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Book Review: 'Yuri Norstein and Tale of Tales: An Animator’s Journey'

Sarah Baisley continues her look at Annecy 2005 with a focus on the films.

Yuri Norstein and Tale of Tales is the result of author Clare Kitsons investigation into the meaning of the masterpiece work that is often referred to as the best animated film of all time.

Yuri Norstein (Moscow, Russia, 1941) is a living legend of auteur animation, and Tale of Tales (1979) is his masterpiece, often voted as best animated film of all times by audiences polls and/or specialists committees all over the world. Despite this all, most animators and animation lovers, especially in the industry, actually know very little about them. Furthermore, if we single out the festivalgoers and specialists who really are familiar both with the man and the work, we realize that more often than not they are puzzled by unsolved questions.

Tale of Tales is the ultimately enigmatic, cryptic film. You dont doubt its great art. You just hardly understand what it is all about. Memories of WW2, a little grey wolf, a baby, roasted potatoes, a meek bull skipping the rope with a girl, a poet with a harp, gigantic apples falling into the snow...

For a big mystery, you need no lesser a detective. Enter Clare Kitson. This British lady has devoted many years of her still young life to culture, animation and the culture of animation; first at the British Film Institute and then, for 10 fruitful years, at Channel 4 as commissioning editor for animation.

When she discovered Tale of Tales at the Zagreb Animation Festival of 1980 (it was awarded the Grand Prix), she realized that her native English plus her excellent command of French and German were useless to penetrate the mysteries of that film. Therefore she imposed herself to acquire an excellent command of Russian too and Russian history, literature, visual arts and so on.

This book is the result of her long-lasting and deeply sympathetic investigation.

Yuri Norstein an elusive person whom I never was able to really talk with, despite a reciprocal acquaintance of 20 years is depicted in depth. A working-class Russian Jew, sensitive, individualist, extremely cultivated, sometimes seclusive, sometimes gregarious, sometimes bursting and authoritarian, stubborn, resilient, deeply impressed by the war years of his childhood. A difficult, charismatic, charming man.

Another unclear matter is cleared up the frame of his artistic/cinematographic development at Soyuzmultfilm, the state company that was almighty in Soviet Union animation production. We learn that bureaucrats and censors were popping out from every corner, that most people were suspicious of this person who disregarded the stylistic rules dictated by the party, that he himself did nothing to please his superiors quite the opposite.

On his side he had, nevertheless, the mafia of decent people (i.e., his liberal colleagues) and two advocates: the powerful veteran Ivan Ivanov-Vano (1900-1987) and the shrewd navigator Fedor Khitruk (1917), who himself would manage to make his own films his own way weaving among anybody for two decades. (I am happy to get good news: according to the whispers I had collected, Stalinist Ivanov-Vano had, quite the reverse, exploited and hindered his younger colleague).

The main part of Kitsons book is about the making of Tale of Tales itself. A long and laborious conception, based on putting together images and sequences apparently heterogeneous, but homogeneous in the mind and soul of the filmmaker. A long and laborious process of writing, designing and shooting, with the help of a small group of trustful friend (wife and designer Francesca Yarbusova, screenwiter Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, cameraman Igor Skidan-Bosin). A long, perilous and stressing itinerary among censors to the final screening of the film, which was scandalous because it disobeyed the rules of Socialist Realism.

Allow me to contribute a personal anecdote. In March 1980 I was a member of the selection committee of the Zagreb Animation Festival, along with Croatias Zlatko Grgic and Bulgarias Donio Donev. Before Tale of Tales was screened in our tiny theater I noticed filmmaker Borivoj Dovnikovic, who was in charge for programming, was nervous. We viewed the film almost without breathing, hypnotized. From then on we never referred to it by title, but only by the masterpiece. Dovnikovic would tell us later he was relieved. The Russian officials had exerted a lot of pressure in order that Croats didnt invite Tale of Tales; he feared that we would dislike it, too.

Kitson depicts perfectly a society, a company within a society, a filmmaker within a society and a company, and eventually his best film.

Then, what about memories of WW2, a little grey wolf, a baby, roasted potatoes, a meek bull skipping the rope with a girl, a poet with a harp, gigantic apples falling into the snow and many more impenetrable metaphors?

Very simply Kitson explains they are not metaphors at all. She does give an account of the origins of each character and sequence. For instance, the woman sitting in a bench with a drunk husband comes from a couple casually spotted by Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, the apple from a happy and tasty experience of Norstein eating an apple while walking in the street during the winter, the old house from the actual house that he dwelled in during his childhood. But she warns that the film is about memory and also constructed like a memory and adds: this is achieved by the construction of a set of parallel worlds: the old house with, nearby, an old streetlight and the setting for wartime scenes; the poets world, where a fishermans family also lives and a bull and a walker come to visit; the snowbound winter world of the boy and the crows; and the forest next to a highway, where the Little Wolf makes his home under the brittle willow bush.

In short, we must appreciate bull, poet, wolf, house, snow and so on not like metaphors of something else, but like bricks in a palace, notes in a symphony.

I advise everybody to get this seminal book. It sets an example of how a good critic should deal with her/his subject, be it cinema, poetry, painting or any other kind of artistic branch. This work raises Kitson further beyond her status of already highly regarded specialist. From now on she will be much more busy than usual with answering questions and requests for help and advice...

But what about the little grey wolf who acts as a leitmotif along the story-non-story? It comes from an extremely famous Russian lullaby, which goes Baby baby rock-a-bye/On the edge you mustnt lie/Or the little grey wolf will come/And will nip you on the tum/Tug you off into the wood/Underneath the willow-root. And if you want to know where his piteous eyes come from, just read the book.

Yuri Norstein and Tale of Tales An Animators Journey by Clare Kitson. London, U.K., & Bloomington, IN: John Libbey & Indiana University Press, 2005. 160 pages. Paperback. ISBN 0-253-21838-1($27.95)

Giannalberto Bendazzi is an animation historian whose latest essay on animation in the African continent is available online.