James Quandt

The Poetry of Apocalypse

This article was written in connection with The Cinematheque Ontario's Tarkovsky retrospective, The Poetry of Apocalypse: The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky, which ran during October and November of 2002. The article is reproduced by Nostalghia.com with the kind permission of the author himself. The article is © James M. Quandt.

Tarkovsky for me is the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.

— Ingmar Bergman

This retrospective dedicated to Andrei Tarkovsky, the first in Toronto since our last over a decade ago, marks the seventieth anniversary of his birth. Featuring several new and rare prints, the series offers an exceptional opportunity to encounter a body of work celebrated for its gravity and grandeur — one of the few that "leave us our freedom," in the words of his admirer Chris Marker. Given the many requests we have had for this retrospective, and the long unavailability of Tarkovsky's films in this country, we have scheduled several repeat screenings.

Andrei Tarkovsky (1932 - 1986) is generally considered the greatest director of postwar Soviet cinema. Though his spiritual and ecological concerns often lapse into anti-rationalist cant, one cannot help but be transfixed and shaken by the bewildering beauty of his films. Simultaneously stark and sumptuous, elemental and metaphysical, they place Tarkovsky alongside those he called the "poet geniuses" of the cinema: Bresson, Mizoguchi, Dovzhenko, Bergman, Antonioni. (He also esteemed Kurosawa, Fellini, and Buñuel.)

Over two and a half decades, Tarkovsky made only seven feature films — a canon more sparse than that of Robert Bresson, the director Tarkovsky admired most . (He cited Diary of a Country Priest as the greatest film he had seen, and idealized the intractable austerity of Bresson's style. Bresson returned the appreciation, serving on the board of the Tarkovsky Institute in Paris until his death.) Tarkovsky shared Bresson's themes — spiritual anguish, the search for grace and oblivion, and the conflict between the spiritual and the material, between faith and the barbarity of the world. Both made the mystical or ineffable inhere in the materiality of objects, colours, textures. Like Bresson's last film, L'Argent, Tarkovsky's final work, The Sacrifice, is a magisterial summation of his life's work, a compendium of signature images, methods and themes. There are many other similarities between the two directors: the ecological warnings of Le Diable Probablement and Stalker, for instance; their shared aversion to genre — "colder then the tomb," in Tarkovsky's words — and similar interest in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. But, as their respective collections of pensées on film — Bresson's epigrammatic Notes sur le cinématographe and Tarkovsky's discursive Sculpting in Time — indicate, in most ways they are worlds apart. Bresson's films are dry, clipped, and elliptical, their reliance on montage at odds with Tarkovsky's partiality for the long take and the flowing of his water-gorged world, and the sense of immersion these imply. (His films baptize one in time as much as in the elements, particularly fire and water.)

Tarkovsky's use of the long take, increasingly attenuated with each film until its apotheosis in the house burning at the end of The Sacrifice, carried a moral, even spiritual import for the director. Montage, at least in its classic formulation by Sergei Eisenstein, profaned the world by fragmenting it and forcing meaning: "I am radically opposed to the way Eisenstein used the frame to codify intellectual formulae," Tarkovsky wrote. "My own method of conveying experience to the audience is quite different. . . . Eisenstein makes thought into a despot: it leaves no 'air,' nothing of that unspoken elusiveness which is perhaps the most captivating quality of all art." Tarkovsky's search for wholeness, for the integrity of the world, might be read in reductive psychological terms; the separation of his parents in 1935 deeply marked him, and such films as The Mirror and Solaris reveal his yearning for a reassembled family. (His concern with memory, both private and ancestral, is largely reconstitutive.) More importantly, it reflects his preoccupation with spiritual and psychic renewal, dependent in his view on a series of vital connections: with nature, with the past, with originating cultures, including that of pre-revolutionary Russia.

So imbued with the mystical notion of Mother Russia are Tarkovsky's films that even those he directed in exile, after leaving the Soviet Union in 1983, seem to remake their respective settings into visions of his homeland. The final, heart-stopping image of Nostalghia conflates Russia and Italy, east and west, in the image of a snowy Russian country house walled within the ruins of the abbey of San Galgano. The spare, pristine house of The Sacrifice, shot in summer dusk on the Swedish island of Gotland, is another of the dachas that summon up the lost Eden of family and mother country in The Mirror and Solaris. Even the American setting of the novel on which Stalker is based was transformed by Tarkovsky into a Zone reminiscent of a Soviet gulag. (As many have noted, the shaven, derelict Stalker resembles a zek, or political prisoner.) With its holy madmen, saints and seers, its Dostoevskian themes of apocalypse and imprisonment, loss of spirituality and hope, and of atonement, Tarkovsky's cinema has its origins in 19th-century Russian culture.

