Borowczyk and the Cartoon Renaissance

Borowczyk and the Cartoon Renaissance

"The East knows the West incomparably better than the West knows the East." So wrote Zenta Maurina in a recent issue of the Canadian journal Mosaic, on a Europe which, culturally, has always been two subcontinents. Film culture has yet to take the measure of its Eastern half, with its recent feudalism, its abrupt Socialism, its long history of oppressions and resistances by obstinately surviving ethnic groups. All these factors have generated a dialectic between Romanticism (from Chopin to Wajda) and cynicism (Schweik, Polanski), between materialism (dialectical) and a moral concern for the whole man in community, with the result that Eastern Europe has become the second home of Existentialism. Too austere for the West, that philosophy (with its converse, the art of the absurd) has found its spiritual home in a culture less impaired than the West by Hamletian splits between ego and politics, intellect and emotion, reflection and action-a culture sufficiently holistic to feel those developing splits with a special sharpness.

From Kafka through lonesco to Jan Němec, Eastern artists loom large in the development of the absurd-perhaps because bureaucracy and industrialisation, with all that's implied in their obviously arbitrary rules, confronted organic communities later, more nakedly, and more massively than amid Anglo-Saxon "laissez-faire". But there too these themes have loomed steadily larger. Kafka, whose work once seemed so mysterious, a postscript to the Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy, now looks like the poet laureate of the twentieth century; and his descendance ranges from Marienbad to Alphaville, from Solaris to The Fly (the thick-ear version of man-into-beetle in 'Metamorphosis'). Education, itself bureaucratic. has sharpened everyone's sense of oppression by mental process. A sense of political life as spiritual life inspires Walerian Borowczyk's Goto, Island of Love-an essay in absurd anthropology whose philosophy is as dark as, or darker than, that of a fellow exile, Polanski, yet less glib.

If the language or the Eastern European cinema often seems obscure, it's because it is at once intensely physical (mind-body-action are more monolithic), less liberal (and less irresponsible), and more philosophical (with a mixture of mischief, wit, and allusiveness which the West scarcely expects from symbolic thinking). No filmic language is more enigmatic, yet more intensely charged, than that of Borowczyk.

Into his nonmovie lithograph work, Borowczyk had already imported a comic-strip continuity. The graphic language of Renaissance (1963) and Les Jeux des Anges (Game of Angels, 1964) is altogether opaque to conventional description. Its tight, acute form energises and emotionalises an apparently minimal content. One of its by-products is a strong sense of cinematic form per se-a consciousness of medium akin to that of structuralist or concrete cinema, which his films precede in time. Yet they retain sufficient "content" to be more than the academic or programmatic exercises which structuralist culture too often takes for something more. If they approach the abstraction of concrete cinema, they never arrive at that point; and the parallel is not so much with minimal art as with the atomic particles of meaning one finds in Ulysses or Finnegans Wake (although Borowczyk's "syllables" are visual aspects).

Just as a human figure can be reduced to a face, and a face to a configuration of four dots (eyes, nose, mouth), and that pattern to a dot which both is and is not the face and any one feature within the face, so each fragment or aspect of a visual form can retain the meaning of the whole: "a human being". The reduction can be a pleasing or witty economy; or a riddle (when a certain tension enters into play); or an oppressive ambiguity or fragmentation (especially as the fragments are formed into strange new combinations). This game of fission-fusion has many modes in the visual arts, from Magritte to M.C. Escher. Borowczyk-like his early collaborator Jan Lenica- is essentially a graphic artist, and brings an intense visual sensibility to both cinematic narrative and affective structures.

Borowczyk and the Cartoon Renaissance


or rather a descriptive synopsis, for an idiom where the form is the narrative.

As Renaissance opens, its credits and the dedication to Hy Hirsh are backed with a sprightly march, whose strutting lilt almost evokes a dance. The screen's white is interrupted by an explosion, with alternating black frames, concluding on an area of charred, slashed wallpaper, and a white, mouselike scrap of white paper. In this dark shot the film's white-and-iodine tonality is not at first evident, although perhaps it vaguely reinforces the effect of fire. It certainly evokes the yellowing of old photographs in family albums, which were also often tinted in printing. The film's past seems to be a double one. One has the impression of a child, before 1939, looking through family albums whose photographs were taken about 1920, and being transported into one kind of psychological eternity: an elegiac communion with the home, the family, and history.

The camera crabs vertically downward and then tracks back, to fix an area of wall high enough for two children standing side by side, and a band of flooring, covered with burned rubbish (although one crumpled scrap of white paper, like a mouse, remains). This rectangular movement is characteristic of Borowczyk and dominates Les Jeux des Anges (1964). In both cases, it suggests a kind of stepby- step logic, a wilful energy, and an arbitrary ritual. The ending set-up suggests a theatre-stage, but only large enough for children, or dwarfs, or puppets. The low, cramped field of view adds its own unnaturalness to the camera movements. A series of close-ups isolate: charred blocks or the cross sections of beams; a heap of feathers ruffled by the wind; the burned and bent-up pages of an old (religious?) book, in rich chiaroscuro; splinters of wood; and, affixed to the wall, an oil lamp. As its stem (not its mantle) first glows with light, it is as if a magic spirit, summoned by the wind, had entered the film.

