First off, I want to encourage everyone in New York City to take advantage of an opportunity that I will sorely miss: an in-person appearance (alternative link to event) by Yuriy Norshteyn. This legendary 68-year old Russian animator rarely comes to the US; he may very well be traveling to raise funds for his first feature film The Overcoat, which he has been working on for nearly 30 years. In any case, please go in my place, as I will be on a flight to Berlin as he makes his appearance at the SVA Theater:
Monday, February 15: School of Visual Arts Theater (333 W. 23rd Street, between 8th/9th Ave.) This event is billed only as a Q&A so be aware that there may not be a screening. No price is indicated so I’m also assuming it’s free.
To be honest, I am a recent convert to Norstein, like, as of this week. He has been touted on this site before, as one of the 100 Most Important Directors of Animated Shorts, as voted on by my colleagues at IMDb. Still, when Tale of Tales appeared for the first time on the TSPDT 1000 upon its most recent update, I had never heard of the film, despite it being voted the greatest animated film of all time at polls conducted by two animation film festivals.
So I won't pretend to be an expert on this film when I've been acquainted with its filmmaker for all of a week, and when there is already a book length study by animation scholar Claire Kitson available, which I will seek out. I will only say that I've seen this half-hour masterpiece four times in four days, and it feels like it's stayed with me for four years. It's as if Norshteyn sat with these images all his life, drawing them with such lucidity and palpable depth of feeling, that they make even the untold hours of ingenuity and laborious craft behind Pixar films feel relatively disposable. It summons a concept of the fermented image: a vision that has stayed with a person for as long as they've been breathing, and perhaps beyond that, like the wolf that lurks throughout the film, a folkloric figure as old as Russian blood.
It's a vision that nurtures, like the suckling breast that satiates the infant who sees the wolf just as its eyes pull into sleep.
The whole film seems to be a drunken/lucid suckling of images, images that have nourished a lifetime of sublime melancholy and wonder, reflected in so much of what's on screen. And the way each image is rendered with a delicacy verging on dissolution conveys a yearning for that same image, as fragile as the decaying memorabilia of one's childhood:
or one's memory rendered through a ghostly gauze - such as these tangoing couples about to be severed by the War raging around them...
Another recurring motif feels slightly more contemporary (with sharper lines, brighter hues and more fashionable clothing), involving an apple-loving boy who fancies himself feeding crows in the tree boughs as his parents loiter on a bench below:
The film cycles through these visuals in such a way that the repetition invokes instant affection and nostalgia, as with films by Duras or Wong Kar-wai. The wolf figures as the protagonist, the only one who seems to traverse from one zone of memory to another, often by crossing through forests that at times give the only acknowledgment of late 20th century modernity:
But his experiences of the hopscotching bull, the dancing phantoms, even the snowbound family, are all mediated by some sort of illuminated threshold: an entrancing fire on the hearth, or light raptruously emanating from a doorway or from a manuscript, as if these visions are liminal states into which he is lulled repeatedly. But it still doesn't account for other images that seem to inhabit an interzone apart from the more sharply defined worlds, an eden blanketed in Tarkovskian dampness and mist:
And all these visuals still don't account for images that I didn't capture because they only make sense in motion: soldiers marching into a swallowing blackness; windows boarded up without hands or hammers; a pile of wood suddenly combusting; a tablecloth that seems to billow under the breezes of history. Or the sounds: a record skipping as men disappear from their lovers' embrace; the wolf blowing on his hands as he tries to handle a hot potato. And the lullaby that begins the film and tips the film's hand as a lullaby to all of us, whisking us to a world of beauty whose liquid lucidity can only exist in sleep, except when an artist is somehow able to extract these moments from a lifetime of dreaming. Again, it would be a privilege to meet such a person.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE (AND WATCH TALE OF TALES)?
Watch Tale of Tales on Veoh
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Tale of Tales among the top 1000 films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Doug Cummings, One-Line Review (2009) John Davies, One-Line Review (2009) Keith Griffiths, Time Out (1995) Annecy Festival, 100 Films for a Century of Animation (2006) Cinematheque Quebecoise, FIAF: Film History (1995) Film: The Critic's Choice, 150 Masterpieces of World Cinema-The Art of the Impossible (2001) Olympiad, The Champions of Animation (1984)
Despite its simple beauty, "Tale" was not made with children in mind. In the sequence imagining the huge losses Russia experienced in World War II, couples dance to the famous tango "Weary Sun." Every time the old record skips, one man disappears from the frame and then the women dance alone.
