"The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, ren­dering it capable of turning to good."

– Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time



by Harlan Kennedy


 Andrei Tarkovsky spent 30 years plowing up movie convention so that a new kind of cinema could grow. His imagery was one of reversal: op­posites coexist or swap places. The world is renewed when seen inside-out or mir­ror-reversed. Rain can pour down inside a room (Mirror); a miniature river valley, with hills and homes, can wind across the floor of a house (Nostalghia); a man's childhood home and surrounding land­scape can be enclosed in the embrace of a ruined church (Nostalghia).

Tarkovsky was quite possibly the last of the old European art movie direc­tors. Art movies – ghastly phrase – were those things we all went to at university. They were usually in black and white and had three basic plots: (1) Tormented Swedish pastor tries to get in touch with God; (2) Alienated Italian woman gets lost on volcanic island; and (3) Group of moody characters swallowed up in a ro­coco hotel wonder if they haven't been there before.

As for going to these films, we won­dered if we hadn't been to them before as well. Every Godard picture seemed to have Anna Karina, the intellectual's Betty Boop, making a one-woman Marxist-Maoist statement about the vileness of the West. Every Antonioni film seemed to have Monica Vitti adrift in a twilight zone of urban anomie. And every Bergman movie seemed to have Max Von Sydow or Gunnar Bjornstrand as sepulchral party poopers who were definitely not going to tell you a funny thing that happened on the way to the farm.

However, the best of these films stuck in the brain and made a nuisance of them­selves. They got into that part of the mind where dreams are made and showed a frightening familiarity with the place; and they suggested that there's a shared reality between people. These European movies got into the machinery of conventional form and narrative and fouled it up. They dealt with pain as much as pleasure, frus­tration (spiritual or sensual) as much as gra­tification, illogic as much as logic. In short, they attempted to stretch rather than soothe.

Indeed, in the last decade or two, either films or life stretched us so much, and sometimes so painfully, that we revolted against all this "art" and began to go in for – Serious Critical Revaluation of Pop­ular Narrative Cinema.

So perhaps Tarkovsky died of a dying cause. Can the critic or filmgoer today be made to think or to face artistic chal­lenges? European cinema has become an intellectual and imaginative wasteland. The best that France can contribute to the festival potlatch each year is the latest Tavernier or Beineix.

Tavernier: Sensitive, intelligent, a fine colorist, a superb storyteller, a great direc­tor of actors. But breaking and remaking the mold of cinema?

Beineix: Sounds like a washing ma­chine. Is a washing machine with the knob turned toward "bright colors" and explicit scenes of front-loading a specialty?

Over in Italy there's a pair of brothers and a sort of large, distinguished gentle­man wearing a tweed hat – oh, that's Fel­lini. Well, he's not exactly a newcomer. Over in Germany, in the aftermath of Fasswendzog, the place looks completely blitzed: no one in sight. Spain, Scandina­via – the same picture. All these empty streets with newspapers blowing along the sidewalks. By the way, where do all those newspapers come from in end-of-the-world movies?

Tarkovsky. For him the end of the world comes in a monochrome street in The Sacrifice. The crisscross patterns of people in panic are knitted in horrible si­lence. Cries and grimaces are frozen on their faces as they tack to and fro on a road surface stamped with the detritus of civil­ization, only an eerie distant ululation on the soundtrack. This glimpse of apoca­lypse (shot in the same Stockholm street where Olaf Palme, Swedish prime minis­ter, was assassinated) is seen twice in the movie.

The camera tracks back before the surging crowds and then, panning down­ward, passes over a vast sheet of mirror tracked with blood that spans the street. The sky is reflected, and the street seems to disappear into it. It's a surrealist's As­sumption: a Heavenward spiritual transla­tion done with simple material props. It's a sequence typical of Tarkovsky, who scarcely ever used trick photography to create a "magical" image. He took the world's raw materials and showed us how to see them in new forms and configura­tions, without any visual "cheating."

It's hard to imagine any other film-maker today making this shot. Set a practi­cal exam question, "How would you de­pict the end of the world in a single shot without trick photography?" and the most gifted director might be stumped. He'd probably end up reaching for the billowing newspapers and cordoning off Wall Street. Yet with Tarkovsky, the scene isn't even an effect. Its poetic incongruity is part of the natural flow of his image-making. To disrupt and reorder the familiar world to make new meanings is what poetry – in­deed, all art – should be about.

Bergman, Antonioni, Fellini, Tarkovsky took the surrealist's weaponry – the yoking together of disparate images – and turned it from the anarchic iconoclasm that was surrealism's founding impulse into a technique that could also make mor­al and humanist statements. The impossi­ble could be absorbed into the possible to heighten or poeticize it. A cinema of ex­tended possibilities was created that could and should have gone on growing. And would have but for the reaction against modernism – against virtually all forms of structural or stylistic intricacy – that has spread and intensified. That torchbearer for modernism Bergman turned from the bleakly monochrome complexities of Per­sona to the (relative) naturalism and hand­some colorings of Fanny and Alexander. And whenever a filmmaker goes in for a spot of surrealism or expressionism to­day – like Coppola with Rumble Fish – the film is patronized by critics as a bizarre little hiccup in his career, a film he had to make to get it out of his system.