Accompanied by scratching and shufflings, the props begin to reconstitute themselves from the holocaust. Abruptly the wall is covered with pristine white paper, except for the deepest gashes, which are restored a moment later (magic seems more realistic by fulfilling itself in stages). The feathers whisk themselves back into a stuffed owl, whose finishing touches are its pricked-up ears. A bit of twisted brass scuds about, and becomes the valves of a trumpet. In close-up they twiddle as if with renewed élan, and briskly the whole trumpet is reconstituted, including the round bell which recalls the round shape of the owl and the valve-piece as a circle of cylinders.

If Borowczyk has printed his destruction of certain props, or emblems, or totems, backward, the film is by no means a "literalistic" reversemotion record of something like an autodestructive art-act. The staging and editing of actions are creative and "interventionist", they respect, without parasitising, the nostalgic mana which these objects, thus isolated, seem to bear. A short lilt of music celebrates this first achievement.

In the left-hand half of the screen a fallen table simultaneously erects and assembles itself (and it is important that it moves upward before its top is completed; the foreseeable completion is enlivened with the unexpected). On the left of the tabletop (i.e. stage-right), a shot showing the completed table also gives us another surprise: the owl already stands on it, and at roughly the same height, the lamp is affixed on the wall, to the right of the table-top. The spatial-formal equivalence of the two upright objects, the owl and the lamp, helps to obscure the gap between the table and the wall, which will surprise us as the film moves to its climax.

Behind the trumpet a black trapezium looms, at first almost indistinguishable from shadow. Cut to black, and a white pinpoint progresses to become a white line, jaggedly changing direction and intermittently exploding into blobs and patches which the line joins, as if they were constellations on a star map, or particles in a diagram of the atom. In the split second after this rapid blossoming allows us to recognise that they coincide with faces, the whole picture coalesces into a group-photograph of a peasant bourgeois family, circa 1910. Swiftly tracking back, the camera returns to its "puppet stage" longshot. The trapezium was the photograph frame lifting itself back upward from a face-down position on the table-top. But by the time our backtrack has ended, it is already hung on the wall.

Across the floor, a batch of upright straw-spines shuffle from right to left, accompanied by the sounds of a steam locomotive. (The vertical shapes vaguely recall funnel, dome, whistle, and cab, and/or the windows of the carriages.) Promptly much of the rubbish is drawn into a wickerwork attaché case, which lays itself horizontally under the table. The lid opens, and a doll butts out, head-first, but hanging face-downward. (The evocation of an air-raid victim amidst rubble is enhanced by its grubbied clothing and the round crater in its skull.) It creeps forward, still prone and limp-limbed, onto the floor to the right of the erected table. But instead of the expected movement-the doll turning right ways up to a sitting position-Borowczyk substitutes a much larger one: the erection of a second, lower table from the by-now apparently insubstantial smithereens beneath it.

Borowczyk and the Cartoon Renaissance

Abruptly on the tabletop, the doll sits up as if awakening. Its head has been restored. From the heap of scraps also on the tabletop a scattering of beads fall into line and snake along to leap around the girl's neck. The remaining particles, shuffling about, cohere into an object which remains obscure until the subsequent re-creation clarifies it. But we don't recognise it as a plate seen sideways until a stalk appears upon it, to which grapes attach themselves, starting at the left, and accompanied by the click of a typewriter key. (One may remember similar jokes from American cartoons: the corncob moves in front of the devouring mouth and is given the sound of a typewriter carriage.)

From left and right of the floor more charred scraps sidle-some quickly, some slowly-and converge on top of the attaché case, where they square up to become a stoutly bound book. To the brisk sound of drums it "walks", indeed parades about on its open pages, with the spine uppermost and making a compound head (being at the top of the book's "body") and crutch (being at the top of its legs). Finally it remounts the attaché case to stand broadly open before us. And though some of its pages still hang in strips (yet to be repaired) we can read the words, PENAL CODE, on its title page. The book closes, presenting its front cover to us, spins and lies down, with a heavy sound. Although the sound is quieter than the trumpet's, this sequence's more complex assemblage and more intricate movements suggest a matching energy, but devoted to punishment rather than joy. The table top and legs are now throwing diagonal shadows towards the lower left, which will become, or seem, heavier and more conspicuous as the objects multiply and the film proceeds.

A second, smaller book assembles itself, open on the floor before the centre of the case. The gentle sound of a soft gong marks its disappearance, and its reappearance to the right of the Penal Code. A second dissolve, with only one chime, places it in midair, to the right of and just above the doll, whose face its shadow obscures. After its third disappearance it reappears above the trumpet. The soft bell sound suggests fiery or prayerful forces. While the trumpet defied the laws of inertia, this book also defies the laws of continuity and gravity, and moves with a more conspicuous assurance than anything else, notably the doll, which remained limply prone throughout its journey. As this butterfly book wafts itself upward, the camera tracks in to catch it above the higher table, higher even than the family portrait. A closeup reveals it as a book of psalms, including the words "the bridle and the bit", if ominous rumblings recall the tumbril of L'Age d'Or, the vertically striped wallpaper recalls the similar pattern specified by the script of Un Chien Andalou. A fiercer wind forces the book's pages to ruffle right to left, and it continues its uniquely complicated development, for out of it slips a card bearing a picture of Jesus, deckle-edged and embossed to give the effect of ecclesiastical lace. It falls, as if half by gravity, half of its own volition, until a sudden gust catches it and drives it diagonally across and down to the "stage". It bounces back toward the centre of the floor, eventually landing (irreverently) upside-down in front of the Penal Code on the front edge of the attaché case. It still faces us, and a close-up shows its lower right-hand corner torn. A fly lands on its lower left-hand corner. Soft chimings are heard as the fly hops onto the pictured body of Jesus (nothing's sacred), and then up onto the clear portion of the card (relieving the religious pressure, i.e., postponing the ruthless climax which the previous perch has nonetheless intimated). This "Lord of the Flies" suggests an emissary of worldly corruption, an anti-angel.

