Zéro de Conduite: zero for film convention and conformity, maximum score for lively presentation on social oppression

Jean Vigo, “Zéro de Conduite: Jeunes Diables au College” (1933)

One of four films made by French director Jean Vigo before his life was cut short at age 29 by sickness, this featurette is an unusual and goofy commentary on political and social repression and rigidity in French society in the 1930s through the prism of a boys’ boarding school. Four cheeky monkeys – Caussat, Colin, Bruel and Tabard – find the strict boarding school regime unreasonable and ridiculous  and plot to rebel during a public commemoration that involves the school and the wider community. In a loosely structured plot that leads up to the rebellion, the children engage in various small acts of revolt in front of their horrified teachers. One young professor sympathises with the students and encourages them in their rebellion.

The film was filmed on a tight budget in a restricted time schedule and these constraints are reflected in the film’s admittedly cheap sets and general look and in the disjointed plot that brims with many unrealised ideas. Early on a student collects all his classmates’ glue pots and pours the glue behind a shelf of books but that’s about it for the prank they play on their teachers: presumably the glue dries and keeps the books stuck to the shelf for all eternity, to be touched let alone be tugged at never again. The resolution appears incomplete as the ring-leaders walk off into the far distance. Characters talk at one another rather than to each other and no-one carries on a conversation beyond one call and one response. The narrative has the appearance of a series of unrelated skits that merely take place in a common context. There are many surreal sequences and improbable characters, done so deliberately as satire: probably the most surreal character is the boarding-school headmaster who looks and speaks like a child wearing a long beard.

The acting is almost completely natural with children acting like children and not as little automatons mouthing lines they’ve learned. One teacher mimics the English actor Charlie Chaplin in his Little Tramp role in his waddle with the twirling walking-stick. There are several passages that are completely silent save for Maurice Jaubert’s music soundtrack. The climactic scene is the pillow fight in the dormitory done entirely in silent slow motion with music: the kids charge down the passage-way, carrying one of their number like a king on a palanquin, while white feathers flutter down from the ceiling like manna to ancient Israelites.

Whatever viewers think of the loose and disjointed narrative, the message it conveys is clear and sharp: if people are pushed to their limits by governments and corporations wielding oppressive tools of control against them, those oppressors had better watch out – the oppressed will revolt and carry out acts of vandalism and violence, revelling in them all the way. At the same time, the film works as a joyful paean to the cheek and spirit of young children on the edge of adolescence, and suggests that if adults wish to shake off the shackles of outdated ideologies and political / economic systems, they should be as creative and full of verve as children.

D Zyuz’kov’s Natalia Yurchenko documentary: a contemplative and poetic TV sports special

D Zyuz’kov, Natalia Yurchenko documentary (1984)

A curious little 20-minute gem on Youtube, this Soviet television documentary about the gymnast Natalia Yurchenko, made about the time when she was World Champion, is notable for its style of cinematography, its respectful and sombre approach to its subject and the sometimes eerie music soundtrack, created by N Mitrofanov, which seems more appropriate to an avant-garde science fiction / fantasy film of the 1970s.

Surprisingly the film begins with the worst experience Yurchenko had at the 1983 World Championships where she won the all-round individual title: a couple of days after that high, she competed in the vault final, injured her knee on landing and had to be carried off. The film then deflects to scenes of Yurchenko training in the gym under the watchful eye of coach Vladislav Rastorotsky, doing warm-up exercises, fussing over other gym pupils training under Rastorotsky and idling in the spare time, playing a tune on a piano or looking at the scenery outside her room. There are actually very few shots of Yurchenko performing her routines and those that appear are bunched up near the end of the documentary and are not shown in full so it is hard for viewers who know her routines to be able to work out when and where she performed the routines and place a date on the documentary. The film’s narrative, unfortunately without English sub-titles, is provided by Yurchenko herself in voice-over and by Rastorotsky in an interview.

Yurchenko’s voice is very girlish and makes her sound younger than she was when the film was made. She appears to talk about her life in training and how it consumes her every moment; the value of the film as a historical document of Soviet gymnastics and sport generally would appear to be minor (my assumption). The film features many close-ups of Yurchenko’s face which have the unintended hilarious effect of highlighting the heavy fringe of hair over her forehead. Her expression is usually very serious and contemplative. Rastorotsky during his interview and training sessions comes across as a gruff bear of a man who expects to be obeyed and is stern and unyielding towards his charges, even his star gymnast.

