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High Culture The finer things in life: art, literature, poetry, music.

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Old 11-27-2008, 12:23 PM
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Default The Magician of Prague

Let us now praise the Czech animator/fx artist/fantasist Karel Zeman, who made mostly children's films until his death in 1989. Both artist and artisan, Zeman mastered (in his idiosyncratic way) fields generally handled by separate fx people: puppetry, cel and stop-motion animation, matte shots, painting on glass, trick photography, even manipulation of film stock....whatever it took, he knew it or could figure out how to do it (and always on a shoestring budget). The results were pure phantasmagoria - nobody ever made a movie that looked like Zeman's, ever.

But unlike every other animator and fx artist who came before him (and 99% of those since), Zeman's fx were a mode of personal expression for him - they contained his wit and worldview, and he made them, if not reality, then an intoxicating unreality all his own. He is the only practitioner of special effects as poetry.... and it's a bitter irony that only in the confining restrictions of an Iron Curtain country could he have ever made these films. Had he defected to the West and its "free market" economies, he might have become a rich man (he might just as easily have not, though) - but he would certainly have never been able to make the films he did.

Below is a selection of Zeman's work, at long last up on YouTube. The sidebar commentary is a roundtable discussion, by a couple of science-fiction writers, of one of his first feature-length productions - and the only one to see a US theatrical release. 

Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical:
from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins — or which is which),
the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that
he at least won his own kingdom —


Thanks for the reminder, Solly!

Last edited by il ragno : 11-27-2008 at 09:55 PM.
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Old 11-27-2008, 01:28 PM
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The Fabulous World of Jules Verne

a DVD review by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Waldrop here: I had waited 44 years to see this. When I first saw a review of it in, I believe, Parents Magazine, I asked myself "What the hell is this?" 
Baron Prasil (1961)

Being 14 and under the spell of the recent Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) I was ready for yet-ever-more Jules Verne, not sated yet by Master of the World, In Search if the Castaways (even though it stared Hayley Mills) or Valley of the Dragons — which is Off On A Comet meets clips from One Million B.C. (1940). (Zeman later did Off On A Comet as Na Kometa, 1967, which I did manage to see in the 1980s.)

But this one kept eluding me — I heard it had heavy rotation on LA TV stations in the 60s and 70s, which didn't do me any good back here in Texas...

"What is this?" I kept asking myself all through the years. "What is this steel-engraving-and-woodcut look? Can this be as good as I want it to be?" 
The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1958)

When Volume II of Bill Warren's Keep Watching The Skies! came out in 1986, he started his entry on the movie "This is the best film covered in this book." Since volume II covered every SF movie released in the US from 1958-1962, that's some tough talk. 
Baron Prasil (1961)

I kept hoping I'd hear the film was out on video all during the '80s. No such luck. (I hear there was a small-release VHS in the middle '90s — my lost years — that's going for Big Buck$ on eBay.) Now, finally, it's out on DVD; hie me hither Saturday night to my co-reviewer's house — along with Don Webb — where I finally saw The Fabulous World of Jules Verne.

(Watching Don watching the movie provided double entertainment — his eyes popped out of his head the same time and places as mine...) 
Baron Prasil (1961)

Person & Waldrop: This has chunks of Face the Flag and Mysterious Island, glimpses of Master of the World, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and, it says somewhere, Clipper of the Clouds. Returning back after unsuccessfully seeking funding for Professor Roche (Arnost Navartil), a scientist working on a powerful new explosive, protagonist Simon Hart (Lubor Tokos) catalogs the wonders of the age, passing steamships, submarines, and all manner of (to us) improbable flying machines. No sooner does he arrive back when both are kidnapped by Count Artigas (Miroslav Holub), who's also stolen a new submarine, which he puts to use plundering ships by ramming them (I don't think they teach that tactic at the naval academy anymore), and then having his diving-helmeted brigands plunder the wrecks. Unaware of Artigas' villainy, Roche soon resumes his work back at Artigas' secret island base, whose interior can only be reached by submarine. (The stylish, evil Artigas (along with his fellow Verne intellectual villains) is the spiritual forefather of slow-moving lasers, manicured hands stroking Persian cats, and "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.") Meanwhile, imprisoned Hart seeks out fellow prisoner Jana (Jana Zaltoukalova), the lone survivor of the plundered ship, to help him reach the professor and warn the outside world. Complications ensue. 
A Christmas Dream (1946)

Zeman lets out all the stops. This is a live-action black and white movie — but it uses every camera trick and every form of animation known in 1958 (when the film was released in Europe before Joseph R. Levine, fresh from making chocolate Steve Reeves Hercules figures and millions of dollars, bought it up for release over here). Methods include stop-motion, paper cutout, drawing and painting animation, drawn foregrounds and backdrops, dissolves, miniatures and models, double exposure (probably in-camera and superimposition), still images, traveling and stationary mattes — they're all here. There were at least eight people watching; someone yelled out at one point "There are at least seven different things going on in this scene!" (I counted eight.) And all this before the invention of blue screens!