From the words and images of the soaring spirit to earthbound machinery. In close-up, a clock mechanism, face-down, vibrates as its ringing reinforces the rhythmic chiming. But we hear only scuffling as it twists itself vigorously around on its own axis, finally to turn up toward us the inverted face of an old kitchen clock, pockmarked with two openings onto winding-up shafts. Its hinged rim swings open, in the lateral plane. With its heavy mechanism, and its connotations of rigid temporality, this clock is the "anti-card", and its movements, though much more contained, go with a greater weight and hardness. But perhaps it is still softened by certain associations, it may have been used for timing food, for example.

We see the whole scene once more as the book of psalms descends from its midair position. It slips down between the table-top and wall to the top of the wickerwork case, where it closes, and spins around once on its own axis like a cat curling up to sleep, only briefly reopening to let the card slip in. Closing once more, it lies on its side. Sideways on to us, the trumpet lifts itself up and the camera tracks in as it begins to play the tune, at last in full, as heard on the opening credits.

A big close-up shows the horn's mouth blossoming, shining, filling the screen. In long shot, it pivots from a position suggesting that its bell had indeed been facing us, to about 145° to the wall, and then fully parallel to it. Its cheerful tune, half-march, half-dance, sails out over a series of close-ups: the family portrait (the people look at us as if alive); the moving valves; the dollface against the wallpaper (a soft chiming is creeping into the accompaniment); a detail of weave of the attaché case: the owl with pricked-up ears; the trumpet just below the lower (faceless) half of the group portrait; the valves once more; and last a view of the lower half of the "stage set" (prefigured by the lower half of the portrait). The top of the taller table runs across the top of the screen, and the arch formed by top and legs is thickened by heavy, diagonal, indeed expressionistic shadows. On the lower table, we notice the doll's open legs. Scuttling across the floor, from right to left, we glimpse two-rats? beetles? hand grenades?

Borowczyk and the Cartoon Renaissance

As if to rendezvous with them at the (pre)destination, the camera tracks in to the two books. The clock, with the grenades attached, scrambles up from behind the case and spins onto the topmost book. Like a bent, insectoidal leg, a long lever pokes diagonally upward. As if they know what's coming, the two books slide out from under it and take refuge in the case, via different routes (the psaltery directly, front and down, the Penal Code by a leftward detour.) The case briefly opens its lid for them, leaving the time bomb on the lid, upside-down. The clock's hands spin rapidly backward around its upside-down face. The cheerful trumpet-music continues until both hands point vertically downward, to twelve. When the clock twists clockwise the grenades detonate, and an explosion continues over: a longshot of the whole scene, a close-up of the portrait, a track-in to the doll's head (pink-tinged in the film's only polychromatic effect); and then the yellow-white flash darkens into a long-shot of the wall, burned and scarred as before, with its one patch of white paper.

No doubt Renaissance is a remembrance of things past, a meditation on a peasant-bourgeois stability, on what in it was life-affirming, what life-denying: from the penal code on, each new object is ominous. Implicit in the film is the question whether any human order can avoid destruction. It's as if the joyful pride of the trumpet summons forth the grenades; the life-force provokes its hidden antithesis, and their synthesis is violent death. This gloomy, almost Schopenhauerish dialectic wouldn't be so far from certain moods of Freud's. (And it's only for dogmatic reasons that the dialectics of Hegel and Marx conclude in highest forms rather than lowest ones, or assume that historical inevitability must have an optimistic apotheosis.)

But the whole structure of objects can be glossed in various ways. Thus, the owl and the lamp are traditional emblems for wisdom-the wisdom which comes from nature-but, as nocturnal animals, they also evoke the cinema. They begin the sequence of auspicious objects, whereas the two books, of Law and Religion, initiate the menacing ones. The female doll, whose adornment concludes the first sequence, is the only object whose completion is conspicuously interrupted by that of another-the erection of the second table, bearing the plate, the grapes, and the necklace. But the necklace is the first object to become briefly unpleasant, for it crawls like a centipede, or a Serpent (adornment making a woman of a child?). The appearance of Jesus from the psalm book recalls the elevation of the Host; but even that which can defy the laws of gravity is subject to clock-time and decay. Although several of the objects hover on the edge of coming alive, the only living thing is the fly.

Some of the objects come in twos: two tables, two books, two grenades, the owl and the lamp, the doll and the plate. Though suggested, the "pairing" structure breaks down, since most of the objects form part of overlapping series (e.g., the two books pair off, but one of the books also pairs with the card; Jesus pairs with the fly) or are more problematical (the trumpet and the clock). Which is as much as to say that the symbols possess the ambiguity and ambivalence which is the richness of poetry.

