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Late Night Research and Freaky Animal Puppets

I should preface this post with both an apology and an explanation. Every time I sat down to think about possible blog post topics, my mind drifted back to my seminar paper topic. So this post is part self-serving opportunity to sort through my thoughts in a less formal, structured venue and part genuine desire to make more people aware of a film that has utterly captivated me these past couple weeks. That film is Ladislas Starewitch’s The Tale of the Fox.

During a round of late night research several weeks ago, I somehow ended up on a Wikipedia page listing all feature length stop motion animation films including The Tale of the Fox, which drew my attention for reasons that I’ve since forgotten (I was quite tired at the time). Ever the committed, credible scholar, I took my Wikipedia research to YouTube. Surprisingly, the entire film had been posted in six 10-11 minute videos. After the opening credits of the first video, I was confronted by one of the freakiest images I’ve seen in a while: a monkey puppet wearing glasses and a robe. His movements, particularly his curling lips that exposed his teeth and flapping tongue, seemed something straight out of my nightmares. (I’ve always been slightly creeped-out by audio-animatronics ever since a fateful ride on Disney World’s Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at the age of two, and I’m still unable to watch Jim Henson’s Labyrinth for more than five minutes before the goblin puppets make my skin crawl). But after watching the first three minutes of The Tale of the Fox, I was fairly certain I had to write about it. By the end of Part 3, I was sold. This was the most brilliantly weird, disturbing, and inspired thing I had seen in a long time. Here were animal puppets that looked, not like real live animals, but like taxidermied animals dressed up and brought to “life.” Unlike the anthropomorphic animals of the Disney films I grew up on, these animal puppets were being subjected to all manner of bodily indignities that left them mutilated, scarred, or stripped to mere bones. I knew I had to translate my frequent exclamations of, “What the ****?” and subsequent uneasy laughter into an insightful academic analysis. My obsession had begun.

Ladislas Starewitch (whose name has seemingly endless combinations of spellings) was originally an entomologist at a Natural History museum in Lithuania. In 1910, after an ill-fated attempt to shoot a short film of two stag beetles fighting (the beetles were uncooperative, fell asleep under the bright lights, and just flat-out died), Starewitch realized the dead beetles made far better actors than when they were alive and shot his film using stop motion. Many of Starewitch’s early short films utilized the preserved bodies of dead insects and birds as stop-motion puppets (See Cameraman’s Revenge and Other Fantastic Tales which can be viewed for free either on Amazon Prime Instant Video or, of course, YouTube).

Made between the years 1929 and 1930 and released in 1937 (eight months before Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves), The Tale of the Fox (Le Roman de Renard) is, according to Starewitch, his masterwork. The Tale of the Fox is an adaptation of the medieval fable of Reynard the Fox, basing its story on the 18th century version by Goethe. As I alluded to earlier, what both fascinates and repulses me about this film is its portrayal of animal bodies. While the puppets in The Tale of the Fox aren’t real dead foxes, wolves, cats, monkeys, lions, hares, etc., the puppets were made of deer skin, among other materials. As evidenced by the photo below of Starewitch surrounded by some of his puppet creations, the puppets (some of them are quite large) were created with an extraordinary level of detail and craftsmanship.

Photo Source: (

In The Tale of the Fox, Starewitch has painstakingly re-creates animal bodies with astonishing detail; the animal puppets are capable of intricate and widely varied facial expressions and almost all posses unnervingly realistic mouths (lips, teeth, tongues, and even drool). But these re-created animal bodies don’t remain pristine and untouched. The film is full of lost tails, threats of flaying, animal skulls mounted on walls as trophies, multiple brutal beatings of animals by club-wielding human puppets (this is their only function in the film), and the eviscerated body of a mother hen whose chick plaintively cries, “Mama,” at the mother’s bare skull.

