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 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..
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.