Lady Lazarus: 2012 in review.

Wow! This blog Lady Lazarus: dying is an art received exactly 47,512 visits in 2012. That’s pretty impressive for a personal blog fuelled by the writing powers of just one individual. Many thanks to those amongst you who “follow” me and add your comments to my posts. It takes at least two to make a conversation, so keep those comments coming in 2013. This blog is a pure labour of love, and I plan to keep it that way. The drive that keeps me researching and writing about all things dark and macabre is a genuine, unslakable curiosity. I’m just a big nerd that way.

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 47,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 11 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.

The “10 Best Animated Films of All Time”, according to Terry Gilliam.

The following text has been copied from an interview with Terry Gilliam (source: in which the animator, filmmaker and former member of Monty Python reveals his creative inspirations.

The Mascot (Wladyslaw Starewicz, France 1934)

It was at the Sitges film festival that I first saw an exhibition of work by the pioneering Russian animator Wladyslaw Starewicz, and the puppets were so enrapturing that when I got home I ordered up all the tapes I could find of his work. His work is absolutely breathtaking, surreal, inventive and extraordinary, encompassing everything that Jan Svankmajer, Walerian Borowczyk and the Quay Brothers would do subsequently. This is his last film, after The Tale of the Fox from 1930; it is all right there in this cosmic animation soup. It is important, before you journey through all these mind-bending worlds, to remember that it was all done years ago, by someone most of us have forgotten about now. This is where it all began.

Pinocchio (Hamilton Luske and Ben Sharpsteen, US, 1940)

For me, as an American growing up in Minnesota, Walt Disney was animation. But the joy of Disney’s films always came from watching the baddies. Pinocchio is visually the richest of his features and it is also the darkest. The Bad Boys’ World is a truly immortal nightmare, full of eerie images of kids turning into donkeys and all manner of strangeness. Then there is that stuff with cages, and I notice now that every film I have made features a scene with somebody in a cage – a trait I attribute to watching Pinocchio. Great songs in that film too; Disney was essentially a musical film-maker. Plus there is something intriguing about a character who desperately wants to be a real person, but who we all think is actually more interesting as a piece of wood.

Red Hot Riding Hood (Tex Avery, US, 1943)

The magic of Tex Avery’s animation is the sheer extremity of it all. The classic Avery image is of someone’s mouth falling open down to their feet, wham, their eyes whooping out and their tongue unrolling for about half a mile: that is the most wonderfully liberating spectacle. Avery would just stretch the human body and face however he liked, and the result was unbelievably funny. There is no hesitation in his work, no sense that you can go too far. I think that nowadays they should put on Tex Avery festivals as an antidote to political correctness. There is also a childlike sense of immortality and indestructibility in his work; people get squashed, mashed, bashed, bent out of shape, whatever, and they bounce back. In essence, it is like the myth of eternal life.

Out of the Inkwell (Dave Fleischer, US, 1938)

I first saw this when I was a teenager and, in retrospect, it was a career leap for me. This was when I first discovered surrealism. You have a scenario in which you see an animator creating something which suddenly develops a life outside of the cartoon. The character starts communicating with the animator, and then it is Frankenstein all over again, the creation of a monster over which you have no control. Until I saw Out of the Inkwell, I had always thought of animation as existing on one plane, but here were the Fleischer brothers taking you right through the looking glass and into the picture. Of course, when I saw it I loved it – not because I wanted to be the animator whose ink comes to life, but because I wanted to be the animation, the clown wreaking havoc upon the world.

Death Breath (Stan van der Beek, US, 1964)

After college, I lived in New York with some people who would watch experimental avant-garde films. We embraced them because they annoyed everybody else, even though they were mostly awful. One night we were enduring some of this stuff when on to the screen came a cut-up image of Richard Nixon trying to talk with his foot in his mouth. It was the simplest animation pun imaginable. Years later, when I had come to England and we were working on a TV programme that was meant to make people laugh, there was a problem with dramatising one of the ideas. So I got a picture of Jimmy Young, cut it in half, moved his mouth around a bit and everybody laughed. That subsequently became a trademark, for which I think van der Beek should take credit.

