Word is quickly spreading that the man whom many regard as the world’s greatest living animator–Yuri Norstein–is making a brief US tour, with visits to Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City and Olympia. My 23-month-old daughter routinely requests viewings of Hedgehog in the Fog, but I’ve been an admirer of Norstein’s work for years (and wrote about Clare Kitson’s biography in 2005).
Norstein is renowned for his attachment to his Russian homeland and his refusal to work abroad, so I was shocked several days ago to stumble upon the announcement of his visit to the University of Southern California this week–initiated by two grad students, Elyse Kelly and Konstantin Brazhnik–which will culminate in a public screening of the filmmaker’s major works tomorrow. (The event’s RSVP system is already overbooked, but a standby line will form for anyone feeling especially lucky.) Fortunately, the event includes a website with video uploads, and it promises live feeds.
The first video on the site is about fifteen minutes of a seminar Norstein gave last night that I was graciously invited to attend. Soft-spoken but passionate (often interrupting his translator) he cited his inspirations and discussed his craft, beginning with clips from Jean Vigo’s beautiful 1934 L’Atalante (which, Norstein noted, was shot by Boris Kaufman, the brother of Dziga Vertov).
Norstein seemed especially taken by three shots: the riverside encounter with a one-man band (which he compared to Fellini); the apprehension of a thief (with its almost stroboscopic tracking shot alongside a fence); and, interestingly, the controversial shot of the male protagonist caressing a block of ice (that’s missing in newer restorations of the film). All three shots allude to the everyday eccentricity, technical virtuosity, and metaphysical touches that suffuse Norstein’s own work. He championed L’Atalante‘s ability to “present a whole world” in its simple, archetypal story, and later suggested that a film should only be made if the filmmaker has properly imagined it, and can conceive it in the simplest terms, like a proverb.
Norstein also shared his love of painting, describing how he recently spent eight hours at the Art Institute of Chicago viewing such favorites as Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles. He said he likes to take a magnifying glass with him to art museums to study the brushstrokes: “It’s not just a great painting but a concentration of the artist’s life, layer by layer.”
“My biggest wonder in life,” he said, “was my childhood in the outskirts of Moscow,” and he described the two story communal flats he lived in as a child that are vital to the setting of Tales of Tales. “Simple things made impressions,” he recalled. Old walls would break down and the young Norstein would marvel at their construction, the rusty nails marking the passage of time; he would spend hours searching for patterns in molds and stains in the woodwork, and was delighted when–years later–he read Leonardo da Vinci promoting the same activity. One can easily see in Norstein’s films his attention to natural decay and detail, the old houses and dank woods providing a powerful sense of atmosphere and place.
The highlight of the evening, however, was seeing the roughly twenty minutes of footage Norstein has completed so far on his first feature, an adaptation of Gogol’s The Overcoat that has taken him nearly thirty years to produce. (Funding comes and goes, and production is sometimes interrupted by commercial projects or travels.) About half of the footage was recently included in a Japanese documentary that can be viewed below, but rest assured that even the DVD we screened last night revealed enormous amounts of subtleties lost in YouTube’s low-resolution.
The Overcoat at present is a supremely subtle representation of an impoverished St. Petersburg clerk as he comes home, undresses for the evening, and begins the process of transcription; Norstein uses hundreds of cutout elements to simulate the facial shifts, contortions, and evolving expressions that continually play out while the clerk is lost in a world of meticulous perfection. It’s an almost bewildering study of the human face–not slavishly realistic but obsessively attuned to each and every physical fluctuation–that is wholly remarkable. It’s easy to see why this has been a thirty-year project and counting: such evolving minutia of movement has turned the face into an animated study that borders on scientific illustration. Norstein told us that in addition to a huge amount of photographic references, his animation for the film is influenced by eastern (Chinese) as well as western (Duret) anatomical studies, medicinal books, patients at a psychiatric clinic, and Charlie Chaplin and the art of pantomime in general. He decided early on to resist the temptation to film actors and mechanically reproduce their images, because “this way is submissive,” noting that it would include a lot of unnecessary visual information as well.
“Adapting a known text must involve discovery,” he said, claiming that the most important thing to him is to show the things not written by Gogol that are nevertheless true to the text–a reading between the lines. And one can sense that Norstein’s film is an ongoing project of discovery for him, evolving a life of its own and taking the filmmaker places he has yet to explore or conceive. After the lecture, the sixty-six-year-old filmmaker told me he had a lot of material in place to complete the picture, but part of me wonders if he really intends to finish it, or if he sees it as an opportunity to indefinitely explore the riches of his subject while living a meager life funded by lectures, appearances, occasional commercial work, and print and book sales.
His new website offers several Russian books, Hedgehog in the Fog and Fox and Hare (based on his films), and two lavishly-illustrated studies entitled Snow on Grass; the first volume summarizes his career and the second, his creative process and references for The Overcoat. Norstein flipped through his own copy of these volumes–currently only printed in Russian although he has submitted them to a publisher in London in the hopes of making an English edition–to answer a question I posed, and they were clearly labors of love filled with hundreds of storyboards, sketches, collages, film stills, and frame-by-frame studies. If The Overcoat is an ongoing voyage for him, these books are a testament to the journey.