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Sunday, 16 October 2011

Alexandre Alexeieff - one of the great masters of world animation.

Moscow's Literature Museum have offered Moscovites a real treat with its exhibition presenting the art and animated films of Alexandre Alexeieff- a Russian artist who in spite of spending spent all of his creative life outside Russia can not really be seen as anything other than an artist deeply wedded to a Russian mentality and Russian themes. His illustrated art was concentrated on Russian literature and his animated art was equally Russian-centric - Mussorgsky and Gogol. Alexeieff's invention of a pin screen technique can be seen as a precursor of many contemporary animation techniques using computer software and yet it was Alexeieff's desire to animate his book engraving maintaining its texture and chiaroscuro effects that led him to animation. Moreover, he rejected any commercial techniques that were then in vogue. In fact, his  invention -the pin screen-  certainly brought no commercial benefits. The work on an animated film with this technique was laborious and the first film made by Alexeiff and Clair Parker - A Night on Bare Mountain - would take over a year and a half to make. Alexeieff managed to keep his art pure from commercial constraints by earning his living through advertising work where he would use more conventional animated technqiues. His pin screen films would make nothing (he refused to use them for commercial use) but they would leave an artistic legacy of enormous potential. 

Nikolai Izvolov, in a fascinating essay printed in the catalogue to the exhibition, links Alexeiff's artistic research to a search for the fourth dimension linking his attempts to those of Kibalchich and Tsiolkovsky in their meditation on rocket and space science while imprisoned (Kibalchich) or working as a provincial mathematics teacher (Tsiolkovsky), or to the revolutionary Morozov whose reflections on the fourth dimension were made in a dark cell in Scliesselburg and finally to Eisenstein's notion of harmonic montage as being the fourth dimension of film. Izvolov concludes his essay by stating that Alexeieff strove all his life to stray in a space where consciousness and unconsciousness are on an equal footing. One of the few artists who seems to have travelled on a journey akin to that of Alexeiff is Yuri Norstein, the author of another article in the catalogue. Norstein calls Alexeiff one the great makers of animated film, far superior to that of producers such as Disney and he goes on to state that "Alexeiff was the first animator to place animated film in the context of world culture, to have grapsed the musical essence of the art of animation." The works that he created "are neither caricatures nor cartoons, but works whose dramatic action constitute the very essence of figurative art".

The exhibition in Moscow promotes the work of an artist whose real contribution to animated film has yet to be fully understood. A truly original master.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Recent titles in Russian on Russian and Soviet Film

Returning to Russia may have meant little opportunity to watch any great films here with the closure of the Eisenstein library, the discontinuation of the Meyerhold and cinema lectures and the relative dearth of any supremely interesting modern films (with the partial exception of Zviagintsev's 'Elena' and the expectation of being able to watch Sokurov's hopefully in the near future). However, a visit to Moscow's best bookshop 'Falanster' has made me aware that a lot of significant new writing has been published on Russian film and that this, at least, is a cause for some joy. Hopefully, I'll review some of these books in more depth in following months but here, for the time being, is an indication of the titles and the subjects of these books. One of the first joys was to find a biography of Paradjanov being printed in Molodaya Guardia's series 'The Life of Remarkable People'. I am half way through this title and although at times I would have liked the author to have been more of a film critic in speaking of some of the films and have said more in defence of some of Paradjanov's early films instead of insisting too heavily on the view of a total break at the age of fourty from mere executor of external pressures from the Soviet film bureaucrats to a wilful artist who did everything in his power to give life to his real artistic vision, this book contains nonetheless some fascinating accounts of Paradjanov the man and the artist from someone who knew him during different periods of the artist's life.

Other titles include a new book by the author of the splendid monograph on Kira Muratova, Zara Abdullaeva. Her new book published by НЛО in their Кинотексти series is entitled Постдок (Postdoc) and is devoted to the theme of the border between Narrative and Documentary films- as well as being a reflection on this important theme, Abdullaeva publishes a number of interviews with film-makers and other cultural figures such as Vitaly Mansky, Lev Rubinstein, Sergei Bratkov, Anatoly Vasiliev and Ulrich Zaidl. 