Les Jeux des Anges (Walerian Borowczyk, France, 1964)

Walerian Borowczyk was a twisted man whose films were infused with a unique cruelty and weirdness. He started out making extraordinary animations, graduated to directing classics such as Goto, Island of Love and La bête, and then ended up directing Emmanuelle 5, which I think is a perversely fitting end. Les Jeux des Anges was my first experience of animation that was utterly impressionistic. It didn’t show me anything specific, just sound and movement from which you create a world of your own.

Dimensions of Dialogue (Jan Svankmajer, Czechoslovakia, 1982)

Jan Svankmajer’s stop-motion work uses familiar, unremarkable objects in a way which is deeply disturbing. The first film of his that I saw was Alice, and I was extremely unsettled by the image of an animated rabbit which had real fur and real eyes. His films always leave me with mixed feelings, but they all have moments that really get to me; moments that evoke the nightmarish spectre of seeing commonplace things coming unexpectedly to life.

Street of Crocodiles (The Quay Brothers, UK, 1986)

There is something peculiar about falling for Jan Svankmajer and then discovering the Quay brothers – Americans who came to Europe and somehow wound up working in a style that felt like Polish animation. As an American, I always wanted to be seduced into this strange decadent, rotting idea of Europe, and the Quays have created that world in a manner which hypnotises me, but which I don’t fully understand. Maybe I like them because they ended up going further east than I did.

Knick Knack (John Lasseter, US, 1989)

John Lasseter’s work was the first digital animation that had genuine life in the characters. To be able to mix that level of characterisation with the smooth, crisp, clean quality of computer animation, to give it a real sense of three-dimensional existence, of touchiness and tactility, was like discovering a whole new texture of animation. The quality has endured from Lasseter’s short films such as Knickknack through to Toy Story 1 and 2, both of which are touching, funny, intelligent and brilliant.

South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (Trey Parker, US, 1999)

Parker and Stone are the only guys who were ever inspired by me, who took the crudeness of my animation to even lower depths. Their stuff is so shoddy that it is miraculous that it works at all. I assured them that while it may be great for TV, there was no way to sustain it for 90 minutes. And, of course, their movie worked just brilliantly.

Nightmarish visions at 24 frames per second.

The startling fantasy world of Jan Lenica’s “Labyrinth” (1963) owes a stylistic debt to the earlier Surrealist colleges of Max Ernst.

Like the majority of moviegoers, I’m often bedazzled by the computer-generated worlds created by Pixar and Dreamworks. While it would be difficult to dispute the technical virtuosity of these animation mega-giants, I must admit to having a soft spot for the low-fi underdog that is stop-motion animation. Perhaps because it involves a fully manual approach that relies more heavily on materials than pixels, I feel a greater affinity for it. One of the most basic and “low-fi” of stop-motion techniques is the paper cutout which, as the name suggests, involves drawings or prints on paper that are cut out and manipulated to simulate movement. The high degree of artifice and theatricality associated with the paper cutout makes this technique particularly well suited to animations which are fantastic, dreamlike and surreal. Its relative simplicity enabled many visual artists not typically known as animators to use this technique to create time-based work. Polish filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk, who had received a very classical training in painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, used paper cutouts to great effect in his animated short films Les Astronautes (1959) and Les jeux des anges (1964). Borowczyk capitalized on the anti-realism of the cutout to produce his surreal and frequently nightmarish worlds.

Borowczyk’s compatriot and sometimes collaborator Jan Lenica used paper cutouts for his masterful Labyrinth (1963), an animation that, through its incorporation of 19th-century illustrations, closely recalls the eerie beauty and surrealism of a Max Ernst college novel. Eastern European animators such as Borowczyk, Lenica, and the Czech stop-motion master Jan Švankmajer, were highly influential on the work of contemporary animators/filmmakers Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam.