"In the beginning was The Word. Why is that, Papa?," asks Little Man in his first faltering speech at the end of The Sacrifice. Muteness, from Andrei Roublev's retreat into silence to Alexander's vow of silence in The Sacrifice, and a mistrust of words are defining motifs of Tarkovsky's cinema. "Words are too inert to express emotions" says the narrator in The Mirror (which opens with the curing of a stutterer) and they are often used as weapons, to coerce or misinform. This suspicion of speech, no doubt influenced by Tarkovsky's experience with Soviet doublespeak and Stalinist censorship — one thinks of the single misspelt word and its political repercussions in The Mirror — finds an attendant emphasis on symbolically charged imagery, as though pictures were somehow more direct and truthful: ruins and desolate landscapes, Edenic dachas, trees, (green) apples, milk, horses, mirrors, dogs. (Like Michael Powell, Tarkovsky was a connoisseur of red hair, most evidently in the Botticellian mane of Domiziana Giordano in Nostalghia.)

As countless critics have pointed out, Tarkovsky deployed the four elements like no other director before or since. Swathed in fog and aquatic with spas, needled with drizzle, sluicing, streaming, coursing and dripping with rain and snow, indoors and out, Tarkovsky's terrain is terrarium. The mottled forest flora of mold, ferns, lichens, and toadstools traversed by his slow camera are lushly entropic. The crumble and rust, detritus and delapidation of his watery ruins, rendered gorgeous by sfumato effects and desaturated or monochrome film stock, signal both the remnants of past cultures and ecological calamity. Water, earth, and fire (less so air — he scants the sky) are transformed by Tarkovsky's glacial takes into signifiers of the imminent divine. As Chris Marker notes in the commentary of his film on the director: "It rains a lot in Tarkovsky's films, as in Kurosawa's — one of the signs, no doubt, of the Japanese sensibility he mentioned so often. And like the Japanese, a physical relationship to nature. There's nothing more earthy, more carnal than the work of this reputed mystical filmmaker — maybe because Russian mysticism is not that of Catholics terrified by nature and body. Among the Orthodox, nature is respected, the Creator is revered through his creation, and in counterpoint to the characters, each film knits a plot between the four elements — sometimes treated separately, sometimes in pairs. In The Mirror, a simple camera movement brings together water and fire... the opposite path in Solaris."

The Japanese affinity mentioned by Marker, evident also in the folk music in The Sacrifice, is one of many forces that shaped Tarkovsky's cinema. Though profoundly Russian in his cultural orientation — religious icons figure prominently in his work, as do the influences of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (less so Pushkin) — traditional western art was a wellspring for his films. A cursory list of artists quoted or summoned by his cinema includes Brueghel, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Rousseau, Bach, Pergolesi, Purcell, Debussy, Beethoven, Dante. (He showed little respect for the novels by Stanislaw Lem and the Strugatsky Brothers he adapted, distressing the authors with his extensive revisions.) Tarkovsky's taste inclined to the conservative and canonical — he once cited Walden as his favourite book — even though he admired the innovations of Antonioni and himself had a demanding, even abstruse style. He was nonplussed by the films of Stan Brakhage, loathed those of Godard, and was baffled by the very concept of non-narrative cinema. His rejection of Soviet modernism was not exhaustive — he excepted Dovzhenko, no doubt because of his poetic pantheism, but reviled Eisenstein and Shostakovich. (One notes that his "spiritual heir," Alexander Sokurov, admires the former and made a feature film about the latter.)

Variously cast since his death as shaman, martyr, prophet, saint, and visionary, Tarkovsky has been immured by reverence. His parade of lean, ascetic, even hieratic alter egos, many of them on spiritual quests to redeem the world, suggests a streak of the messianic, and one hears a theosophic thrum in some of his pronouncements:

"I am drawn to the man who is ready to serve a higher cause, unwilling — or even unable — to subscribe to the generally accepted tenets of a worldly 'morality'; the man who recognizes that the meaning of existence lies above all in the fight against the evil within ourselves, so that in the course of a lifetime he may take at least one step towards spiritual perfection."

General veneration has stoppered criticism of his ideology, as though to parse were to asperse. While some have argued that his long take finally became an affectation (in Nostalghia), and that his parable-like use of symbolism was increasingly repetitive and simplistic (e.g., the Tree of Life in The Sacrifice), it is the rare analysis that broaches Tarkovsky's reactionary values without apology, discomfort, or diffidence. Certainly his anti-materialist, anti-technological vision has gained greater currency as the world succumbs to the depredations of the triumphant market economy; he would deplore the new Russia, rampant with corruption, crime, pollution, AIDS, and inequity. For this he could feel no nostalghia.

Tarkovsky's legacy is immense. Like Bresson, whose singular style has often been mimicked by lesser directors with often parodic effect, Tarkovsky cannot be held accountable for the battalions of imitators who have scavenged from his hermetic world a few key elements — water, loping dogs, industrial ruin — and turned them into freeze-dried emblems of desolation. The list of directors who have copied his visual approach — long, often tracking and telephoto takes, adagio pacing, use of desaturated or muted colour, and alternation between colour and black and white — is lengthy. What no one can reproduce is his soulful poetry, its flow of enigmatic imagery and sense of quest and struggle, so mysterious, strange and powerful that the secular cynic is silenced by nothing less than sheer, unaccountable beauty. end block

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