A young Russian official awakens to find that his nose is missing. He then discovers that it is not only alive and well, it is wearing a splendid cape and has a higher rank in the civil service than he does! An adaptation of Gogol’s absurdist classic using the pinscreen animation of Claire Parker and Alexandre Alexeieff.
Nose on the Run
Today, we’re going to be taking a look at a film made with one of the rarest forms of animation: pinscreen, pioneered by Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker. And what, you may ask, is pinscreen animation?
Remember those toys with all the pins that would leave an impression of your hand or face or toy? It’s not exactly the same but you get the general principle.
Pinscreens use much smaller pins, of course, and they depend on lighting to cast shadows and create white, black and shades of grey. It’s a laborious art because many of the shortcuts and helpers in cel animation (sketching, celluloid sheets, etc.) are unavailable but the result is a rich, moody, textured image. Further, the technique requires either two artists working simultaneous on both sides of the screen or a single artist capable of drawing with both hands. Obviously, any resulting animation would take years to complete.
(I am highly indebted to the 1973 documentary Pinscreen, which features Parker and Alexeieff demonstrating their unique animation and explaining its technical aspects. You can watch it legally and for free here, courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada. There’s also a shorter explanation of the technique here.)
During their careers, co-directors and co-animators Claire Parker and Alexander Alexeieff had long stretches between films—an inevitable result of their choice of medium. The Nose was released in 1963, a year after the couple had provided the introductory illustrations for Orson Wells’ 1962 film The Trial. Like many of the pinscreen motion pictures, it draws on Alexeieff’s Russian Empire birthplace by adapting the work of a Ukrainian author. This film is a veritable cornucopia of Things I Like. We have a unique form of animation, a woman co-director and an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s most famous short story. Wow! Let’s dive in.
The story of the nose involves, well, a nose. A barber realizes that while shaving an official, he accidentally cut off his nose. The official, Major Kovalyov, wakes up from a daydream to soon discovers that his nose is gone. Horrified, he sets out to locate it and finally runs into it in church. The nose has taken on a life of its own and is decked out in a resplendent cape; it refuses to return to its old life attached to Kovalyov’s face. Despite his nose’s snotty attitude (I’ll show myself out), Kovalyov wants it back. But how?
For those of you unfamiliar with Nikolai Gogol’s work, The Nose is a divine bit of nonsense that is better if one does not attempt to make sense of its absurdity and dream logic. (That hasn’t stopped academics from trying, including the usual, tedious Freudians. But, hey, who am I to interfere with someone’s livelihood?) The story is simplified considerably in this version and a subplot about Major Kovalyov’s flirting ways is cut entirely but that is understandable given that the film is silent and without intertitles.
The Nose is something of a literary family heirloom (my mother reviewed it for her high school newspaper) and is guaranteed to brighten your days with its absurd and wonderful plotting. I recommend viewing the Parker/Alexeieff film as a companion to the Gogol story rather than an adaptation; an animated illustration, if you will. While public domain translations are available, my favorite is the work of translation team consisting of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
I would have thought The Nose to be an impossible subject for cinema but Parker and Alexeieff nail its wonderful madness. The monochromatic nature of pinscreen adds a subtlety and richness the adaptation and prevents it from becoming loud, coarse or garish. And, of course, the world of animation is really the only place where a sentient, disembodied nose could really be at home.
So, you know the plot and have seen the screen caps. But how did Parker and Alexeieff do it? Let’s find out.
(Before jumping into the technical, I should note that there is something of a debate as to where Claire Parker fits into the invention of the pinscreen. She is generally recognized as the co-inventor but Alexeieff’s only daughter, Svetlana, credits herself and her mother, Alexandra Grinevsky, with the innovation. I’m not opening that particular can of worms. However, there is no debating the fact that Parker and Alexeieff’s collaboration produced some of the most poetic images in animation history.)
The construction of the pinscreen is very precise: A quarter million to a full million pins and 30% of the board’s surface taken up by the pinholes. The pins are in a staggered arrangement with angles of 60 degrees between the holes. However, when animating, Alexeieff and Parker did not think about individual pins but rather thought of the surface of their board as velvet: we don’t consider the individual threads in the pile.
Parker and Alexeieff would work on opposite sides of the screen, pushing pins back and forth with assorted tools to create just the right light and shadow balance. It is a time-consuming technique (even more so for solo pinscreen artists, who must work on both sides and draw with two hands simultaneously) and the relatively short filmography of the team is a testament to their dedication and perfectionism.
Pinscreen animation has been described as a tool for improvisation and there is a delightful handmade quality to the resulting images. Parker and Alexeieff improvised on their tools as well, creating patterns and figures on their pinscreen with halves of matryoshka dolls, porcelain Chinese soup spoons, serving forks, lightbulbs and metal rings. It’s easy to imagine them constantly searching for shapes and patterns in their daily life and gathering up jewelry, kitchen gadgets and assorted odds and ends that fit the bill.
Voices seem redundant in the poetic world of pinscreen and, appropriately, this is a silent film with synchronized sound effects (think the original soundtrack to Murnau’s Sunrise) and music, save one brief line of dialogue at the very end. The score is bound to be controversial. Instead of going the obvious route of Russian or Ukrainian music, Alexeieff and Parker employed the talents of Vietnamese musician Hai-Minh. The score has a pan-Asian sound with the discordant percussion showing distinct influence from Korea and Japan. It’s not for everyone but it is worth the effort to appreciate it. (Traditional Korean music in particular is not friendly to many western listeners.)
The Nose achieves something that I would have thought impossible: a successful adaptation of this most curious short story. The pinscreen proves to be the ideal vehicle for Gogol’s wonderful madness and Parker and Alexeieff show deep understanding of their subject. This is true cinema magic.
Where can I see it?
The Nose was released on DVD as part of The Animation of Alexeieff collection, the title of which seems a bit dismissive of Claire Parker. Sigh.
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