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: (http://ikono.org/2011/07/ladislas-starevich-and-his-amazing-insects/)

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 »

Friday Cat-Blogging

Friday cat-blogging, as an Internet phenomenon, was invented by Kevin Drum, late of Calpundit and Washington Monthly, and currently of Mother Jones.

(As a pre-Internet phenomenon, cat blogging appears to have been invented by cave painters in Stone Age France

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though the Romans have a certain claim to being the first cat-bloggers

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and by the Middle Ages, the practice was firmly established.)

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Anyway, Kevin Drum, a center/left blogger who has long been my favorite for his noninflammatory style and views just to the right of mine (which means I can digest them easily and still feel self-importantly superior to him), abandons his short-form commentary on politics every Friday to post . . . pictures of his cats. With commentary on their lovable peculiarities.

On Fridays, about 98% of the globe’s bandwidth is consumed by cat-bloggers posting photos of Missy, Dropsy, Fandango, Elspeth, and Crinkles. The uninitiated may find this a little off-putting, not to say actively nauseating. Although dogs have pride of place in the literary world (from Albert Payson Terhune and Jack London to J.R. Ackerley and Willie Morris), and there has been the occasional high-verbal dog with a blog, cats are by far the electronic animal of choice.

And I mean, really, what would be the point of a Loldog? They would all look the same. I SEZ WALK ME NOW. This would be even more tiresome than lolcats themselves.

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Cats lend themselves to blogging because

  • they never do the same thing twice
  • they occasionally sit still enough while awake to be photographed
  • they are easily anthropomorphized
  • they can be ascribed human language in print, as well as given voice by their owners in falsetto broken English when we think there’s nobody else listening

So here goes. Now, I must admit to violating one of the cardinal rules of Friday cat-blogging: you are supposed to stop everything and take pictures of your cats on that very Friday. Well, this cannot be done. I have a job and a life – not much of a job, granted, but I can’t stay at home and snap the cats. I have baseball boxscores to check, Facebook news to ponder, and crossword puzzles to print, so I really have got to get into the office. So I present archival photos of the Cats, in typical poses:

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Gemma has no memory, short- or long-term, and is continually surprised to find that people and other cats exist. She is one of the few world cats who will not eat any kind of canned food, even Fancy Feast Appetizers, which frankly look a lot better than most of the stuff I eat. If you have found pawprints on a manuscript I have returned to you in the past year, they belong to Gemma.

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Brutie patrols the place from various vantage points, preferably flowerpots or the roofs of automobiles. He will not sit on your lap or come when called; instead he follows a vocation as guard cat.

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And Gobsy bats the others out of the way so she can sit on my lap. She can eat anything without throwing up and is anywhere from 10 to 12 years old. I wish to apologize publicly for stepping on her tail last summer “on accident,” as unlike Gemma she has a memory and has never quite forgiven me.

And what does this have to do with the discipline of English? Clearly, if you’re wondering that, you have not internalized the principles of cat-blogging. It is a completely hermetic phenomenon that has nothing to do with anything but itself – not unlike a cat.

Published in:Tim Morris |on April 16th, 2010 |5 Comments »

Online Voyeurism

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Okay, I have a confession. I’m addicted to these new(ish) online confessional culture projects (Postsecret, Six-word Memoirs, Mortified), where people (often anonymously) admit (often embarrassing)  personal information that, not too long ago, would have only been revealed to a best friend after one too many glasses of pinot noir.  I caught the fever about seven years ago when I discovered Found magazine on the shelf at Shaman Drum bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  The cover of the magazine featured what appeared to be a senior prom photo from the 1970s, complete with awkward boy in tinted oversize glasses and girl with impressively feathered hair.  Inside I found a slew of photocopied handwritten notes, love letters, post cards, photographs, all found by readers on street corners and alleys and dumpsters around the world.  The little grocery shopping lists seemed particularly heartbreaking–one shopper made a note to buy a single red rose and also reminded himself to refill his Valium prescription.  A love letter asked the recipient to check a box at the bottom of the page if he did, indeed, want to go to the prom with her and “get it on” afterwards in the backseat of his Camaro. I flipped through the pages of the magazine and imagined the lives of the people who had written these random notes (did the writer of the “prom” note ever receive a response? I imagined a girl in a bubblegum pink organza dress, waiting anxiously on the bench next to the doors of her high school gym, a wrist corsage bothering the skin of her arm, wondering why Bobby never returned the note to her locker like she’d asked). So much information about the lives behind these scraps of paper was conveyed in such a small amount of space, and I was reminded of Charles Simic’s quote about poetry, which states: “Little said, much meant, is what poetry is all about.”  I did, indeed, feel as if I’d found a sort of poetry in Found Magazine.

Although Davy Rothbart, creator of Found Magazine, isn’t planning a trip to the UTA campus anytime soon, we can look forward to PostSecret creator Frank Warren, who is coming to the Bluebonnet Ballroom on November 11 at 7:00 pm.  I’m looking forward to heartbreaking postcards with scribbled confessions on them and that sugary feeling I get in my veins when I get a glimpse into the private world of strangers. See you there!

