Saturday, August 20, 2016

On Professor Balthazar

The following is a distillation of a section of my dissertation:

Profesor Balthazar / Professor Balthazar (1967-1978), a series of shorts about a lovable inventor who lives in a mythical Zagreb-type town, was the most widely seen of all the Zagreb School productions. Professor Balthazar, a short, bald, bearded, bespectacled man is a gentle figure in a world threatened by unhappiness. He is one of the most recognizable symbols of Titoist culture, as prominent in 1970s and 1980s Yugoslavia as Mickey Mouse in Depression-era US. Zlatko Grgić created the character, but the series involved the collaboration of many of Zagreb Film's auteurs. 

At home, the shorts often played on Yugoslav television at 7:15 pm during a slot designated for cartoons before the nightly newscast at 7:30. Its voice-over narrations – the shorts were among the small percentage of the Zagreb Film's shorts to include spoken narration or dialogue -- were translated into several languages, among them English, Farsi, French, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish, and distributed abroad to be shown on television. The foreign versions of the films were dubbed, not subtitled. In the United States it appeared on the ABC series Curiosity Shop (1971-1973), a variety children’s program produced by Chuck Jones; a puppet named Baron Balthazar who hailed from “Downtown Bosnia” introduced the stories. The Yugoslav-ness of the show was just as important for viewers in Yugoslavia. It was a recognizably domestic production in its designated time slot, alternating on different nights with American series such as The Flintstones (1960-1966) and Tom and Jerry (1940-1967). 

Curiosity Shop may have exoticized the series as a product of Southeastern Europe, but the scripts of Profesor Balthazar never give a proper name to its hero’s city. Both the Croato-Serbian and English-language versions of the shorts refer only to “Professor Balthazar’s town.” Still, the film's designer Zlatko Bourek created as a funky, pastel-colored version of Zagreb in which post-war office buildings curve and merge with factory towers and Austro-Hungarian museums and theaters. In early seasons, the shorts open with Bourek’s drawing of a mountain of buildings, tunnels, roads and towers. A fountain in a town square lies hidden among massive structures. One building imitates the flow of water. A giant clown’s face adorns the side of an apartment building. Tunnels lie in the middle of nowhere and appear to lead to nowhere in particular. In later seasons, the series open on a courtyard of an Austro-Hungarian building, with skyscrapers, museums and houses emerging behind it. The establishing shots offer no sense of perspective, much like the backdrops Bourek designed for the live theater, and the shapes of the city lie flat against the screen. The street-level backgrounds present a more familiar city, though the lampposts are not straight and train tracks often lead directly to the doors of houses. The series riffs on other images of Zagreb. The trolleys were crude but fun to ride, and the depictions of the landscape at the last stations on any given line were appropriately barren.  There is a unified logic to the city’s madness. Professor Balthazar depicts Zagreb as a children’s playground, one with its own rules of order that are constantly under negotiation.  

The Yugoslav series has hints of melancholy. The shorts depict the dissatisfactions of daily urban life. The modern city dweller in Profesor Balthazar has an idiosyncratic personality and interesting talents, and he is always searching for a satisfying and proper place in his society. Yes, Professor Balthazar’s town is very much a playground, but like all playgrounds, it is home to many unhappy children, as well as happy children. 

The plotlines of the shorts follow a similar pattern. An eccentric character from Professor Balthazar’s town confronts a problem. Balthazar uses a bizarre contraption made up of umbrellas, clocks, a giant human ear, and assorted tubes to create a new invention which solves the problem. The films follow the tradition of the gag film, complete with visual puns and gentle slapstick. But the gags are rooted in the whimsy of the narratives. The stories are quickly paced, and made up of a series of bizarre twists and seeming non sequiturs that are always quickly explained and absorbed into the logic of the narrative’s trajectory. Balthazar’s neighbors, like small children, cry when faced with troubles, but only for a few seconds of screen time, often for just a few frames, before Balthazar helps. The form his assistance takes is always surprising and often offers a new set of gags. Like the country in which Balthazar lives, the inventor is always searching for or accidentally discovering an interesting third way solution to the problems of modernity.

Horacijev uspon i pad / The Rise and Fall of Horatio (Zlatko Grgić, Boris Kolar, and Ante Zaninović, 1969) (The film shown above) begins with a reminiscence of Balthazar’s childhood and his friendship with a young man named Horatio, an aspiring conductor. As an adult, Horatio achieves considerable success as a conductor, but his achievements are soon thwarted, as his pants fall down every time he performs, turning him into a target of ridicule. The buildings of Balthazar’s town shake with laughter as the population witnesses a mishap on live television. Horatio changes professions and becomes a chimney sweeper. His pants still fall down and he doesn’t like the job, but at least, as the narrator intones, he is “alone, far from the laughter of the crowds.” One day, he falls down a chimney of Balthazar’s house and encounters his old childhood friend. Balthazar hears his complaint and helps him by inventing “everlasting super suspenders.” Horatio tries them on and returns to the top of the building. They catch on the top of the chimney, and Horatio swings up and down, like a bungee jumper, high into the sky and then falling almost touching the ground. It’s a joyful experience. Horatio giggles uncontrollably. The other citizens of the town notice his unrestrained joy, and eventually everyone obtains Balthazar’s new suspenders for themselves. Balthazar and Horatio have accidentally invented a new sport. The fad spreads to the entire world. The final scene shows men and women swinging up and down from the surface of planet Earth.   

Horacijev depicts a lonely modern city. Horatio is a child with no friends on the playground. He is also an adult alienated from the day-to-day functions of urban life. The short has a happy ending, but the limits of Balthazar's genius are apparent. Balthazar may have (accidentally) given Horatio an ability to be an athletic genius and an example to his fellow citizens, but Horatio’s musical genius is still wasted due to society’s inability to accept a different kind of eccentricity. Professor Balthazar’s town is not an evil place, but one can never assume the moral wisdom of its masses. At best, Balthazar’s inventions can only inspire goodwill. It is up to the masses themselves to see what they can do with the inspiration.

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