The sensuousness of the objects is riddled with contrast and paradox, notably the formation of objects as disparate as plate, grapes, and necklace from an inconspicuous heap of undifferentiated rubbish. If the centre of the greatest energy is, alas, the clock, its nearest rival is the trumpet. In contrast to the instrument's (obvious) length, Borowczyk stresses its circularities: the central valves, with their round cross-section, the spinning of the screw, and later, the round bell of its horn. The compacted mass of the books is contrasted with the visually more complex processes of accumulation (in the case of the Penal Code) or their increasingly wide, vacuous movements (particularly in the case of psaltery and card). The anti-entropic reconstruction of the objects from chaos invests every movement with particular intensity; and our synopsis scarcely indicates the dramatic skill with which Borowczyk has re-structured what is only nominally reverse motion. His apparently so contracted "petit théâtre"-in which all shots are taken fixedly from the front, à la Méliès, in defiance of all anti-theatre film aesthetics-accommodates innumerable contrasts of direction, as well as constructing a formal climax based on (among other things) a gradual introduction of depth, a sense of gravity, and the energy within circular movements: a gradual "winding up". The truth is that a small space is just as large as a large space, since both contain an infinity of points. The very rigidity of this "set" helps spread a grid of tensions across its entire surface: the space is so confined that one can almost think of it as a painter's easel, rather than a stage.

Borowczyk and the Cartoon Renaissance


Dom, in Polish, suggests "home", like "domicile" and "domestic", and although its imagery is more varied than that of Renaissance, Dom seems an earlier (1958) essay in the same key, of critical nostalgia. Its opening suggests the antithesis of anything homely. Over a skyline of rooftops buzzing red flecks dart: objects from outer space, it seems, suddenly come menacingly close. The camera moves down the façade of a block of mansion flats and tracks into a selected window, wherein we see Ligia Borowczyk (alias Branice, the director's leading lady, here as in Les Astronautes and in his early live-action films). She lowers her eyes, in slightly pixilated motion, as if dazed by, but resigned to, whatever she must see, or not see, or undergo.

Abruptly, a red instrument which seems a cross between a propelling pencil and a power-drill draws in patterns which suggest part of a stove, then a kind of circulating system (we may think of central heating: the hearth), and linked to them, a brain with two red slits for eyes. The brain seems to consider various objects which appear in front of it, for it roughly matches their form with coloured patterns which are also reminiscent of mathematical figures. (The notion of an alien intelligence approximating everyday items recurs in Tarkovsky's Solaris.) Most of the objects are consumer goods, such as a radio, and there seems to be an implicit contrast between the wistful girl and the machine. The machine, manufacturing society, also manufactures perception and consciousness itself, and thereby poses as insidious a threat to domestic intimacy as any number of flying saucers. The red patches link the UFO's with the machine tool and with the brain's eyes. Their buzzing links them with the fly of Renaissance.

The girl returns, offering us a brief respite from mechanised consciousness. The next sequence introduces two Maret athletes demonstrating savate, then fencing; they appear alternately at first, then together. One is white, the other a yellowish brown. As in the first sequence, the dominant movements establish a left-right interchange. The men's style and dress place us firmly in the past, and although they too seem driven to frenzied activity by the whirring of the iron age, their combat is more human, less sinister, than the consciousness machines or the flying saucers. A disalienation, a rehumunisation is proceeding, as we go back in time.

But the past can also stand for our childhood, and that, of course, has its nightmares. So, after the girl's reappearance, the film embarks on a "still life" anticipating Renaissance. A mass of woman's hair, twisting with the agility of a spider, devours paper and an orange, drinks milk, scrunches the glass of its container, and rejects a candlestick before scurrying off as the whirring recurs. Reappearing, the girl seems expectant, even hopeful-perhaps because, schematically, the two preceding segments comprise a diptych of the Oedipus complex (male competition, and fear of absorption by the Oedipal mother) in a form far less disguised, and therefore human and resolvable, than red flying-saucers or riveter-pencils. In more obvious symbolism, a woman's "crowning glory" links her femininity with her mind (the brain beneath).

In another film loop, a middle-class gentleman repeatedly hangs up his hat, as if returning from his day's work in the office, while piano-scales suggest (a) the stairs he's mounted, (b) the idea of cyclical repetition and (c) children's piano practice, i.e., that he's a father returning to a home with children. A sequence of family photographs and vintage postcards evoke holidays all over Europe during the halcyon years of the century. When red returns, it is in the form of flowers on a postcard, but eventually the whirling recommences, birds' wings blur the screen, and the souvenirs of an idyllic past dissolve. The girl, now sleeping on her side, with her back to us, passes her hand over her head. Confronting a male mannequin, she embraces it passionately, garlands it with red and white roses. But instead of coming to life, its face chips, holes gape where its features should be, and it fragments like a china doll. Once again the red UFOs blink menacingly over the city's skyline.

While the red menace might evoke Russia or Communism or both, threatening family life, the symbolism is probably more complex, for the red and the white together make up Poland's national colours (and suggest a Polish, rather than a French, connection) In the strange symbiosis of the mechanical and the cerebral, red also suggests threat, fire, and blood. This ambiguity indicates the transmogrification of passional energy into an alienated paranoia (spaceships over the rooftops) which itself is only a futuristic aggravation of tendencies with which, we are already familiar: the manipulative planning of consciousness.

But old-fashioned sentimentality (red flowers on postcards) could not stop the rot; already man had become a mere arriver-provider, even, indeed, a faceless idealisation (the tailor's dummy). The previous regime always looks like a prelapsarian state of grace; but, as when the shopgirl in Němec's Martyrs of Love indulges in her daydreams of feudal romance, regression to nostalgia can only deliver our minds to incomprehension (alien forces) once more. But it the postcards are as dangerous as the images conjured up in the powertool-drilled brain, they were nonetheless less far gone on the road of dehumanisation, and so are accompanied with nostalgic music, not the whirring of a rationality without roots in the heart. Perhaps the man whom the waiting women needed is the fine young figure of a cadet-evoking the brass-band spirit of 1914. But how to shape such men, without provoking such slaughter?

