Monday, November 18, 2013

Aleksandr Petrov

Lately I've been finding various light-hearted, cheerful things to occupy my time in an attempt to stave off disillusionment and despair, such as avoiding food, attempting to practice drawing angsty faces from different perspectives, drinking to excess, and reading Dostoyevsky while listening to things like Shostakovich. It's basically fun for the whole family. Bring a razor blade.

Actually, it's not all that bad. I'm just a bit gloomy. You know who else is a bit gloomy? An award-winning Russian animator who is one of only a few in the world to use the rare and difficult technique of creating animated cels out of wet oil paintings on glass that are altered by hand for each movement. I found out about him today because he did very successfully adapted Dostoyevsky's The Dream of a Ridiculous Man into a 20-minute moving canvas.

It's a story about a guy who decides he's going to kill himself. While walking home - his disgust with life and humanity weighing on his mind - a little girl runs up to him, grabs his arm and breathlessly starts begging him for help. It's clear that her mother is sick or injured or something nearby. He shakes her off and keeps going. He figures, "What does it matter? I'm just going to kill myself in a couple of hours anyway, and nothing will exist for me anymore".

He decides he's going to put his pistol to his right temple. While he's sitting in his armchair at the table mulling everything over, though, he just falls asleep, which he's never done before. A formless being takes him through space to another, alternate Earth where the people are pure, filled with love and completely ignorant of suffering. At first he thinks them naive and somewhat inferior in some ways for lacking things Russians are particularly proud of, such as logical sensibilities, science and probably pessimism. But then, he reasons, many beings live without having to explain life to themselves and teach it to others. They just exist and fall into a natural harmony with their surroundings.  

These angelic pseudo-humans don't understand the ridiculous man's inner turmoil when he tries to talk to them about it: absolutely hating people but not being able to stop loving them, and vice versa. But they listen anyway. He spends maybe a thousand or more years among them, and eventually, from being exposed to his nature, they learn to lie. And they enjoy it. Things escalate pretty quickly from there, and soon the first blood is shed. Shocked, the people no longer trust each other, separate, build walls, and start speaking different languages. Animals with whom they had once lived in Biblical-esque harmony fear and hate them, and retreat into the forest. 

The man desperately tries to stop them from doing these things but can't; he's unintentionally corrupted them completely. Eventually they do develop things such as science to understand their lives and create codices of laws by which to govern themselves, having come to understand from an intellectual rather than intuitive standpoint the virtues they once had and lost. They think the ridiculous man mad and threaten to have him put away if he doesn't stop ranting at them.

At that point he wakes up, vindicated of his previous thoughts and with a renewed appreciation for life. It says at the end that he goes out and finds the girl, and that he himself will go on. Kind of like the Russian It's a Wonderful Life, da?

The Mermaid is based on Slavic folktales of mermaids who are actually the spirits of girls who have drowned themselves, usually after being jilted or abused by a man. I like that these, Greek and Japanese mermaids are traditionally very dark and frightening. In the story, a young novice monk sees and rescues what he thinks is a girl who's fallen into an icy river. He continues seeing her and is beguiled. When his elderly master hears her voice, though, he suddenly gets a dramatic flashback of a lover he betrayed when he married another woman, and it's implied that she did indeed drown herself because of it. The mermaid sees the elderly monk and exacts revenge.

His most recognised work, though, is his adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. It took him more than two years to paint the over 29,000 frames on glass sheets four times larger an A4 size, winning him an Academy Award and making it the first large-scale animated film ever. 

Finally, My Love, his most recent film, is based on one of the works of a Russian writer "best known for his idyllic recreations of the pre-revolutionary past" and was criticised not only for seemingly placing technical achievement above creativity, but for being trite, overly sentimental and a "waste" of Petrov's talents. I don't know about all that, though.. It's not exactly horrible. Maybe he's just paying homage to his roots or something.

Sadly, the global economic crisis coupled with the Russian government's cutting of funds for animation studios has meant that, for the last few years, people like this guy have been out of work. This article explains in a bit more detail and warns that, if all of the remaining Soviet generation animators leave or die without passing on their techniques to new ones, it'll have a "scorched earth" effect on their animation market. I guess it's not too soon for WWII references, but that sort of language does imbue the situation with a sense of urgency if it's true.
If there were still a market in the U.S. for traditional styles of animation as opposed to all of this cheap generic CG garbage we've been seeing for the last ten years I'm sure studios would welcome a wave of desperate Russian masters with open arms and we could all pretend it was the 90's again, but I guess they'll have to go somewhere else. 
Hopefully this isn't the last we see of this type of animation. That'd be pretty shitty.