"My name is John Smith," Yuri Norstein is saying in something resembling English. "My nose is between my eyes and my mouth." When Norstein says it, it comes out "My noss isss batwan my ice end my mouf."

Between laughs, the Soviet filmmaker is reading from a tattered paperback titled "Say It in English," but he quickly packs it away and says something in Russian to his translator.

"It's hopeless," says the translator, who then races to keep up with Norstein's thoughts on animated film, glasnost and moral art.

Norstein is an intense, somewhat disheveled 47-year-old man whose 30-minute "A Tale of Tales" was voted the greatest animated film of all time at an international festival in 1984. It will be shown today at 1 at the UDC auditorium as part of Filmfest DC, along with a number of Norstein's shorts for children and excerpts from his major work-in-progress, an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's classic story "The Overcoat."

Like music, animation can often be a kind of international language, but Norstein denies having anything that lofty in mind when starting out. "It would have been too intelligent and serious if I had done it for that reason," he says. "I took a ticket on a tram and came to the cinema studios and enrolled in a course. I didn't construct any global, ideological, philosophical ideas when I started on this career."

Nor was he a born film artist, he insists. True, he did organize puppet theater at school and "as a boy I constructed myself a homemade camera, but I never took a picture with it. I'm not Lumie`re, I didn't invent it myself. And I like and have always liked paintings, drawings, engravings."

He claims no particular influences, "except for Walt Disney. But if one speaks of tradition, it should be about the tradition of artistic creativity in general. I have never looked at animated films as a tradition to follow."

Indeed, Norstein's animation is worlds away from Disney's, though his children's films do recast fairy tales -- Russian ones such as "The Heron and the Crane," "The Fox and the Rabbit" and "The Hedgehog in the Fog" (all will be shown today). "I have taken Russian popular folk tales and reproduced them, especially those which have significant aspects of human interaction and significant morals," he explains. "I want to speak what's in my soul in my films and not roll it up into one little piece of candy that one can then put into the viewer's mouth and it will go down the throat very smoothly."

His animation is painterly, the kind of illustration one would find in classic books, only liquid and alive. He eschews bright colors: "The Overcoat," which he calls "a great tragic story," is being made in black-and-white, which is rare in any film these days and virtually unheard of in animation.

"I don't want the colors to blind the eye of the viewer," Norstein explains. "I think it's one of the worst phenomena of the 20th century that the colors of the screen lurch out at audiences and hit them over the head, engulf them. This is bad because a person can get used to this and then they can never see anything less.

"Film in general should be deprived of all its special effects and stunts. It should be just a direct communication from soul to soul, like a blood transfusion. You can get it from blood that's kept in a refrigerator or you can get it directly from another person. Art should be like that, a straightforward spiritual communication between film and audience."

That's what "A Tale of Tales" was, and perhaps why it has moved so many people since Norstein finished it in 1979. An allegory using the resonant Russian image of a wolf cub adrift in a cold world, it is Norstein's ruminations on the ruthlessness of World War II, "though it's not really my memories because I was only 4 when the war ended. It's taking a few things that I remember from my very early childhood, but more generally, it's a consideration of what is peace and what are those things that a person standing on the edge of a precipice of death cannot exist without -- what are the things that are most essential and important?"

According to Norstein, "the most important theme is the destruction of families and the destruction of childhood. And I wanted to show that {World War II} was not only a war of defense of the fatherland, but a war for something spiritual, for the soul, and that when this happens a war really does take on a very high moral character."

About 20 million Russians died in the war, he notes. "If you balance that out with what has been happening in the last two decades -- society's rending apart, their self-laceration of their souls which is going on throughout society now -- one begins to wonder: Did we really pay such a high price in order to achieve this spiritual, inner destruction?"

"A Tale of Tales" is full of haunting images and circular themes, a dramatic expansion of the boundaries of animation -- boundaries Norstein doesn't accept. An artist, he says, "is much like a person who's in a confined place with walls all around him and who taps on the wall around the room to see where it is thinnest so that he can start digging there and dig his way out."

There are nonartistic boundaries, unfortunately. His 1984 award, for instance, was covered up in the Soviet Union. The Los Angeles world animation festival was put on jointly by the International Animated Film Association and the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee; when the Soviets and Eastern European nations boycotted the games, Norstein chuckles, "I was counted as the only representative of the Soviet Union in the Olympics."

He's not bitter about the news blackout, however. "We've had many victims of ideology; I don't think I'm the biggest. Since I was praised by the ideological opponents, that meant I was fraternizing with them or something."

These days, recognition of his work is less clouded. But financing remains a universal problem for animators, Norstein included. He's spent the last few years on "The Overcoat" -- he is the sole animator -- but has finished only about 20 of the projected 70 minutes.

"My problems stem from the fact that most producers and film people and critics have a very mechanistic impression of animated film," he says. "They're very conscious of the boundaries and they don't take it seriously. But in the last few years throughout the world there's been a growth of self-esteem within the animated film industry and a growth of consciousness that animated film can be an art form just as great as any other."

Meanwhile, he continues to live in Moscow, teaching an advanced directing course and observing the impact of glasnost on that city's vanguard arts circles from a position of wry detachment.

"The great passions that are now boiling up in my country and the great amount of things that are being written and produced, especially the letters that are coming in to all our newspapers, makes me happy and a bit sad," he says. "People nowadays seem to conceptualize their happiness as being of the present, whereas in fact our spiritual life began not in 1917, or even the 18th century, but way back when man first began to be conscious of himself and to think about his spiritual needs and goals."

Art, Norstein believes, "is usually created slowly, but now there seems to be a race, as if everyone's trying to get ahead of the other one and be the first to tell about what's happening, what the situation is ... It's as if everyone's afraid to be late in expressing themselves, as if suddenly everything will close up again ... I think there's something sickly, or a little bit neurotic about this rush ...

"I have great admiration for writers like Vasily Grossman, whose great novel 'Life and Fate' is just being published, and Boris Pasternak. These are all people in whom artistic creation grew slowly. They were not motivated by a desire to overtake anyone or to be the first.

"And what is art," he concludes, "except the ideal to which we're aspiring, which we cannot achieve in real life? When this happens, when art tends to express the ideals and the path toward this ideal, then it has real authenticity and meaning."