By the end of Conflict, the first in this collection of Garri Bardin films, you may think you’ve been adequately primed for the hour and a half that you’re about to spend with the work of the Russian animator. Yes, in less than ten short minutes, the film goes from “Oh, cute! Widdle moving matches!” to “The horror! The horror!” but the weirdest, darkest depths have yet to be plumbed, so stay tuned. What follows is a rollercoaster ride of bizarre highs and devastating lows forged in Bardin’s variably crude but consistently expressive stop motion animation. These films are truly unlike anything else.
Unfortunately, the information available to English speakers on Bardin is limited (especially unfortunate is that I only speak English. Sorry, Internet). His stock bio goes a little something like this: After graduating from drama school, he worked as an actor, both on stage with the Gogol Theatre (home to quite a few notable Russian actors) and on film. A successful stint in a Moscow puppet theater in 1974 led to Bardin’s signing on with Soyuzmultfilm, the large and influential Moscow animation studio probably best known for the production of Yuriy Norshteyn’s Hedgehog in the Fog. Here, he would produce fifteen acclaimed short films (five of which are included in this collection).
Bardin’s animation of unusual materials breathes life into wire, rope, matches, and other unexpected stuff, with each form masterfully personified – a box of matches turned into an army right before your eyes. However, the novelty of these unconventional media can be quickly forgotten as each film’s bleak message becomes evident (this speaks to Bardin's serious abilitiy as both animator and filmmaker). In 1983’s Conflict, two apparently sparring groups of matches emerge from the same matchbox and divide themselves with a guarded border. The titular conflict escalates quickly and drastically until the entire match population is aflame: A direct reflection of the global dread during the Cold War and a commentary on its futility. 1987’s heartbreaking Marriage follows the course of a romantic relationship as it literally unravels. As a disturbingly honest artistic response to the pressures and trials of marriage and family life, it evokes Eraserhead – not bad, especially considering the fact that it stars two ropes.
Frills , Bardin's wiry, Palme D'or-winning tour de force, is the most profound and bleak of the bunch. The innovative concept of stop-motion animation with wire figures born out of a spool would be enough for most filmmakers, but Bardin went above and beyond and created a truly affecting work; one that has lingered in my mind long after it ended.
In a recent interview with Bardin, he reveals that he considers animation a way to extend life, and animators to be “adult children1.” While there aren't many children (as far as I know) working out ruminations on war, marriage, or life itself, even this grown up child's biggest bummers maintain a “look what I can do!” sense of wonder and a hearty sense of humor. Thankfully, not all of his work for Soyuzmultfilm ended with bleak shots of crying rope-babies, barking wire-men, or charred match-soldiers. Included in today's collection is plenty lighthearted fare. Tyap and Lyap, the House Painters and Break! are two clay shorts so goofy they could be Looney Tunes. Break! Is particularly great thanks to its clay choreography in a depiction of a dirty boxing match with musical flourishes.
In 1991, Bardin left Soyuzmultfilm to open his own animation studio, which he dubbed Stayer. Here Bardin began to work with increasingly sophisticated and long-form plasticine figure animation. Two Stayer films – adaptations of the Little Red Riding Hood and Puss in Boots fairy tales – round out our collection. 1991's Grey Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood uses the classic story as a framework for (what else?) an allegory about communism (the wolf is communism!) and the immanent fall of the USSR. While Bardin is clearly influenced by Disney and Aardman's Nick Park, he creates a world and tone that is -- bald grandmas, steel teeth, and all -- distinctly his own. One could even argue that Bardin's co-opting of a few choice tunes and Disney characters is a spiritual heir to stuff like Moulin Rouge and mashup culture in general, if one were feeling particularly ambitious.
Puss In Boots followed in 1995. The tale of an American cat and his drunken Russian friend's attempted journey to America won several international awards. It set a new standard for Bardin's work and some might say for stop-motion animation in general. Bardin went on to set another standard on both of those fronts with his most recent (and first feature-length) film, 2010's adaptation of The Ugly Duckling.
Bardin's work can be bleak, but it is always inspirational. The joy that he so clearly takes in creating and experimenting can only be described as childlike. The screen is his sandbox, and his toys are whatever he decides they are. But unlike a child, Bardin understands the artists' responsibility to respond to, interpret, and even try to change the world around him. That combination of joy and responsibility is a discouragingly rare thing. But rather than lament its absence, let's cherish its presence in the film of this adult child and anywhere else it can be found.