Saturday, October 27, 2012

Autumn Leaves - Les Feuilles Mortes...

The autumn leaves are littering the ground here, their beautiful colours offset by the berries in the hedges. The wind has picked up tonight, so much of this rich harvest of leaves will have been buffeted and blown away by the time I set out tomorrow morning.

This season always brings to mind a number of different autumnal songs, generally wistful music about the passing of life, loves and time in general. As much as I like summer, the passage to autumn doesn't bother me so I don't really share the regret-tinged tones of these songs. The following certainly isn't an elegy to any particular feuille morte from the windier moments of my life... 


Nevertheless I do like the songs... This probably started with a song by Justin Hayward in the 70's, called Forever Autumn, but this isn't the most famous music with autumn as its theme. For that, you have a more Gallic source...

After Claude François' Comme d'Habitude  of 1967 (taken up by Frank Sinatra to become, more famously, My Way in 1969) one of the most famous French songs to gain international recognition, recorded by numerous artists in many different genres is Les Feuilles Mortes

Les Feuilles Mortes was sung by the Italian-born actor and singer Yves Montand. Himself married to the iconic French actress Simone Signoret, Montand was briefly romantically linked to Marilyn Monroe in the early 60's when filming in Hollywood. Monroe was still married to Arthur Miller at that time, and I don't know how much Montand/Monroe regretted this liaison, or its ending or indeed if Montand thought of this whilst singing the song itself. He sings of his sentimental memories of a lost love, a time when living was more beautiful and Life had not yet separated the two lovers. The souvenirs and regrets of that radiant period are scattered like fallen leaves, treasured yet lost to the dull winds of time, washed away like footsteps in the sand.

                                       Oh je voudrais tant que tu te souviennes
                                       Des jours heureux où nous étions amis
                                       En ce temps là, la vie était plus belle
                                       Et le soleil plus brûlant qu'aujourd'hui
                                       Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle

                                       Tu vois je n'ai pas oublié
                                       Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle
                                       Les souvenirs et les regrets aussi
                                       Et le vent du nord les emporte
                                       Dans la nuit froide de l'oubli
                                       Tu vois, je n'ai pas oublié
                                       La chanson que tu me chantais

                                      C'est une chanson, qui nous ressemble
                                      Toi tu m'aimais, et je t'aimais
                                      Et nous vivions tout les deux ensemble
                                      Toi qui m'aimais, moi qui t'aimais
                                      Mais la vie sépare ceux qui s'aiment
                                      Tout doucement sans faire de bruit
                                      Et la mer efface sur le sable
                                      Le pas des amants désunis

                                     C'est une chanson, qui nous ressemble
                                     Toi tu m'aimais et je t'aimais
                                     Et nous vivions, tous deux ensemble
                                     Toi qui m'aimait, moi qui t'aimais
                                     Mais la vie sépare ceux qui s'aime
                                     Tout doucement sans faire de bruit
                                     Et la mer efface sur le sable
                                     Le pas des amants désunis.

The song finds its origins in music by the Hungarian composer, Josef Kosma, for a ballet in 1945. The poem by Jacques Prévert was later arranged around the music score  in 1946, and was the final version was sung in the film Les Portes de la Nuit. This gloomy drama, set in post-war Paris and directed by Marcel Carné (1909-1996), was not a great success, but its poetic urban realism later influenced the American film noir genre.

The song shook off the bleaker tone of its origin title, Les Feuilles Mortes (dead leaves), and became a little mellower when renamed Autumn Leaves. The various jazz interpretations of Autumn Leaves  later gave the song an upbeat tone with singers such as Miles Davis and Nat King Cole.

 However, there have been other stylistic approaches to Autumn Leaves, with singers varying from Tom Jones, Frank Sinatra, Eva Cassidy and Iggy Pop, just to cite a few...
Les Feuilles Mortes found another tone and mood again, when it was referred to in the song La Chanson de Prévert by another iconic French singer, Serge Gainsbourg. Written in 1961, the song dates back to a period when Gainsbourg was still producing highly-successful work for other artists, but had yet to interpret his own songs on stage. Here the lyrics of the original poem Les Feuilles Mortes are drawn on, but in a more melancholic manner still!

These leaves will be evergreen...
"Past loves never stop dying... Let autumn pass, winter come and the song of Prévert, that song, Les Feuilles Mortes, fade from my memory and then that day my past loves will have finished dying away..."

