AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
TARKOVSKY – A THOUGHT IN NINE PARTS
"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
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?
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
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.
nearly everything good was uncluttered or populist: John
Wayne, George Cukor, Renoirian
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
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
Soon we were all
living in moviedom's equivalent of
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
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 Nostalghia – is 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.
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
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.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE MAY-JUNE 1987 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.