Night on Bald Mountain: An Eery, Avant-Garde Pinscreen Animation Based on Mussorgsky’s Masterpiece (1933)

If you read Open Cul­ture reg­u­lar­ly, I imag­ine I can safe­ly call Alexan­der Alex­eieff and Claire Park­er your favorite France-based, Russ­ian-Amer­i­can hus­band-wife pin­screen ani­ma­tion team. Dare I pre­sume to refer to them as your favorite pin­screen ani­ma­tors, peri­od? We’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured two exam­ples of their time- and labor-devour­ing but utter­ly dis­tinc­tive ani­ma­tion tech­nique: their eerie open­ing to Orson Welles’ adap­ta­tion of Kafka’s The Tri­al, and their own daz­zling adap­ta­tion of Gogol’s short sto­ry “The Nose.” Alex­eieff and Park­er’s trip to the Gogol well reflects their pen­chant for the imag­i­na­tive cre­ators of Alex­eief­f’s home­land. The film we present here draws its inspi­ra­tion not from a Russ­ian writer, but from the Russ­ian com­pos­er Mod­est Mus­sorgsky, him­self an enthu­si­as­tic incor­po­ra­tor of his coun­try’s lore and tra­di­tions.

You cer­tain­ly know at least one work of Mus­sorgsky’s: Night on Bald Moun­tain, which he wrote ear­ly in his career but which nev­er saw a full orches­tral debut until 1886, five years after his death. Over half a cen­tu­ry after that, the piece found a much wider audi­ence through its use in Walt Dis­ney’s Fan­ta­sia. For many, that inter­sec­tion of Mus­sorgsky and Mick­ey Mouse will remain the finest exam­ple of clas­si­cal music unit­ed with ani­ma­tion, but have a look at how Alex­eieff and Park­er did it — in 1933, no less, sev­en years before Fan­ta­sia — and see what Car­toon Research’s Steve Stanch­field calls “one of the most unusu­al and unique look­ing ani­mat­ed films ever cre­at­ed.” It presents, he writes, “both delight­ful and at times hor­ri­fy­ing imagery, a stream of con­scious­ness bar­rage of images that chal­lenge the view­er to com­pre­hend both their mean­ing and the mys­tery of how they were cre­at­ed.”

To my four-year-old self, Fan­ta­sia seemed pret­ty scary too, but Alex­eieff and Park­er have, on their pin­screen, tak­en things to a whole oth­er psy­cho­log­i­cal lev­el. Near­ly forty years lat­er, they would use the music of Mussko­r­gy again to cre­ate 1972’s French-lan­guage Pic­tures at an Exhi­bi­tion just above. They would make anoth­er, Trois Themes, in 1980, but it appears lost to time, at least for the moment. Have we made you into the kind of pin­screen ani­ma­tion enthu­si­ast who might unearth it?

You can find Night on Bald Moun­tain on our list of Ani­mat­ed Films, part of our larg­er col­lec­tion called 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Niko­lai Gogol’s Clas­sic Sto­ry, “The Nose,” Ani­mat­ed With the Aston­ish­ing Pin­screen Tech­nique (1963)

Kafka’s Para­ble “Before the Law” Nar­rat­ed by Orson Welles & Illus­trat­ed with Great Pin­screen Art

Two Beau­ti­ful­ly-Craft­ed Russ­ian Ani­ma­tions of Chekhov’s Clas­sic Children’s Sto­ry “Kash­tan­ka”

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.