The style of the film is what makes it stand out: the cinematography is slow-paced for a sports documentary with long shots of its subject looking thoughtful. The film has many shadows and the lighting seems poor in parts, making the film look more sombre than the film crew might have intended. The highlight is a psychedelic dream sequence about halfway through the film, in which bright white lights edged with blue-green colours are superimposed over a scene of Yurchenko performing on the beam. The music ranges from Frederic Chopin’s Prelude, Op. 28, No.4 – a curious choice since the music has an ambience of despair – to a space-ambient lounge music piece played on cheap synthesiser to more conventional orchestral music; the space music has such acid tones that one expects the film to bleach its colours and turn into shades of bleached baby-blue, sickly lime-green and lemon yellow. For a TV sports special, the film has a lot of visual and sound poetry which may have suited the personality of its star.

The film comes across as a snapshot of a gymnast at a particular moment in time, no more, no less, and if viewers are looking for information about her life up to that point of time when the documentary was made, they will be disappointed. As it turns out, the 1983 World Championships were perhaps Yurchenko’s greatest moment in what became a long tenure (for the period) on the Soviet national women’s team: Yurchenko anchored the team almost to the end of 1986 when she retired from the sport. Years later, she emigrated with her husband and daughter to the United States where she coached gymnastics in Pennsylvania for several years. She is the current head women’s gymnastics coach at Lakeshore Academy in Chicago. As far as I know, Rastorotsky taught gymnastics in France and China after the break-up of the Soviet Union and returned to Rostov-on-Don in 1999.

 

Little Black Riding Hood / The Walls: two very different early shorts by Piotr Dumala

Piotr Dumala, “Little Black Riding Hood / Czarny Kapturek” (1983)

Piotr Dumala, “The Walls / Sciany” (1988)

Based on the familiar childhood story but rendered in such a way as to make it an adults-only animation short, “Little Black Riding Hood” is an early work by Piotr Dumala that subverts expectations about what a film adaptation of a fairy tale should do and about the roles of the characters themselves and what they represent. The result returns some of the original darkness of the story back to it: some mediaeval versions of the tale included cannibalism and sexual intercourse, and both are present in Dumala’s adaptation.

Drawn in a superficially child-like scrawl, the whole cartoon has a slight smutty air, encapsulated in the sketchy landscapes where trees have a bushy, almost electrified appearance and suspiciously resemble pubic hair. As soon as the girl and the wolf meet, they’re at each other’s throats straight away in an orgy of violence, bloodletting and carnivorous consumption. The hunter who’s supposed to be the hero of the story joins in the carnage. Granny turns out to be skilled with a crudely drawn katana and further bloodshed ensues. Then the story repeats but with a happy ending instead as two unlikely characters decide to get it on and the house conveniently spews enough chimney smoke to preserve decorum.

Most viewers might find the short meaningless and pointless but it does remind us of the original tale’s themes of restoration and rebirth, however low-brow these transformations appear, and that fairy-tale characters aren’t always strictly good (and tame) or strictly bad (and wild) but possess aspects of both. There is an absurd quality to the short as well and that may be Dumala’s snide reference to some versions of the Red Riding Hood tale which had a moralistic slant about how well-bred young ladies should not talk to strangers who might have bestial designs on them.

Five years later, “The Walls” represents Dumala at his more typical and refined: his distinctive technique of drawing over plaster and scratching out figures, then erasing and drawing new figures gives a three-dimensional and very nuanced appearance to his characters, and brings a melancholy that suits the existential theme and the main character’s inner psychological turmoil. light and shadow are beautifully illustrated with depth and the technique readily lends itself to stream-of-consciousness thinking and surreal imagery and story-telling.

The film can be interpreted on several levels: on one level, it could be about a prisoner or a deranged man in a mental asylum; on another, it could be an allegory about living in a repressive society where one’s life is at the mercy of uncaring bureaucrats and ideologues; on yet another, it might be an expression of angst at living an absurd life in an absurd universe created and controlled by an indifferent God for whom existence may also be absurd.

Both very different in style, theme and mood, yet in their own way these shorts may have deeper meanings that viewers need to draw out for themselves.

Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor: a bleak and surreal observation of one man’s existence in an uncaring universe

Koji Yamamura, “Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor / Franz Kafka: Ein Landartz / Kafuka: Inaka Isha” (2007)

Excellent if rather visually grotesque animated short film based on Franz Kafka’s short story of an unhappy and unfortunate country doctor forced to attend to a sick boy on a remote farm during the evening in the darkling depths of snowy winter, “Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor” is a meditation on existence in a meaningless and uncaring universe. The titular doctor (Sensaku Shigeyama: voice), who describes the events of the night through two spirit voices that always accompany, is dragged out of his house and taken by two unearthly black horses to the farm while their groom rapes the doctor’s maid Rosa at home. Beset by thoughts of his ill luck and grievances against his patients who apparently expect him to wait on them hand and foot, the doctor initially fails to diagnose the boy’s illness; the boy’s family then strip the medic of his clothes and shove him into the boy’s bed where he finds the weeping, worm-infested wound that has ailed the youngster (Ippei Shigeyama) since his birth. Returning home with what remains of his clothes, the doctor finds the horses are travelling slowly and his journey back to Rosa seems to take forever in a frozen landscape of giant snow eyes, noses and ears.

The narrative is closely based on the Kafka original and the sense of alienation, the lack of insight into human nature, and absence of compassion and empathy for others, on the doctor’s part which doom him to a hopeless servitude at the mercy of parasitical, exploitative villagers are obvious throughout. The plot lends itself readily to a surreal style of animation, at once two-dimensional and three-dimensional in look thanks to clever replication of shading and light falling on objects; the drawing might look crude in the cartoony style of Priit Pärn but as with that Estonian artist, the simplicity gives the film a raw, often dark and creepy energy. The backgrounds sometimes look painted onto a board; figures flit across them like smooth stop-motion pieces pasted over; lines are feathery and fragile, giving objects a frail, insubstantial look; at times the foreground and the edges of the film blur and bleed, and objects closest to the viewer even bubble and shudder as if fragmenting and disintegrating. Colouring is restricted to black, white and grey shades in-between and red appears only in a couple of scenes where the doctor sees his patient’s deep wound.

Characters may be deranged and twisted psychologically as well as physically and the doctor’s paranoia about the people and animals he meets (and how it distorts his view of himself, literally, as his head balloons and deflates and his legs grow long or short) seems well-founded. It’s hard not to think that ” … A Country Doctor” is actually a psychological film about a doctor who has wasted his life doing as little as possible for a life of ease and comfort, and now that he is coming towards the end of his life, he is haunted by all the young patients whose lives he failed to save (because he did not strive enough on their behalf) and their presence is driving him towards mental breakdown

The actors who give voice to the doctor and the boy are trained in a type of traditional Japanese comedy drama called kyogen which is related to noh play. The actor playing the doctor and the people giving voice to the boy patient and the doctor’s spirit consciences (also boy-like) are members of a famous kyogen acting family.

It’s a bleak and despairing view of the human condition, especially of one individual who does not know himself and who allows himself to be used by others similarly uncomprehending of their own selves. The film suggests that people are always using one another for short-term gain while the universe observes them all indifferently.

Krtek the Multi-talented Mole tries different occupations in near-abstract / experimental shorts

Zdenek Miler, “The Mole as a Chemist / The Mole as Painter / The Mole as Photographer / The Mole as Watchmaker” (1972 – 1975)

By the mid-1970s, Krtek the Mole was nearly 20 years old so it seemed right that he should start looking for gainful employment. In this quartet of short pieces made from 1972 to 1975, he tests different roles for size and although he’s quite good at a couple, he doesn’t last beyond one short and at the end of all of them, Krtek is back to digging ditches.

In the 5-minute short “The Mole as Photographer”, our friend Krtek acquires a camera from a mouse and immediately starts taking pictures of a family of frogs – but the camera plays up on him and he is reduced to drawing pictures of the family. Soon all the animals want portraits done and they drive the little fella nuts as he tries to keep up with all their demands.

Krtek digs his way into a warehouse of chemistry sets in “The Mole as a Chemist” and finds a set to play with. Predictably the mix of chemicals he makes threatens to explode so he hides the test-tube in a box, from which geometric shapes in different colours burst out. He assembles the pieces into a car, then a wheel, then a mobile castle with towers, but all of them quickly get out of control and he ends up spraying the box with the test-tude with a neutraliser he finds in the original set. Everything the box spews out turns into bubbles and Krtek is relieved that the mess he created soon disappears.

In “The Mole as Watchmaker”, Krtek finds an unlikely new friend in a mechanical cuckoo he finds in a clock set up in a tree. At first the cuckoo annoys him so he tries to teach the bird a lesson in manners and ends up crashing the clock onto the ground. He puts it back together to revive the comatose cuckoo and in no time at all the clock is in perfect working order and the cuckoo revives.