Norstein says "Tale of Tales" is a film about the way memory is conjured up. He says the role of the artist is to allow people to "experience life yet unlived. This is the most significant thing we can get from art."
Fans like to watch the film again and again. "I have seen it many times," says Yulia Zotova, 42, who attended the exhibit of Norstein's work in Moscow. " 'Tale of Tales' evokes these emotions in me. I've always been fascinated with the character Little Wolf because he's a symbol of wisdom and love. My impression is that spiritually we are searching for this wisdom and this love and we find it in his films."
In the last quarter of a century, the film has inspired filmmakers, animators and writers. In June 2002, the Zagreb International Animation Festival published the results of a poll of animators to establish the best animated film of all time. It was "Tale of Tales." A 1984 poll of animators came up with same result.
- Peter Finn, The Washington Post
Norstein’s initial script treatment for Tale of Tales was approved by the Soviets but he summarily dismissed it, producing a much more ambiguous and emotionally complex piece than was originally planned. Tale of Tales juxtaposes images of innocence and gaiety with images of war and vanishing soldiers, nostalgic visions of childhood with an alcoholic parent chugging a bottle of vodka. The Soviet film authorities, baffled by the film’s poetry, deemed it subversive for its lack of social realism, and demanded that Norstein make extensive changes. He refused, and luckily, had just been awarded a State honor that made it virtually impossible for the authorities to enforce their demands or suppress the work.
- Doug Cummings, Film Journey
Tale of Tales is laminated with enchantment. Layer by layer. A suckling baby is sung a lullaby, wooing it to sleep lest the little grey fox abduct him to take him into the scary woods where a green apple glows wet with rain.
The little grey fox is maligned. He is sweet, clever and curious. He flirts with himself in shiny hubcaps. The exhaust fumes of cars make him sneeze and his sneeze startles birds into flight. A hot potato burns his paws. A young girl jumps rope with a steer that, every now and then, likes to take its turn. A poet anguishes over what to envision, what to say. Women and men dance underneath a streetlight and each time the record skips another husband / father / son is lost to the ravages of war. A one-legged veteran plays a sad concertina. A fish floats in the sky catching the attention of an idle cat who, by caterwauling, teaches the poet how to orate. A boy imagines himself befriending winter birds on a tree limb above him. Is the baby dreaming all of this? Is this where the lullaby has taken him? Is this where it has taken us? Whimsical and poignant, Tale of Tales masterfully purveys a deep realm where images are deftly woven into feelings.
- Michael Guillen, The Evening Class
Like Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, figuring out a specific meaning for each scene is difficult if not impossible and useless. Norstein, like Tarkovsky a few years before him, is delving into his own memories and displaying the results (...) Thus, it could be said that the only one who truly understands Tale of Tales is Norstein. What keeps me from embracing this criticism is that, impermeability notwithstanding, I was constantly occupied with emotions and ideas throughout the film’s duration. Does it matter that I don’t understand every scene? Am I supposed to? I don’t think so. This film is going more for rhythms and moods, different drawing styles alternating between each other, each suggesting a different reality: there’s the parent storyline of the little wolf; there’s the poignant visual poem about the effects of wartime on civilians; there’s the aside to the apple-loving boy and his alcoholic father; and finally there’s that bit with minotaurs, jumping ropes, and harps. These sections weave together and combine. Memory and dreams emerge from the fantasy of the little wolf. We navigate each reality, notice melancholy patterns: departures, time lapses, destruction, burning, death, and other natural cycles. Free association takes us to random places, but there seems to be a structure, an emotional core. I have only seen Tale of Tales once. These kinds of films have a way of being new with every return. You find currents and threads that had been invisible during the introductory voyage.
Voted as the best animated film of all time by animators and critics at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival, Yuri Norstein's Tale of Tales, is a personal, and often profound, statement of atavistic recollection. Norstein uses the animated form to recall primal and ancestral sources of human feeling and experience. Fusing folk-tale, memory and personal symbolism, Norstein achieves associative relations which move beyond the realms of standard representations of time and space, privileging the psychological and emotional as the focusing agents in relating images, rather than using orthodox modes of story-telling. As Norstein himself suggests, 'The sanctity of the image, or rather its construction, seems to move in gradually from all sides; the elements that coagulate create the image'.
