From Whitsell Auditorium to surreal palace

Soviet director and visual arts pioneer Alexander Ptushko will have two films, representative of his early and later works, showing at Whitsell Auditorium in the next two weeks. Often referred to as “the Russian Spielberg,” Ptushko pioneered new styles and techniques of visual effect in his own directorial work as well as in films by other directors, such as Alexander Dovzhenko. Echoes of Ptushko’s work can be seen in classic works more familiar to U.S. audiences, from Ray Harryhausen’s “Jason and the Argonauts,” to the work of Terry Gilliam, director of “Time Bandits” and “Brazil.”

Beginning his career in 1927 making short animated films with puppets, Ptushko expanded his art to direct, in 1935 – two years before Disney’s “Snow White” – one of the world’s first full-length animated features, “The New Gulliver.” The story follows Petya, a young soviet pioneer who falls asleep reading Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” and awakens in a surreal Lilliput, updated to include jazz bands, mechanized tractors and, of course, the proletariat. With the help of Petya, these workers rise up to against their demented ruler, putting a revolutionary spin on Swift’s classic dystopian tale.

Only six years before his death in 1973, Ptushko acted as supervising director of another adaptation of a well-known author’s work. “VIY,” adapted quite faithfully from the story by Nikolai Gogol, was for some time the only horror film ever made in the Soviet Union and remains a classic film.

The story follows a young priest, Khoma, who angers a demonic old witch who, to take her revenge, disguises herself as the corpse of a beautiful young woman whose last wish is to have the priest pray over her body for three nights. Once trapped inside the village church, the priest is hounded, and slowly driven mad, by a series of increasingly grotesque creatures, literally erupting from the walls.

One of Gogol’s several stories culled from Ukranian folklore, “VIY” frightens its viewer in traditional ways, dealing with demons and witches, and in a manner unique to Gogol, showing the way that one’s work can overpower one’s humanity.

Khoma treats his position as priest in a similar way that his friends treat their more menial work, with a faith that he will be protected in his duty by conforming to the basic rules set forth by figures of authority. In the explosive climax of the film, this belief is explored in a surprising way, blurring the line between right and wrong that would seem so rigid in a battle between a priest and a witch.

Also showing with “VIY” will be a 10-minute clip from 1953’s “Sadko,” known in America as the re-cut and re-dubbed “Magic Voyage of Sinbad,” showcasing one of Ptushko’s most stunning visual pieces, a shimmering half-bird, half-woman, trapped inside a maharajah’s gem-like palace.

You can catch Kino Fantastika! The Films of Alexander Ptushko at the Whitsell Auditorium on January 18, 19, and 26. Call 503-221-1156 for a complete schedule.