                                    Oh je voudrais tant que tu te souviennes
                                    Cette chanson était la tienne
                                    C'était ta préférée
                                    Je crois
                                    Qu'elle est de Prévert et Kosma

                                    Et chaque fois les feuilles mortes
                                   Te rappellent à mon souvenir
                                   Jour après jour
                                   Les amours mortes
                                   N'en finissent pas de mourir

                                   Avec d'autres bien sûr je m'abandonne
                                  Mais leur chanson est monotone
                                  Et peu à peu je m' indiffère
                                  A cela il n'est rien
                                  A faire

                                 Car chaque fois les feuilles mortes
                                 Te rappellent à mon souvenir
                                 Jour après jour
                                 Les amours mortes
                                 N'en finissent pas de mourir

                                 Peut-on jamais savoir par où commence
                                 Et quand finit l'indifférence
                                 Passe l'automne vienne
                                 Et que la chanson de Prévert

                                 Cette chanson
                                 Les Feuilles Mortes
                                 S'efface de mon souvenir
                                 Et ce jour là
                                 Mes amours mortes
                                 En auront fini de mourir

Well, after that, here's Eric Clapton's version of Autumn Leaves to end on a more glowing autumnal note...  

Monday, October 22, 2012

Lotte Reiniger - Magic in a silhouette...

The Adventures of Prince Achmed - 1926 - Lotte Reiniger
 A few weeks ago we went to a public showing of a very old animated film at the local library. On the poster The Adventures of Prince Achmed was highlighted as the world's first feature-length animation, created by a German woman nearly 90 years ago...

The name Lotte Reiniger didn't mean anything to me at the time, but having seen the film, I could see the influence of her incredible pioneering work on other artists - illustrators and animation film-makers alike. The cinema room was packed with many young children, and I wondered how they would fare with a film that was created in 1926, well before the beloved Disney classic cartoons that must be their staple viewing diet, and entertainment reference, just as they surely were for their parents/grandparents.

 It turned out that Reiniger's art was not cartoon based, but composed of silhouette animation. In this way it created a magic that in no way suffered from its manifest lack of computer-generated images and gimmicky 3D effects. 

Blurred images due the original copy of Prince Achmed having been destroyed in the Blitz...
The stark contrast of the intricate black silhouettes set against varied backgrounds seemed to catch the children's attention, against all my expectations. 

Perhaps this was precisely due to the absence of lacquered finish and smooth movements that seem to have rendered the most technically-sophisticated animation so dull today. Here, we could see the art of creation in the animation itself, and this made the story and the film itself all the more magical. It certainly managed to keep the children in their seats right to the end of the showing; no mean feat!

As said at the start of another of Reiniger's works, Cinderella, all of her animations bring to life fairy tales, fantasy, classic myths and exotic Oriental stories "told by a pair of scissors on a screen". Deftly using black cardboard and scissors, she would cut out highly-detailed, wire-jointed silhouettes which came to life through the below-lit animation table and thousands of camera shots. The camera tracked the slightest gestures of the thus-animated figures to give rise to amazingly fluid movement in the final filmed version.

 Like the ancient Oriental shadow puppets employed to act out scenes, Reiniger's characters, human or beast alike, gave shape and movement to the action of any theatrical plot. These cut-out characters lose nothing of their vitality from the lack of colour. 

 On the contrary, the black accentuates the vividness of the backgrounds whilst drawing our attention back to the protagonists. In this manner, a unique style of animation was born, as the visual effects of these 2D card figures led the film beyond a mere flat representation of 3-dimensional reality.

Freed from the constraints of faithful reproduction, Reiniger invented new realms of portrayal. Here the details reflect the whole, the unreal reflects the real, the bestial reflects the human and vice versa; all becomes a shadow ballet of life, set to music. Each fraction of movement was noted and numbered to correspond to the music score, each frame recorded in the manner of the strictest choreography. For the artist, flora and fauna were vital to this creation. She studied both animal and human movement and gesture with precision, stating that "Man. and beast are on the same level, which would be impossible on a theatrical stage". 

Apparently Reiniger would study animals at the zoo and would then try to act out the body language that she had observed once back in her studio. The capture of seemingly minor movement, set to music, could alter the mood of the scene and convey a specific message that words could not, these being non-verbal, 'silent' films. Reiniger disliked imprecision in such animation and emphasized the importance of eye movement and hand gestures. Full facial expressions were limited to those shown in profile and she logically felt that " Hands are practically the only way to show a silhouette figure's emotions". 

 Close-up views demanded that the characters' forms were reproduced again, on a larger scale, to avoid the blurred effect when the camera is too near the subject.
 Conversely , desired blurring could be achieved by adding an extra plate of glass to create an illusion of haunting smoke or fog, or troubled waters. These techniques were already put to full use in Prince Achmed, and were later extended when she introduced coloured silhouettes in her later art. Reiniger's interpretation of The Frog Prince (1961) demonstrates this, although I personally prefer the stark black sihouettes with their precise, lacy detail. These seem to suit the other-wordly themes that form the basis of her art.

 The film that we saw, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, was the work that brought critical and popular acclaim to Reiniger at a relatively young age in 1926. Born in Berlin in 1899, she had shown an interest in puppetry - notably that of Chinese silhouette - and would give shows from her own puppet theatre as a child. During her adolescence, other influences made themselves apparent in the formative years of Reiniger's creativity. The cinema had an impact on her artistic vision, especially the special effects used by Georges Méliès.

