May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
June 9, 2012
I personally think A Night at the Museum would be a much more interesting film if it took place in an art museum than a history museum. Imagine a trip through the Musee D’Orsay, wherin the beloved works of Monet, Manet, Rembrant and the like suddenly sprung to life, or Degas’ delicate ballet dancers leaping through the air, trails of impressionist colors behind them. Thank God for Russian animator Aleksandr Petrov, then, whose paint-on-glass technique resembles nothing so much as a moving painting.
In order to achieve his distinctive style, Petrov produces a painstaking 12 masterpieces a second: multiple layers of glass are laid under a camera, and Petrov fingerpaints his images with slow-drying oils, often laying out the background on one pane and the moving elements above it. As he finishes each frame, he captures it on film, then reworks the still-wet paint to the next stage of movement, and so on, each frame a work of art erased by the one that follows.
Petrov’s method lacks many of the safegaurds of studio animation, where a scene is laid out and timed with all the major beats first, then each character’s extreme poses, then finally filled out with inbetween frames, each moment and gesture checked and adjusted frequently. There are consequences: Petrov’s scenes sometimes meander, and lack a certain clarity and focus. In subsequent viewings, after the initial bewilderment by the sheer beauty and difficulty of the films, the poor pacing and structure of certain scenes becomes more obvious.
Thankfully, Petrov plays to his technique’s strengths, telling his stories obliquely and often with a surreal edge. Sometimes he conjures the impression of a place more than all of its details, and often, one scene will gradually transform into another without explanation, like in a dream. It’s no coincidence, then, that every one of his films includes a dream sequence, from the constant fever dreams of My Love to the inscrutable Jacob’s Ladder sequence in Mermaid.
Only two of Petrov’s films have ever been released on DVD in the U.S. — The Old Man and the Sea as a standalone and Mermaid in a collection of Russian animation — but good luck finding them; they’ve long been out of print. You might expect Shorts International to at least offer his work on iTunes, but he is conspicuously absent there, too. I suspect there are some licensing issues: Magnolia’s DVD collection of the 2007 Oscar-nominated shorts DVD actually excludes Petrov’s contender, My Love. This is frustrating, to say the least. All of his shorts are available on Youtube, but given their visual sophistication, they deserve more. It’s also difficult to find good subtitles, although the dialogue in many of his shorts is largely incidental. There is this Youtube HD version of Petrov’s adaptation of the Dostoevsky story The Dream of a Ridiculous Man with a fine translation, so if you want a taste of his work, it might not be a bad place to start (although for sheer visual wonder his latest, My Love, is hard to beat, and I’d like to write about it later).
As the title suggests, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man is essentially one long dream sequence, a Boschian vision of heaven and a miniature portrait of the fall of man. The dream comes as a saving grace to a man who has decided to kill himself; first he is treated to what he thinks is the afterlife, a world like our own but free of lust and malice, then he witnesses its decline after he introduces deceit to its saintly populace. The ridiculous man is transformed by the experience, but in a typically Dostoevskian conceit, his vision of the weight of glory that awaits mankind of is treated with a dismissive laugh by the modern world in which he lives.
Petrov pares down the text of Dostoevsky’s short story — really a monologue — preserving most, if not all, of its shades of ennui, despair and solipsism, as well as its psychological diagnosis of the pre-fallen world. Though the film is terse in comparison, it suffers no thematic loss; Petrov supplements the text with a visual imagination all his own. The fall of man has no narration, but its arc is clear: Dostoevsky describes how a simple jest may have introduced lies to the prelapsarian people; in Petrov’s version, the ridiculous man corrupts the people by wearing the first mask, and the violence, lust and mockery that follow are harrowing.
Dostoevsky carefully treats his very Christian themes — paradise and fall, the golden rule as the root of a new kingdom — with non-Christian language and imagery, and Petrov’s inventions are in keeping with that spirit, never explicitly biblical but clearly of a piece.
As with many filmmakers, Petrov has a better grasp of the horrors of the fall then the gentle peace of paradise, which is a typical Renaissance world of togas, golden light and picturesque nudes. A few of his heavenly images are transfixing if somewhat opaque: a beautiful woman cups in her hands water from a fountain, which transforms into a miniature child, which she gives to the protagonist, who holds it in the palm of his hand until it turns into a bird. Another man ventures near the sun, which looms close to this world, and is taken in a glorious blaze of fire. Both of these images are later reversed. The fallen men leap through a ring of fire — perhaps hoping for a similar glorious disappearance — and instead set themselves alight and burn their city to the ground, dancing amidst the destruction. Later, the ridiculous man holds in his arms a cackling, miniature man who dissolves into sand, unleashing an avalanche that swallows a edenic beach.
The philosophical ambition of the film comes at the expense of a real sense of character, which may be one reason why it’s less discussed than his more character-driven films. Nevertheless, this Dream it is a challenging and strange vision, and well-suited to Petrov’s incredible but admittedly specific talents.