Tuesday, December 8, 2009

FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE: THE CINEMA OF ANDREI TARKOVSKY

M. L. Raina

1. Collected Screenplays by Andrei Tarkovsky
Translated by William Powell and Natasha Synessios
Faber, London.Xxv+564 Pages. $ 25.
2. The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue
By Vida T. Johnson and Graham Petrie.
Indiana University Press, Bloomington
Xvii+331 pages. $ 25.95
3. Mirror: A Film by Andrei Tarkovsky
Artificial Eye Video Production, London
102 Minutes. 24 Pounds.


Let me confess at the outset that I am a Tarkovsky addict. He reminds me not so much of other filmmakers, as of a number of Russian writers from Turgenev and Chekov to a much younger contemporary, Andrei Makine even though the latter writes in French. They share a cultivated sensibility that allows them to be at home in the quintessential Russianness of their heritage and, at the same time, encourage an uninhibited acceptance of Western ideas. One thinks of Tolstoy and Turgenev (particularly ‘Sportsman’s Sketches’ and ‘Ayesha’), of the poems of Lermontov and Pushkin, the plenitude of the Russian landscape in ‘Dr.Zhivago’ and the neurotic brilliance of some of Dostoevsky’s stories.

This essential Russianness is hinted at by Andrei Makine in his 1997 novel “ Dreams of My Russian Summers”: ‘a whole host of actions, faces, words, sufferings, privations… all that buzz of life resounding against a single echo’. That ‘echo’ for both is memory, a recurrent nostalgia for a way of life in which the mother occupies pride of place in a benign pastoral setting. Through the images of the grandmother in Makine and the mother in Tarkovsky’s early films,’Ivan’s Childhood’ and ‘Mirror’, they explore the sustaining power of tradition and nature.

Both recreate the lost moment and are closely attached to the physical fetishes of the past. For both the love of the mother (Russia) is a continual heartbreak. They love her absurdity (as Solzhenitsyan would say), her capacity to absorb pain and joy in equal measure. In ‘Ivan’s Childhood’ and ‘Mirror’ Tarkovsky’s favourite actress Margarita Terekhova (he uses her way Bergman uses Liv Ullman in film after film) establishes herself as the mother-spirit animating the stories of love, sacrifice and feminine vulnerability. In ‘Solaris’ Kris Kelvin’s mother has no relevance to the plot, but is there to uphold her creator’s belief in her catalytic power.


In these films memories and reminiscences spill out pell-mell though anchored in the expressive presence of the mother figure. She remains the centre of the narrative as well as a source of coherence and order.

Andrei Tarkovsky made seven full-length films and a few smaller ones, as this collection of his screenplays attests. He is equally the inheritor of the Great Russian cinematic tradition and a dissenter from it. Like the pioneers Eisenstein and Pudvokin, he displays a passion for history and a visionary boldness in presenting it. An English critic, Mark Le Fanu, credits him with visualising the epic traditions of the 19th century Russian novel in the sweep and scale of ‘Andrei Rublev’ (it’s a pity that the screenplay of this two-part film is not available in the Powell-Synessios edition). He is a dissenter because his genius refused to compromise with the official Soviet ideology. He dared the censors and suffered neglect, hostility and inevitable ill health leading to early death in exile.

A major stylistic innovator in film of the past thirty years, Tarkovsky baffles a lay viewer as well as some of his more informed admirers nurtured on the European art cinema of Bergman, Rohmer, Renoir, Bresson and other avant-garde auteur-directors. The lay viewer, accustomed to the easy formulaic narrative of the Hollywood fiction film, finds Tarkovsky difficult since he does not adhere to a linear plot, nor satisfy stereotypical expectations. He is elliptical, hermetic and intellectual to the point of obscurity. One wonders how he managed to survive in the Soviet Union as long as he did and why he made films in different languages (‘Nostalgia’ partly in Italian, ’Sacrifice’ in Swedish).

Critically mature ‘readers’ of film as art are uncomfortable for other reasons. They find Tarkovsky wordy, allegorical and often given to experimentation as a means of obscuring meaning rather than clarifying it. True, the appearance of the horses (forces of nature?) in ‘Andrei Rublev’ at the beginning and the end, the ticker-tape cascade in the last cathedral scene of ‘Nostalgia’ or the scatter of papers at the close of ‘Ivan’s Childhood’ can not be easily explained away. Their symbolic depth invites deeper involvement, which even sympathetic viewers find inconvenient.

Speaking of Tarkovsky’s last film, ‘Sacrifice’, Johnson and Petrie believe that the protagonist Alexander’s discursiveness represses the effects of the great scenes, especially the fire scenes and the lonely road. These demurrals are justified. In extenuation we could say that the filmmaker is more than a narrator. He complicates his scenes, overturns our responses in order to accommodate his meditations on the human condition. In a sense he stretches the medium to express the metaphysical dimension of experience.

The metaphysical experience in Tarkovsky’s films is felt in the inner world of his characters, even as the external historical and political themes enclose their dreams, reveries and hallucinations. The documentation of the features of lost time subverts the narratives in which his characters are enclosed, or better still, immured. For example, the stories of war in ‘Ivan’s Childhood’ are not of much value by themselves. Their significance is in the residue of human attachment such as loyalty, courage, and memory that they can muster. When the Soviet censors criticised what they considered a lack of sufficient patriotism in the film, they ignored the fact that Ivan’s protectiveness towards his mother is in itself a metaphor for the filmmaker’s protective attitude towards Russia.