Whilst the workings of an artist like Norstein may, in the first instance, seem impenetrable to the viewer, it is important to recognize that such methodologies foreground the idea of image-making as a tension between conscious and unconscious experience. This may be understood as a process which accepts and includes images which emerge from a number of sources and which seem at first to have no particular relationship. Further, such images, whether they are perceived constructions of real physical space, fragmentary recollections of dreams, half-remembered visions, hallucinations and fantasies, or pictures without past or purpose conjured in the mind, are not forced into a coherent story, though they do possess their own narrative which informs the relational conception of the film. The images possess an ontological equivalence, and in being valued as equally valid and important whatever their source, occupy a narrative space which refuses to categorise any one character or event as its presiding or dominant element. Tale of Tales refuses all obvious signposts of plot, preferring instead a system of leitmotifs, recurring images that play out their own subtle differences and developments as part of a wider scheme of recollection. It may be useful to stress that Norstein's work is recollection; a gathering of images which define the psyche and the act of memory as an act of creativity. As Mikhail Yampolsky has noted, 'What confronts us is not simply a film about memory, but a film built like memory itself, which imitates in its spatial composition the structural texture of our consciousness.'
Animation is especially suited to the process of associative linking, both as a methodology by which to create image systems, and as a mechanism by which to understand them. Understanding these images only comes from an active participation in the images as the repository of meaning in their own right, and not necessarily, in direct connection to other images. Norstein and Tarkovsky create works which ultimately require the viewer to empathise as well as analyse, and this dimension of feeling - what Norstein calls the 'spinal cord' of emotional recognition - is the quality which lyricises the image. The 'deductions' that are made possible by this kind of involvement are those which relate the personal to the universal. Norstein essentially engages with his childhood during the war, and through the accumulation of the everyday details and events (real and imagined) of his past life, given special emphasis by the selectivity of memory, he creates a text which elevates the expression of the psyche's own sense of history to the level of poetic insight and spiritual epiphany.
- Paul Wells, Understanding Animation. Routledge, 1998. Pages 93, 94
Widely acclaimed as the best animated film of all time, Tale of Tales is a poetic amalgam of Yuri Norstein's memories of his past and hopes and fears for the future: his post-war childhood, remnants of the personal tragedies of war, the little wolf character in the lullaby his mother used to sing, the neighbors in his crowded communal flat, the tango played in the park on summer evenings, and the small working-class boy's longing to emerge from the dark central corridor of the kommunalka into a luminous world of art and poetry. In Yuri Norstein and Tale of Tales: An Animator's Journey, Clare Kitson examines the passage of these motifs into the film and delves into later influences that also affected its genesis. More than merely a study of one animated film or a biography of its creator, Kitson's investigation encompasses the Soviet culture from which this landmark film emerged and sheds light on creative influences that shaped the work of this acclaimed filmmaker.
- From jacket description of Yuri Norstein and Tale of Tales: an Animator's Journey, by Claire Kitson. University of Indiana Press, 2005
ABOUT YURIY NORSHTEYN
Yuri Norstein, who has been working for years under the veteran Russian animator Ivan Ivanov-Vano, has emerged as one of the world's leading animators. His film, The Tale of Tales , was considered the most artistic production to come out of Eastern Europe in years. The success of this film, as well as others such as Hedgehog in the Mist , The Vixen and the Hare , and The Heron and the Crane , is due to his unique style of multidimensional figures and backgrounds that have depth, roundness, and shading, giving a visual quality to his scenes seldom seen in other films. His humor is full of human observation, contrasting emotion over a broad scale from gaiety and laughter to sadness and disappointment. The fact that these moods are happening to animals and birds with their own particular environment provides an element of magic, and once again proves that the art of animation can bridge the biological barrier between human and animal worlds.
