Digging for Square Roots
Hi, all. This is my first post as a regular contributor here at IMFiB. When Snarky invited me on board, I was flattered and excited. Also a bit nervous. As regular readers have noticed, the folks here know a lot, and they write with authority on all sorts of different subjects. Well, if there’s one thing I’ve learned during my life, it’s that I don’t always know what I think I know. I keep unexpectedly finding some new information that changes my view of the way things are. Here’s an example.
I’ve been into animation since I was a small child, and while I was growing up, I heard over and over again that Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937) was the first animated feature film ever made. I never heard the Disney Corporation do anything to discourage that understanding. After all, it makes an excellent marketing tool. Then, some years back, I was watching Turner Classic Movies late at night when they showed Lotte Reiniger’s “The Adventures of Prince Achmed”, a German feature-length animated movie from 1926. Based on “One Thousand and One Nights”, it’s a rollicking tale of heroism, romance, combat and sorcery. It’s got some crude ethnic caricatures that aren’t much fun to watch, so I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it as entertainment, but it is a historically important work.
Why is it so little-known here in the U.S.? For one thing, it uses cut-paper animation, basically the same technique as Terry Gilliam’s cartoon interludes in Monty Python. Reiniger’s work is remarkably sophisticated, bringing in the full range of visual effects that were available in her day, but the style can take some getting used to for an audience. Also, it’s a silent film, which automatically knocks it out of consideration for mainstream distributors. And it doesn’t help that it’s by a female director. At any rate, I was upset that I hadn’t heard about this picture before, but glad I had discovered it. Now I knew what the true first animated feature was.
Except it’s not. Two years ago I was reading “Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince” by Marc Eliot, a most unflattering biography of Uncle Walt, and I came across a footnote mentioning Argentine animator Quirino Cristiani’s film “El Apostol”: seventy minutes long, made way back in 1917. It’s virtually forgotten, and that’s not surprising. After all, it’s from a Third World country, and there’s a general unspoken belief here that such countries would never achieve any technical milestone ahead of the industrialized world. On top of that, tragically, the negatives and all known prints have been lost to fire. It’s hard to interest people in a work they have no chance of seeing. So unless a hitherto unknown copy surfaces in some dusty attic or closet, this film will probably remain no more than a historical footnote.
What I’m getting at is this: I try to be sure that I’m on solid ground whenever I make a statement, but I’m still learning. I hope people will feel free to point out when they think I’ve overlooked anything. Dialogue is great! Let’s have some.
In closing, as a new member of the team, I’ve been considering what it means to fry one’s writing in butter. I think it means to write with crispness, with extra-rich flavor. To write prose that sizzles, that goes down smoothly and leaves the reader full for a long time. That’s a high standard, and I’ll do my best to rise to it.