The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)
Okay, summer break is over and the blogging shall resume.
My friend John Torvi from Canada is visiting this week while he attends SIGGRAPH, the international conference for “researchers, artists, developers, filmmakers, scientists, and other professionals who share an interest in computer graphics and interactive techniques.” During the day, John immerses himself in conferences and screenings. At night, he recommends his latest finds, like La DerniËre Minute (2004), which won the Palme d’Or for short films at Cannes last year and which also has a premise that reminds me of Harlan Ellison’s wonderful 1965 SF short story, “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman. Then we watch whatever animation I can drum up.
On Saturday, we managed to catch The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad at the American Cinematheque’s new Aero theatre, with Ray Harryhausenónow 85óin attendance. Made in 1958, the film was the first of Harryhausen’s color “dynamation” stop-motion spectacles (so named, according to him, because the public didn’t recognize stop-motion as animation and merely assumed the monsters were men in suits a la Godzilla). Seventh Voyage is respectable fare for the genre, even if it lacks the streamlined efficiency of something like Jason and the Argonauts, which contains Harryhausen’s favorite example of his work, the five-minute battle with the skeletons that took him six months to animate. (“I’d answer the phone,” he said during the Q&A, “and forget which skeleton I’d moved last. That was when I stopped answering the telephone.”) When asked about modern special effects, Harryhausen seemed positively indifferent; any hopes I had that he’d launch into a Bazinian defense of material reality over digital fakery were dashed.
On Sunday, we traced the stop-motion lineage back to Ladislaw Starewicz and watched his amazing 20-minute short film, The Mascot (1933), randomly included on the Image DVD of Dreyer’s Vampyr. (Image has also released a compilation of Starewicz’s work on a disc entitled The Cameraman’s Revenge and Other Fantastic Tales.) Starewicz combines live action with extensive stop-motion to present a toy puppy’s adventures with the denizens of the underworld, and the film’s amazing detail, macabre humor, and breathless pace is every bit as impressive as anything in A Nightmare Before Christmas half a century later.
After that, we watched the French region 2 DVD of Paul Grimault’s Le Roi et L’Oiseau, a gently surreal film based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen that the French animator began in 1946 but never properly finished until 1979. A major inspiration to Hayao Miyazaki, the film’s elaborately stylized castle, giant robot, sweet romanticism and lyrical beauty never fails to impress. The DVD doesn’t have English subtitles, but we didn’t care.
Yesterday evening, we watched the first animated feature film ever made, Lotte Reiniger’s classic silhouette movie The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), which has been released as a very nice DVD from Milestone Films that includes a new recording of Wolfgang Zeller’s rousing score and a one-hour documentary on the filmmaker. Reiniger, a member of Max Reinhardt’s theatre, pioneered the art of animating cutouts silhouetted on elegant backgrounds, and her level of detail is astonishing. The film’s story is based on the tale of Aladdin and includes royal parades, enchanted islands, Chinese magic, flying demons, and an epic battle with a many-headed beast. Unfortunately, all known prints of Achmed were destroyed during the Allied bombing of Germany, but the British Film Institute found a copy in its archives and restored the film many years later. Among the film’s fans was Jean Renoir, who helped the leftist Reiniger and her husband Carl Koch (who later co-wrote The Rules of the Game and co-directed Renoir’s Tosca) leave Germany in the mid-30s. It’s too bad Reiniger doesn’t receive more attention as a progressive female artist in Germany during the 1930s; if she received half the attention historians lavish upon Leni Reifenstahl, she could provide an admirable counterpoint in many ways.