I was in another of those moods where I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to watch (I’ve been trying to keep to some sort of viewing schedule, but I think that’s broken down a bit), and then I recalled I still had this lying around… picked it up cheap a while ago as a library title (cos I wanted at least a bit of Starewicz on DVD) but hadn’t got around to actually watching it yet cos I kind of kept forgetting it was there. So I decided it was time to check in once again with the man who gave this blog its name…
As pioneers of cinema go, few are as arguably obscure, not to mention inadvertent, as Wladyslaw Starewicz. Born in Lithuania to Polish parents, the young fellow’s passion for entomology led him to become director of a natural history museum, and his other abiding interest in photography led him to try his hand at film making around 1909. However, trying to get his insect subjects to co-operate (the either fell asleep or died under the lights, depending on which story you read) was a vexing problem for him. Then he apparently saw one of the early animated films of Emile Cohl, the French cartoonist, involving stop-motion matchsticks, and decided he could pull a similar trick with his insects. After the 1917 revolution, Starewicz settled in France and continued his work there until his death in 1965. For the life of me I can’t recall how or when I first heard of him, but I do recall that back in 1995 I first read Sight & Sound magazine and I think I must’ve seen a review in that of the Connoisseur Video release of some of his films and that led me to actually order the damn thing (via the Dendy shop, back in the days when the Martin Place cinema had a shop out back), probably the first time I actually did that.
This particular DVD is, alas, not an upgrade of that (if only it were); instead it’s actually an earlyish (released in 2000) presentation of a mid-90s video release by Milestone of six Starewicz films, only two of which I’d seen before… starting, obviously, with the title film and ending with Winter Carousel from 1958, apparently his last actually finished film. In between there’s The Insect’s Christmas, a combination of insect-work and more traditional puppets from 1913, two 1920s silents (Frogland and Voice of the Nightingale, the latter presented in a hand-coloured print that is truly something to behold) and the 1934 sound film The Mascot. The latter was clearly shot silent and later subjected to some of the worst post-synchronisation on Earth (fortunately there’s only a handful of actual lines of dialogue, though each one makes me want to kill the person talking); it’s also home to a genuinely strange mix of sentimentality and the macabre. Given that Starewicz was essentially making children’s films, I can only assume with this one he was trying to traumatise some of his younger viewers for life. Revenge itself remains a thing of complete wonder, of course, a tale of infidelity and marital mistrust filmed by a vengeful camera operator as part of that evening’s entertainment and all enacted by a cast of dead insects. 100 years later it’s still stunning.
Glad I’ve got this DVD, but at the same time it makes me wish someone would do a much more definitive Starewicz DVD set; I know quite a lot of his films are lost but I also know much more than just this batch of films exists (I’ve got a few of them on tape after all), and it’d be nice not to have to jump through flaming hoops to get them in digital form.