If the film is a riddle wrapped in an enigma, it is not for the sake of mystification, but because a numb bepuzzlement is a part of our total experience-a mood which has become endemic in art movies since Marienbad. Dom anticipates it by three years.

Borowczyk and the Cartoon Renaissance


The structure of Les Jeux des Anges repays an analysis as obsessive is the attention Borowczyk must have devoted to its composition. Here we must limit ourselves to a few examples of "minimal contradiction".

1. As the underground railroad approaches the-prison? factory?- the lower edge of the screen is marked by a light brown, rapidly moving strip, like a mine gallery. Above it, a heavy brown area resembles a subterranean earthface. But as white marks scream past, like shells, they reverse our perspective, and the upper brown expanse becomes a night sky, beyond trenches. After the split second of their trajectory, it reverts to being a subterranean foreground.

2. As the earthface gives way to masonry, cement, and drainagecisterns, the more agitated continuity paraphrases the familiar railway experience of seeing a slow-moving countryside yield to city masonry rushing by (higher, closer and quicker). Thus the unfamiliar becomes eerily familiar, reversing the usual process.

3. We "disembark" directly from train to, not station, but cell.

4. We move from cell to cell like a projector racks from frame to frame.

5. An introductory title tells us that the music is based on a prisoners' chant from the concentration camps. But, mixed in with organ music, it sounds more like the gloating of monkish guards.

6. Rows of organ pipes move like theatre curtains (though their texture evokes cement as much as fabric). But they abruptly twist to the horizontal, to suggest the rifle barrels of an execution squad, in an effect which might well renovate discussion of montage. Visually, the organ pipes remain exactly as they are; but they "become" rifles because (a) they change direction; (b) they point at a man whose passivity suggests awaiting execution; (c) a rifle shot is heard, after which d) a recoil effect is needed only as a clincher. The identity suggested by montage prevails over what we see.

7. The film is a structure of cells joined only by (cruel) transmogrifications. Yet the camera constantly tracks and pans. But we have no more feeling of privilege, of immunity, than if we were being given a guided tour by the Gestapo.

8. Some of the details are subliminal, and not just in the looser sense of the word. Some details can be clearly seen only on a moviola, like the graffiti D-A-N-T-E and U-K-R-A-N-Y. And what in the cinema seems to be merely a white patch on the floor of a cell, indeterminate as between a pile of pillows or amorphous blubber, or human flesh, until it abruptly flutters up, with the "frrrt" sound of a moth, reveals itself on the moviola as a cluster which splits into three forms: one brown, one pinko-gray, one blue, all like mathematical objects from some Chirico painting.

9. If these are angels, their sharp flat tiny shapes seem irreconcilable with the large, white, feathery wings from which mechanical saws draw rivulets of ice-blue blood. And other wings are grouped with human torsos which, heavy and boilerlike, stylise men's bodies into something heavily earthbound, physico-mechanical.

10. Context leaves no doubt that what bleeds is blood. But iceblue is a double contradiction of warm-red. The structure of actual contradictions within a continuity is the logical structure of the film, of its series of twists. Another example:

11. The levelled organ-pipes shoot a man who waits with his back to them, arms raised and head bowed over a beam-end. Everything suggests a man before a firing-squad, despite the reversal of several typical aspects (the victim standing, erect, bracing, arms bound behind back). The effect remains that of a "variation on a theme", but adding its own alienness and its own overtones (resignation, ignominy, defeat).

12. When shot, the victim neither falls nor bleeds. He is transformed into a globule of reddish-orange jelly, like the interior of a squashed insect, with two brain-stains for eyes.

13. A pattern of objects resembles a still-life, composed of two nutritious objects (an orange, a cheese) and a third which is inorganic (a box with a ribbon). We crave to make sense out of so strong a structure, yet no sense is to be made; and the formal and contextual urge that we do so remains. The balance is a fine one (a sense of the arbitrary might diminish the tension) and resists formularisation, or indeed theory, since there is considerable evidence that the emotional power and the intellectual associations invested in any symbol vary with person, time, and place.

Borowczyk and the Cartoon Renaissance

Animated films normally get short shrift from film theoreticians, largely because they are the exceptions which disprove two rules: (1) the assumption, argued by Bazin and Kracauer, that the cinema depends on photographic realism, and (2) the Lindgren-era version of early Eisenstein, whereby cutting is the essence of montage. It may well be better to reverse the argument: montage is a special form of twist, and the sense of shock which underlies both is generated by discrepancies between any two "bits" of information, or association. In other words, knowledge about the world is as basic to language as knowledge of language is basic to knowledge of the world. Discrepancies may not be explicit; they lurk within the notion of "iceblue blood" as they lurk within a phrase like "Yellow Submarine" (submarines are normally dark because they lurk). Discrepancies remain implicit, and are not present in the text; "between the lines" means "in the mind".

