CAMERAMAN'S REVENGE, THE
(Ladislaw Starewicz, 1912, Russia, 12m, BW)
The Cameraman's Revenge
The Revenge of a Kinematograph Cameraman (1912)
Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora (original title)
Animation, Short, Comedy
Director: Wladyslaw Starewicz
Writer: Wladyslaw Starewicz
A jilted husband takes his revenge by filming his wife and her lover and showing the result at the local cinema.
The Cameraman's Revenge (Mest' kinematograficheskogo operatora) is a 1912 animated short film from Russia—specifically, Tsarist Russia—made and directed by Ladislas Starevich. In this film, Mr. and Mrs. Zhukov are a married couple who have grown bored with each other. Mr. Zhukov is carrying on an affair with a nightclub dancer. One night he goes to the nightclub, and after beating up the dancer's boyfriend, Mr. Zhukov takes her to a hotel for some intimacy. Unfortunately for Mr. Zhukov, the dancer's boyfriend is a film cameraman and projectionist, who follows Mr. Zhukov and the dancer and films their tryst.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Zhukov is also cheating, with an artist. Mr. Zhukov comes home, finds his wife in the arms of the artist, flies into a rage, and throws the artist out of the house. Mr. Zhukov forgives his wife, who doesn't know that he was also having an affair, and takes her to the movies. Unfortunately for him it's the movie theater that the cameraman works at, and the cameraman seizes this opportunity to have his revenge. He plays the film, humiliating the Zhukovs and causing Mrs. Zhukov to beat her husband over the head with her umbrella. Mr. Zhukov charges into the projectionist's booth and tackles the projectionist, upsetting the camera and starting a fire. The film ends with the Zhukovs reconciling with each other—inside their shared prison cell.
Also worth noting: The Zhukovs and the artist are beetles. The dancer is a dragonfly. And the cameraman is a grasshopper. The Cameraman's Revenge is in fact one of the earliest examples of Stop Motion animationnote , with Starevich being a pioneer of the form. Starevich took dead bugs, attached wires to their limbs, and sealed the limbs to the bugs with sealing wax, thereby creating incredibly convincing, realistic-looking puppets to use in his animated films. The effect was so convincing that some people at the time believed that Starevich had trained live bugs to perform. After Red October, Starevich moved to France, where he worked in animation for nearly fifty years before his death in 1965 at age 82.
The first stop-motion animated films were more than a mere curiosity. Wladislaw Starewicz’s animated insect-puppets set the bar so high for technical mastery and charm that they continue to capture the imagination of artists today. Starewicz, a Polish photographer and entomologist, was born in Moscow to Polish parents in 1882, raised in Lithuania, and moved back to Moscow in 1911 to work for one of Russia’s first great film producers, Alexander Khanzhonkov. There he used wire and wax to make real beetles, dragonflies, and grasshoppers the actors in his comedies and dramas.
In The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912), one of his early masterpieces, the bugs enact a comic melodrama in meticulously detailed miniature sets. We meet a beetle couple, Mr. and Mrs. Zhukov (zhuk means beetle in Russian), both of whom are carrying on extramarital affairs. Zhukov wins the affections of a dragonfly cabaret dancer, but flies into a rage when he comes home to discover his wife in the “arms” of an artist (also played by a beetle).
Later, the reconciled Zhukovs go off to the cinema, only to discover that the cameraman (played by a grasshopper) is Mr. Zhukov’s rival for the affections of his dragonfly. He’s not only filmed their tryst (at the Hotel d’Amour!) but is projecting it, as a film titled “The Unfaithful Husband.”
Starewicz uses loving satire of early film conventions—the spouses’ slapstick fighting, the tryst filmed through a keyhole—for comic effect. His lighting creates a whole range of effects, from romance and suspense to drama. But it is the bugs’ remarkably human gestures that make his films so memorable. The Zhukovs perfectly capture bourgeois domesticity, the dragonfly moves with a siren’s lithe sinuousness, and the artist personifies a bohemian dandy in an extravagantly feathered hat.
