Several years we wrote about a subtle and delicate stop motion animated film created from tea leaves by Natalia Mirzoyan. This holiday season, Soyuzmultfilm released her new work, Merry Grandmas! In Russia, kids typically spend a lot of time with their grandparents, usually with their grandmothers, many of whom still inhabit shabby apartments filled with all kinds of curiosities – fur coats long gone out of fashion, dim crystal vases, elaborate tea sets, dusty photo albums, and sleepy cats. Wise and grumpy grandmothers are matriarchs of many families.
On the New Year’s Eve, parents bring a little girl named Masha to her grandmother who lives in the center of Saint Petersburg. Masha anticipates an extremely boring evening with grandma and her elderly friends, but things turned out quite differently. Crafted in a wonderfully naive style, this film is a loving depiction of Russian grandmas, their vanishing world, and New Year magic set in the old quarters of Saint Petersburg.
“The Nose”, a short phantasmagoria written by Nikolai Gogol back in 1836, is among the most famous masterpieces of Russian literature. The protagonists, Major Kovalev, finds that his nose is missing from his face. Later he finds out that his nose – the Nose – becomes a high ranking official in the bureaucratic empire of Nicolas the First. In 1963 the animated version was created by a Russian emigre, Alexandre Alexeieff, made in his unique pinscreen style. Recently, Andrei Khrzhanovsky presented a new vision of the Gogol’s work featuring music by Dmitri Shostakovich. Khrzhanovsky, a veteran of the Soviet/Russian animation, is a director of many animated and mixed media pieces, including critically-acclaimed “The Glass Harmonica” and a somewhat less successful biopic of a Nobel prize laureate Joseph Brodsky. Stylistically and historically eclectic feature-length animation combines the original story taking place in the 19th century Saint Petersburg with the more recent Soviet and contemporary Russian artifacts and characters, including young pioneers and militia. The Nose grows and transforms into the menacing symbol of the authoritarian state, yet despite beginning an autonomous and sinister existence, it is still a part of the person, the dark side that dwells in everyone.
Here’s the teaser featuring an image of Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Nikolai Gogol – ingenious mavericks of the filmmaking, theater, music, and literature.
Soyuzmultfilm, a prominent Russian animation studio with a rich history, has a new site featuring information about the popular Soviet-era animation films from the 1960s-1970s, including such iconic productions as Chebursahka (aka Topple, a friendly furry creature that befriends a crocodile called Gena who works in a local zoo – as a crocodile), Winnie the Pooh, Karlsson-on-the-Roof, action-packed I’ll Get You!, an eclectic anthology Happy Merry-Go-Round, adventures of a polar bear cub Umka, rock musical The Bremen Town Musicians, and art-house The Glass Harmonica. The site contains unique production shots, script scans, sketches, storyboards, and photos. The content is in Russian. Heroes of Soyuzmultflilm.
Some cartoons despite the limited artistic merit could serve as a perfect case study for the zeitgeist of a certain era. The Millionaire produced in 1963 is one of those rather crude propaganda pieces that involves the main subjects of the Soviet official satire of the 1960s: the American politics and society, capitalism, contemporary Western art, and pop-culture.
The Millionaire, 1963 Soyuzmultfilm
Aesthetically, the 1960s in the Soviet Union began soon after the death of Stalin, and Khrushchev’s rise to power. In a few years, totalitarian Soviet baroque was replaced by the modern minimalist style in the architecture and visual arts. In the Soviet animation, this style was pioneered by Fyodor Khitruk. The Millionaire by Vitold Bordzilovsky is one of the examples of the new approach of the early 1960s. This cell animated film is executed in the sharp contrast with the Disney-like Soviet animation of the 1940-1950s. While the Stalinist aesthetics was replaced with more Western-like, Soviet art continued to be highly ideological. The Millionaire is a perfect example of the Soviet political animation of the 1960s.
Example of the Soviet rotoscope technique from the 1950s – Kashtanka, 1952
The minimalist aesthetics of the 1960s – Story of a Crime, 1962
The base of this animation short is ideologically correct doggerel by one of the most cynical Soviet authors, Sergey Mikhalkov. When it was necessary Mikhalkov condemned enemies of the people, Nazis, American imperialists, Zionists and cosmopolitans (a euphemism for Soviet Jews), Soviet intelligentsia “kowtowing to the rotten West”, and so on depending on the demands of the Communist Party. The Millionaire was part of the satirical newsreel Fitil’ (Fuse), an important element of the Soviet visual agitation machine. The cartoon’s plot tells a story that must have seemed hilarious to the Soviet audience: a rich lady bequeaths all her money to her beloved bulldog. The Bulldog is transformed into a rich and powerful capitalist who attends lavish parties and becomes a Member of Congress thanks to his riches.
The Millionaire book cover
This animation should be discussed according to not only its technical and artistic qualities. In the totalitarian state, visual media played an essential role as a social engineer shaping public opinion. The Millionaire conveys a certain social and cultural message presented by means of animation. Obviously, it’s not a purely entertaining piece. It criticizes the American elite, the “dollar cult”, and contemporary Western culture. Every small detail of the cartoon is used to enforce the message. Take for example interior backgrounds with abstract paintings and sculptures. Similarly to Nazi Germany where modern art was labeled “degenerate”, in the USSR it was called “formalist art” and was sharply criticized by the Communist Party. Any work of art that did not fit into the rigid ideological system of Social Realism was condemned, and independent artists were often persecuted.
A Soviet cartoon satirizing abstract art titled “Pure art”
Khrushchev condemned abstract artists in 1962
The cartoon shows a combination of stereotypical images, such as big cars, skyscrapers, logos, and forbidden entertainment. Logotypes that frame the nightclub sequence at the beginning and the end play an especially important role in both cinema and animation. Logos play the same role as geographical landmarks helping viewers understand that this cartoon is about the US.
