Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Tale of Tales (1979)

Tale of Tales (1979)
Directed by: Yuriy Norshteyn.
Written by: Lyudmila Petrushevskaya & Yuriy Norshteyn.

Yuriy Norshteyn’s Tale of Tales has twice been named the best animated film of all time by international juries – once in 1984 at the Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival and once in 2002 at the Zagreb World Festival of Animated Films, yet I wonder how many people – especially outside of Russia where the film was made – having actually seen Yuriy Norshteyn’s 30 minute masterpiece. Like many Soviet filmmakers of his generation, Norshteyn ran into trouble with the authorities, who didn’t much like his films. Add this to the general basis in North America that animation is only for kids, and the bias against non-feature length films and it’s a bit of a wonder that anyone has seen Tale of Tales at all. But it should be seen – especially by those who love animation for adults.

Often compared to Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (it may be controversial for me to say this, but I much prefer this to The Mirror), Tale of Tales is a film about memories more than anything else. It has no narration, and very little dialogue, and tells a fractured, non-linear story. Some will say the film is crudely animated, and yet the images have a beauty to them all their own.

The film plays a like a dream – perhaps the dream of the baby we see early in the film, who is being sung a lullaby by his mother, as he suckles. A little grey wolf (perhaps he is the dreamer) acts as our guide through the layers of memory the movie goes through – each with its own visual look. Norshteyn flips the role normally ascribed to a wolf in fairy tales – he is not the big, bad wolf here, but a curious, sympathetic observer, who is trying to understand the lives he observes. At one point, he makes off with the baby and brings him to a bassinette in the woods. But he isn’t doing this to be cruel, he rocks the baby to sleep, singing the same lullaby his mother sang him early, as he peers at the baby, closer and closer, until he scares the baby and makes it start screaming – which makes the wolf rock the cradle harder to try and get it to sleep.

There are other scenes. A wistful scene of a child jumping rope with a bull spinning the rope (although the bull likes to take his turn as well), where the animation is so faint it’s appears to be in danger of disappearing altogether. These scenes seem to be the happy nostalgia we ascribe to our childhood – the family here seems to be happy and cohesive. Not so in another segment – with brighter colors, where a little boy tries to feed crows in a snowy wonderland, as his miserable parents sit on a bench below and argue as the father drinks from a vodka bottle. In the saddest scene in the film, Norshteyn shows the huge losses Russia suffered during WWII in a remarkable way – couple dancing the tango, and every time the record skips, another man disappears, and the woman is seen dancing in circles alone – until all the women are alone, and then men are scene as ghostly soldiers, still marching in formation.

If one so wanted to, you could probably ascribe different meanings to each of the films segments, and come up with how they all come together. But I don’t think that’s really necessary – and is perhaps besides the point. Tale of Tales is a movie about memories, that itself plays like memories – jumping for one scene to the next, and back again, much like our mind does. Can I explain all of Tale of Tales? No. Do I want to? No. The film weaves a spell all of its own, evoking memories and feelings in the viewer that are impossible to explain. Is Tale of Tales the best animated film of all time, as some have claimed? Not to me - I would probably pick something by Miyazaki. But does it really matter that much? Tale of Tales should be seen by anyone who values animation as more than just kids’ stuff – but the art form it truly is.

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