Why has this anti-modernist reaction taken place? Partly for political-ideological reasons. The push toward radical and egalitarian ideals in the Sixties and after put the kabosh on elitist cinema. The Cahiers du Cinema crowd (though they went on to make some fairly elitist films them­selves) set the agenda for enthroning, or rethroning, "classical narrative cinema" – as popular movies are now called in worthy 800-page books devoted to showing how some directors can actually tell a story from A to B.

For Cahiers, nearly everything good was uncluttered or populist: John Wayne, George Cukor, Renoirian plan-séquences, Rossellini neo-realism, the win­dow-on-the-world naturalism approved by Bazin, the Hollywood cinema of what-next melodrama (Some Came Running, Rebel Without a Cause), Hitchcock, Jerry Lewis. The trouble is that other critics in Britain and America began to believe that Cahiers really believed that this simple, accessible cinema was the crock of gold. They didn't appreciate that these French­men were critics-soon-to-be-filmmakers. The Cahiers crowd took movies that weren't considered to be masterpieces and invented reasons why they might or should be. It was like making a movie themselves. So Godard's critique of Preminger's Angel Face isn't a critique of Angel Face, it's a Godard film in embryo using Angel Face as text and inspiration. Just as Le Mépris, a Godard film in reality, later used Some Came Running as ditto.

Often the virtues Cahiers found in di­rectors like Hitchcock and Hawks were real virtues, and for that revaluation much thanks. But much of the time it was mere doodling or wishful thinking or hyperbole-for-the-revolution ("Le cinéma, c'est Ni­cholas Ray"). Soon America caught on, and from our own writers we heard that Blake Edwards was a filmmaker of fur­nace-like inspiration and colossus stature. This soon became known as the hauteur theory. It operated on the principle that any height to which you can raise a hither­to unregarded director, I can raise one higher. (Or in semiotic terms, you whip out your langue and I'll whip out my pa­role.)

Soon we were all living in moviedom's equivalent of Easter Island: an Aku Aku of proliferating totems that cast the old gods in the shade. And on this sub­tropic isle, we no longer had to like Berg­man with his damned suffering and his cold beaches you couldn't bathe on. We could start making jokes about Antonioni and his gnomic plots and ambulant hero­ines. And we could say ya-boo to Godard, who had swung all the way from populist criticism on paper to impenetrable Maoist pamphleteering onscreen. But thanks to the seeds he and his Cahiers copains had sown, we could now guiltlessly enjoy a whole lot of Hollywood movies we'd hith­erto had to crawl in and out of with shame. In short, we were on the home stretch heading toward the New Hedonism in both film criticism and filmmaking. We were entering the age of Lucas, Spielberg, John Carpenter, Brian De Palma, Larry Kasdan, and all. Everyone – not just in America but right across the free West – was hitting the pleasure trail.

Everyone except Andrei Tarkovsky.

Tarkovsky still did the following anti­social things in his work:

(1) His films had no clear plots; (2) They were not in color. Come to that, they weren't even in black and white. They kept switching between the two, or being in half-tones of grey, green, brown, or whatever; (3) They featured people with whom it would be no fun at all to spend a tennis weekend. Mystics, re­cluses, poets, manic depressives, and so on; (4) The weather was usually bad. If it wasn't raining it was foggy, and there were puddles everywhere; (5) The soundtrack provided no possibility for a tie-in LP. When it wasn't clotted with dense conver­sation, it was completely silent for long, aching stretches of time. And occasionally Andrei would throw in the distant sound of a buzz saw, or a dog barking, or some­one making strange high-pitched keening noises.

What do you do with an unrepentant Russian artist who makes life hard for everyone? Either you pay him lip service and if possible avoid his films, or you take a five-minute break from drooling over the glory that is Hollywood and consider that maybe Tarkovsky's films aren't difficult at all. It is critics and audiences who are dif­ficult. They insist that there's pain and puzzlement in Tarkovsky's work when those qualities are largely of their own making, much as a man might complain of an impeded view if he built a wall be­tween him and what he wanted to see.

Tarkovsky's movies are "about" what they are. They are not impregnable schemes of symbolism. No good art has anything to do with uncrackable codes or impenetrable labyrinths. But the paranoid filmgoer, whose brain has turned to baby food under the influence of so much "clas­sical narrative cinema," is convinced that any movie devoid of a linear plotline and takeaway emotions is out to get him.