In the same series a monograph on Aleksei German by Anton Dolin. A book which includes interviews and scripts as well as plenty of detail on German's biography at the heart of Leningrad's cultural elite this promises to be a fascianting read. 

Two books of unpublished articles and occasional pieces by Russian film scholars whose untimely deaths were a severe loss to this field have also been published. Rashit Yangirov's great oeuvre on Russian filmmakers abroad in the late 1920s and early 1930s Рабы Немого ( 'The slaves of silence') has been supplemented by a new book of essays entitled Другое Кино ('Another cinema') and includes essays on the history of Russian cinema in the first third of the twentieth century including essays on Khanzhankov and Drankov, Jewish cinema in Russia from 1908-1919, an essay on the history of Kuleshov's 'Mr West...', another on LEF as well as a potentially fascinating essay on the reception of Soviet films by Russian emigre writers. These are only some of the essays of Yangirov and the book promises to be a fascinating read. The other book includes some biographical prose by the great Neya Zorkaya called Как я стала киноведом (How I became a film scholar) and as well as including some of her notes towrads an autobiography, includes her memoirs of other film scholars and directors including those of Ilya Averbach, Viktor Demin and Tolomush Okeyev. A section is also devoted to memories of Zorkaya by such names as Mikhail Ulyanov, Inna Vishnevskaya, Alla Demidova, Aleksei Levinson and Olga Surkova. Further unpublished pieces by Zorkaya are included including a piece on Fellini as are some writings by her younger brothers Andrei and Pyotr. 

Finally, new issues of Киноведческие Записки and Сеанс are out. Сеанс devotes its latest issue to the theme Faust to coincide with Sokurov's new film and КЗ has an interview with Sokurov, some articles to mark Yuri Tsivian's sixtieth birthday and a whole host of articles dedicated to the theme of Cinema and Theatre including one on Chaplin, Biomechanics and Meyerhold. Time to find some spare time and get reading all this.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Necrorealism exhibition at Moscow's Museum of Contemporary Art

Museum of Contemporary Art as part of the 4th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art is hosting a full-scale exhibition on Necrorealism. Not simply the films of Necrorealism but also the art work. Necrorealism has clearly come of age as far as the Moscow art establishment is concerned and this offering is a more than welcome one. The fact that some of the films are supplemented by texts (on necro dynamics, necro statistics and necro methodology), and some extraordinary art work and installations allows one to see the bigger picture of this movement.

Its appearance during the late Soviet stagnation period (the stagnation was to prefigure the appearance of a future corpse- the Soviet system) and its obsession with death was to lend itself to a certain reading which, although not necessarily mistaken, has arguably failed to account for the repeated significance of this movement. Once dubbed the Lenin of the Punk movement (Russian lead punk singer Svinya was said to have remarked that it was Iufit rather than Johnny Rotten who should be seen as the true leader of the world punk movement), Evgeny Iufit was clearly a much more significant figure than has hitherto been recognised by most contemporary film critics. The necroperformances in which passers by would be horified by the appearance of presumed corpses after a staged fight and the early films made in the early eighties would become part of the Leningrad underground scene.

Iufit's move into 35mm filmmaking was facilitated by Aleksandr Sokurov who allowed him to work within his new Independent Studio in 1988. Iufit made his Knights of Heaven (Рыцари поднебесья) film there but this film was to signal a break between Sokurov and Iufit. Nonetheless the presence of the theme of death (and an unconventional approach to this theme) unites Sokurov's and Iufit's cinematography. Equally there are many references in Necrorealist film to Lang's expressionism as well as to Vertov and Eisenstein and to 1920s eccentricism. Even Andy Warhol's interminable shots seem to be another influence.

The exhibition gives us a chance to see some of the extraordinary works of necrorealist painters - including Iufit's but also that of Sergei Serp, Vladimir Kustov and Andrey Mertvy. In the case of Iufit this chance to see both some of his films as well as his art work offers an opportunity to assert the continuity of his essential vision. In Iufit's own words "the irrational force of nature, the pathology of the human mind, black humour and social grotesque incombination with the traditions of silent film, define the originality and the paradoxical nature of this movement."

