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<nettime> Krtek
eyescratch? on Sat, 6 Mar 2004 21:30:34 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Krtek


[ tracing a story one encounters a feeling of aha's ringing in the 
mind, gibberish in thought. a place where everyone but some, coming 
from somewhere else, is a critical assessment of the same. moments of 
stumbling to, from, and over the burrow, images interlaced to sights 
given. sensible body double in troubling circumstance. - es]

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http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/06/international/europe/06FPRO.html

SATURDAY PROFILE

50 Years of Burrowing Gently Into Czech Culture
By IAN FISHER

Published: March 6, 2004

PRAGUE -- In America, anvils were falling. A coyote strapped on Acme 
rocket skates. A slobbering duck kept getting his beak blasted off and, 
sadly for him, it may actually have been wabbit season. It was quieter 
here in 1954, when a frustrated Czech animator went for an evening walk 
in the woods searching for his own blockbuster of a cartoon character.

"It was already dark," the animator, Zdenek Miler, now 83, remembers. 
"It was kind of hard to see. I tripped over something and I fell. I 
turned around to see what I fell on. It was a mole's burrow. I said, 
'Here's a good idea.' "

  It took three months of artistic tweaking to turn the real animal's 
blind face into Krtek, or Little Mole. Over nearly five decades, Krtek 
starred in 62 short animated films for children that thrived despite 
the complete absence of exploding cigars. Krtek outsells Disney here, 
his anatomically incorrect eyes poking out from book bags, puzzles and 
pillow cases everywhere.

  He is shown around the world, and is especially popular in Germany and 
Japan. (A 20-something Iraqi recently turned to goo when he spotted a 
foreigner in Baghdad wearing a Krtek T-shirt).

  But Krtek never caught on in the United States. Ask why of Mr. Miler 
(pronounced miller), or his colleagues in the renowned world of Czech 
animation, and they say Krtek may be just too slow for the frantic land 
of the Cartoon Network. Krtek films are, in fact, slow, but also 
lyrical and so hypnotically distinct that they can feel less like 
watching movies than climbing into another human's head. That would be 
Mr. Miler's.

  "It's an alternate universe, like all of the best animated stuff is," 
Michael Medved, the film critic, who has tried for years to stoke a 
Krtek following in America, said in a telephone interview. "But it's an 
alternate universe that feels astonishingly refreshing and kind."

  Mr. Medved added, "I have always considered Miler to be perhaps the 
greatest living animator."

  Now feeble from age and Lyme disease, but the vision of a kindly old 
man, Mr. Miler is doing something else that few of his American 
counterparts would dream of: despite offers, Mr. Miler is refusing to 
sell off the rights to Krtek -- similar, in a smaller way, to if Disney 
studios had folded when Walt Disney died in 1966. The last Krtek film 
was made in 2002. What may be the last Krtek book -- five million have 
been sold -- comes out this month.

  "If I sold Krtek," he said, "it would be like I killed him."

  The truth is that the association between Krtek and his creator, who 
meticulously oversaw every frame of his hand-drawn films, may be a 
little too close to put up for sale.

  "You should be able to say it very simply: You created yourself," said 
his wife of 46 years, Emilie, with some combination of love and 
impatience, in their modest home in Prague. She then walked out of the 
room.

  "My wife is allergic to it, because for everyone who comes I have to 
tell the story of how I created Krtek," Mr. Miler explained before 
recounting his "supernatural" stumble over the mole burrow in 1954. But 
near the end of an interview, kept to an hour so as not to tire him, he 
conceded that she was right.

  "It took me a long time to realize it, but when I draw Krtek I am 
drawing myself," he said. "What I mean is that Krtek is the ideal that 
should be me. But I can't meet that ideal."

  Born in 1921 in Kladno, just west of Prague, Mr. Miler began his work 
as an animator while Czechoslovakia was still under Nazi occupation. 
After the war he worked as an animator on the first films of Jiri 
Trnka, the guru of Czech animators. In 1948 he made his first film, 
"The Millionaire Who Stole the Sun," still highly regarded today.

  In 1954, while working at Barrandov Studios here, he was assigned to 
make a film for children showing how linen is made. He puzzled, feeling 
that a fairly dull subject needed to be livened up by a compelling 
character. That turned out to be Krtek. Without the budgets of the 
American animation studios that Mr. Miler admired so much -- Disney's 
"Snow White," he said, is "unbelievable" -- the first Krtek film took 
one and a half.

  In it, Krtek makes a pair of linen overalls, with help from a frog who 
soaks the flax, spiders who spin the yarn, ants who weave the cloth, a 
crawfish who cuts the fabric. Krtek changed slightly over time, but the 
basics were there: the forest, other animals, a problem Krtek solves 
entertainingly.

  Zdenka Deitch, head of the Barrandov animation studio, who worked on 
the first film, said Krtek was considered a peculiarity amid the 
high-art production of Czech animation at the time.

"When I was working on this first film, I didn't get his idea," she 
said. But when it was finished, she said, "it was a very charming 
film." It won a first prize in the Venice Film Festival in 1957.

  This first movie was the only one in which Krtek actually spoke. The 
rest were pantomime, apart from a few Czech words and the recorded 
giggles of his daughters. That turned out to be convenient for both 
Krtek and Mr. Miler: The films sold easily around the world, in 85 
countries, and Krtek's adventures became a popular export for the 
Communist government.

  "Krtek was very important to the regime because it earned them foreign 
currency," said Mr. Miler, who did well, too, when capitalism came in 
1989 and opened the door to Krtek merchandise.

  Mr. Miler said he steered clear of politics, but as Krtek became his 
life's work, the films did not shut out the real world, before or after 
the fall of Communism. Bureaucrats were poked fun at. He lamented the 
destruction of the environment. He showed a rabbit graphically giving 
birth. One film had Krtek traveling the world, stunned at an American 
mole's superior burrowing technology.

  But it was always gentle, like the man.

  "He's different," Ms. Deitch said. "He's quiet. He has a few friends. 
And otherwise he is living some kind of lonesome life with the 
characters that he drew. His whole life was to draw something nice."

  At the twilight of his career -- and with little chance of any new 
Krtek adventures -- Mr. Miler seems only to wish that Krtek had found an 
audience in America. In the mid-1990's, a collection of the films was 
released there and praised by fans like Mr. Medved. But there never was 
a market, baffling to fans who admire Krtek for his sweetness without 
saccharine.

  "Pretty much the whole world knows Krtek," Mr. Miler said. "America, 
which is usually first in everything, is last in this."

  "I always look at American history," he said, "and it is a very hard 
one. People came. They conquered a continent. They suffered hardships, 
and that hardship is reflected in its movies. I look at children there 
and think what they are watching is a reflection of that hardness. If 
you look at America, it is epic. Whereas here, it is more poetic. I 
feel here there is more lyricism." 

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