It’s 1958 and scientists and engineers are in the final stages of launch preparation on Florida’s Cape Canaveral. The weather is unseasonably cold for January, but the Explorer 1 satellite — America’s response to the Soviet Sputnik — is carried successfully into Earth’s orbit by the Juno I rocket. Nerves were already fraying: in the depths of this painful winter the Soviet Union has already launched Sputnik 2. The ‘Space Race’ had begun. In Warsaw, Polish artist-animators Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk (‘Boro’) declare in a 1958 interview with Tadeusz Kowalski “We believe the cinema has been killed altogether with the death of French avant-garde. What we would love most, would be to go back to Méliès.”1 To go back to Méliès is to return cinema to artifice and fantasy, departing from the terrestrial concerns of the various postwar European realist movements. In Astronauts (Les Astronautes, Walerian Borowczyk, 1959) Boro would realise directly his vision of a return to the cinema epitomised by the French fantasist. While the monumental struggles of the space race would highlight the vastness of space, Boro’s vision (like Méliès’) brings heaven and earth closer. The empyrean world can almost be touched from the roof of your chateau.
Lenica and Boro had collaborated before 1958 on several animated short films: Dni Oświaty (Education Days, Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica, 1957), Strip-Tease (Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica, 1957), and Był sobie raz (Once Upon a Time, Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica, 1957). Their collaboration produced a new art vocabulary that combined various techniques of animation with live-action film and departed from the commercial and cartoon imperatives that preceded. This language of quick-change metamorphoses, theatrical presentation and surreal plot twists would go on to develop in a different way in their respective films. Giannalberto Bendazzi has said, “They never resolved their frictions, but independently they were both able to attain high levels of creativity.”2
Boro’s short animations have a contradictory and absurd quality — they are precise in their movement and presentation, his forms perform beneath the rostrum camera, snatching back and forth across the frame tautly, deliberately contrary to the sugary smoothness of Disney movement, so synonymous in the West with animation itself. And at the same time, his animated world is somewhat somnambulist, employing a dream logic more powerful than the emulation of real-world metaphysics.
Invitations to work and a degree of financial security motivated Walerian and Ligia Borowczyk (née Branice) to emigrate to France following the success of House (1958).3 Director Chris Marker and producer Anatole Dauman recommended Boro to director André Heinrich at the film and advertising unit Les Cinéastes Associés, where he was employed to produce animated shorts for six years from 1959 to 1965. In order to receive funding to make Astronauts – his first short at Les Cinéastes Associés – Boro’s name was accompanied by that of Chris Marker, who as a French national could receive the necessary budget.
As the title credits roll, Astronauts begins with a transition from the sound of a music box to that of frenetic workshop activity. Andrzej Markowski’s sound establishes a percussive beat that coordinates the film. Boro uses sound to pin the image and hold it in the mind. We look forward to an imposing mansion, or rather a photograph of a mansion, colour tinted to suggest the transition from day to night.4 Using a rostrum the frame-by-frame camera is held vertically, peering down to Boro’s animated material, organised on a flat plane. Projected, we are presented with what Raymond Durgnat says is a “…contracted ‘petit théâtre’— in which all shots are taken fixedly from the front, à la Méliès, in defiance of all anti-theatre film aesthetics…”.5. Boro uses photographs and prints as the basis for cut-out animation. By appropriating rather than originating the raw material, he reinforces the theatricality of the composition: these fragments point to other realities and indexicalities outside the diegetic frame.
The craftsman and would-be astronaut is played by Michel Bouchet6 who dreams up a spacecraft by extrapolating from nature in a humorous parody of Da Vinci. Handwritten equations, outlines and amendments skitter across the surface of various absurd “inspirations”. We are immediately shown his companion – an owl – held in a cage that resembles the enlarging grid used in renaissance art.
