Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Andrei Tarkovsky

Andrei Tarkovsky, who would have been 80 this year had he still been alive, was not necessarily a cerebral filmmaker.  He said once that "All art, of course, is intellectual, but for me, all the art and cinema even more so, must above all be emotional, and act upon the heart." Images, feelings, dreams and memories, the one effortlessly melting in to the other, was more his way of making films and they have a logic of their own, and with recurring visual motifs such as horses and people apparently being weightless, floating in the air, reaching for the sky, or the ceiling,

I am not convinced that he was a great filmmaker, and all of his films are flawed, to varying degrees. But he was also a fiercely passionate and personal artist, a poet who was more interested in putting his visions on the screen, in a pure state, than mind about rhythm, editing, framing or timing. The one film which is perhaps in this sense different is The Sacrifice (Offret 1986), since it is unusually controlled and rigid. This though is not to the film's advantage. The green parts of the film (i.e. the beginning and the end) are very good, but that which is in-between I find tedious and faintly ridiculous. Somebody once suggested that it was meant as a parody of a Bergman film but I do not think that, I think Tarkovsky was sincere.

I do like Ivan's Childhood (Ivanovo detstvo 1962) and Andrei Rublev (1966). They are powerful and especially Andrei Rublev is inspirational. The sequence when the boy is casting a bell is a mesmerizing piece of filmmaking, beautiful and transcendental. They are both filled with images of great beauty, and a certain kind of lyricism. But they are also different. Ivan's Childhood feels more similar to other Russian films of the time. Andrei Rublev on the other  hand feels more personal, and at the same time it resembles the films of Akira Kurosawa, albeit not with the same mastery and calm confidence. Tarkovsky has himself said that he was influenced by Kenji Mizoguchi. I also feel that there is something of Sam Fuller in both these films, especially since the camera work has a similar kind of restlessness, and a restless camera is after all something of Fuller's trademark. (Tarkovsky's adaptation of Hemingway's The Killers (as Ubiytsy 1956), which he co-directed with Marika Beiku and Aleksandr Gordon, shows that he was not antithetical to hard-boiled American fiction, and this short film is actually rather good.)

Then there was a remarkable change of pace and style, because the next film he made was Solaris (Solyaris 1972), which feels neither Russian nor Japanese, nor like Fuller. This is more European alienation in space, and I have to admit I find the film annoyingly boring and meaningless. There is a tendency to overrate slowness, as if the very fact that something is slow makes it more artistic or profound. This is not so, sometimes slowness is just slowness, and I do not think that the themes or ideas expressed here is weighty or interesting enough to warrant all the boredom. But then, in his defence, Tarkovsky was not so much interested in meaning, but feeling. "If you look for a meaning, you'll miss everything that happens. Thinking during a film interferes with your experience of it." But if the film arouse no feelings, then what is left? Especially when Solaris looks somewhat pedestrian, as if Tarkovsky had been influenced by William Friedkin rather than Kenji Mizoguchi. If in his earlier films Tarkovsky had been a natural, now he felt like somebody desperately trying to make "art", and the resulting film is creaking under its own self-importance. I much prefer his next film The Mirror (Zerkalo 1975), which is weird but haunting, and again beautiful. A film with little narrative but a lot of poetry.

People, when discussing Tarkovsky, invariably focus on his themes and ideas, about man, art, religion, existentialism and the suffering of humanity, but for me I cannot look at these things independently of the actual films. The question, as Anthony Asquith put it, is whether it "comes off". With Tarkovsky I feel that often it does not. So yes, I am torn when it comes to Tarkovsky, but there is enough passion and beauty in his films to warrant much of the love and affection he has received from critics and artists over the decades.

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Another thing that can be held against Tarkovsky is women. They are not prominent in his films, and when they are there is is often in some kind of metaphorical or submissive part. He also had old-fashioned views of women in general, which ties in with his conservatism and religious beliefs perhaps. He once said that "For me there is nothing more unpleasant than a woman with a big career." and while this in itself has no relation to his films, and stills suggest that he had limitations. But then, in a lot of so called European "art cinema" of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s there was a lot of conservative views of women, and Tarkovsky is not unusual in that respect.

All the Tarkovsky quotes are to be found in the collection Andrei Tarkovsky: Interviews

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