Though ‘Ivan’s Childhood’ is not as openly metaphysical as, say, ‘Mirror’, ‘ Solaris’ or ‘Nostalgia’, it often deflects attention from the purely documentary details (war, Berlin Chancery and the flying papers). We are made to inhabit a space halfway between history and hallucination, as in the recurrent images of the mother intervening in the war narrative. We are also asked to puzzle out the paradox between Ivan’s child-like innocence and his skills as a guerilla fighter behind the Russian lines. Our routine expectations are frustrated at the very beginning when the film opens with Ivan’s dream of a hand and reveals Galtsev who will later play a significant role. The frequent crossing of boundaries between dream and reality in almost all his films forbids simple naturalistic appraisal of their style and content.

As Tarkovsky began to experiment with stream-of-consciousness and narrative disjunction, his films became more inward and their hold on external reality more problematic. Part of the reason may be his increasing impatience with the Soviet censors who ordered cuts and revisions at the slightest suspicion. Even when he tried to make epics on the scale of Eisenstein’s ‘Ivan the Terrible’ and ‘Alexander Nevsky’, he could not bring himself to follow the beaten path of the great master. ‘Andrei Rublev’ is motivated more by Tarkovsky’s religious fervour than any endorsement of secular glory that Eisenstein represents. The director is drawn to the traditional church icons and makes his hero something of a protector of their beauty amidst the cruelty and oppression of the medieval period.

But it is in ‘Solaris’ and ‘Mirror’ that Tarkovsky’s religious and non-political attitudes receive their fullest expression. In ‘Solaris’ he uses the novel by the Polish science-fiction writer, Stanislaw Lem, to create a collage of melancholy forebodings triggered by the emptiness of the Space Sea

There are extraordinary scenes of the countryside in the scientist Burton’s dacha. The mental turmoil of the hero Kris Kelvin and the chaos of the Space Sea sharply contrast with the beauty of the earth represented in the abundance of hay, the polish of the floorboards and, most poignant of all, the evocation by Kris of his dead wife Hari and the mother. Whereas Lem questions anthropomorphic thinking and the limitations of human knowledge, the film celebrates our capacity ‘to stay human in an inhuman world’ menacing us from across the Space Sea.

By all accounts ‘Mirror’ is Tarkovsky’s masterpiece. Generally acknowledged as one of the most challenging films of the last three decades, it brings to successful fruition his experiments in different cinematic modes and demonstrates his ability to combine various genres in a mosaic of reality and desire. It alternately takes the form of rich and highly charged documentary footage woven within the practices of a Cubist painting. The title creates the ‘prismatic effect’ of a broken mirror radiating a scintillating glow all around. The filmmaker’s ‘eye’ is genuinely innocent since it plunders from the imagery of childhood a vision unsullied by evil, though not far from its corruptions.

Given the dual perspective of a child and an adult, the film finds its epiphanies in an emotionally charged and imaginatively visualised edenic state. In his search for a stable identity amid the interactions of past and present, the director rifles through all the resources of art to fix the mystery of human life in all its high and low tides. The casting of Margarita Terekhova in the dual role of grandmother and mother of the boy calls all identities into question. Against the moving images of the vast Russian landscape demarcations dissolve. Struck by the imprecision of contours, we are lifted into a timeless experience by the power of Pushkin’s and Arseny Tarkovsky’s poetry and merged with the colours of the landscape as the music of Bach, Purcell and Pergolesi transforms the whole into a profound revelation.

Many-layered in conception, the film intertwines family relationships with topical newsreel sequences. With his father Arseny reading his poems on the sound track, Tarkovsky enhances the film’s meaningfulness, making it seem contemporary and tans-historical at the same time.

Johnson and Petrie have written a comprehensive evaluation of Tarkovsky’s films and analysed his distinctive cinematic techniques. They are more thorough than Mark Le Fanu and will remain the best guides to this enigmatic genius. Their analysis of what they call Tarkovsky’s thematic and image clusters defines these films as poetic in the most sublime sense. One of the successes of this book is in the originality of the authors’ reading of the films. Not until I read their commentary did I grasp the connection in ‘Mirror’ between Lenardo Da Vinci’s broken mirrors and the luminous juxtapositioning of the Cyrillic script of the captions. Similarly, the Breughel painting at the end of ‘Solaris’ would have remained a mystery to me had not the authors found its relevance to the landscape and Tarkovsky’s symbolic purchase on it.

The ‘visual fugue’ in the title speaks eloquently of Tarkovsky’s jumbling of the artistic genres in his work. This is an appropriate description of his method and captures its ambidexterity.

In a poem by Arseny Tarkovsky, used in ‘The Stalker’, the poet says “What is soft and weak is good: hardness is close to death”. Perhaps this is Tarkovsky’s credo. Does it imply his openness to experience? His distrust of the given, the prescribed? Tarkovsky’s own readiness to confront extremes is a clue to his religious acceptance of suffering, of the paradox of being human. The rest, the ancient sages would aver, is silence, as of the Space Sea in ‘Solaris’.

1 comment:

Badri Raina said...

yes yes yes;
watching tara is like reading shakespeare or dostoevsky;
no finer examples of great skills subordinated at the service of great thinking.
i hate cinema/literature where the thinking is obliterated by the skills.
br