The longest of the four, “The Mole as Painter”, Krtek and his friends paint themselves and the forest with various paints they find in discarded cans in order to torment a fox that’s been harassing them all. Faced with a psychedelic scene, Reynard panicks and runs off. The rains come and wash all the brilliant colours and patterns away and the animals celebrate Reynard’s permanent banishment.

IN all these little animated situation comedies, there’s often a moral about co-operation and mutual benefit, being kind to others and helping them, or messing about with dangerous and unknown things. The most ordinary situation is bursting with original creative potential: a set of chemicals and equipment generates strange and wonderful shapes and colours and a forgotten set of paints provides an opportunity to render one’s home in crazy cacophonies of colour. “The Mole as Painter” must have had particular resonance for Miler who originally trained as a painter before the Second World War disrupted as career.

As with other Krtek shorts, these cartoons have beautifully painted background scenery and “The Mole as Painter” goes to town on this as the animals paint spots, lines, patterns and spirals all over one another and over the trees, flowers and grass. The style of animation is appropriately minimal if somewhat old-fashioned for the period but it suits Miler’s purposes in teaching young viewers about colour and creativity and a couple of shorts featured here acquire an abstract and experimental look and feel.

The music is significant to the shorts and often features whistling and cheery accordion melodies.

All cartoons are recommended for families with young (and not-so-young!) children. The educational purpose is quite subtle and the mood is usually happy and optimistic without being sentimental or treacly.

 

 

The Mole in a Dream: children’s animation short verges on surreal and sci-fi / apocalyptic

Zdenek Miler, “The Mole in a Dream / Krtek ve Snu” (1985)

Another film episode in the life of Krtek the Mole and this one’s a real doozy verging on the near-surreal and sci-fi / post-apocalyptic. I gotta wonder whether Miler was high on hallucinogens at the time he made this little classic. This time the focus is on an unnamed human adult male who meets Krtek and this gives animator Miler a chance to show he can do more than paint lovely forest and flower backgrounds and write little kiddie stories about Krtek and his animal pals. One fine sunny day Krtek emerges out of hibernation underground and watches peak hour traffic; he’s bemused at the sight of a motorist’s car stopping due to a flat tyre and the motorist getting out and, by remote control on a handheld computerised transistor radio box, commands the car to replace the flat tyre with a spare. Intrigued, Krtek hitches a ride on the car and is taken back to the motorist’s house which is completely computer-controlled and can do its own cooking, cleaning and caring for its occupants. There the man has dinner and a bath, and then settles down in front of the TV to watch a pop music program. Krtek gets himself a free meal in the man’s house while its owner, oblivious to his presence, falls asleep and has a dream.

In the dream, the house malfunctions and the man has to call the tradesman to come and fix the central control unit in the basement. Unbeknownst to him as he lives in the countryside, civilisation has broken down and the man near freezes to death while waiting for the tradie. Krtek and his friends (Hare, Hedgehog) take pity on the man by lighting a fire in his house, warming and reviving him. Excitedly the man chops ups all the furniture in the house to keep himself and his new animal companions warm. A bear – we’ll call him Bear – joins them all and they teach the man how to survive in the forest. They kindly find him a goat that can give him milk. A lion joins them all and as winter makes way for spring, they find an old gramophone player with a record and start playing music and dancing in a circle as if performing a spring celebration rite. A mammoth tries to join the party and near flattens the man and at this point he wakes up.

As with other Krtek cartoons I’ve seen, the animation style is kept minimal while at the same time it portrays objects and backgrounds in considerable technical detail, though not too much so for young viewers and for 1980s-era animation purposes. In those days, animators were still working with pen and paper and, in Miler’s case, paintings. (With CGI now, we may have lost a lot of the whimsical charm of cartoons like the Krtek series.) The animation enables Miler to show how a smart house might operate: the man in the film presses a button and talks into his transistor box and an assembly line delivers him food and drink, and cleans up the dishes – and Krtek by accident who ends up bleached and pressed into a template along with the crockery and cutlery; fortunately Mouse comes by and sprays black shoe polish over him.