Yet, there’s an honesty to this film that is lacking in many other anthropomorphic animal films. It doesn’t hide the animal body, living or dead, from viewers. It refuses to ever let the viewer entirely forget that these puppets represent physical animal bodies. This contrasts with the more recent stop motion fox film, Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). After viewing Starewitch’s film, Anderson’s film and its animal puppets (which share a similar look with The Tale of the Fox puppets) seem more cartoonish. The animals in Fantastic Mr. Fox can be electrocuted (the standard flashing of their skeletons occurs) but are apparently unharmed. When animals do die in the film, their eyes are replaced with X’s which mark the only trace of death on their bodies. The dead chickens just look like they’re sleeping; the next time we see them, they have assumed the familiar form of a plucked, ready-to-cook chicken anybody could go pick-up at the grocery store. I’m still not sure whether to read this disavowal of the physical animal body as a step in the right direction, a step back, or merely an interesting observation. But I do know that I feel more captivated by The Tale of the Fox and I’m determined to figure out why.

Coincidentally, the YouTube videos of The Tale of the Fox were posted just one month prior to Fantastic Mr. Fox’s theatrical release. Without the YouTube videos, I would have been unable to view this film. The only DVDs available for purchase are used copies ranging from $40-160, none of them in a format that will play in US DVD players. Just about the only place someone in the US can watch this film is on YouTube. Oddly enough, I think this helps the film. The Tale of the Fox possesses greater relevance now than it did 75 years ago, particularly in terms of animal studies. Starewitch’s film calls attention to the distance between humans and animals, a distance further compounded by its presence on YouTube. The film’s insistence on insistence on injuring, killing, and stripping the flesh from animal bodies momentarily breaks the spell of the anthropomorphic fable, as we are reminded that these are animals with whom we share a certain corporeal vulnerability. At the same time, the animals in the film aren’t real; they’re puppets carefully assembled by humans in a way that echoes the kind of communion with the animal body that occurs with taxidermy (particularly the anthropomorphic taxidermy that was common in the Victorian Era). So how are we, in the 21st century watching this film on our computers, supposed to read this film and its depiction of animal bodies?

I don’t have all the answers yet. After all, my paper’s not finished – this is only a drop in the bucket. While this post has been immensely helpful for me and my paper writing, I do hope it leads people to watch The Tale of the Fox or any of Starewitch’s other films. They are fantastic technical achievements in stop motion animation, their use of animals is both confusing and intriguing, and, quite frankly, they are refreshingly quirky, weird, and unusual.

Published in:Julie McCown |on April 23rd, 2012 |3 Comments »

The fraud police are coming: Are you prepared?

Every night I jam an aluminum folding chair against the front door of my apartment. It gives me piece of mind that, if all the imaginary burglars, murderers, and rapists do come to get me, either they will be unable to enter or the resultant clanging of the chair as they burst through the door will buy me a few extra seconds to … call for help? make sure I’m wearing my cute PJ’s? tap into my undiscovered ass-kicking ninja skills? Honestly, I’ve never thought through this scenario very carefully. But still, every night, in order to ensure a restful night’s sleep, I set up my very high-tech and well-thought-out security system. What does this have to do with “meta-professional” matters in the English department? Such defenses against imaginary criminals lead me to think about how I cope with anxiety, including that which comes from my position as both an English graduate student and as a GTA. It also brings to mind another imaginary group of bogeymen that my folding chair seems ultimately powerless to stop: the fraud police.

When speaking at the New England Institute of Art’s commencement on April 23, 2011, Amanda Palmer talked at length about a group of people she calls the fraud police:

The fraud police are this imaginary, terrifying force of experts and real grown-ups who don’t exist and who come knocking on your door at 3am, when you least expect it, saying, “Fraud police. We’ve been watching you and we have evidence that you have no idea what you are doing. And you stand accused of the crime of completely making shit up as you go along. You do not actually deserve your job and we’re taking everything away. And we are telling everybody.”

Even though Palmer was talking to a room full of arts majors, not English graduate students, I think the basic concept still applies. The fraud police have haunted and harassed me off and on ever since I first started graduate school in Summer 2009, although I hadn’t come to identify them by that name yet.

