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Yuri Norstein Screening and Workshop

by Tina Paas, Fall 2002
Event took place on October 14, 2002, at 911 Media Arts Centre, Seattle

If I came away with anything from this day, it was with a sense of awe at having encountered an artist who had such a strong relationship with his art. Yuri Norstein, now here is a man who is completely comfortable with the process of animation. He says that the more films he works on, the more mysterious and unknown the process becomes. This, however, does not seem to discourage him, for he knows that as much as animation is a complicated process, it is also a process of understanding oneself. So he moves forward with this blind trust and lets his work run its natural course. He refuses to use a computer and does not even rely on the safety of a dope sheet, but lets the movement flow naturally from the memory, through the hand. Even in the physical act of animating he is more involved. His animation stand is a huge contraption, and in order to move his characters he must crank levers, crawl up and down poles, and wedge himself in between panes of glass. Animation becomes a test for not only the mind but the body as well.

Norstein also brings to his work an impressively broad range of influences; from artistic (Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Goya’s black period, Russian European Avant Garde), to literary (Japanese Poetry, Thoreau, Waldon, Whitman) to film (Eisenstein and Chaplin). These inspirations are not forced into his work but come to the surface only subtly, almost unconsciously; his Fisherman from Tale of Tales resembles a bust from Ancient Rome, his Rabbit from The Fox and the Rabbit has the same bewildered, sad eyes of Charlie Chaplin. Norstein’s work is a wonderful mixture of theories, philosophies, and personal observations.

While many of the scenes in his films are hauntingly beautiful (the apples in the snow in Tale of Tales) or striking (the wild red stumbling mob in 25th: First Day), there are two films in particular that, for me stand out from the rest. The Heron and the Crane and The Hedgehog in the Fog combine tragedy and farce in a true Chaplin-esque form. The Heron and the Crane is a very soft, poetic tale of the dangers of pride and love. These wispy characters, living among decrepit ruins, echo feelings of loneliness and the sadness of wasted time. The characters possess only a few physical characteristics; the tall Crane wears a short jacket, the small Heron wears a long string of beads. The details are minimal but become all the more noticeable when contrasted with one another. Norstein also uses these physical characteristics to echo his characters’ mood. One of my favorite scenes in this film is when the Heron, freshly jilted by the Crane, stands still, worriedly fingering the beads around her neck. Everything else in the scene is still, magnifying this microscopic moment. Then, suddenly, she rushes off.

The Hedgehog in the Fog is another poignant tale that deals with loneliness and the burden of an overactive imagination. One can draw direct parallels to this film and Norstein’s view of filmmaking; one enters the fog not knowing what to expect, using what comes along to guide the way. In the end, something is revealed and one comes out of the fog quite changed.