August 14th, 2008

drawing, old man

The Tale of the Priest and of His Workman Balda

This is the only surviving scene from The Tale of the Priest and of His Workman Balda. It would have been the first Soviet animated feature film; a film-opera with a score by Dmitriy Shostakovich, directed by Mikhail Tsekhanovskiy. Work was started in the early 1930s and everyone involved was very excited about the project. However, the film was killed by three blows: first, the denunciation of Shostakovich's music in the 1936 edition of the newspaper "Pravda", leading to a forcible termination of his contract to finish the score; second, the first screening of Disney's cartoons in Moscow in 1934, and the subsequent government consolidation of all animation studios into one big one (Soyuzmultfilm) and decree that animators must from now on only imitate Disney's style (whereas this film was the culmination of the independent development of Soviet animation in the 1920s and 1930s, and was certainly not in Disney's style. For more see my previous post about this period in history); and finally, the destruction of almost the entire (still unfinished) film in a fire during WW2.

All that's left is the "market scene":

Soviet animation: The Tale of the Priest and of His Workman Balda (+English subtitles) from Niffiwan on Vimeo.
(original video without subtitles can be downloaded here)


Above: The demon from a later part of the film that was destroyed.

There's also a CD which has 50 minutes of Shostakovich's score for the film. On the Amazon profile, you can listen to some of the other parts which would have been in the film. The music is very good.

Some things that stood out to me:
-The teeth. Wow, people didn't brush their teeth too much, did they?

-The rhymes (written by the poet Aleksandr Vvedenskiy). As the sellers shout out their wares, the religious items are made to rhyme with some pretty funny "mundane" things. For example, a woman shouting "kresty zolochonyye" (golden crosses) is followed by another seller yelling "yabloki mochonyye" (marinated apples). The most brazen example is when a man who's selling a picture of a fat Venus boasts that her chest is uncovered, and is immediately followed by a woman selling a picture of the holy archbishop boasting how curly his beard is.

-The soldier is portrayed much more respectfully than the baroness or the general.

I wish to thank the Youtube user loshchshch, who originally uploaded this video that I had been searching for for months, and who gave me a link to a higher-quality version when I sent him a message. He also recommended reading an article about this film that appeared in the 2002, № 57 issue of "Киноведческие записки" (unfortunately, that particular article is not available online).

There is another interesting story in connection with this film. In 2006, for the 100th anniversary of Shostakovich's birth, there was to be, for the first time, a public presentation of this opera. Not as a film, but as a ballet. However, once again this masterpiece was never shown; the performers were forced to cut out all the scenes featuring the priest, a central character in the story. Why? Because the newly-powerful Russian Orthodox Church objected to the portrayal of the priest and also insisted that Shostakovich "wrote the music to this tale not of his own will". Is this true? Judge for yourselves. Here is a quote from the liner notes to the above-mentioned CD by Deutsche Grammophon:

[Shostakovich] was immediately fascinated by Tsekhanovsky's concept: "The screenplay ... has succeeded in retaining satirical sharpness and the entire palette of Pushkin's ... work of genius tale ... The film is sustained at the level of a folk-farce. In it there is a mass of sharp, hyperbolic situations and grotesque characters ... The tale sparkles with fervour, lightness and cheerfulness. And to compose music for it was likewise an easy and cheerful task."

Tsekhanovsky's diary entry records vivid details of the collaboration: "Shostakovich played excerpts from Balda: the dialogue of Balda with the Devils. He played powerfully and precisely. It was as though his fingers were extracting precious stones from the instrument ... He likes my 'scenario', and he went about his work like an inspired, first-rate artist." Shostakovich was also satisfied with his music for Pushkin's tale. Never before or since did he come into such close and immediate proximity to the Russian folk-tale element, to folk intonations and rhythmics; and this encounter lent his work a special freshness, energy and splendour.

"The content of the tale itself and the artist's concept defined the character both of the musical language - in the manner of a folk-fairground and a merry-go-round - and of the entire film", the composer recalled. "Perhaps after The Tale of the Priest is shown on screen, I will again hear reproaches from certain musical critics at my superficiality and mischief, at the absence of the real human emotions that 'at long last' materialized in my Lady Macbeth. But what should we consider as human emotion? Do only lyricism, grief and tragedy count? Surely laughter also has a right to this honourable title?"
drawing, old man

The best Russian animated film of 2007 (my choice)

I'd like to bring some attention to a film that I think has been overlooked. Now, I haven't seen every Russian animated film made in 2007; many of them were never posted online by their creators. I haven't seen the films that won the #2 and #3 jury rating at the 2008 Open Russian Festival of Animated Film in Suzdal in March of this year. But most of the past year's films could be viewed online on Rambler Vision (I say could because none of the videos on Rambler Vision have been working for the past month or two; all of them now show a black screen and the words "this video is awaiting moderation").