The intensity of visual meaning in animated movies poses a problem for those semiologists and linguistic structuralists who assume that any series of signs must have a syntax (despite the problems which isomorphism, composition, and gestalt psychology must pose for any application to the visual arts of syntax in any linguistic sense). The visual language of Les Jeux des Anges is, however, readily analysable in more or less traditional terms, i.e.. those assuming an interaction between a variety of factors: isomorphism, plastic modulation, conventionalisation, a gestalt-influenced sense of configuration, and preconscious deduction, again involving knowledge of the world. The grand theory to unify all these "codes" must involve a knowledge of cognitive psychology, of which semiology is a part, albeit an unprivileged part with no particular claims to priority even as a preliminary-unless of course semiology is redefined to mean what we normally call general semantics.


The cell-structure of Les Jeux des Anges relates to what Robin Wood calls Franju's motif of the "terrible building". Often indeed that motif may be a special form of the concentrationary universe: slaughterhouses (Le Sang des Anges?), operating theatres (Les Jeux sans Visage?), islands (Goto Island of Love), libraries (Toute la Mémoire du Monde) and closed loops in time (Je t'aime, je t'aime; La Jetée). The motif is insistent in the work of the French "left-bank" group, and of its fellow travellers like Franju and Borowczyk. It's easy to see why the European Left might be haunted by concentration camps- as emblems of "civilised" tyrannies, whether Stalinist or capitalist, but even more as images of man's constant failure to alienate his alienations, to retrieve his existential freedom from the grip of memories, routines and conditioned reflexes.

If the "terrible building" à la Norman Bates now seems anachronistic, it may be because the family as crucible of consciousness seems less oppressive than faceless systems, not merely bureaucratic ones. The protagonist of A, by Jan Lenica (Borowczyk's early collaborator) is demoralised by the letters A to Z, which, surely, are not merely the Gutenberg Galaxy, the old print culture, but all the series of symbols and systems of intellectual filters which don't just pollute our streams of consciousness but dominate them. McLuhan's "global village" is the continuation of war by other means. Drawing on Malraux's notion of the imaginary museum as source of culture shock, Resnais had already, in Toute la Mémoire du Monde, stressed not just the preservation of our own wealth of information but the need to imprison it, lest it drown life in a second flood. A convenient link between the left-bank filmmakers (who, like Lindsay Anderson, are also honorary Eastern Europeans) is provided by Chris Marker, who collaborated with Borowczyk on Les Astronautes and used Ligia Borowczyk in La Jetée-a film whose concentrationary universe is as timebound as Goto's.

Borowczyk and the Cartoon Renaissance


These wider cultural themes may well seem more important than the psychodramas a psychoanalysis might reveal. Nonetheless, the latter are not "merely subjective", since many of us share experiences within the family just as we share experiences within society. The problem is the extent to which reduction to a basic type distracts from the specificity of the experience, and from its links with all the other aspects of the world-including experience in consciousness. In Renaissance, for example, it's not too difficult to see the two tables as Father and Mother. Father, on our left, and stage-right, is older and taller, and bears the upright objects, whereas Mother bears the round ones (doll, plate, grapes).

Father's body, in this Oedipal fantasy, gives birth to Mother (as Adam's Eve), but also contains the tomes of the law and prohibition. The sounding of the trumpet proclaims the "good society in the past": the joyful intercourse. The psaltery and the Jesus card (the Old and the New Testament) seem to crown this order, to invest it with spiritual freedom (midair hovering); and they "sketch" the child whose head would be just about where the Jesus-card hovers at its zenith. Which only provokes the fly (madness, maybe the Lord of the Flies), the clock (obsession), the grenades (spite). And just as Eve gives Adam the apple, so the grenades creep through the smaller, lower table to explode inside the larger. With an almost worrying precision, the classical symbolising of the male genitalia by threefold objects is observed in the case of the trumpet (the three valves) and the clock (with its two grenades). But the destructive object is more bisexual than the hopeful one: the trumpet becomes female only in the brief glimpse of its bell, whereas the clockface and grenades are bisexual.

Les Jeux des Anges climaxes on something like parallel action, with two heavy torsos scuttling in a fight-cum-dance while the camera discovers a bald giantess with pinioned arms. Spatially, the wooden tower with the two holes, through which we glimpse the torso-tussle of the ascending bodies, evokes the body of the imprisoned woman; both rear up isolated in spaces conspicuously larger than the usual cell-divisions. In terms of scale the torsos are dwarfs (or children, or fetuses) compared to a giantess (mother). Perhaps the suicidal enmity of the truncated siblings and the bondage of the mother correspond to aspects of the building itself. Concrete is masculine, but a buried interior feminine; and the building is the intimate merger of the two parents, a "dom" onto which the jealous child projects his repressed cruelty. Here "children", far from being generated, are incessantly slaughtered, and torture is eternally inflicted on images of masculinity (the dumpy torsos suggest workers), on moral ideals (the wings), on anything that lives.

But such interpretations indicate only aspects of the films, and even for their own purposes are incomplete, since just as much psychic energy must go to inspire all the deviations from what is, after all, only an ideal type. In the same way, The Concert (Borowczyk's 1962 short, which precedes by five years his feature Theatre of Mr & Mrs Kabal) would sound in outline like a crudely misogynistic revel. But it's not merely formalist for Borowczyk to outrage his film's apparent logic by an irresistibly cheerful piano which, after simplifying itself into the form of a box, borrows from its hidden planes to positively bristle with extra dimensions and treat us to a fandango of exploded perspectives. The jollity of this geometry is like a riposte to Alain Robbe-Grillet's obsessive substitution, in his novels, of lifeless geometry for a natural anthropomorphism.

