for valuable secrets in the case; the lovers are interrupted by another character who flees the scene in distress; workmen come and go. The small children might represent the same child at different ages. An entire cycle of life takes place in the room from the tiny baby being nursed and put into its cot, to children at play or home from school, to young adults finding life partners, to adults at work or caring for children, to elderly people being served dinner or put to rest.

There’s no definite narrative – viewers can interpret the short in different ways. Some might see modern society at its most impersonal and robotic, others might simply see people in all stages of a person’s life-cycle going about their daily activities.

Technically the film is no big deal in this age of computer-generated imagery and it does look dated and flat. Still, it’s quite mesmerising in its own way with a rhythm all its own. The film can bear a certain number of repeat viewings until the viewer registers most of the characters and the mini-narratives being enacted to his/her heart’s content.

Reflections: original and beautiful use of black-and-white animation to illustrate a cosmic joke

Jerzy Kucia, “Reflections / Refleksy” (1979)

Black-and-white animation has never been used so well as in this little film about the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune on a small scale. A newly formed adult insect struggles to emerge from its cocoon after a long period of pupation, only to be attacked by a predatory ant that has been waiting for its prey for a long time. The insect and the ant struggle but the battle is very one-sided. No sooner does a victor emerge than it too is subjected to another cosmic joke.

Simple though the narrative is, it is beautifully told in the way Kucia changes the viewer’s POV from side-on when the first insect completes its metamorphosis and is attacked, to a bird’s-eye POV when the insects fall into a puddle and fight to the death. The action moves off-screen and all we know is the crackling noise the creatures make and the ripples of black and white waves moving across the screen as the animals struggle. (Animator Kucia originally trained as a painter and his painting background is obvious in the way he uses black and white colours to show the rippling water moving across the screen and to reveal narrative.) The ripples change to show a silhouette of the trilby-hatted man watching the insects and listening to background traffic noises, waiting for a car to arrive. The man ends up playing God to both insects.

Remarkably the action looks as if it could have been done in one take without any editing as it moves from left to right continuously and then to the top right-hand corner of the screen as the ant pulverises its victim and the victim fights in sheer desperation. The final blow occurs off-screen and we have to infer it from the foot-prints left behind by the man as he leaves the puddle. With the action appearing as though in close-up, the viewer is in a position of being voyeur and therefore complicit with the trilby wearer in allowing the first insect to suffer as it does while the ant is attacking it.

As with much other Polish animation, there is grim black humour which arises from the film’s theme of the vicissitudes of Fate and the fragility of life in a particular microcosm. “Refleksy” gains its power from its style of animation, the originality of the way the action is framed, and in the way it leaves out the most significant action which has to be inferred by the viewer. The viewer is then left to ponder as to why the man didn’t act earlier with regard to the insects’ battle.

The Banquet: a much loved cartoon with wry gallows humour

Zofia Oraczewska, “The Banquet / Bankiet” (1976)

Its style seems outdated for a short animation of its vintage but I believe this is still a much loved cartoon in Poland for its inversion of roles and what that might have said about Polish society at the time (and might still say generally about Western society today). Waiters and cooks working at a swanky hotel or palace prepare a lavish banquet for guests (one of whom looks suspiciously like Liza Minnelli) who arrive dressed in luxurious furs and glittering jewellery in chauffeured limousines. The guests eagerly race for the food – but unpleasant surprises await them and never was the saying “eat the rich” more appropriately applied as here.

The short piece is rich in gallows humour fantasy at a level that would delight and scare the very young and the old alike for different reasons: among others, the weak and powerless rise up against those who would literally consume them, heart and soul; Gothic horror meets the every-day; and the amount of mayhem and mess left behind when the waiters come to clear away the dishes might be a comment on the devastation we unthinking humans leave behind whenever we stop at or pass through a place or country.

The animation is reminiscent of Jan Svankmajer’s collages of cut-up figures set against painted backgrounds. Only the waiters and cooks are fully animated characters done in conventional children’s-cartoon style, and only they seem fully alive and alert to their surroundings. Everything else from the food to the guests either looks realistic in parts or is grotesque and crudely drawn, which suggests the food and the guests have much more in common with each other than either has to the general human collective. Thus the eater and eaten are cannibals of a sort.

The music is excellent accompaniment to the proceedings, giving away little hint of the carnage and bloodshed that will occur when the guests charge towards the groaning tables of food.

As long as there is short, succinct and intelligent animation and an audience exists for it, “The Banquet” will always have its fans.

