I met Alexandre Alexeïeff at the Abano Terme Animation Festival (Italy) in the spring of 1971. He was standing in front of the cinema hall, solemn and gracious at the same time. I introduced myself and he greeted me warmly. Among his films, I had seen only A Night on Bald Mountain and admired it. “You know, there are not many more to watch…”, he commented with a grin. He escorted me into the theatre, sitting next to me during the projection. He was 70, I was 25.
During the festival, I found many opportunities to chat, both with him and his wife and co-author, Boston-born Claire Parker. To them, age meant nothing. Likewise, I had always had older friends, and, being a journalist, I was used to facing famous and smart people. When the festival was over, we parted warmly and exchanged addresses.
I thought that this was one of the usual festival acquaintances: we would have dinner together at the next event, many months later, and maybe exchange wishes for the New Year’s Eve. Surprisingly, the next week a greeting postcard from Paris arrived; sometime later, a postcard from the beach location of Armor, where the couple was relaxing for some days. The message was clear: Alexeïeff wanted me as a friend. I took pen and paper and wrote him the first of the collection of letters that would go back and forth between Milan and Paris for eleven years.
I loved Alosha (his nickname for close people). He was my master, my mentor, my brother. He was happy to be a great artist but definitely not conceited. The approach fits perfectly with my own mentality, and when in the course of my life I succeeded in some of the tasks that my work imposed me, humility (NOT hypocritical modesty) sprang up in me. When I published the first hint of my world history of animation, in 1978, he was not afraid of acting as a guarantor, writing a beautiful Introduction.
He was my big brother, for reasons of age (not a father, because parenthood was not an emotion that became him). He also was my younger brother (his statement), because I gave him a feeling of protection (I was tall, muscular, and sharp-tongued).
He and Claire lived in Paris, avenue Jean Moulin. Number 36 corresponded to an anonymous front door, in an anonymous façade. Behind it, a different universe opened. A straight alley extended for about fifty meters, with ateliers d’artiste (artists’ workshops) and their garden/orchards on the two sides. The last one on the right, shaded by a large linden and preceded by a little garden, had been organized by them as a workshop and a home at the same time.
I organized twice a one-man (or two-people) retrospective in Milan. In 1973, we had the first Italian screening of Pictures at an Exhibition, and the actual exhibition of his etchings. In 1980, we had the first – and possibly only – screening of the whole film output (including Three Moods) in presence of both filmmakers.
During those eleven years, several times I went to Paris and they came to Milan. Moreover, we had the festivals as a meeting point. But in June 1981 he and Claire had given up to the crowd of Annecy and had accepted to dwell in a lodge in the surrounding mountains that a friend had lent them.
Up there he confessed to me that he had discovered that Claire had cancer. The summer of 1981 was marked by more and more frantic letters and phone conversations. He did not want to see anybody, neither me nor his Parisian friends. Eventually, he accepted Claire to be admitted to the American Hospital, where she was taken good care of. When it became obvious that she was condemned, the Hospital put together a bed in their living room and let her die at home. By the end of September, I took a train and went up to see them, despite their prohibition. Alosha was taking care of the practical housekeeping. In other words, everything was in a mess; and the moribund person stank. I lifted her to let him change the sheets. She had no weight. A doctor from Algeria, a nice and sympathetic man, would spend an hour daily with the old couple, and Claire begged me to leave. On the 3rd of October, she died.
Alosha could not cope with life lonely, and at 81 his lucidity was vanishing. In 1982 he daydreamed to make a feature film in memory of Claire and spent a fortnight with me in Milan to discuss the screenplay; then he came back and was taken care of by his daughter, Svetlana.
On an early morning of August, I was shaving and listening to the radio news. In Paris, the father of the pinscreen had died. I rushed to the telephone. Svetlana answered. We were so moved that our conversation was almost monosyllabic. Two days later I received a letter, the last one from him. “I will do something that will grieve you”, it said. Alosha had voluntarily left this world.
Giannalberto Bendazzi received in 2019 the first Doctorate Honoris Causa ever given a scholar of animation (Universidade Lusòfona de Tecnologia e Humanidades, Lisbon, Portugal). He is the author of Animazione – Una storia globale (Utet 2018), originally published in the US as Animation – A World History (CRC 2016). His previously best-known work was Cartoons, a world history published in many languages. A film critic and historian, he has been studying animation since age 19. In 2001, he edited Alexeieff, Itinéraire d’un maître – Itinerary of a Master, dedicated to one of the great masters of avant-garde cinema. The book on Quirino Cristiani, the director of the first animated feature films, was published in Italian, Spanish, and English. He extensively lectured on all continents and taught at the Università degli Studi di Milano (2002-2009) and the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore (2013-2015). A founding member of the Society for Animation Studies (1987), he was also an adjunct professor at the Griffith University of Brisbane. Giannalberto Bendazzi wrote books on live-action cinema, too: on Woody Allen and Mel Brooks.