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Animated vision of the West

Some cartoons despite the limited artistic merit could serve as a perfect case study for the zeitgeist of a certain era. The Millionaire produced in 1963 is one of those rather crude propaganda pieces that involves the main subjects of the Soviet official satire of the 1960s: the American politics and society, capitalism, contemporary Western art, and pop-culture.

The Millionaire, 1963

Soyuzmultfilm

Aesthetically, the 1960s in the Soviet Union began soon after the death of Stalin, and Khrushchev’s rise to power. In a few years, totalitarian Soviet baroque was replaced by the modern minimalistic style in the architecture and visual arts. In the Soviet animation, this style was pioneered by Fyodor Khitruk. The Millionaire by Vitold Bordzilovsky is one of the examples of the new approach of the early 60s. This cell animated film is executed in the sharp contrast with the Disney-like Soviet animation of 1940-1950s. While the Stalinist aesthetics was replaced with more Western-like, Soviet art continued to be highly ideological. The Millionaire is a perfect example of the Sovie political animation of the 1960s.

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Example of the Soviet rotoscope technique from the 1950s – Kashtanka, 1952

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The minimalistic 1960s aesthetics – Story of a Crime, 1962

The base of this animation short is an ideologically correct doggerel by one of the most cynical Soviet authors, Sergey Mikhalkov. When it was necessary Mikhalkov condemned enemies of the people, Nazis, American imperialists, Zionists and cosmopolitans (a euphemism for Soviet Jews), Soviet intelligentsia “kowtowing to the rotten West”, and so on depending on the demands of the Communist Party. The Millionaire was part of the satirical newsreel Fitil’ (Fuse), an important element of the Soviet visual agitation machine. The cartoon’s plot tells a story that must have seemed hilarious to the Soviet audience: a rich lady bequeaths all her money to her beloved bulldog. The Bulldog is transformed into a rich and powerful capitalist who attends lavish parties and becomes a Member of Congress thanks to his riches.

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The Millionaire book cover

This animation should be discussed according to not only its technical and artistic qualities. In the totalitarian state, visual media played an essential role of a social engineer shaping the public opinion. The Millionaire conveys a certain social and cultural message presented by means of animation. Obviously, it’s not a purely entertaining piece. It criticizes American elite, the “cult of dollar”, and contemporary Western culture. Every small detail of the cartoon is used to enforce the message. Take for example interior backgrounds with abstract paintings and sculptures. Similarly to the Nazi Germany where modern art was labeled “degenerate”, in the USSR it was called “formalist art” and was sharply criticized by the Communist Party. Any work of art that did not fit into the rigid ideological system of the Social Realism was condemned, and independent artists were often persecuted.

Related imageA Soviet cartoon satirizing abstract art titled “Pure art”

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Khrushchev condemned abstract artists in 1962

The cartoon shows the combination of stereotypical images, such as big cars, skyscrapers, logos, and forbidden entertainment. Logotypes that frame the night club sequence at the beginning and the end play an especially important role in both cinema and animation. Logos play the same role as geographical landmarks helping viewers understand that this cartoon is about the US.

The nightclub sequence is of particular interest as it sarcastically portrays the American entertainment and popular culture. The Bulldog, as a stereotypical American nouveau riche, enjoys his status and indulges with good food, night bars, personal limo, and a luxurious household with a butler. The comical effect is achieved by the fact that such luxury, unthinkable in the Soviet Russia for anybody except the highest rank leaders, is inherited by the dog. In the 1950s, a significant part of the Soviet citizens lived in wretched conditions of communal apartments, dormitories, and temporary houses. The dancing scene was used not only to satirically depict the soulless American style of entertainment but also was aimed at the youth subculture of stilyagi, (the stylish ones) often considered a pro-Western “fifth column” within the Soviet society. Stilyagi were Soviet youngsters fascinated with American music, dance, and art. They listened to jazz and adopted Western fashion trends.

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Stilyagi were often ridiculed by the official Soviet media

The attitude towards jazz changed radically in the Soviet Russia since the 1920s when it used to be considered a folk music of the oppressed African-Americans. As jazz became a part of the mainstream American culture, the Soviet propaganda labeled it “music for the rich”. During the anti-Semitic anti-Western campaign of the 1940-1950s anyone listening jazz was proclaimed a potential traitor:

“Today he plays jazz, tomorrow he will betray his Motherland!”

In The Millionaire, jazz is treated according to this trend of the Soviet propaganda. The saxophone depicted in the first shot of the nightclub impersonates the evil of jazz for the Soviet leaders and the most wonderful music instrument for the Western-oriented youth of the 60s. Jazz is shown as an extremely vulgar type of music.

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Soviet anti-capitalist poster

Patrons of the night club continue a long line of the evil capitalists portrayed by the Soviet propaganda. The cigar smoking men are dressed in the black tuxedos with bow ties that looked extremely comical and outdated in the USSR. The frivolous women in bright, open dresses are eager to dance with anyone who is rich and famous, even if it’s a dog.

The rich Bulldog is chauffeured to the “luxury bar” with a jazz band and frivolous dancers. The anthropomorphic Bulldog joins the dance circling on all four paws like an actual dog. Excited patrons of the night club follow the example and adopt his dance manner loosing human appearance and literally transforming into beastly creatures participating in some kind of black sabbath. Even skyscrapers join the dance transforming into menacing giants with bright patches of logos and ads. The streams of bright artificial light create the atmosphere of anxiety. The idea of the “moral degradation” is visually represented by the transformation of the nightclub guests into the leaping four-legged animals. In the country where people dance like dogs, why shouldn’t dogs become rulers?