The nightclub sequence is of particular interest as it sarcastically portrays the American entertainment and popular culture. The Bulldog, as a stereotypical American nouveau riche, enjoys his status and indulges with good food, night bars, a personal limo, and a luxurious household with a butler. The comical effect is achieved by the fact that such luxury, unthinkable in Soviet Russia for anybody except the highest rank leaders, is inherited by the dog. In the 1950s, a significant part of the Soviet citizens lived in wretched conditions of communal apartments, dormitories, and temporary houses. The dancing scene was used not only to satirically depict the soulless American style of entertainment but also was aimed at the youth subculture of stilyagi, (the stylish ones) often considered a pro-Western “fifth column” within the Soviet society. Stilyagi were Soviet youngsters fascinated with American music, dance, and art. They listened to jazz and adopted Western fashion trends.
Stilyagi were often ridiculed by the official Soviet media
The attitude towards jazz changed radically in Soviet Russia since the 1920s when it was positively viewed a folk music of the oppressed African-Americans. As jazz became a part of the mainstream American culture, the Soviet propaganda labeled it “music for the rich”. During the anti-Semitic anti-Western campaign of the 1940-1950s anyone listening jazz was proclaimed a potential traitor:
“Today he plays jazz, tomorrow he will betray his Motherland!”
In The Millionaire, jazz is treated according to this trend of the Soviet propaganda. The saxophone depicted in the first shot of the nightclub impersonates the evil of jazz for the Soviet leaders and the most wonderful music instrument for the Western-oriented youth of the 60s. Jazz is shown as an extremely vulgar type of music.
Patrons of the nightclub continue a long line of the evil capitalists portrayed by the Soviet propaganda. The cigar-smoking men are dressed in the black tuxedos with bow ties that looked extremely comical and outdated in the USSR. The frivolous women in bright, open dresses are eager to dance with anyone who is rich and famous, even if it’s a dog.
The rich Bulldog is chauffeured to the “luxury bar” with a jazz band and frivolous dancers. The anthropomorphic Bulldog joins the dance circling on all four paws like an actual dog. Excited patrons of the nightclub follow the example and adopt his dance manner losing human appearance and literally transforming into beastly creatures participating in some kind of black sabbath. Even skyscrapers join the dance transforming into menacing giants with bright patches of logos and ads. The streams of bright artificial light create an atmosphere of anxiety. The idea of the “moral degradation” is visually represented by the transformation of the nightclub guests into the leaping four-legged animals. In the country where people dance like dogs, why shouldn’t dogs become rulers?
Human turning into animals in The Millionaire
Visual and audio sequences together with crude verses ridiculed American capitalism. This animated propaganda was supposed to enforce anti-Western sentiments in the minds of the audience. However, excessive anti-Western propaganda led to the opposite results by the late 1960s, and more and more Soviets became interested in American popular culture.
Eduard Nazarov, an acclaimed artist, book illustrator, and animation director, passed away yesterday in Moscow. Nazarov, closely associated with Fyodor Khitruk, was involved in several of his projects, including Winnie the Pooh (1969-1972). In the 1990s, he became one of the co-founders of the SHAR studio, and later supervised a highly successful Mountain of Gems animated series based on folk tales of peoples of Russia. Nazarov is best-known as the creator of such classics as Once Upon a Dog / Once There Was a Dog (1982), a tragicomic story adopted from Ukrainian folklore about an old dog expelled by his owners, and Travels of an Ant(1983), a small ant’s quest to find his home. His beloved works feature a distinct visual style and combine lyricism with a mellow sense of humor.
Apart from “Cat in the Hat”, several books by Dr. Seuss inspired Russian animators. The most notable adaptation is Welcome (Добро пожаловать) based on “Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose.” A constellation of talents worked on this short piece. Yuri Koval, author and artist who was involved in the creation of such popular cartoons as Laughter and Grief by the White Sea, wrote a screenplay. Yevgeny Leonov, a beloved comedian actor and voice of Russian Winnie-the-Pooh, provided his voice. Alexander Petrov, an innovative animator and the 1999 Academy Award for Animated Short Film winner, created a unique style of this paint-on-glass animation.
Paint-on-glass involves manipulation of paints (oil or gouache) or other media like charcoal and creates a uniquely recognizable style featuring a smooth, fluid movement. Among the animators who employed this style is Caroline Leaf. Alexander Petrov often uses his fingers for painting. In the last decades, he created critically acclaimed animated films in this style based on stories by Platonov, Dostoyevsky, and Hemingway. As a bonus enjoy his paint-on-glass winter advertisement for Coca-Cola
Hedgehog in the Fog (Ежик в тумане) released 40 years ago is a critically acclaimed cartoon by Yuriy Norshteyn based on short stories by Sergey Kozlov. A journey of Hedgehog through the misty forest to meet his friend Bear is among the most well-known Russian cartoons. Check out an interactive guide with comments of Norshteyn about unique solutions employed to create paper puppets, fog, and shadows in this stop-motion masterpiece.
While not as widely known in Russia as some other Western children’s authors, like Alan Milne or Astrid Lindgren, Dr. Seuss inspired several cartoons. Cat in the Cap (sic)(Кот в колпаке) is loosely based on The Cat in the Hat, sans Thing 1 and Thing 2 (but still featuring a grouchy Fish). It takes place in a typical urban dwelling where children have to spend a long rainy day alone. The theme of escaping into a land of fantasy from boredom of home or school is rather typical for the Soviet cartoons of the era of Stagnation, so Cat in Hat (Cap), with its protagonist, a safe entertainer who does not forget to clean the room before children’s tired mother returns from work, falls perfectly within the scope of Soviet cartoons of that time.