The Oms take down a giant Draag in Laloux’s surreal animated feature “Fantastic Planet” (1973). A joint production between France and the former Czechoslovakia, it’s Cold War politics are neatly embedded in the science fiction tale.

One of my earliest exposures to the technique of paper cutout animation was the feature-length science fiction film La Planète Sauvage, (“Fantastic Planet”, 1973), a collaboration between the French director René Laloux, writer/artist Roland Topor and a team of Czech animators at Jiří Trnka Studio. The sophistication of the paper cutout technique is astounding, and the visual style unique and thoroughly memorable. There’s quite a good synopsis of this film, accompanied by several screen shots, at the Twitchfilm blog which I would recommend. The author of this blog ends her/his post with a paragraph about the “adult” content of this film. It is, most assuredly, aimed at an adult audience, and I particularly enjoyed this author’s summary of the many and varied deaths the Oms faced in Laloux’s La Planète Sauvage:

In case you didn’t suspect it yet: this is not exactly a children’s film. Eureka (or rather the BBFC) rates this DVD “PG” but the film was clearly made with adults in mind. Some Draags wear very revealing outfits while the humans are naked, half-naked or wearing rags. Mating rituals of both humans and Draags are shown, but far more disturbing is the seemingly unending variety in which the tiny humans keep getting eaten, squashed, shredded, poisoned, radiated and stomped on by both Draags and the local flora and fauna. — Twitchfilm blog

Walerian Borowczyk’s “La bête” (‘The Beast’)

Horror at the discovery of the slaughtered lamb and bear-like Beast in the surrealistic dream sequence.

I wanted to revisit a film I’d mentioned in the previous post on Walerian Borowczyk. This blog entry introduced the work of Polish filmmaker Borowczyk and offered a brief analysis of his softcore films created in the mid-1970s. His most notorious and controversial film La bête (‘The Beast’, 1975) was released shortly after Contes immoraux (‘Immoral Tales’, 1974) and was, in fact, an expansion of a sequence originally shot for the earlier anthology. This sequence consisted of a rather cheeky retelling of the Beauty & The Beast fairytale as only Borowczyk’s ribald imagination could envision. An aristocratic woman in a powdered wig is roused from her harpsichord by the sudden disappearance of a lamb outside the window of her country manor. She ventures into the nearby forest in search of the lamb, only to discover its carcass being gnawed on by an enormous, bear-like creature. Presumably fearing for her life, the woman screams and runs through the forest in a frenzied manner that quite effectively removes all of her clothing save for her corset and stockings. In close pursuit, the Beast appears visibly aroused by the semi-nude woman, as evidenced by the absurdly large phallus it sports. The woman is eventually captured by the creature, who performs oral sex on her whilst she hangs from a tree branch in a futile attempt at escape. Her wild protestations soon vanish and she surrenders to the erotic attentions of the Beast in one of cinema’s most bizarre, and hilarious, sex scenes.

Sweet, sweet loving between Beauty and her Beast. Walt Disney, this ain’t.

If the text on the DVD package is accurate, La bête was banned for the past 25 years in the UK on the grounds of its depictions of bestiality. If true, this would strongly suggest that the British censors possessed neither imagination nor a sense of humour. The sex depicted in this sequence lacks any sense of realism and is clearly meant as a darkly comedic farce of the romantic relationship typically found in the traditional Beauty & the Beast fairytale. Borowczyk’s penchant for the grotesque also shapes the scene. A man in a bear suit touting an enormous prosthetic penis is grotesque, ridiculous and not-so-vaguely perverted, but it’s certainly not bestiality.

Now that La bête is available on DVD, my advice to the British censors is to slip a copy into the player, decant the wine, plant themselves on the couch and enjoy this sexy and thoroughly absurd film. Heck, I’m willing to bet that they were doing this in secret, all along.

Walerian Borowczyk’s “Contes immoraux”: The bloodthirsty Countess meets European softcore cinema.

A bevy of naked beauties in Walerian Borowczyk's "Contes immoraux" (1974).

