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Tarkovsky – The Poetic Russian Filmmaker

February 19, 2017
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His slow, methodical pace frustrates and challenges the viewer

Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the great Russian directors (1932-1986), brings a poetic vision to his films that has both entranced and frustrated viewers since his first film Ivan’s Childhood won accolades at the Venice Film Festival in 1962.

The maker of Alexei Rubylev (1966), Solaris (1972), The Mirror (1974), Stalker (1979) and Nostalgia (1983) declared himself an artist and an author with the instincts and insights of a poet and he used them to infuse his films with emotional expressions as he searched for life, love, beauty, and truth.

“More consistently than ever I was trying to make people believe that cinema as an instrument of art has its own possibilities which are equal to those in prose,” he wrote in Sculpting in Time. “I wanted to demonstrate how cinema is able to observe life, without interfering, crudely or obviously, with its continuity. For that is where I see the true poetic essence of cinema.”

A spiritually driven if not religious filmmaker, Tarkovsky, the son of poet Arseniy Tarkovsky, saw himself as an all-controlling creator who invoked various other art forms – poetry, theatre, music, art, literature – to unfold his vision on various topics. Mandelstam, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Van Gogh, Durer, Cezanne, they all figure in his work along with many more luminaries of the arts.

In his cinematic attempt to achieve his artistic goals – what a BBC commentator once defined as “poetry in motion” – the Russian filmmaker insisted on total control and yet argued that each contributor to the film had his or her freedom to create…as long as it did not interfere with his vision.

This seems to put strict limitations on talented cinematographers, set designers, music composers, and especially on actors. He insisted the actors were more like props doing what he demanded. He refused to share the scripts with them, arguing that “should not connect any piece he plays with the whole.”

Sometimes he went to extremes to extract what he wanted from his cast. This is not uncommon with directors, but in the case of Kolya Burlyaev, child star of Ivan’s Childhood, he employed what seems a cruel method. In his child role in Andrei Rubylev, Burlyaev is constantly berated for poor performances. The director’s intention: to the actor look realistically fearful of possible dismissal on camera.

In an interview as an adult, Burlyeav praised Tarkovsky and raved about how everyone involved in making a film virtually lived together during shooting and became almost a family. But it seems that Tarkovsky was the all-seeing and all-knowing father who parceled out the freedom. As long as they did not step out of their assigned role to accept the director’s vision and do their part to make it come to life on screen.

He was an admirer of great filmmakers like Antonioni, Fellini, Bergman, Chaplin, and Kurasowa, but could be highly critical of others. Eisenstein is a prime example. Tarkovsky sees him eliminating that “unspoken elusiveness which is perhaps the most captivating quality of all art, and which makes it possible for an individual to relate to a film.” By contrast, Tarkovsky wants “to make films which carry no oratorical, propagandistic speech, but are the occasion for a deeply intimate experience.”

Some critics charged that he had isolated himself from “the everyday interests of the people” whereas the maker of Potemkin, a decidedly revolutionary film, easily escaped such criticism. But Tarkovsky’s goal was never to be a filmmaker in the service of the working class or Soviet socialism

For Tarkovsky, “the goal for all art – unless of course, it is aimed at the ‘consumer’, like a saleable commodity – is to explain to the artist himself and to those around him what man lives for, what is the meaning of his existence. To explain to people the reason for their appearance on this planet; or if not to explain, at least to pose the question.”

The late Roger Ebert, calling Tarkovsky’s films “more like environments than entertainments,” summarized him in this way. “No director makes greater demands on our patience. Yet his admirers are passionate and they have reason for their feelings: Tarkovsky consciously tried to create art that was great and deep. He held to a romantic view of the individual able to transform reality through his own spiritual and philosophical strength.”

Ebert adds that Tarkovsky “uses length and depth to slow us down, to edge us out of the velocity of our lives, to enter a zone of reverie and meditation. When he allows a sequence to continue for what seems like an unreasonable length, we have a choice. We can be bored, or we can use the interlude as an opportunity to consolidate what has gone before, and process it in terms of our own reflections.”

The Russian filmmaker left his homeland, moving to Italy in 1983 where he continued to seek answers to these and other existential questions. His films won many awards, including the Cannes Film Festival’s Jury Prize for The Sacrifice.

Source: Andrey Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996).

Thumbnail critiques

Ivan’s Childhood – His first film and possibly his best, this captures the horrors of war so uniquely and so imaginatively that we are left with that sense of hopelessness that all good war films leave behind. It’s wonderful cinematography provides stark scenes of Russian landscape, giving viewers a desolate, dark, and depraved feeling of war’s total lack of conscience. Brutal in its honesty, it well deserved the Venice Film Festival prize.

Alexei Rubylev – Tarkovsky picked up where he left off after Ivan’s Childhood with this highly praised cinematic canvas vividly depicting medieval Russia and the long journey of an icon-painting monk. As usual, it gets comprehensible at times, especially in Part I. But it moves into some vivid action shots in the second part, culminating in some astonishing frescoes. There butchery here, but sex is almost non-existent or at least overt six scenes. One woman reappears several times, obviously insane, but Rubylev seems disinterested. Using seven scenes to tell the story, Tarkovsky lets his cinematographer loose to roam the countryside and add art house touches to the scenes. There are moments redolent of Kurosawa, but few western motives. This is a Russian film about Russian history at its most brutish.

Solaris – Tarkovsky shifted into another dimension with his third film, taking us from a serene country scene to a space station. Call me lazy, but this one requires a lot of imagination. It came along just a few years after Kubrick blew us away with 2001: A Space Odyssey. But this introspective study of what happens when an invisible mind-altering something works on the memories of the space station residents is a far more taxing exercise. One critic called it an inward-looking film that asks “about the nature and reality of the human personality.” Another said it was “a dreamlike interrogation of faith, memory and the transfiguring power of love.” Still another said it was “an exploration of inner rather than outer space.” It won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, so someone not as lazy as myself obviously ‘got it’.

Mirror – Once again, Tarkovsky demands much of his audience in this autobiographical treatment. He tosses everything into this one, including readings from his father’s poetry. There are some exciting scenes; his cinematographers always worked hard. But we are often left adrift in a sea of personal memories about his family, life during the war years, lovers, childhood, etc. As one critic noted, “Mirror jettisons anything close to a plot, stirring past and present, colour and monochrome, newsreel and fiction into a kaleidoscope of the director’s ponderings on childhood, memory and a century of Mother Russia.” But you have to work hard to find a linear storyline, but that would be a mug’s game because linear stories are not what Tarkovsky offers.

The Stalker – Here is yet another lengthy journey into the mind of Tarkovsky with his father’s poetry always nearby pondering the meaning of existence. There does not seem to be any reason why the Stalker takes the Writer and the Scientist to a secret forbidden place. Is it a coveted paradise in a post-nuclear holocaust Russia? Is it a journey of the mind, a search for meaning, a voyage of discovery? Perhaps the Writer hopes to find his lost novel or the Scientist to prove his theory. What does the Stalker himself seek? Who knows? Once again, Tarkovsky forces us to ask questions, but the often barren landscape he demands that we travel is usually rough going.

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