When no film was in production, Alosha was busy engraving, while Claire was busy with the minutiae of daily housekeeping. Both read a lot. He knew Russian, French, German, and English. She knew English and French and had learned Russian to the point of being able to read aloud Tolstoy and Pushkin for him before sleeping.
They were slow and enjoyed wasting time. Their conversation was full of digressions. They were very interesting digressions, anecdotes, recollections, and philosophical topics. But still digressions. When organizing the Milan retrospectives, I had to work with them and face their disorder, turning crazy.
They had a secret, special magic that nobody else shared: they were in love. They were not just a good couple or a good team. They were in love like the day of their first encounter. She loved him, full stop. He loved her and had created with her a homeland of his own. The actual, Soviet country was forbidden to him, a “white” Russian. Had it been reachable, the contrast between daily life and his sweet memories would have been devastating.
But Russian he was. Answering the telephone, he would not say “Hello” or “Alexeïeff here”, but “Aleksyéyeff”. When I first paid him a visit in Paris, he brought me to a Russian restaurant. In his last, senile days, he tried to speak Russian with me. “Alosha, we always communicated in French. Sometimes in English. I can’t speak a word of Russian”. “You are my friend. How can you be my friend and not speak my language?” His life had ended the day he had set out from Vladivostok. The rest had been survival.
Claire’s mind was clear and profound, and excelled both in logic and intuition. She was outspoken, not shy, not submissive. I saw her once standing up to him on an artistic choice at the pinscreen, and getting her way. But the role she had chosen for herself was a supportive one, as she admittedly was less creative than he was. Her relationship with me was a byproduct of the Alosha-me relationship. When chatting woman-to-man, she gladly spoke about him or about them, never about her own life or opinions. Despite his insisting pressures, she never accepted to be a protagonist. The only exception that I know was her solo participation in an Annecy festival jury.
Alosha’s architecture of relationships was peculiar. On the one hand, he reluctantly introduced me to his daughter, Svetlana. When his grandchildren and I were at the same time in Paris, he mentioned them and noted they were more or less my age, but kept us separated. He never said a word about famous writers like André Malraux of Philippe Soupault, who happened to be very intimate friends of him. On the other hand, he badly wanted me to meet Berthold Bartosch’s widow, although she had dismantled the atelier/home where her late husband had made The Idea (1931). He also dragged me to see George Dunning, the director of the animated feature film Yellow Submarine (1968).
He was rather bashful about his films, and in public always maintained he loved them all, on an equal basis. In private, the charts were as follows: first, joint, A Night on Bald Mountain and Paintings at an Exhibition; third, The Nose; fourth, Passing by; fifth, Three Moods; sixth, the whole bunch of advertising films.
A Night on Bald Mountain was also turned into an animated film by Walt Disney, as a segment of Fantasia (1940). Alosha insisted that the two films were too different to be compared and praised the good animation of the Hollywood product. Had Disney copied or taken inspiration from him? He was adamant: “The people at Disney’s weren’t even aware that my film had existed”.
Alosha was praise-generous to his fellow animators. He especially loved Norman McLaren and his unceasing research for stylistic and technical innovations (he was an inventor, too). His favorite colleagues were Poles Jan Lenica and Daniel Szczechura, French Paul Grimault and Jean-Francois Laguionie, and American John Hubley.
A film critic is always uncomfortable when s/he meets a director, even more, when s/he is an intimate friend. There are three options: emotions influence favorably the critic; emotions paralyze a sane approach to the work; emotions towards the author go their way, emotions towards the film have a completely different track. I was as lucky as to embrace the third option. I loved both the authors and – separately – the films. I could write my essays without any awkwardness.
Alexeïeff showed me once a poster made for a film retrospective plus etchings exhibition of himself.
– Do you like it?
– The black and white mass of the film image is too heavy to balance the color filigree of the etching.
– At least you are sincere… — he grumbled, pretty upset. He had made his own poster…
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.