Tarkovsky's films use imagery to plow up the hierarchical layering of the universe we know. The primary message of his movies is simply what the imagery states: No part of life or nature is fixed in an im­movable role; grace or change can come into a person's life when he or she wakes to the belief that contraries can connect, and blend, and even change places. In a poet's vision the relationship between oppo­sites – earth and sky, fire and water, past and present, inside and outside, image and reflection, dream and waking – is fluid and not fixed, and only our mulish conviction that the world is an unshakable structure of frozen, antithetical verities holds us back from glimpsing a reality out­side ourselves.

Tarkovsky's definitive film, and his best, is Nostalghia. Poised between Stalker, with its sometimes creaky futureworld underpinnings, and The Sa­crifice, with its sometimes excessive Bergmanizing, Nostalghia asks to be judged without reference to anything but itself. No outside genre or filmmaker is invoked. Instead, it is pure Tarkovsky, the journey of a man's soul imaged in an endless inter­play of opposites. The active, even turbu­lent relationship between the present and the hero's impulse to hug the past – his nostalgia for his homeland, his research into the life of an 18th-century compos­er – is mirrored in the sulphur spa hotel where he stays. Its bubbling pool is a place where dormant energies, the earth's memories, rise up from beneath the ground. Another buried reality that comes to daylight in the film is Erland Josephson's hermit: he is a man who locked him­self away with his family for seven years and now wanders the town railing against an unquiet, divided world.

Josephson ends by burning himself alive in an act of Holy Idiot sacrifice that is a dry run for The Sacrifice itself. In both films, fire is the chosen destroyer. From earth and water, our parent elements, we aspire to air and fire – and the last is the transubstantiating force whose stealing first gave man godlike powers.

To make an emblematic union be­tween water and fire, our origins and our aspirations, is the aim of Nostalghia's glo­riously weird climactic scene. In real time and a continuous take, to the patently ago­nized suspense of the actor, Oleg Jankowsky, the hero walks the length and back of the drained and puddled pool car­rying a precariously guttering candle and defying it to go out. When the near impos­sible is achieved, it is merely confirmation of Tarkovsky's creed: man's only hope of salvation is to rewrite the received verities of the world and its possibilities.

In the same way that there are no ultimate obstacles to faith and imagination, the determined poet-filmmaker can walk free without the crutch, or handicap, of orthodox narrative. And in the same way that there are no opposites in life that can­not meet or fuse, there is nothing in Tar­kovsky's work that is ever merely, or even mainly, a symbol. "A" (the image) does not signify "B" (the meaning) in a frozen standoff on either side of an equals sign. The image – be it fire or water, or a doll's house, or the white bird's feather of bene­diction that plants a white streak in the hero's hair throughout Nostalghiais a visitation mysterious and beautiful in its own right, one of whose powers may be to invoke, or rhyme with, or blend with an idea or state of mind. Thus the pool of wa­ter or puddle – Tarkovsky's favorite visu­al motif of all – is at once a kind of mirror, allowing a piece of sky to lie on the ground (Heaven lying with Earth); it is a sugges­tion of flux and fluid uncertainty, dimin­ishing the authority of terra firma; and it is purest painterliness, lyricizing or liquefy­ing a landscape with an impulse no more symbolic than the artist's intuitive sense that a certain effect of light or texture in one part of the canvas is the right one.

Ever since the post-Cahiers critics de­cided to put "classical narrative cinema" under a magnifying glass and decode its meanings, we've been told how a film should be read. You don't read Tar­kovsky's films; they read you. You don't decode Tarkovsky's films; their code is in­finite. You delight and exult in that in­finity.

Nostalghia is an apt title in the context of current cinema. The post-modernist populism that rules with critics and au­diences today represents a wish to return to the narrative virtues and verities of vin­tage Hollywood cinema. More than that, the very stories and subjects of many hit movies today – critical and commercial – are rooted in a yen for the past. We've ad­vanced, or regressed, from the stylistic tributes to yesterday of films like the Indi­ana Jones romps or the Carpenter-Kasdan-DePalma school of paste-and-scissors pas­tiche to movies whose stories themselves involve a return to the past: Back to the Future, Peggy Sue Got Married, and Co. No culture, popular or otherwise, can spend all its time trying to get back into the womb. Nostalghia showed the temp­tation in one man and how he fought it.

Most Western cinema today, supported by the critics and the heyday they've ac­corded to popular taste, is not even trying to fight it. It's rerunning all its old movies under the guise of new movies. We're liv­ing in a world of Norma Desmonds. Tar­kovsky, and his peers and precursors in the pre-populist European cinema, sug­gested that life should be a struggle toward the uncomfortable light, never a surrender to the comforting dark (of womb or movie theater). He set an example we will surely eventually follow. Out of boredom, if not malnutrition, the movie world will even­tually realize that man cannot live by pop­corn alone.






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.