Borowczyk's misogyny is also qualified by the tenderness of Dom. Yellow or brown wigs appear, briefly but climactically, on the women in Concert, Dom and Anges. In Concert the wig is somewhat derisory, but it shares its yellow colour with Mr. K's aerial accomplice, the lampshade. And since a lamp is also the instigator of Renaissance, one might construe some larger structure whereby this animated lamp is the emblem of the cinema itself- and of art's ability to create a mental world which, in spiritual radiance, corresponds to woman a crowning glory. Such a parallelism would tilt Boro's various confrontations between camera-eye and muse's-eye at climactic moments throughout his films, and throughout Rosalie, and in the prologue to Theatre of Mr & Mrs Kabal, wherein Mrs. K scolds live-action Boro for giving her unflattering features).

And it would fit his penchant for conspicuously fixed camera positions. In Gavotte, about the rivalry of the two mean dwarfs, the camera is as reluctant to rise to the faces of the fully grown characters as in the Tom and Jerry cartoons. Rosalie delivers her testimony at dead-eye-level, in big close-up, right into the eye of the camera, and of the spectator, who thus becomes jury, and judge-and dupe? The aesthetic rigidity and the steady unfolding of her plea convert the story from an hysteric conflict of impulses to a conflict of predicaments (her plight, her seduction, her dilemma), a system of contradictions. The image is overexposed in such a way as to suggest purity even while paraphrasing a high-key emotional tension; it doesn't help us to relax, even into sentimentality. Her eyes and lips seem almost isolated in almost-white on whiter-than-white, and this "transcendental" whiteness portrays a mother who, all but forced to kill one of her twin babies, can't choose which, and so kills both. The offscreen jury understands this "irrational" enormity perfectly, finding her, not "doubly guilty", but in a rationally impossible way, "not guilty". The role of equity, of logical impartiality, recurs in Les Astronautes, where the Tatiesque (French?) rocket inventor indulges his (Cold War?) preference for the red (Socialist?) rocket rather than the white (American-type?) one.

The absurdity of logic isn't idiosyncratic to Borowczyk: it also inspires the determined ability of Buñuel's Tristana to choose between apparently identical grapes, columns and legs. Her choice is, one suspects, both wilful and idealistic, a minor expression of her "angelism". Its connections with absurdity and ambivalence are clear. Even more restricted in its fetishes than Buñuel's world, Boro's is as difficult to sum up, to control, or to subjugate to that auteurism which reduces an artist's every film to favourite aspects of one psychodrama. It can be done, of course-just as one can throw away a peach and noisily suck the stone. Nonetheless, in cartoons as in poetry, intensity and length may work against each other, the very boldness of the symbols rendering their modulation and development difficult. A problem persisting as much because of as despite the procession of amazements which Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal becomes as it achieves feature-length. The symbols cancel out rather than accumulate, throughout a series of episodes which might almost be synopsised as: The Creation of Mr and Mrs Kabal, Mr and Mrs Kabal at the Seaside, Mr and Mrs Kabal at Home, Mr Kabal's Fantastic Voyage into Mrs Kabal (complete with clips from Corps Profond-it's a multimedia movie), Mrs Kabal's Atom Bomb, Mr Kabal Goes Big-Game Hunting, Mr Kabal Photographer, Mrs Kabal Sings a Lullaby, and Mr and Mrs Kabal Throw a Party. As in poems, so in cartoons: the intensity of spot meanings may create difficulties with extended forms. The part is so rich that it tends to imply the whole, and abandon it to the law of diminishing returns. Or, at least, most readers currently prefer to read and re-read shorter texts, rather than plough through the whole of, say, Paradise Lost or The Ring and the Book. Which may well be unjust, but would give Boro an additional reason, over and above the obvious commercial ones, for turning to live action.

Goto Island of Love is a society locked in an eternal present-with neither thought of progress, memory of change, nor consciousness of decay. (Perhaps it evokes the drabbest eras of both Socialist economies and a post-affluent West.) An impeccably structured narrative is counterpointed by the static, self-enclosed, almost cellular quality of Boro's symbolism. The island and all its Emperors are named Goto: every name begins with "G". Fly traps are made from a dead woman's hair. A coveted pair of binoculars are like a fetished remnant of the search for other shores; and the intrigue between males who curiously resemble dwarfs (even when they are giant dwarfs) for the seraphic young Queen matches the antithesis between the torso-tussle-up-the-distillation-tower and the imprisoned-Queen Bee?-in Les Jeux des Anges. (Though this, like Gavotte, is le jeu des nains.) Obsessively the characters are framed within flat planes which the screen's rectangle tightens into cells, albeit linked by shafts, trapdoors, hatches, and railway wagons, all of which may be felt as further frames within frames. The strange stringed instruments evoke not only Concert but, by some logic-free association, the harrowing machine in Kafka's In the Penal Colony. The perfect ambivalence of the characters provokes a participation which is both highly involved and critical, derisory and tragic-but less like Brecht than like Kafka in its apparently hermetic pessimism. But all three artists seem to move in those obscure but crucial areas in which an old-fashioned, emotionally "hot" expressionism has interacted with a newer, coolly absurdist mode.