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Human turning into animals in The Millionaire 

Visual and audio sequence together with crude verses ridiculed American capitalism. This animated propaganda was supposed to enforce anti-Western sentiments in the minds of the audience. However an excessive anti-Western propaganda led to the opposite results by the late 1960s, and more and more Soviets became interested in American popular culture.

Russian folktales were often adapted for animated films, and for many Russians cartoons, together with folktales are the first introduction to folklore. The folklore characters went through several stages, from comparatively straightforward transformations in some early films to didactic Socialist Realist versions in the late Stalin era, to artistic masterpieces of the 1960-1970s, when folklore-based cartoons fused modernity and tradition and obtained “doublespeak” allusions. The trickster is one of the most appealing characters for animation. The trickster creates comic situations, brings innovation, and is often associated with satirizing norms and customs. The Russian trickster is the fool (durak). The fool in Russian medieval culture was a clever revealer of truth, eccentric in clothing, speech, and behavior. In Russian culture, the trickster figure blends several characters that were historically connected: the Holy fool (iurodivyi), the Harlequin/Wandering Minstrel (skomorokh), and the Outlaw (e.g. the thief, Cossack, or the peddler).

Emelya and the pike

The story about Emelya the fool and the magic pike is among the most well-known. In Russia, Emelya is depicted in figurines, paintings, illustrations, and sometimes is seen as a symbol of Russia, slow to saddle up, but rides fast. In the folktale, Emelya is the third son, unmarried, untidy, lazy, and his only motivation to do something is the promise of a red kaftan (overcoat). In the folktale, Emelya catches the magic pike and who gives him a magic ability to fulfill his wishes. Most famously, lazy Emelya who spends most of his time on a warm massive Russian stove, wishes for the stove to give him a ride.  In the folktale-based animated film In a Certain Kingdom (V nekotorom tzarstve), 1957 (directed by Ivan Ivanov-Vano, screenplay by Nikolai Erdman) Emelya is significantly different. He is not a lazy lad, but he is shown quite capable of working. Emelya is also kinder: he lets the pike go without asking anything and the pike rewards him. He is quite peaceful until his motherland is threatened by foreigners.

Emelya

Emelya on his self-propelled stove. The Tsar is hiding from invading foreigners

Figures of pretentious westerners are among the main contemporary features of the film. The generic foreign prince who courts the Russian princess is shown in 18th-19th-century European dress. Presumably, he is a French prince who barely speaks Russian and wants to marry Maria, the daughter of the tsar. The foreign prince is shown as a tall figure with unnaturally sharp features reminiscent of a rooster (possibly another hint at his French origin). He is extremely effeminate, constantly powdering his face, looking at a pocket mirror. Princesses Maria does not mind his courtship (approved by her father) until Emelya sees her portrait and wishes her to fall in love with him. When the foreign prince is rejected by Maria, he launches an invasion. The image of foreign grenadiers marching in the snow reminds us not only of Napoleon but also of the recent German invasion. The tsar’s troops are defeated despite their general’s comic appeal: “They [foreigners] gave our tsar the fig, let’s all die for him!”, and only the trickster, becoming patriotic when he sees the destruction the invaders are causing, is able to save his native land by making a magic broom to wipe out the enemy.

SoldiersForeign invaders

Emelya is depicted in a humane fashion, with normal physical appearances. In contrast, the Russian court is shown in a somewhat comical way: the tsar is short, bearded, and single toothed; his worthless general is shown with cartoonish whiskers. As a result of Emelya’s victory, the tsar loses his crown and flees abroad, while Emelya marries princess Maria and rides the stove home with her. Thus, in sharp contrast with the folktale, Emelya in this cartoon embodies the ideal of the Russian nation: he is witty and kind, able to work and play, he is not aggressive, but he can defend himself if bothered by foreigners or the tsar and his government. Foreign enemies are always ready to invade Russia, but they cannot defeat her people. The parts of the folktale that shows Emelya’s weakness and passivity are completely omitted. In the film, Emelya is a smart peasant, salt of the earth, and he does not need the pike’s magic to become a handsome and clever prince.

 princeClumsy and effeminate European prince

In a Certain Kingdom (V nekotorom tzarstve), 1957

Ivan Ivanov-Vano

Russian

 

 

Russian with English subtitles

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xv5lua_once-upon-a-time-1957-v-nekotorom-tsarstve-english-subtitled-russian-animation_shortfilms

Vladimir Tarasov employed sci-fi motifs in several of his 1980s animation shorts, including the anti-capitalist satire Shooting Range about violence, and dystopic futuristic Contract dedicated to power of money that corrupts people in the capitalist society.  Shooting Range is a beautifully rendered cartoon that features interesting perception of the US filled with avant-garde jazz (considered to be reprehensible music in the Soviet Union),classic American cars, highways with at least 12 lanes, and glass and steel skyscrapers. Stereotypical American hero wears jeans and baseball hat and is attached to his car in a way a nomad warrior attached to his horse. Violence and unemployment plague this geometrical generic Western city. The anti-hero inherits typical capitalist features including passion for cigars (while the unemployed  hero smokes – presumably more proletarian – Camel).

Capitalist from 1959 Soviet magazine

Antihero of Shooting Range

In a scene of temporal (underlined by transformation of a cuckoo clock bird into firebird) happiness Vladimir Tarasov pays a homage to Disney characters – a vital part of American cultural image.

While this craftily executed cartoon has some ideologically correct features, there is artistic fascination with  American aesthetics, design, music, and big city vibe. This cartoon presents  the West both disturbing and appealing.

Shooting Range (Тир, 1979)

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