That Necrorealism as a movement requires rediscovery outside of Russia has been argued in a splendid essay by Thomas H. Campbell in which he asserts that Iufit's body work represents a thoroughgoing "allegory of the social, political, psychological, artistic, and critical dead ends of the present day". Whether it be true or not that Iufit is the only decent filmmaker working in Russia today as one of his more enthusiastic advocates argued in 2005, it is certainly true that Necrorealism must be considered as one of the most fascinating trends with late Soviet and early post-Soviet cinematography and art and deserving of a major reappraisal by major film and art critics.

Recent news from the Russian film front.

Back in Russia for little over a fortnight it appears that little has changed in Russian film given the fact that the main news story is over Mikhalkov's film Цитадель being sent as Russia's Foreign Language Oscar- hopeful. This fact didn't pass through without a scandal with the chairman of the Russian Oscar Committee, Vladimir Menshov -a former Oscar winner with his Москва, слезам не верит (Moscow doesn't believe in tears) -stating that the film wasn't the right one for the Oscars and that there was no real discussion of the film by the committee. His calls for Mikhalkov's film to be withdrawn were followed by calls for him to be sacked. That Mikhalkov's film is part three of a trilogy and that his second part was very coldly received at Cannes didn't seem to move the Oscar Committee in its promotion of this film. Anyway, it seems that the Mikhalkov saga still has steam in it yet to cover the gossip pages. It seems that there will be little hope of either Putin (in the political sphere) or Mikhalkov (in the cinematic sphere) losing their monopolies for the time being.

One of the few sites in Moscow to promote the very best of Russian and Soviet cinema - the Eisenstein library- (which last year had some excellent retrospectives) has yet to return with a programme for this year. It has been closed for building repairs during the summer and seems only slowly to be coming back to life. The excellent series of lectures and film showings at the Meyerhold Museum which took place during the past two years seems to have been discontinued. A great shame: some of the most interesting scholars of Soviet cinema were to be seen there giving some excellent talks on former Meyerhold students who were to become some of the greatest actors or directors of Soviet cinema. To hear a lecture by such scholars as Naum Kleiman, Evgeny Margolit, Irina Grashchenkova or Vladimir Zabrodin and others by the great animated film director - Andrey Khrzhanovsky- was a true delight. Alas, this year it seems that this consolation has been denied.

As yet, film going in Moscow has only offered two films of any note in this fortnight. Avdotia Smirnova's comedy on relations between the intellighentsia and the power elite was a well-made film starring Fyodor Bondarchuk and Ksenia Rappoport. A well-made film and a well-scripted film but which didn't quite convince. My first impression of Zviagintsev's 'Elena' was far stronger. Zviagintsev has proved not to be Russia's new Tarkovsky but in Elena he has, it seems, made something new. A new artistic vision is certainly present and this was acknowledged at Cannes where Zviagintsev's won the Special Jury Prize in the Un certain regard competition. Some commentators suggested that it would have given Malick's 'The Tree of Life' a run for its money had it been included in the main competition. It is a film that finally talks about class in Russia today- some critics have given it a reactionary slant highlighting a kind of lumpenphobia in its message (and Zviagintsev himself has spoken of wanting to call the film 'The Invasion of the Barbarians') but, nonetheless the film artistically is far beyond what is normally dished out by Russian film-makers and deserves its worldwide distribution.

Other news includes the recent death of Tatyana Lioznova (in the photo). She was best known for the spy series Семнадцать мгновений весны 'Seventeen Moments of Spring' (1973) and her film Три тополя на Плющихе 'Three Poplars at Plyushchikha' (1967). The spy series is probably the ultimate classic of Soviet spy thrillers (along with Barnet's much earlier Подвиг Разведчика ' Exploits of an Intelligence Agent'). Lioznova, like Muratova, studied under Sergei Gerasimov at VGIK and became alongside both Muratova and Shepitko one of the Soviet Union's most notable female film directors (Lioznova would go on to teach at VGIK). However, unlike them Muratova and Shepitko her sucess was one in the field of popular film rather than in that of creatng a whole new aesthetic direction to Russian film.