Starewicz left Russia after the 1917 revolution and settled in France, where he continued to develop the art of stop-motion animation. In 2001, Terry Gilliam singled out The Mascot (1933) as one of the ten best animated films of all time, and The Tale of the Fox (1930) apparently inspired Wes Anderson in making his own Fantastic Mr. Fox. Other present-day Starewicz fans include Tim Burton and the Brothers Quay.
Stop-motion animation has never been done better, and that’s high praise indeed. The level of detail on display, the way the beetles are melded into the background and their surroundings, it’s all very astonishing. From a technical standpoint Mest Kinematograficheskogo Operatora is fine, fine stuff. Then there’s the story, which is simple, to the point, and complements the animation wonderfully. There’s a bit of god’s hand at work in the story, but in the end it’s mainly a film about the beauty of animation being used to relay a truth of human relationships, and some comedy to boot.
The fact that Wladyslaw Starewicz’s The Cameraman’s Revenge was made way back in 1912, when the cinema was still in its infancy, makes what would be a remarkable piece of work irrespective of when it was made, even more incredible. Apparently, the idea came to him while simulating a fight between two dead beetles for a nature film. It’s one of those outlandish, off-the-wall ideas that most people would probably shrug off as ridiculous almost as soon as it came to them, but Starewicz persevered and fashioned a clever, intricate and surreal (before the word was even invented) tale of infidelity and revenge in a world populated by bugs and insects who live in houses, ride bicycles, and go to the movies.
The story follows the exploits of a married insect couple, both of whom are conducting extra-marital relationships. Mr Beetle is seeing a grasshopper who dances at the Gay Dragonfly nightclub, while Mrs. Beetle is dallying with a bohemian artist. When he gets wind of her infidelity, Mr Beetle sees her lover off and gives her a good telling off. However, earlier that same night he had been forced to deal with another insect making a move on his illicit beau, and that chap just happened to be a cameraman who subsequently recorded a tryst between Mr Beetle and his inamorata through the keyhole of their hotel room. And later, he uses the film he recorded to get his revenge…
The endless hours of painstaking work that must have gone into the making of The Cameraman’s Revenge is really quite staggering. We marvel today at the work of Aardman, the makers of Wallace and Gromit, but they just have to work with pliable plasticine. Starewicz was working with dead insects. Imagine the delicacy of touch necessary to move each tiny mandible or antenna to the exact position required without breaking it. It’s tempting to imagine a box just out of view of the camera, full of dead bugs waiting their turn in front of the camera when the current ‘star’ loses a leg or breaks an antenna.
The story itself is a rather banal, très French romantic farce regarding the intimate hijinks of a bourgeois married couple. But the wonderful, unique twist: the characters are preserved insects brought to life through the wonders of stop-motion animation. There are many elements to savor–the casual depiction of Mr. and Mrs. Beetle’s marital infidelity, the intricate mise-en-scène, the sophisticated sight gags, a prophetic proto-paparazzi depiction, the complex commentary on both the filmmaking process and the act of film watching–but the most dazzling accomplishment of The Cameraman’s Revenge is the way Starwicz is able to so uncannily anthropomorphize these most inhuman of creatures.
This is made possible through a highly attuned sense of movement and gesture, demonstrating a precision that is unexpectedly graceful, and at moments surprisingly moving. While watching it I couldn’t help but think of it as a the perfect counterbalance to that great artistic meditation of humanity-as-insect that is practically the film’s exact contemporary: Kafka’s classic short story The Metamorphosis, first published in 1915. But rather than Kafka’s existential depiction of deteriorating, debased humanity, Starewicz relishes in the comical foibles and absurdities of life and love, and instead discovers within the inanimate insect form the means to explore a flipside of the human condition: its surrealistic humor.
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