Walerian Borowczyk (1923-2006) was a Polish filmmaker who was, in the early years of his career, the creator of astounding stop-motion animations. Nightmarish and surreal in nature, animated short films such as Renaissance (1963) and Jeux des anges (1964) brought Borowczyk critical acclaim in the rarefied world of avant-garde filmmaking. Commercial success, however, eluded him until his venture into live-action cinema with his infamous art-house-meets-softcore films of the 1970’s. A consummate provocateur, Borowczyk challenged his audience with Contes immoraux (‘Immoral Tales’, 1974) and La bête (‘The Beast’, 1975) — films which some critics derided as “contentless pornography” due to their wholesale preoccupation with nudity and sexuality. While the charge of “pornography” is not entirely unwarranted, I would maintain that Borowczyk’s meticulously-detailed set design, careful art direction and signature surreal style elevate films such as Contes immoraux from mere “sexploitation” to softcore cinema with considerable artistic merit.

Now, don’t get me wrong — from a straightforward “is this movie good or not?” perspective, Borowczyk’s Contes immoraux is not an especially good film. What dialogue there is — and there’s mercifully little — is completely inane. The action is glacially slow, due in part to a camera that lingers incessantly over the bushy nether regions of naked girls. It is ironic, then, that as a purely softcore film Contes immoraux also falters. By the standards of contemporary pornography, Borowczyk’s film is rather too tame to satisfy current erotic appetites. It’s all breasts, bums and bush, and precious little sex. Thus, we are left with a paradoxical film that is neither artful enough for the art-house, nor raunchy enough to function as pornography.

Film still from "Contes immoraux". Paloma Picasso stars as Erzsébet Báthory, the notorious 15th-century Hungarian countess who allegedly bathed in the blood of young women as a means to preserve her youthful appearance.

What the films of Borowczyk do possess, however, are stunning visuals that perfectly synthesize elements of the erotic with the grotesque. Given his early animations, which were bizarre and nightmarish, it is not at all surprising that Borowczyk would continue his exploration of the grotesque in later work like Contes immoraux and La bête. A primary example of this is the Erzsébet Báthory segment of Contes immoraux, the third and most accomplished segment of his four-part erotic anthology. Set in 1610, this segment stars Paloma Picasso (the daughter of Pablo) in the role of Countess Elizabeth Báthory, the notorious 15th-century Hungarian noblewoman legendary for her cruelty and sadism. Amongst her many reputed atrocities were the infamous ‘bloodbaths’, in which the Countess would soak in her victim’s blood in order to retain her youth and beauty. Borowczyk downplays the savagery of the Báthory legend, and instead offers up a positively demure Countess. The segment opens with the round-up of the nearby village girls by the Countess’s henchmen. The next several minutes are dedicated to extended scenes of the girls bathing and generally frolicking in the shower stalls of the Báthory castle. There’s virtually no dialogue, focusing all of our attention on the sumptuous colour palette and beautifully-composed camera shots. After the frivolity of the showers, the naked girls are lead en masse into a large bedchamber. Elizabeth Báthory reappears, wearing a gossamer white dressing-gown, adorned with lace and pearls. The crowd of girls approach the Countess and stroke her pearl-encrusted gown admiringly. Rapidly, however, the scene transforms from sultry to savage, as the girls begin to violently tear at the dress, ripping it to shreds. They fight amongst each other over the pearls that fall, and the once sexy scene of nubile young girls turns into a bloody, animal rampage.

The 'bloodbath' of the Countess.

The scene quickly cuts to a close-up of the bloodbath of the Countess. The white limbs of Paloma Picasso fill the screen as she luxuriates in her bath, twisting back and forth in the frothy red. The heightened aestheticism, with the rich, vibrant red blood against white skin, cleverly undercuts the grotesque/horror aspects of the ‘bloodbath’ and the mass-murder that occurred (off-screen) in the previous scene.

The films of Walerian Borowczyk are not widely available, but cinephiles and film geeks can likely find these in the better “alternative” video stores or at midnight screenings in rep cinemas.