 However it was a lecture given by the actor and director Paul Wegener on the subject of animation attended by Reiniger in 1915 that would give direction to her creativity. She entered the same drama group as Wegener in Max Reinhardt's theatre, where she spent her time performing and creating sihouettes of her fellow actors. Three years later, the young artist carried out some animation work for Wegener's The Pied Piper of Hamelin; this was to act as her passport to enter the animation and short-film studio of the Institut für Kulturforschung. Once at the institute, Reiniger encountered avant-garde figures such as Bertolt Brecht, and also met her future husband, the camera-man and producer, Carl Koch. 

Reiniger made six short films, several advertising campaigns and created special effects for feature films (notably Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen) in the following period, largely shot and produced by Koch. In 1923, as the consequences of galloping inflation and the collapse of the monetary system under the Weimar Republic made themselves felt, an opportune project was presented to the artist. A certain banker wished to place a significant sum of money to prevent it becoming worthless through the ravages of devaluation. He decided to invest in a film-making enterprise...

The Adventures of Prince Achmed was the fruit of this scheme that took three years to complete. Although requiring painstaking artwork, this project was highly exciting for those involved as it represented unmapped terrain, or "virgin soil" as Reiniger put it, wherein the artists were offered "all the joys of explorers in an unknown country" The theme was in line with fantastic stories from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights which attracted public and critics alike, all fascinated by the Orient, especially since the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922. Although Reiniger's film took a year to find a distributor, once it had been screened in Paris, through Jean Renoir's participation, it made the artist's name and assured her creative reputation. Nevertheless, life under the Weimar Republic gradually led into the period of Nazi rule. The artist and her husband found their work projects hampered, although not banned. Her films were no longer financed and the Third Reich deemed her work to be inappropriate since they were "romantic and unrealistic". As Reiniger and Koch were close to Leftist politics, they decided to emigrate but found no European country able or willing to grant them permanent visas to ensure their escape from Nazi Germany. This led to a period of transience, as the couple travelled around Europe, never settling long before they were obliged to move on again. This did not put a halt to their creativity; 12 films were made during these difficult times. Indeed, this nomadic existence lasted until 1944, when they had to return to Germany from Italy to flee the Allied invasion. It was during the allied Blitz of Berlin that the original copy of Prince Achmed was destroyed, though fortunately a negative was found in London years later...

During the 30's, Walt Disney carved a name for himself in popular screen entertainment with his celluloid animation, demonstrated in the iconic Snow White (1937). The animated cartoon films of Disney and Warner Bros threw the silhouette work of Reiniger into the shadows and dominated the market. However, the fact that silhouette animation required considerably less financial backing than celluloid animation meant that Reiniger pursued her career until the 1970's, relying on her limitless patience and tireless scissor-work to achieve her artistic missions. Some projects never saw the light however - Reiniger's wish to create an animation of Ravel's opera L'Enfant et Les Sortilèges was never realized due to copyright issues. Nevertheless, Reiniger's career was long and highly prodigious, and her creativity seemed to seemed to defy and overcome any obstacle placed in her way. The couple lived in England in the 1950's and founded Primrose Productions with the son of Prince Achmed's financier and went on to produce numerous short films based on Grimm's Fairy Tales, for the BBC. Incidentally, the co-founder of the production company, Louis Hagen Jr, had such an extraordinary life himself, beset by huge challenges, that it would surely make a fascinating film in its own right.
Reiniger did finally return to her homeland, Germany, and was given the artistic recognition that she deserved - receiving the Great Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. She died in 1981.
Jan Pienkowski
 For me, Reiniger's Prince Achmed brought to mind the art of Jan Pieńkowski - the Polish-born British children's book illustrator and writer, who founded the greeting card company Gallery Five
Princes et Princesses - 2000 - Michel Ocelot
However, it also made me think of Michel Ocelot, a renowned French artist who has created several animated films - the most notable (I thought) were Princes et Princesses (2000) and the stunning Azur and Asmar (2006).  Ocelot does not just restrict himself to silhouette art, but branches out into other medium too. Ocelot acknowledged Reiniger's influence on his work, but is said to have remarked (rather ungraciously, I thought) that he found Lotte Reiniger's films "rather archaic and not very attractive". Despite this, he certainly noticed the potential such animation offered, especially regarding children's work. I love the animation, below, with paper doilies - beautiful! 

The general mood of some of Reiniger's late fairy tale animations, with their commentator's gentle voice-over, remind me of the work of Oliver Postgate - though mainly Bag Puss, I suppose, with Professor Yaffle, or The Pogles. I can't imagine Postgate making such disparaging remarks about the truly remarkable Reiniger who worked in such hard conditions, such a long time ago...

So, I was very happy to have discovered the art of Lotte Reiniger, and was pleased that the children, my daughter included, seemed to have appreciated its magic.