Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Zlateh the Goat (1973) A Short Film by Gene Deitch

Zlateh the Goat is a gently thought-provoking little super-8 film based off of a children's story of the same name by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Lucid and dialogue-free, Gene Deitch, a Prague-based illustrator, animator, and filmmaker (who has directed several Tom and Jerry episodes), directed this parable about a Polish family who is forced to sell their goat to the town butcher on account of the need to purchase holiday supplies such as candles and food instead. The setting is an austere Polish village before the onslaught of a late winter, and is cushioned within the economic and cultural strife of pre-World War II. It's not easy to write the film off as simply a juvenile piece. Besides the typically instructive narration which bookends the film (and which is clearly suited to children), Zlateh the Goat approaches the plain poeticism of Albert Lamorisse's structurally and thematically similar White Mane.

Deitch introduces the short with images of familial comfort, first capturing a cozy shot of the small wooden cabin and then entering the house to surround a family who wears their worries as blatantly as a bad toupée. They decide on sending their eldest son on a voyage to town to greet the butcher, who is familiarized in an uneasy image beside a skinned mammal, and also in the close-up scraping of knives. These shots are intercut with sharp wind intruding on the boy's path, a weather pattern that gradually evolves into torrential snowfall. A very palpable negative connotation envelops the butcher, and by extension the trip towards him. Eventually the whiteout snow renders the boy and Zlateh (pulled by rope) a tiny dot amidst their unfavorable surroundings. Meanwhile, Deitch flashes momentary, evocative glimpses at the boy's tense mother at home, slumped beside the window of course. The boy thankfully discovers a tall heap of hay where he escapes from the cold field with his goat, who eventually provides him with milk and warmth.

This, the middle section of the film, is the most accomplished, appearing almost Bressonian in its simplistic rythym. Melancholy strings accompany the entire affair, exemplifying the touching nature of the boy and goat's relationship. As the snow piles up around the stack of hay - the exterior shots of which are abstract and recurrent - and the boy holds his goat tight, Deitch cuts away to comforting images of a sunny poppy field. Surely this is the type of poetry that a child can grasp, and it's rather sentimental, but it comes across swiftly and poignantly; Deitch certainly knows how to make his way through a story sparingly, and one can imagine him marking off checkpoints as he goes. It's a film that is quite enjoyable to look at, with its grainy footage never demanding of attention, and Deitch also figures out a way to throw "the interdependence of man and nature" into a child's set of knowledge.

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