-Laura Kopchick

Published in:Laura Kopchick |on November 6th, 2009 |No Comments »

The New Fabulists

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Does even the idea of reading one of those contemporary, New Yorker-ish short stories about yet another middle-aged couple with a wounded relationship make your eyes close and your snoring begin? Well what if a UFO suddenly landed in the pristinely-landscaped front yard of that middle-aged couple’s suburban New Jersey house? Or if a ghost suddenly turned up and impregnated the mild-mannered wife while the husband, unaware, kept right on sleeping? Or perhaps this family struggles through their marriage in a post-apocalyptic world where their slightly charred Colonial two- story is the only one left standing on their tree-lined block?

If reading genre gets you to stop snoring, but if (as a respectable literary type) you’ve always kept your hankering for aliens and zombies closeted, then maybe the new wave of “Fabulist” fiction is for you. The term comes from Bradford Morrow, novelist and editor of the literary journal “Conjunctions,” which has published stories by Robert Coover, William Gass, and Ben Marcus. “Fabulist Fiction” is a nod to the New-Wave science fiction movement of the 1960s and 1970s, where experimentalism in writing sought to create a new literary landscape. As Morrow puts it, “A new wave fabulist is a writer who has transcended the conventions of sci-fi and fantasy fiction, lifting the traditional genre form into a new literary realm. Any effort to narrow down the category much further than that would be like trying to nail a raindrop to the wall.”

As a fan of George Saunders, Angela Carter, Aimee Bender, Cormac McCarthy, and many other writers who have been blurring the line between literary fiction and genre fiction for many years now, I don’t quite know what makes this new “wave” different from the old wave (maybe the snazzy label?). Still, I’m thrilled to see all of the new anthologies coming out. Currently I’m reading McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, edited by Michael Chabon, and then I’ll probably move on to Kelly Link’s collection Magic For Beginners. There is also, apparently, an anthology of Caribbean Fabulist Fiction (Whispers From the Cotton Tree Root) and a Jewish mid rash collection (On Moonflowers and Magic).

Like many writing instructors, I’ve always steered my students away from genre fiction because each genre requires its own set of rules and methodologies.  But inspired by this new enthusiasm for genre-bending literary writing,  I have recently begun to allow genre stories in workshop because (I have finally realized) the rules seem to be the same for a fabulist short story as for a good ole, New Yorker-ish, taditional literary short story. Give me  precise prose, an interesting main character, and a compelling plot.  I don’t care what you call it.

-Laura Kopchick

Published in:Laura Kopchick |on October 8th, 2009 |1 Comment »

Considering The Poetic Biopic

It’s a good time to be a dead poet with aspirations for movie fame. Apparently Hollywood has decided that nothing says “serious filmmaking” like biopics about famous poets. Movie studios appear to be hopeful that the combination of film and poetry will also result in a shower of awards – and, in some cases, they might be right and the awards well deserved.

Translating poets’ lives into dramatic film might not be an idea that immediately leaps to mind – after all, poetry is a quiet, contemplative business, not particularly engaging to the outside eye. But, the figure of the tortured, brooding poet still has enough cultural cache to be of interest. In lieu of explosions and car chases, one might expect alcoholism, broken hearts, sordid love affairs, and the thrilling drama of writer’s block.

In recent years, there has been a spurt of films about dead British poets, in particular:

  • Pandaemonium (2000), about Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth
  • Sylvia (2003), about Sylvia Plath (whose Britishness is debatable, I admit)
  • The Edge of Love (2008), about Dylan Thomas

None of these films were particularly well reviewed, and The Edge of Love was excoriated by critics.

The new film, Bright Star, directed by Jane Campion, about the relationship between John Keats and Fanny Brawne, appears to succeed where its predecessors have failed. This lovely film captures something about the beauty of Keats’ poems (and poetry as an art form) without becoming a didactic lesson on “why Keats matters.” Campion brings a light touch to the material and allows Keats’ counterpart, the fascinating Miss Brawne, to show as much depth of character and spirit as the poet himself. (View the trailer.)

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The internet is abuzz with rumors about another forthcoming poetic biopic: a film about Robert Burns, starring Gerald Butler.

And, in case the Americanists are feeling neglected, coming next year: a film titled Howl about Allen Ginsburg, starring James Franco.

While I continue to bemoan the lack of a great film about Walt Whitman (and have to make do with Levis’ commercials and films borrowing their titles from his poetry), there is a lot of interesting work being done to bring the lives of poets to life for the modern movie-watching audience.

For a much more thorough discussion of poets on film go to “Writers and Poets on Film” (2007) from GreenCine or Stacey Harwood’s Poetry in Movies: A Partial List” from Poetry.org.

– Desiree Henderson

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on September 27th, 2009 |No Comments »