The incriminating film shot through the keyhole by the grasshopper
cameraman is projected outdoors for all to see
The Cameraman's Revenge
(Mest Kinematograficeskgo Operatora)
1912. Russian. Animated and directed by Ladislas Starewicz
The Cameraman's Revenge, included in the "Before Mickey"
video compliation of early animation, stands up fabulously well. For my
money, it's weirder and more entertaining than Tim Burton's Nightmare
Before Christmas. I'm not sure how Starewicz accomplished it ("puppets,"
the book version of Before Mickey book says, but how?) The entire
cast consists of insectsnot drawn insects, but apparently real photographed
ones. They are entirely bug-likewaving their antennae, rubbing their
back legs together, unfurling their wingsbut they also drive cars,
paint pictures, attend night clubs, dance the fox trot, and carry on together
quite licentiously. They act out a burlesque domestic melodrama in which
motion pictures themselves play an important part.
Bored Mr. Beetle leaves his wife alone at home and goes out to a night
club where his girlfriend, a dragonfly, is performing. He gets into a
fight with the grasshopper at the next table. "Mr. Beetle should
have guessed," a title tells us, "that the aggressive grasshopper
was a movie cameraman."
The cameraman fetches his camera from his car and surrepititiously films
Mr. Beetle and Miss Firefly leaving the nightclub together and, later,
films them through a keyhole at the Hotel d'Amour. Meanwhile, Mrs. Beetle
is entertaining her own lover, an artist. Mr. Beetle comes home and catches
them. He beats up the artist but forgives his wife and decides to take
her out to a movie. The movie is being shown in an open-air cinema, kind
of like a beer-garden. And guess what? "The movie operator is none
other than the vengeful cameraman." He shows the films of Mr. Beetle's
indiscretions. The audience goes wild. Mrs. Beetle hits Mr. Beetle with
her umbrella. Mr. Beetle leaps through the screen, knocking it over. Then
he climbs into the projection booth and attacks the cameraman. The projector
and film catch fire. Mr. and Mrs. Beetle end up in jail.
The spectacle of a grasshopper setting up a tripod and cranking away
at a movie camera is only the beginning this film's many pleasures. It
shows the raffish reputation of movies and movie-makers in those early
days. It introduces the delicious and highly visual notion of using a
film within a film as a narrative device. Mr. Beetle catches his wife
"in the act" by looking in through a window; Mrs. Beetle similarly
catches her husband several hours after his "in the act" is
over, thanks to the recording properties of the cinema. A new kind of
eye-witness is born.
It's particularly odd to see this "documentary" use of film
in the context of a completely fantastic animation. The plot depends on
the absolute reliability of motion pictures, but The Cameraman's Revenge
is itself evidence that the camera lies. The incriminating scenes projected
at the movie show are the same shots we saw earlier, when Mr. Beetle first
snuck off with the firefly. They are, in a sense, true films of false
events. Mrs. Beetle regards the films as first-hand evidence, and we tend
to agree with her until we remember that these apparently incontrovertible
motion pictures were "filmed" by a grasshopper, and are being
presented to an audience of applauding, bonnet-wearing bugs.
So, does the camera lie or doesn t it?