There is a little message about how humans can learn to live in harmony with nature and how cocooning yourself in automated comfort can put you at risk of danger and death if technology breaks down. Nature can be harsh but also offers help if one learns to be resourceful (and Krtek is a very resourceful little fella!) and reaches out for assistance from others and co-operates with them. Situational humour arises in most parts of the film though there are a few unexpected scenes where the action is forced: a lion comes by, storks kidnap Krtek, a Tree of Life sprouts through and destroys the man’s house; I know we are watching a dream which has its own logic but still, my conservative mind finds the lion and the mammoth a little jarring. Lots of little Chekhovian guns abound to serve as linchpins for plot development or the preservation of personal dignity: a carpet gets burned early on with a big hole in the middle so the man uses it as a poncho, having lost all his clothes to a wild boar. Once the gramophone appears on the scene, the animals play with it but you know eventually they’re going to fiddle with the stylus and force it play the old shellac record.

Without a doubt this is the kookiest and funniest Krtek film I’ve seen so far and I want to see more! There are full-frontal nudity scenes (oh my!) and lots of gentle slapstick but no violence. The music is varied and ranges from acoustic instrumentation for most of the film to near-trance tribal electro-acoustic music at the end where the animals and the man dance in a circle. I’m amazed that censors in Czechoslovakia overlooked that neo-primitive shamanistic aspect of the film. I heartily recommend this film for all age groups, even the very young under-18s.

Sed uz sliekšna pasacina: a very pretty and surreal animated film from Latvia

Mirdza Zivere, “Sed uz sliekšna pasacina” (1987)

Made for Latvian-language television in the Soviet Union in 1987, this very pretty and surreal animated short has some of the wistful melancholy of the famous Studio Ghibli films. The entire film is a music video clip that might have been made in an alternative universe where psychedelic rock and pop never faded away under the Doc Martens of punk and new wave, and commercial children’s cartoons wholly embraced spaced-out synthesiser sounds and looping rhythms. The style of psychedelic pop on display could have come from Japan: girly whispering passes for singing, and melodies in pure sparkling synth tones, clean production and an ambience that switches from the innocence born of new spring to slight wintry foreboding fuse in a memorable song of variable mood that exploits the full range of synthesiser sounds, atmosphere and melody.

The animation is colourful and the main child character is very cute in a way slightly reminiscent of Japanese cartoon character with shining eyes but less kitschy baby-like in appearance. Ocean waves look a little like what we’d expect to see of ocean waves in Japanese wood-block prints and animation so I’d say our Latvian film-makers had been paying much attention to developments in anime. There are many mind-boggling surrealist scenes in the film: shiny eyes with long lashes blink in the sky and shed globular tears; a beautiful fairy opens an oyster shell to reveal a world of blue shades in which a blue flower might be growing; animals and a potential little friend for the child sprout out of the ground. The fairy with the impossibly long blue-grey hair arrives on a horse accompanied by black birds covered in stars: one bird spreads itself over and into the ground and the stars become beautiful white lotus flowers out of which the child playfully emerges, having hid there secretly. The child is allowed a brief tour of the magic lands the fairy brings in her shells before she leaves him to visit other children.

The artwork is very detailed with plenty of distance perspective: a scene appears to show the camera moving as if flying over landscapes of undulating hills and sparse forests towards us. The ever-changing scenes are highly imaginative and there are so many gorgeous surprises that viewers need to see this film, short though it is, several times over to take it all in.

Perhaps this film really isn’t suitable for children: they may be tempted to try to recreate what they’ve seen by scoffing strange little white pills wherever and whenever they find them!

Fuji: inventive film makes the banal fresh and scrutinises the art of animation

Robert Breer,”Fuji” (1974)

An interesting short of a train trip taken through the Japanese countryside with Mount Fuji dominating the rice-fields and towns along the way, “Fuji” uses a combination of rotoscoping (in which the animation is based on tracing outlines of actual photographed scenes) and drawings of people and geometric objects to create a highly personal and impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness narrative that constantly interrogates its formation and organisation. Each image or series of images is subjected to a mini-cycle of birth, development, breakdown and re-birth of images from the abstract to the realistic and back again as if the art of animation is continuously re-invented anew. Early scenes of the Japanese landscape have a watercolour-painting quality with transparent splashes of blue or red in the background; later scenes stress the flatness of the rice paddies or the potential abstract and geometric qualities of paddy fields and industrial chimney stacks. Drawings are pared right down to the strictly linear and utmost minimal detail yet don’t look at all primitive or faux-naif; proper if ever-changing perspective is usually shown and figures are portrayed accurately if sketchily. The rhythmic train-noise soundtrack sets the pace for several picture montages, thus establishing a tension between sound and visuals.

