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The Cameraman's Revenge 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 insects—not drawn insects, but apparently real photographed ones. They are entirely bug-like—waving their antennae, rubbing their back legs together, unfurling their wings—but 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?



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein