A review requested by Andrew Yankes, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

There is no film quite like the 1979 animated short Tale of Tales. I mean that in the most literal way. Just about every film is like some other film, but not this one - it is a complete singularity. Not even director Yuriy Norshteyn's other shorts - five of them in the eleven years preceding this, his most recent completed work (since 1981, he's been doggedly working on a feature) - particularly resemble Tale of Tales. It is without precedent in cinema - maybe in all of art, because although it borrows heavily from literature and poetry, it does so in a final form that does not to any real extent resemble those media. I assume that's the reason why it has been cited, more than once and by some damned prestigious institutions, as the finest piece of animated cinema ever made. I don't agree with that, though mostly do to the impossibility of the question: by what means does one even start to compare the technique of this with the technique of, say, What's Opera, Doc? or Grave of the Fireflies? At the same time, if we're going to anoint anything with that title, Tale of Tales earns it as fairly as anything.

The film is... and there we stop. What is it? A collection of images that generally seem to belong to certain subgroups, including contrasted moments of women dancing with men and men marching off as soldiers; scenes of a pair of small boys, or maybe the same small boy in two places simultaneously, eating a green apple; a sorrowful bull playing jump-rope with a little girl in a dress. There's something that implies that it might open up into being a narrative: an adorable little wolf with probing, soulful eyes watches a newborn nursing with its mother. It does not turn into a narrative, or at least not one that can be confidently described using the vocabulary of chronological relationships between events. The film is... and maybe that's exactly it. The film is. The film exists. The film offers us the interpretation that it is in some way an organism, and that it should be understood as a system of biological processes rather than a collection of storytelling tropes. It builds itself inductively and intuitively, largely on the basis of what moments are conflated through editing, or simply by the amorphous nature of Norshteyn's animation (which he completed more or less entirely alone), as well as what sounds and music we hear while absorbing the visuals, and even the visual style of the piece, which cleaves into at least three entirely distinct aesthetics.

There is, for example, a moment at which we see smudgy, ghost-like men and women dancing to Jerzy Petersburski's 1935 tango "The Last Sunday", during which time the whole image jutters and lurches forward, while the men vanish, one at a time, with a loud sucking noise. An instant later, we see soldiers with bayonets marching in place, as the scratches all over the yellowed image of the dance hall dissolves into rain. I don't think it's making some bold claim to see this as a commentary on war (primarily World War II, especially given the chronological placement of the song), wrenching young couples apart and sending the boys anonymously on to their death. Indeed, I think it would be hard to imagine the viewer who doesn't make that connection. A few minutes later, in an entirely different setting from an entirely different movie, a brightly-colored man who looks like a chalk drawing of a comic strip stands up from his similarly-designed female companion, where they sit in the snow ignoring a young boy idly feeding his apple to a pair of crows. Abruptly, his head is covered by a giant Napoleonic hat - a few moments later the same happens to the boy - and he marches off. Perhaps it's just wird surrealist comedy, but with the line of soldiers marching into their graves that we saw so recently still echoing in the mind's eye, it feels like we're somehow still talking about the hard cost of war, even though the whole tenor of the moment is completely different. But the Napoleonic war and WWII were profoundly important events in Russia, and connecting them while making sure to keep them apart is just... right.

So the first thing that Tale of Tales maybe "is": the history of Russia and the Soviet Union, done as an epic cartoon short. But it's also a bedtime fairy tale: the only words we hear spoken, outside of a few panicked ejaculations from the wolf, are the words of a traditional lullaby about the little grey wolf who'll come to kidnap children to the woods (a cheery people, Russians are), which in a fashion ends up happening, though the wolf who does it seems as confused as we are by why, and his astonishingly expressive face (astonishing in that it is a charcoal-like smear of shading where the parts of his anatomy can barely be distinguished, other than his intense eyes) suggests that he feels helplessly gripped by the fatalistic demands of the lullaby, in some respect. The second thing that we might call Tale of Tales: a story of childhood impressions, a story of childhood subjectivity given weight and shape.

What it mostly is, I think, is memory, something vaguely confirmed by Norshteyn himself (though he's said enough different things about the film that it's not necessarily a good bet to take him at his word; unless we want to assume that Tale of Tales is about the whole experience of life, which isn't necessarily untrue). Not "about" memory. The taste of madeleines in Proust is "about" memory. Tale of Tales is the process of dredging up memory from where it has been hidden: it is a film of things being barely formed into a coherent shape, or things not formed into a coherent shape. The surrealistic bull, a crudely-drawn and crudely-animated sketch presented as a line drawing on ancient white paper, feels more like a terribly misremembered detail stripped of its context and vitalising color (which is not to say that the brown and yellow-dominated Tale of Tales is bursting with color, outside of the scenes that take place in the winter forest - a gorgeous irony about which I do now know what to do), the way a memory fragment might do. Whose memory the film is, I cannot say: Russia's and a little boy's, maybe; maybe the little boy who heard the wolf lullaby and found some way to turn it into a cozy cartoon, and grew up and was horrified by warfare.

At any rate, the collage-like construction of the film's soundtrack, bits and pieces of classical music patched together; and its mixed-media approach to animation, unified stylistically only in that everything seems terribly aged and dried-up; these things suggest to me an incoherent subjectivity. It is not merely that Tale of Tales represents memories: it represents memories that are incomplete and arbitrary, with the rememberer trying and failing to collate them into a single history, as one might when one is in the blurry place between falling asleep and being asleep. The film feels less like a single argument (though there's a philosophy that creeps through: unmistakably Eastern European in its conviction that we are ultimately doomed to recreate past mistakes and lying stagnant in the present) than a series of emotional textures that we can perceive but not hold onto. It is a film of ghosts, some of them sadder than others. Memory, in this telling, is less what shapes our present and more the thing that haunts us, but it is not a hopeless film: there are small joys and triumphs to be plucked from the chain of experiences Norshteyn links together, like the pleasure of eating an apple. And that is maybe the profoundest thing Tale of Tales can say to us: that while the world is dark and cold, and while there is suffering, there is also happiness; and it can perhaps be the case that the little grey wolf is a comfort rather than a threat. This is a solemn film, but not a grave one; a stylistically dessicated film that finds beauty in the corruption of age, and it is one of the greatest cinematic poems that has ever been and could ever be.