Alexeieff : Itinéraire d’un maître – itinerary of a master
edited by Giannalberto Bendazzi, anthology of articles on Alexandre Alexeieff by various international authors, published by Dreamland in conjunction with the Annecy Festival, 318 pages, bilingual in French and English, softcover, b&w illustrations with 16 color pages.
Anthologies often don’t offer the best insights into a subject. The various authors’ viewpoints can give disjointed perspectives that don’t work toward a presentation greater than its parts.
As well, gaps are usually present in the collective material that don’t get addressed. For these reasons, I was not entirely optimistic that the anthologized biography of Alexandre Alexeieff would be anything more than the usual array of good and bad essays.
Fortunately, ALEXEIEFF: ITINÉRAIRE D’UN MAÎTRE is a very thorough treatment by very appropriate writers.
Renowned animation historian Giannalberto Bendazzi is the editor of this collection, and he has done an outstanding job coordinating these authors in a massive bi-lingual effort to create a comprehensive book on Alexeieff.
It contains both personal accounts, historical accounts, and critical analyses of his filmwork. Alexeieff was a visual stylist who, along with his wife and creative partner, Claire Parker, brought his artistry as an engraver to film with the invention of the pinscreen. Later on, he also developed a system of staggered camera exposures which he called stroboscopic totalisations.
Using these techniques, he remained active for several decades as an experimental animator.Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of Alexeieff’s films. I’ve always preferred films by such peers of his as Fischinger and McLaren, but I recognize the achievement that the pinscreen was in its time, and I greatly admire his compositions. The pinscreen simply is a difficult medium for animation.
As one writer, Nikolai Izvolov of the Moscow Film Research Institute, points out in one essay, his techniques are now likened to the digital process of morphing, and offers that “we can consider Alexeieff as the precursor of the current animated techniques using software.”
One interesting notion is that Alexeieff worked within units of screen pixels, a familiar constraint to any digital artist, thereby making a case that he was in fact the first digital animator. Alexeieff did not create a huge body of work as measured in footage, but his work was influential.
He maintained a career doing commercial work, such as advertisement films for corporate clients and even the prologue and epilogue to Orson Welles’ The Trial. In one of the more remarkable essays in the book, Dominique Willoughby places him within the “cinematic avant-garde” movement that took shape in the 1920’s, the first time that cinema arts were influencing other media and book reviews.
At this earliest point in his career, Alexeieff was a Russian emigre living in Paris. Through the patronage of an affluent young American, Claire Parker, he was able overcome recent setbacks and boldly embark on the creation of the first pinscreen film, “Night On Bald Mountain.”
It was well received, and the affair between the married mentor and his younger patron/student became a lifelong companionship. She eventually became his second wife.
The story of Alexeieff is fascinating. He was in many ways a grim and uncompromising man who can either be detested or admired. He was a talented and visionary artist who remained inspired by the Russia of his childhood, yet he never returned to visit.
He had the mechanical ingenuity to invent the pinscreen, yet few would willingly choose it as a medium in which to animate. And it seems certain that without the collaboration of Claire Parker, none of his innovations in film would have taken shape, yet she bears little “official” credit.
These collected essays are quite compelling in the manner in which they slowly reveal the life and work of Alexeieff. After analyses of his films by writers such as Youri Norstein, Michéle Reverdy and Robin Allan begin to spark questions about who exactly this man was, the book unearths more and more personal information until a full picture comes into view.
The presentation is not so much chronological as it is by distance from the source — first his art, which he created for any to see, and then his career, and then revealing the individual and those nearest to him, and then his secrets.Bendazzi writes the introduction to this book, and then presents the work of fourteen other writers.
Cecile Starr contributes an important section on Parker herself. As well, Alexeieff’s daughter and grandson provide their recollections, and an appendix contains copies of significant correspondence, a catalogue of his engravings, a filmography, and an account of all the pinscreens that he had ever constructed.
This anthology is handsomely illustrated with lots of photographs and production stills. Unless there’s a thoroughly researched biography by a single author somewhere on the horizon, this anthology will deservingly stand as a fitting and definitive tribute to Alexandre Alexeieff.