Ichthys: a caustic commentary on institutional religion

Marek Skrobecki, “Ichthys” (2005)

For once I didn’t need to look up an English translation for the title of this Polish animation short which uses animated puppets. A man rows a boat to a distant shore, gets out and enters a cathedral. A waiter shows him to his table and the man orders the fish of the day. What follows is an amusing exercise in patience and frustration as the man waits a life-time to be served. Reward does eventually come but it carries consequences that can be interpreted on different levels relating to the nature of Roman Catholicism, spirituality and the search for meaning to life.

That the castle resembles a cathedral and the waiter a priest is no accident: the restaurant represents institutional religion which promises a great deal if people think and act in certain ways but which ultimately delivers either very little or delivers with even more conditions incumbent on individuals that they can’t refuse or avoid, or which condemn them to even more existential anguish and torment. The hungry man’s wait is torturous: as his clothes wear out and holes develop in his elbows and knees, the man’s face and body waste away and he literally falls apart: he tears off his face and his arms drop out of his sockets. He looks hungrily at the fish in the fish-tank but the creature ends up dying a natural death. When eventually the waiter returns, the customer is practically dead. The fish of the day revives the poor man but he does not realise that by taking the dish, he will be the butt of a malicious cosmic joke.

In spite of the often gorgeous colours that appear during the film’s duration and the promise of light and all’s-well-that-ends-well, the feeling that a huge con is being played out is never far away. Anyone who is familiar with Polish animation (and the animation of some other eastern European countries such as the Czech Republic) will know that Polish animation often carries a very sly black funereal humour and just when you think everything will turn out well and everybody will be happy, darkness and melancholy are never far away at all. So it is with “Ichthys”.

The animation is very well done with good pace and timing; the man’s facial contortions and comic if pathetic behaviour capture his anguish and torment. His actions are all the more pitiable when the reward is revealed and he receives it gratefully. Some viewers will anticipate what happens to him next and suspect that the waiter has known all along where the man ends up as he takes the customer’s hat and throws it into a room full of … other customers’ hats.

An excellent if very biting and sarcastic comment on the nature of institutional religion, what it demands of and extracts from people, and how it traps people in a never-ending cycle of debasement and purgatory, “Ichthys” is highly recommended viewing.

The Red and the Black / The Horse: two little oil paintings in continuous motion

Witold Giersz, “The Red and the Black / Czorwane i Czarne” (1963) / “The Horse / Kon” (1967)

I was held spellbound by these two very visually beautiful short animations which use animation of oil paintings done on cardboard or glass, and that exploit the possibilities that the characteristics of oil painting can offer. In the first cartoon, “The Red and the Black”, whose tongue-twisting Polish name offers opportunity for word play, a red matador and a black bull duel within the corrida and outside it – and even outside the painting, to the consternation of the “painter” who did the picture! The second cartoon is also a duel, this time between a wild horse and the young warrior who wants to tame it and ride it into war – but this is a much tamer affair that experiments more with colour than with breaking boundaries: one can only toy around with viewers’ expectations and spring surprises on people once.

The two shorts might be portraying the eternal tug-of-war between Human and Nature, and all that is symbolised by those two concepts: Human as symbol for a rationalist view of the universe and Nature as synecdoche for the organic, non-logical and unstructured forces of the universe. During the Communist period (for Poland, this was from 1945 to 1989) the conventional interpretation of “The Red and the Black” was that one side represented the forces of freedom and democracy and the other, those of Communism and authoritarian dictatorship, but my opinion is that the short is a light-hearted playful one and should not be assumed to symbolise two political polarities and their conflict.

The ┬ávisual style resembles the bright colourful Fauvist painting style that was briefly popular in France in the first decade of the 20th century, and there may have been influences from Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and the French Impressionist school as well in the preference for broad painterly brush-strokes in the movement of the figures. The animation in “Horse” is particularly good: the portrayal of the animal’s movements, in particular its galloping and the way it turns and flicks its tail, shows how closely Giersz must have observed the movements of horses as the animation is accurate and captures the rhythms of its flowing gait.

There is much humour in the narratives of both shorts: both matador and warrior are outwitted by the animals throughout. Even when matador and bull are literally bottled up, their essences still animate their prisons which threaten to upset the painter’s studio. The warrior appears to lose hope of ever capturing his steed as he fades into the black background.

If I were showing a group of animation students a series of cartoons to watch, I would definitely include these two little masterpieces of breath-taking originality.