The Grand Prix of the Festival went to Ivan Maximov's wordless film "Rain Down from Above" (video here). It is a great film, no doubt about it. It's fun, the events progress steadily yet surely, and for me, it is the closest that one of Maximov's films has come to losing the artificiality that I usually find in his work.

Other highlights of the festival included Kuygorozh and The Hare Servant by Pilot Studio (videos here and here, but no English subtitles), and the wordless macabre slapstick film Poor Yorik (video here), which won the Aleksandr Tatarskiy Award, decided posthumously by the masters Norshteyn, Nazarov and Golovanov.

However, the most outstanding (yet unrecognized) film of the festival was, I feel, The Dog Door (Собачья дверца) by director Natalya Malgina at Animos Studio. It is based on the novel "Goodbye, Ravine" by Konstantin Sergiyenko, which follows a community of homeless dogs who live in a ravine which is gradually being surrounded by the city. It is funny, moving, and very poignant.

English translation/subtitles were added by myself, and I'd like to thank the Youtube user AxmxZ who helped with some phrases.
Russian animation: The Dog Door (+English subtitles) from Niffiwan on Vimeo.

There are a number of things that I admire about the film:
First, how real and alive each of the characters seems to be, even though most of them have little screen time. The animation is amazing, but so is the script and direction. I really came to care for all of them. Even the most at-first-glance simple characters turn out to have more to them than meets the eye (see: the dog on the balcony). I think this is because you get the sense that each of them has their own stories going on, though the film doesn't focus on them. All-too-often in some films, characters seem to exist at the convenience of the main plot. Or, even worse, they're little more than a fancy doodle.

However, in this film, the cast of characters is colourful and complex:
There's the main character, a dog called "Proud" by his pack and "Tawny" (after his coat colour) by the man who heals his paw and by the dog on the balcony. He is torn between his love for his pack and his one chance to enter the mythical "Dog Door" (see the dream sequence), but he chooses his pack every time (even while never completely joining it) until that choice becomes impossible.
There's Black, the strong and brutal dog who's the leader of the pack (but he truly does care for them). He values honesty above all, hates anything less than total freedom (and hates humans because of it), and hates the cat Miyamoto for his self-aggrandizing nature.
There's the wiener dog with the scarf around her neck who lives in the past and cannot accept her present situation.
There's Miyamoto, the "Japanese" cat who considers himself to be a samurai and the catching of mice to be demeaning to his station. He's generally the object of humour in the film. He's friends with Proud, perhaps because Proud is the only one who'll listen to his tall tales.
There's Wee, a young little dog who always seems to be happy at everything, yet his life is tinged with sadness.
There's Lame, an old dog with a lame leg who is Proud's teacher. He experienced the Dog Door himself long ago and at the end of his story... when he dies, one might imagine that his soul escapes through the ring.
There's the dog on the balcony, who is unable to leave his little apartment and incapable of doing anything except barking at all the other characters. Until, that is, he sees that Proud is just as sad as he is, and then he lets down his mask and talks to him normally.
And there's the gentle artist who heals Proud's paw and becomes his owner.

Nine characters in total, and the only one who isn't developed very well is the woman who becomes the artist's wife. All the others felt like real people to me, not just drawings.

Another thing I loved was how effectively such a complex story was fit into the running time of a short film. For example, in many scenes throughout the film, we see tractors, trucks and cranes in the background, slowly filling in the ravine that the dogs live in. This is never talked about by anyone in the film, least of all by the dogs themselves; it is just part of their environment. It is a disaster in slow motion, beyond their control, and they do not even think about it unless it affects them directly (as when a tractor drives at them in the beginning). And yet, slowly but surely, over the course of a year or so, their world is completely destroyed around them. A less skilled scriptwriter would have had some crude, dramatic scene in the film where the dogs "suddenly realize" that they must stop what is going on and try to futilely fight the machines.

"The Dog Door" won no awards at the Suzdal Festival, and was 21st place in the professional rating. And yet... it won the audience choice award at the International Sretensk Film Festival, and in the thread discussing the Suzdal festival on prodisney.ru (one of the main Russian animation forums), a good third of the discussion was focused on the film.