Norstein considers animation to be a new field of art, but underestimated, its artistic plasticity and social significance not having been explored so far. According to him its principles are taken from life, avoiding a documentary approach in describing a social situation. Aristotle said, "art, above all teachers, allows people to enjoy life." This principle still holds. Norstein takes his own material from an ordinary situation and develops it in his own particular way. His material consists of human emotions: joy, tears, love, and all levels of emotion within the experiences of life. Norstein, apart from being a filmmaker, is also a good painter and brilliant illustrator, which explains the high visual quality of his backgrounds and the expressions of his characters. He has a close relationship with his young children and closely considers their reactions before making a film. He thinks that only those who understand children's psychology should make a film for them. If one has sympathy with them and can play with them, one is able to look at the world through their minds and eyes.
On the question of visual quality, he thinks that animated film directors should be interested in fine arts, especially painting, since films have a dual objective: the creation of a new and original setting and a defined dramatic action within the setting. The spectator should be able to adapt to such a background and participate in the film on the terms present in the subject. Norstein recognizes that a film is composed of various elements. It contains myth, fantasy, cosmographic ideas, sound, absolute realism, and naturalism. The combined quality of these elements could be of great value, lifting animation above all other media, but so far he has not seen any film, short or long, able to make full use of such total potentialities. He holds that a feature-length film should not only tell a story but present the richness of human life, make full use of the specific properties of animation, and look for its own way of development.
—John Halas, Film Reference.com
Norstein was born during World War II and spent his childhood in the northern suburbs of Moscow. Though Stalin’s reign of terror softened a bit in the postwar era, anti-Semitism and intense cultural control remained, constraining the young Norstein on many occasions. Luckily, his entry to adulthood coincided with the Soviet Thaw during the more liberal Khrushchev era of the late-’50s, which saw an influx of foreign art and an openness to experimentation. Films such as The Cranes Are Flying (1957), Ballad of a Soldier (1959), and Destiny of a Man (1959) were being produced which invigorated the cinematic milieu. (Unfortunately, history would reverse this opportunity when Russian resources dried up duringglasnost at the height of Norstein’s acclaim; he’s still trying to finish The Overcoat, a film he began in 1981 with his wife and longtime collaborator, Francesca Yarbusova.)
Norstein studied at the Soyuzmultfilm animation studio, which began producing a small but sophisticated body of work that appealed to adults as well as children in the ’60s. For years, he worked as an unassuming animator until he began directing his own films during the less-hospitable Brezhnev era of the ’70s, known for banning art and artists that weren’t deemed properly Social Realist. “In one word,” Norstein says, “[the era] was stuffy. We didn’t have enough air. But the strange thing is that when a lot of things outside you are closed off, you go inside yourself and find the freedom you need.” Norstein developed a highly complex and nuanced style of multiplane animation using paper cutouts on layers of glass; it produced the internationally venerated works The Fox and the Hare(1973), The Heron and the Crane (1974), and Hedgehog in the Fog (1975). (All of these films are available on DVD in the Masters of Russian Animation series.)
Glasnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union kept Norstein out-of-work for many years, but he was finally able to travel, and has spent the last couple decades lecturing and attending tributes to his career. He also continues producing The Overcoat (his first full-length feature) and occasionally provides short pieces for commercials and title sequences for Russian and Japanese television. Fervently in love with his homeland, Norstein has rejected several international offers to finish The Overcoat abroad, choosing instead to develop the film little by little, year after year, in the country of his birth. Let us hope the film materializes fully formed one day soon.
- Doug Cummings, Film Journey
See also Cummings' report of Norstein's visit and talk at the University of Southern Calfornia, Los Angeles
The nerve center of Norstein's life -- both as a filmmaker and as the husband of artist and collaborator Francesca Yarbusova -- is their studio. Drawings of little gray men scratching backs, scratching noses and picking up spoons cover the walls. Yarbusova draws the figures and imbues them with a haunting beauty and sense of loss.
"We are tied together and we are interdependent," Norstein says, sitting in his merrily cluttered kitchen, the walls covered with photos, sketches, an icon, bric-a-brac and shelving spilling over with videos. "I draw all the compositions, but this is the dry soil which must then be filled with feeling. We have scandals and rows. But now her work is on display and she says to me, 'It is all you -- you were guiding me.' "
"Francesca participates in the movies as much as Norstein," Bossart says. "The two of them are one artist. He couldn't exist without her."
- Peter Finn, The Washington Post