What impresses most about the film is the sheer fanatical devotion to detail, of the meticulous composition of so many diverse elements in a single shot that occasionally puts even such painstaking stop-motion giants as Willis O'Brien, Ray Harryhausen and Nick Park to shame. In terms of black and white trick photography, you'd have to reach back to films like Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. to find anything even remotely comparable, and this is easily an order of magnitude more sophisticated. 
Mr Prokouk (1947)

There are lines drawn on sets, and even on people, to keep the original steel-engraving feel. The scenes of ships of the water have been treated with some sort of light, striped screen (probably cloth, probably double-exposed) that makes the moving waves of real water take on the appearance of the engraved lines in a 19th century drawing of the sea. There's a scene of a train coming down a track — the train is drawn; the wheels and the tracks are animated; the (real) engineer stands on an open platform in the engine's cab and (real) people lean out of the (drawn) passenger car. (It's so simple and powerful it takes your breath away.) Actors walk through back-projected sets; at the same time they're walking behind animated full-sized paper cutouts of spinning flywheels and meshing gears, all this in front of a painted set in the middle-background. For maybe five seconds of screen time. There's a scene of an animated shark attacking a real diver in a model set with painted water. We could go on... 
Baron Prasil (1961)

The word that comes to mind (the same one Bill Warren uses) is... charming (and we mean that in a very butch way). Zeman has kept the period feel throughout — all the futuristic inventions are 1890s projections of what planes, machine-pistols and giant cannon would look like, not what actually came to pass in the real world. The actors act like late Victorians, or at least late Victorians as performed in the style of a late 1930s Hollywood light comedy set in the Victorian era. The script itself could have been written by Verne himself in 1899 — it's full of incidents on which to hang the gigantic work of art which is the entire film. It's not a great film, but it is a great piece of filmmaking. 
Baron Prasil (1961)

P: Obligatory Technical Details: The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (originally Vynález zkázy, and also released in the UK as An Invention for Destruction), was released in Czechoslovakia in 1958, and had its American premiere in 1960. The DVD itself, put out by Nostalgia Family Video (PO Box 606, Baker City, OR, 97814), is dubbed (probably from the original 1960 US release), and runs 83 minutes long, which is the same length listed for it in Walt Lee's Reference Guide to Fantastic Films. Image quality is decent; it appears to be a no-frills transfer from a good (but not pristine) film reel, and there are occasional film artifacts (pops, scratches, etc.) which have not been cleaned up. That said, this version is eminently watchable.

W & P: The passage of 46 years hardly shows. (The pace is slower than we're used to now.) Where it does show, it's because other filmmakers have built on it since. Someone else yelled out "Terry Gilliam must have shit when he saw this!" (That would have been the proper response for anyone in Zeman's line of work at the time.) Back when he was working on Monty Python, this is what it looked like inside Gilliam's mind. And even if it never inspired him, it should have. It has the elaborate engraved drawings and wacky Victorian inventions that provide such glorious elements for Gilliam's Python work. However, instead of one guy doing crudely colored paper cutouts, imagine the entire weight of Communist Czechoslovakia's state film industry (circa 1958) crafting, and then elaborately animating, an entire feature-length film. (It's fun to imagine Tim Powers, James P. Blaylock and K.W. Jeter all viewing this movie in their youth, as it's the ultimate steampunk movie.) 
Inspiration (1948)

W: In these days of CGI, you couldn't remake this for less than 100 million dollars. (It would not be as good and there's absolutely no need to.) It's of its time, about another time — you watch it now with a double-focus that wasn't there when 1958 was The Present. It was state-of-the-art then (people with pencils, brushes and optical printers + a great state-run scene shop).

Now, you marvel even more. "What is this scene I'm watching? How did they do that? Guys must have worked 6 weeks to get that shot!" 
Krabat (1975)

You'll have to see it for yourself before you'll know that me and people like Bill Warren aren't exaggerating. We're telling you exactly what we're looking at. Even though we're not believing it as we watch. (We believe the illusion; we doubt our eyes.)

I waited 44 years to see this and I was not disappointed. 
Baron Prasil (1961)

Last edited by il ragno : 11-27-2008 at 07:15 PM.
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Old 11-27-2008, 02:44 PM
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Originally Posted by il ragno
This film is based on a book by Otfried Preussler, which has been translated into Finnish under a title Mustan Myllyn Mestari. ("The Master of Black Mill")

It's a great fairytale for adults, with Faustian themes of sorcery and dangerous deals with the devil. Miles above dumbed-down Potterian wizard-shit.

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Old 11-27-2008, 07:44 PM
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il ragno il ragno is offline
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Well, all first-rate children's literature is simultaneously absorbing and entertaining to adults, though usually (but not always) for different reasons.

It's the puerile, patronizing, dumbed-down second and third-rate stuff that grown-ups bail on, and there's a lesson in there: if you wouldn't subject yourself to BARNEY or CLIFFORD THE BIG RED DOG, you shouldn't soften your kid's brain with it either.

Btw, contrary to what you might think, there are English-dubbed versions of Zeman's full-length features. During the 1960s, one (JULES VERNE) was released in US theaters, and at least three others (PRASIL/BARON MUNCHAUSEN, ON THE COMET, and JOURNEY TO THE BEGINNING OF TIME) were sold to American television as part of b-movie syndication packages - all dubbed for domestic consumption. Purist snob though I am, I gotta say that the dubbing in this case works a lot better than subtitles would - subtitles would just annoyingly distract your eye from the myriad visual details in the image. Besides, most sound in a Zeman movie is post-synchronized anyway (and though dubbed, the mostly-wonderful Czrch soundtrack music - a odd-yet-pleasing blend of avant-garde jazz and Moravian folk music - remains intact.)

However, instead of one guy doing crudely colored paper cutouts, imagine the entire weight of Communist Czechoslovakia's state film industry (circa 1958) crafting, and then elaborately animating, an entire feature-length film.

Not quite; Zeman always worked with a small crew of regular collaborators. It wouldn't make sense for a state-run film industry to commit all of its resources to a single project; in all likelihood, for the same reasons Zeman was left alone to make the movie w/o interference - they didn't view Zeman or his children's films as particularly subversive (and besides the only good press the Commies got in this era was for their kiddie and animated films - vide the high profile honors accorded to Studio Zagreb, for another example).
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