There’s no definite story to be told here, the short is basically a snapshot of a train journey that Breer himself made while travelling in Japan in 1970: he took photographs of the trip and these are the basis for “Fuji”. The continual shift in perspective and point of view focuses the viewer’s attention on what might be considered fairly banal subject matter: after all, nearly everyone takes a train trip through the countryside at least once in life-time and most people living or who have lived in Japan would have travelled past Mount Fuji on the train. The trip becomes an arena in which surprises may happen and if they don’t, the journey is a stimulating ride anyway.  Passengers boarding the train may look ordinary but the way they are drawn makes them interesting subjects in themselves.

At once realistic, abstract, experimental, fluid and fragmented in appearance as well as in construction, “Fuji” illustrates how the banal can be made fresh and how the art of animation itself can be subjected to viewer scrutiny and study in real time as it were.

Exercises in Preparation for Independent Life: animated criticism of Soviet life and loss of childhood innocence and fun

Priit Pärn and Kulno Luhts, “Harjutusi iseseisvaks eluks / Exercises in Preparation for Independent Life” (1980)

In typically insouciant style, animator Priit Pärn serves up another short cartoon that in its faux naif style criticises the Soviet regime ruling Estonia in 1980. The narrative divides into two complementary threads in which a boy and a man, who might almost be aspects of the same person at different ages or be son and father, demonstrate how the demands of modern life turn them into automatons. The boy learns by imitation and acculturation the habits he must adopt to function in adult society and the man in his business suit repeatedly carries out those habits ingrained in him since he ceased being a child. The short flits between the two characters continuously to show how their actions are steadily converging into the one set of behaviours.

The animation looks dead simple at first but the drawings are more technically sophisticated than what initially meets the eye as the businessman comes into focus and starts pushing paper around his desk and answering the telephone. Colours around the businessman are of various drab shades of brown and grey while for the boy they come in a wider range of bright and joyful primary hues. As the short progresses, the colours associated with the boy start to dull and the colours for the businessman become brighter near the end as his robot routine unravels and objects around him begin to rebel. The animator himself pushes the rebellion along by using a stop-motion animation of his pencil-wielding hand to place the telephone on a different spot of the desk, upsetting the businessman’s autopilot mode of thinking and living.

The start and the end of the short are bookended by a similar sequence of actions performed by the boy (at the start) and the man (at the end): they race across a field, turn into a growing tree, meet a lamb that transforms into a sheep, dive into a river and become airborne swallows. The boy gazes with a puzzled (perhaps even slightly disapproving?) expression at the businessman as the older character cavorts through the field under a brilliant blue sky, rediscovering his old zest for life. A neat and somewhat worrying way of saying that the child becomes father to the man and the man, in reclaiming a life, loses  his son to society’s grasp.

As I’ve come to expect from Pärn, surreal images abound and there are plenty of stream-of-consciousness free associations of images and objects blending into one another. The music matches the narrative and actions and foreign viewers need not worry about having to understand Estonian as the film features no dialogue.

Aeg Maha (Time Out): Soviet Estonian animation at its most surreal

Priit Pärn and Hille Kusk, “Aeg Maha / Time Out” (1984)

“Aeg Maha” is animator Priit Pärn at his most defiantly surrealist best. The entire short is one big surrealist dream with practically no plot save for the fact that the character dreaming it is journeying in the dream with no particular aim in mind other than to have a good time. All the action takes place on a stage and concerns a cat in thrall to time as represented on an alarm clock. At 9:30 am the main action begins in a whirlpool and the cat plunges right into it like Alice into the rabbit hole.

The cat’s adventures proceed amid a riot of visual gags in which ripples become an island which becomes a manhole cover; palm trees can be chopped into mini helicopters; elves’ long hoods do multiple duty as river streams, umbrellas, fish skeletons and moulds for wolves’ teeth; a woman’s bra becomes a sail; and even the cat’s own tail gets him out of trouble by chainsawing the palm trees and then whacking a predatory shark. Everything is all free association: there’s no narrative within the dream, no apparent moral, it all seems to be just nonsense.

Is it really though? The alarm clock rings and the cat discovers it was all a dream. The curtain falls and all the characters he met in the dream gather in front for audience applause.

There might just be a message, one the Soviet authorities missed completely: within the prison that was Soviet society at the time, you can be free to do whatever you like within your imagination – with the proviso that your time in the clouds is strictly rationed by the clock.