Boro's latticelike structures, his patterns of connection, variation, and contradiction, parallel a certain tendency in the visual arts. A sense of "patterns of cells" evokes not only Vasarely and the juxtaposed perspectives of M.C. Escher, but Agan, Samaras, and a rejuvenated Constructivism. As so often, an artistic style corresponds to simultaneous intellectual developments, in this case, a certain strucuralism that seeks to rethink human experiences in terms of logical symmetries (oppositions, permutations, inversions-it has yet to suspect any quarks). From Constructivism on this structural tendency has gone with a new-broom optimism. Often the logic which inspires the structure is equated with the harmonious and the organic; the lattice and the mosaic are thought to be roomier and freer, and yet also more rigorous and anti-subjective, than the linear logic of Aristotle (old, limited, Procrustean). In all of which there is some truth.

Borowczyk and the Cartoon Renaissance

Unfortunately, every lattice is no less securely attached to rational and social assumptions than a line, and where they remain repressive or inadequate, it must tighten and extend the net of coercions. A three-dimensional tyranny makes a one-dimensional man. Behind the strident claims of a vulgar Structuralism, all the old problems, from incommensurables to functions, persist, compounded the moment they are denied. Sartre has convincingly objected that vulgar Structuralist dismissals of "diachrony" (history) only disguise a new idealism, a new Platonism. And A.J. Sparshott similarly observes that rationality has its monasticism: "In order to discover that one could doubt everything but the fact of one's own consciousness, Descartes first cut himself off from all social contacts (by joining the army) and then shut himself up all day in a stuffy poêle. The intention was to avoid interruptions to his train of thought, but the effect was to provide a pure specimen of what he was seeking. Cartesianism is the philosophy ot solitary confinement, where man as a "thinking substance" is cut off from the world of "extended substance". In his essay on "Cartesianism", Edward Caird gave this game away:

"In Malebranche, Cartesianism found an interpreter whose meditative spirit was fostered by the cloister . In Spinoza it found one who was in spirit and position more completely isolated than any monk... And he in his solitude seemed scarcely ever to hear any voice but the voice of philosophy. It is because Cartesianism found such a pure organ of expression that its development is, in some sense, complete and typical. Its principles have been carried to their ultimate result...".

To such an extent that, as R.D. Laing objected, even psychoanalysts seemed starved of terms for contacts between people, the unconscious became an iceberg within a prison cell (Magrittian image!); man was a monad, like the sentient but hermetically sealed "atoms" of Liebniz, Spinoza's complementary rationalist. Indeed, the reaction against "rationalist solitude" has required counter-languages like existentialism and phenomenonalism. And if for the term "rationality" one substitutes its social application (or, as Marxists might well prefer, its socio-economic inspiration), "rationalisation", then one may contrast with the "Constructivist", almost technocratic current in modern thought, all those artists who, from Beckett to Borowczyk, use deliberately systematised patterns in an expressionist manner, to evoke the anti-humanity of intellectual or social systems.

By one of those accidents which so regularly reward absolute artistic integrity, Boro's work can be read as a critical parody of totalitarian nostalgia in vulgar Structuralism. Goto is separated from history, from function, and from all structures of terms other than its own; hence all its processes are destructive, or slowly deteriorating, entropic. Even the alphabet, cyclical in Lenica's A, is stuck at "G". Structuralism's fetishising of certain principles in linguistics finds a dream-caricature in the heroine's name ("Glossia") as well as in certain syllable patterns (Grozo must care for "Chiens, mouches, et chaussures"). Not that such references are more than peripheral, or as precise as Buñuel's parodies of another intellectual system in The Milky Way. But the time is past when the cinema was innocent of high culture or philosophical thought; and the sequence with the propelling pencil in Dom was already a reflection on the relationship between human thinking and certain intellectual grids.


From Zardoz to Amarcord and Tommy, a cinematic mainstream now assumes that "If you could dream it, it's realistic". The assumption that the suspension of disbelief through realism must precede emotional effect has been reversed; a rich intellectual-emotional content can provoke a hallucination like belief. Simultaneously the cartoon has freed itself from the assumption that what isn't photographic had better be either short or mostly fey-funny-charming. The idioms pioneered by Lenica (especially in Labyrinth) and Borowczyk have prepared the rebirth of animation in the Sixties, and their spiritual children range from Maschin in Germany to Monty Python graphics and the George Dunning-Heinz Edelman Yellow Submarine. That eclectic, unequal, often brilliant movie borrows from, or shares with, the Eastern Europeans its mixed graphics (the sombre view of "All the Lonely People"), its pop metaphysics (the Sea of Holes, the Sea of Time), the straight-into-the-camera stare of characters-asstars to the audience, Edwardian nostalgias (military music), and a symbolism all the more barbed for its opaque elements (why should gloves and green apples-the Beatles' own trademark-turn the rainbow world grey?). And as Boro's camera-fixities or movements approximate to concrete cinema, so does the rousing demonstration of the length of one actual minute in Yellow Submarine. A suspicion of Marcusian criticism in the film's Sea of Consumer Products, and its melancholy view of lonely Liverpudlians and Pepperland gone gray, is fortified by a look at Andromedar SR-1, the Edelmann-Stempel- Ripkens kids' picture book, which looks almost like a home-awayfrom- home for some of the subversive notions which Submarine's producers reputedly kept off the screen.

Another feature cartoon, The Fantastic Planet (by René Laloux and Topor, the saturnine French cartoonist), though very different in style from Monty Python and Yellow Submarine, also celebrates animation's emergence from the ghetto of childish innocents and animaloid wise-guys.

© Estate Raymond Durgnat (Kevin Gough-Yates)