But, if I am to believe Calvin Thomas’s article “Moments of Productive Bafflement, or Defamiliarizing Graduate Studies in English,” it’s not necessarily the worst thing in the world if I don’t know what I’m doing. By insisting that “you must not know what you are doing, it is imperative that you not know what you are doing, that you never know what you are doing, or else you will never do it well” (20), Thomas gives graduate students a seemingly counterintuitive message that is oddly one of the more comforting messages I’ve heard in the last 2 ½ years. If only he hadn’t followed that insight with this gem: “if you are even capable of imagining doing something else, doing anything else, you probably shouldn’t be doing graduate studies in English” (20). Maybe it’s just me, but I have a rather vivid imagination and can imagine myself working any number of different jobs. In fact, this irritating fault of my imagination features prominently when the fraud police come knocking at my door asking, “Why did you pick English? You do know that you are pretty good at that math and science stuff.” But despite the vivid imagination and the possibility of other vague career opportunities, I keep finding myself coming back to English, first for a Master’s degree, now for my PhD. This leads me to believe that on some level, if I wasn’t cut out for this, I would’ve bailed already. Every time I bemoan grading 48 essays or spend the weekend working two twelve-hour days to catch up on coursework, I realize that I don’t actually mind that much, that I possess that kind of masochistic streak Thomas argues might be necessary to do this kind of work. However, this moment of clarity is only a brief stop in the seemingly continuous cycle of doubt. The fraud police do keep to a schedule, you know.

Confrontations with the fraud police can become immensely more complicated in the case of GTAs where the concerns and anxieties of student and teacher converge. For my part, I was thrown into teaching composition with what felt like very little preparation; I have been “guilty of the crime of completely making shit up” so many times I’ve lost count. And, while this has largely turned out OK, I have wondered how it affects my students. In a recent issue of CCC, Dylan B. Dryer reports on a study he did of novice GTAs and how those GTAs “expressed considerable anxiety about—and frequent hostility toward—academic writing conventions and then projected disconcertingly reductive versions of these anxieties and writing practices onto students” (421). Dryer rightly points out the conundrum many GTAs face as “find their writing confidence and competence undermined in one set of classrooms and faculty offices while being positioned (and positioning themselves) as writing experts in another set of classrooms and in their own offices” (425). As a graduate student, I constantly question everything I know and frequently feel as though my brain is threatening mutiny.

But three days a week, I have to try to set that aside and become an authority (of sorts) about writing for my students. I’m not that good an actor, and I hate being disingenuous with them, so I’m sure my students pick up on this incongruity. In fact, I know they do because I talk about my experience writing each of the ENGL 1301 essays and I am all too happy to agree with students when they independently voice the exact same problems with the essays that I experienced. In proposing a possible course of action to solve this problem, Dryer argues that GTAs should be trained to make “more constructive use of the dissonance” they experience in the dual role of teacher and student and the kinds of selves or identities that are produced in those roles (421).  Obviously I can’t tell my students, “You’re right, this essay sucks. Don’t write it.” Instead, I try to use myself as a model, not an authority, on how to deal with the hostility towards or misgivings about academic writing conventions.

At the end of her speech on the fraud police, Palmer assures the new graduates that “You will get to a point where the fraud police will come knocking. And you will open the door. And when they accuse you of being a fraud, you will honestly be able to say, ‘You’re right. I still have no idea what I’m actually doing. I am making this shit up as I go along, but it is working out just fine.’” Making productive use of dissonance doesn’t mean hiding from the fraud police or making them go away entirely. It means acknowledging and embracing the anxiety and uncertainty as a productive force, thereby lessening its detrimental impact. It also means implementing strategies that are the equivalent of my aluminum folding chair in that, while they do serve a certain practical function, they are mainly there for reassurance that everything will work out just fine.

Published in:Julie McCown |on March 19th, 2012 |1 Comment »