Living the Tale of Tales

By Tereza Stehlíková

tale-of-the-tales-yuri-norstein.jpgTale of Tales, 1980

Russian animator Yuri Norstein’s extraordinary work offers a vision of the highest order

Our lives are full of moments when ordinary interpretations of events, synchronicities and emotions do not seem to do them justice. It is as if the rational mind has hit a hard rock, and could go no further towards uncovering the secret of the earth. At such times only poetry seems to be able to get to the core of things without disturbing the inexplicable mystery and order of the world. It is poetry (in whichever form it may take), which is the path that links the elemental wisdom of childhood (when the mystery, beauty and even terror of the world lay so very close to us, it was just like another layer of our skin) with the light of later reason, which gives the original experience a more artful form.

When a child is born he passes through the membrane dividing eternity from the breathing presence, partition, which is as intangible, and fluid as the threshold between water’s surface and air. One moment he is outside of time, the next he is bound by the mutual agreement he must sign. In exchange for his limited existence in the world of time, which is the very condition of being alive, he is given the power to make a difference. Unlike spirits he is able to touch and affect his surroundings, to shape his own life. He is born incomplete, yet through this seeming flaw, he is granted the biggest privilege: the chance of finding his own true path. The angels have always understood the power of limits and have envied humans their wingless, aspiring existence.

If eternity is like bottomless river then a child is born with the natural ability to walk barefoot upon its water’s surface as if it was glass. Although occupying the above space, he can easily see beneath, into the depth he is the descendant of. As he moves through time the once soft membrane grows thicker like ice and the child begins to wrap himself in layers of experience like clothes. All this accumulating matter makes each new step feel heavier than the previous one. The weight of experience grounds him, but also obscures the clarity of vision. Unable to see properly, he leaves the river’s edge, hoping to rediscover the remembered vistas from unnatural elevations. But he is no angel, accustomed to living in dizzying heights. Short-sighted, and unequipped for flight, he looks for other ways of grasping the distant stars, imagining them as his table lamps, in the hope of bringing them closer. With time he realises it is at the water’s surface, where he can get closest to the answers he longs to find: for it is there that the deep spirit of the collective unconsciousness meets the light of the above world, and out of this reflection a new understanding is born.

When considering the movement of time, we usually think of left to right, while up and down is reserved for the depth or height of vision. Yet could that be reversed? If time and one’s experience piles up on itself like layers of the earth, which slowly atrophies and turns to stone, than growing old must be leaving the transparency of water’s surface, and raising towards the sky, like the rocky peaks of mountains. By the end of a life we get so close to the sky it again turns to water, which can be re-entered, in the ceaseless cycle of renewal and decay.

tale-of-the-tales-yuri-norstein-2.jpgTale of Tales, 1980

A poet, who once was the child, wondered what would happen if he took the torch of presence, the very pinnacle of an individual existence at any given time, and used its burning flame to prevent the sediment settling down, the ice from growing thicker, so that he could always remain close to the water’s surface, while constantly moving (movement being the essence of time) along. Leaving the heights to angels, what sort of vistas would open up here? (Could this also be a way of outwitting time, without breaking the inevitable contract he agreed to sign?)

He realised that to remain on the threshold was the only possibility of retaining the advantage of a clear vision. It was a way of learning to interpret consciously the wealth entrusted to him in the timeless depths of water, and using this knowledge towards understanding of a deeper pattern, finding the hidden symmetry within the apparent confusion of events.

The poet, who was also a filmmaker, saw this threshold as a screen on which the archetypal images of the waters are exposed by the light of one’s feverish existence, and give rise to concepts at once shared and deeply personal. Now every step along the glassy membrane became a window made of stained glass, or indeed the window of a frame, one of thousands along the roll of film, which made up his life. He stopped by each one, and leaned quite close. Blowing his warm breath, he rubbed the window clean.

Turning each moment into a self-contained picture was a way of realising the presence to the limits of its potential, something, which could only be achieved from the most intimate perspective. As the poet walked the transparent partition between his heart and the heart of the world (in words of Marc Chagall) each moment he lived was transformed into a work of art, a micro-cosmos, which although a mere imprint of light on a given surface, was, upon turning of a head, the fiery sun itself.

He was aware it was impossible to refuse the precious gift of the life’s flickering flame, despite the foreknowledge of its ephemeral quality, and the inevitable loneliness and pain it brings: For to stay under water would mean to remain un-separated, with no point from which to observe, appreciate and act. But at the same time, to leave the water of one’s origins completely would imply turning away from the greater truth, the context of which one needs to make sense of his existence.

In order to stay close to the threshold the poet had to learn to balance the two opposing perceptions (as represented by light and dark, up and down, fire and water, presence and past), and allow these to merge together to create a third. This third vision could be called a personal philosophy, the symmetry in one’s life, or poetry. The filmmaker called it the Tale of Tales. At last he found a path which led to the real poetry of living: each day lived and interpreted upon the screen where a life can become the ultimate work of art and a work of art life’s ultimate expression.

His Tale of Tales has become a living breathing creation, in which every experience, every character and every light has its meaningful part, and although the structure is as fluid and many-formed as water or as time, there is nothing which does not belong to its world. In the words of Edgar Allan Poe, the filmmaker found his “poetical essence of the universe – of the universe which, in the supremeness of its symmetry is the most sublime of poems. Now symmetry and consistency are convertible terms; thus poetry and truth are one.”

Tereza Stehlíková is an artist, writer and filmmaker living in London ( Yuri Norstein’s complete works are available on dvd, alongside a superb monograph on his life and work by Clare Kitson; both are published by John Libbey.