The spaceship begins its maiden flight, astronaut and owl safely aboard. We are given two schematic views of the ship, employing the logic of technical drawing by labelling each part. On closer inspection, the intricacies of the engine are revealed. One chamber is labelled “Axolotl”, the juvenile form of the Mexican salamander known for its ability to regenerate limbs and also for its arrested development.7 The owl, which chastises the befuddled astronaut with a cry of “Einstein!” sits above and behind him. This observing owl – like the superego – watches and reprimands the astronaut’s amateurish efforts as he navigates the night sky. Beneath him the axolotl sleeps, like the eternal id, stuck in a primitive state. A perpetual adolescence, its lugubrious presence seemingly powers the fragile craft.
The astronaut encounters his world like an adolescent misfit, knocking down a chimney stack before voyeuristically peering into the bedroom of a woman. He beats a retreat, knocking the hat from the hand of a local tyrant, before encountering a shiny steel vessel that recalls the American rocketry of the 1950s. In space he finds himself caught between the American rocket and an otherworldly Russian satellite, “SPA”. He saves SPA from its stalemate with the American rocket, only to be destroyed by it; such contradictory efforts parodying Poland’s place between Eastern and Western Europe in the postwar settlement. Plummeting to earth, the umbrella that slows his descent is shot through by the malicious satellite. Crashing back to the roof of his mansion, his owl hovers momentarily above his body, recalling the image of the Holy Spirit. In a pessimistic final move typical of Boro, the soul of the departed astronaut takes its place on the only empty cloud. All around are clouds filled with the repeated image of the astronaut and his owl. Are we looking wryly at the accumulation of failure, of man’s doomed technological enterprise?
Les Astronautes (Astronauts 1959 France 12 minutes)
Prod Co: Argos Films & Les Films Armorial Prod: Anatole Dauman Dir: Walerian Borowczyk Collaboration: Chris Marker Animation: Walerian Borowczyk Phot: Daniel Harispe Ed: Jasmine Chasney Mus: Andrzej Markowski
Cast: Michel Boschet, Ligia Branice, Anatole Dauman, Philippe Lifchitz
- Walerian Borowczyk, Jan Lenica and Tadeusz Kowalski, “Ludzie, Którzy Chca Wrócić do Meliesa,” Film 51 (1958) quoted in Kuba Mikurda, “Boro: Escape Artist” in Boro, L’Île D’Amóre, Kamila Kuc, Kuba Mikurda, Michał Oleszczyk, eds. (Oxford: Berghahn, 2015) p.17. ↩
- Giannalberto Bendazzi, Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation (London: John Libbey, 1994) p.175. ↩
- Their final collaboration, Dom (House, Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica, 1958), is a rebus of surreal imagery that suggests a vague scenario, perhaps the daydream of a tenant (played by Ligia Borowczyk). In its opening and closing shots, illuminations flicker and dance above the tiled roof of the eponymous house, suggesting a visitation or cosmic display, or the lights of a theatrical stage. House was exhibited as part of the experimental film competition at the Expo ’58 in Brussels. Boro and Lenica ultimately won the Gold medal and received prize money of 10,000 dollars and critical acclaim. ↩
- Boro uses colour in a particularly engaging way, selectively tinting certain elements of an otherwise monochromatic composition. His colour creates a formal separation between elements; but the colour goes further, drawing attention to possible connections between significant objects throughout the film. Colours retrieve objects from the flatness and bring them forward on the picture plane, but also emphasise the shape and form of the object and its place in the overall picture formula. Boro concentrates his talents as a renowned graphic designer to create animated imagery that works spatially as well as temporally. ↩
- Raymond Durgnat, “Borowczyk and the Cartoon Renaissance,” Film Comment (January-February, 1976) pp.40-41 ↩
- Who, incidentally, also co-founded the Annecy Animation Festival. ↩
- The name also refers to the famous short story “Axolotl” (1952) by Julio Cortázar, in which the narrator visits and then becomes, through some strange psychic transmutation, an axolotl. In this respect perhaps Boro suggests the man and machine are inextricably linked, the man possessed by the inscrutable machine. ↩