Issue 25 (2009)

Rasa Miškinytė: The Bug Trainer (2008)

reviewed by Milena Michalski © 2009

bugtrainerThe Bug Trainer was created by several directors, although it remains essentially Rasa Miškinytė’s film, born of a personal passion to celebrate the pioneering puppet animator Wladyslaw Starewicz (1882-1965), and to bring his work “back to the film world and the audience.”[1] This engaging documentary was conceived, researched, directed and produced by the Lithuanian Miškinytė. She is keen to emphasize Starewicz’s links to her country, which are strengthened in the film by the Russian film expert Nikolai Izvolov’s assertion that Starewicz probably made his first films in Lithuania, in which case Lithuania could be considered to be “the birthplace of puppet animation.”

Such educated hypothesizing is in keeping with the tone of the whole film, which interweaves fact, fiction, speculation and academic research, just as it switches, with little or no warning, between animated and live action plot, voiceover narration, talking heads and film clips. It begins with pre-credits footage of the Lumière Brothers and of Starewicz, and after the credits we see the “bug” puppet being created, while the narration comments on Starewicz’s creation retrospectively but as if in the present, reflecting that “to most of you he [Starewicz] is a nobody, but to me he is god.” Once the bug has come to life, he falls in love with another puppet, the Queen Lioness, who is whisked away as soon as he lays eyes on her, and he spends the rest of film searching for her and ultimately winning her. We are informed that the original Queen Lioness puppet could move every facial muscle, almost like a human, and was an impressive 80cm tall. In the course of the film the bug learns about his creator as we do, from his artistic beginnings in Lithuania and early work in Russia, through the various stages of his career as an émigré in France.

In a broad sense, Miškinytė’s film appears to share certain aspirations and elements of unconventionality of both form and content with Chris Marker’s The Last Bolshevik (1993). Marker, like Miškinytė, is both director and scriptwriter of his highly personal documentary, made in the form of six video letters addressed to the filmmaker Aleksandr Medvedkin after his death. Nikolai Izvolov features in both films. However, The Bug Trainer neither has, nor, one would assume, aspires to the same level of aesthetic elegance and intellectual depth as Marker’s work. Similarly, although the puppet and other animation used throughout the film are entertaining to watch and skillfully done, one cannot help but think of the work of Jan Švankmajer, noting that his visual, technical and philosophical sophistication are missing here. Yet The Bug Trainer accomplishes its aim of conveying the genius of Starewicz and the magical world of his films in an original way, capturing the animator’s sense of playfulness. 

Much of the film is set in an elaborate, ornate period interior, which combines with optical illusions and cinematic trickery, to create a surreal atmosphere. The archival footage and the film extracts (Starewicz’s and others’) are fascinating, as is much of the information provided by the experts. The Quay Brothers, themselves highly talented and original animators, are riveting to watch and listen to, as they discuss the ‘choreography’ of movement of the different elements (puppets, camera and lighting, for example) in Starewicz’s work, which synthesize to form a 'fabulosa of possibilities'.

Starewicz arrived at animation not simply through his childhood delight in pre-cinematic devices such as the magic lantern, but through his fascination with entomology. In 1910 he began to make his own scientific nature films, in one of which he wanted to show beetles fighting. He failed to film this as live action, so decided to use dead beetles and glue wire through their bodies with wax so he could direct their movements. The Bug Trainer includes excerpts from Beautiful Leukanida, (Prekrasnaia Lukanida, 1911 ) which premiered in Moscow in 1912 and has not been seen by the general public for 90 years. The film shows beetles fighting with weapons, including cannons, outside a fortress. It is a playful and ironic film, technically brilliant, and it was a great success when it was first released, prompting much speculation about how it was made, including claims that Starewicz had trained live insects to act. What makes this film, and others, so appealing is the application of standard film conventions to the world of insects.

bugtrainerStarewicz worked in an extremely insular way; he wrote, directed, filmed, edited and even made his puppets himself, or subsequently with the help of his wife Anna Zimmermann (who made the costumes) and his two daughters, Irena and Nina. This method enabled him to work in the darkest of times. For example, during 1918-1919, a period of great austerity with no money, no film stock and no food generally, Starewicz managed to create lavish fiction fairy tale films, even employing human actors in mass scenes, using ornate costumes and multiple exposures. In 1920 the family emigrated to France, arriving in Paris penniless, and surrounded by countless unemployed Russian film directors. Yet Starewicz continued to work, again with the help of his wife and daughters, needing no other film crew or cast, just his own puppets.

There is a marked difference between the different phases of Starewicz’s career: the early Russian parodies of live action films and the grotesque fables; the French fairy tales; then the later sound films; and post-Second-World-War films, which are weaker artistically. One of The Bug Trainer’s film experts, Marina Karaseva, puts it like this:

“If you want to discover Starewitch, be surprised by him, then watch his early films like The Cameraman's Revenge, if you want to fall in love with him, get to love his films, then watch the French ones like Reinecke Fuchs.”

The latter is a work of genius, demonstrating Starewicz at the height of his powers. But soon after this his work stalled as the war came, and it was not until 1946 that the director returned properly to animation, by which time his style had changed and work diminished, as he had come under the influence of other directors whom he admired. Although always fascinated by Hollywood, when given the opportunity to go there, Starewicz refused, preferring to make a parody of American film, Love in Black and White, featuring puppets of Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, among others.  

The Bug Trainer emphasizes the playful side of Starewicz and his work. One of the best moments is the story of how the director once made it appear as if the film had caught fire, which was a real danger at the time and the cause of hundreds of deaths at the Bologoe blaze. Miškinytė blends the visuals illustrating the account of Starewicz’s prank with her own story of the bug, showing the creature rolling around to put out the flames on its back. Another instance shows the bug peering through glass pendants from a chandelier, and we see the refracted view as he might see it through the faceted glass.

In The Bug Trainer Izvolov aptly explains that “all historical studies are like detective novels. We pull facts in to the daylight; we systematize, compare and try to understand what was really going on.” This is exactly what Miškinytė has done, but then she added a layer of whimsical narrative and visual game-playing to the mixture. There are perhaps a few too many conceits, but on the whole the film is extremely watchable, and the genius, magic, mastery and technical perfection of Starewicz shine through The Bug Trainer, as the director intended.

Milena Michalski
King’s College London

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1]See the official website for The Bug Trainer. Ladislas Starewitch is the spelling used in the film and on the website.

The Bug Trainer, Lithuania, 2008
Colour, 53 minutes
Producer, director, idea and research: Rasa Miškinytė
Directors: Linas Augutis, Donatas Ulvydas, Rasa Miškinytė
Script: Donatas Ulvydas, Linas Augutis, Jonas Ranys
Actor: Gediminas Girdvainis
Experts: The Quay Brothers, Gunnar Strøm, Marcin Giżyck, Marina Karaseva, Nikolai Izvolov, Skirmantas Valiulis
Production: Era Film

Rasa Miškinytė: The Bug Trainer (2008)

reviewed by Milena Michalski © 2009

Updated: 11 Jul 09