John Pearson gets to an understanding of the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky through the filmmaker’s seminal 1986 book about art and film, Sculpting In Time.
“Some sort of pressure must exist; the artist exists because the world is not perfect. Art would be useless if the world were perfect, as man wouldn’t look for harmony but would simply live in it. Art is born out of an ill-designed world.”
The cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky, like that of various classic “auteur” film directors, is the type that does not necessarily filter through into the world of mainstream commercial success. Nor is it the type of thrill-based, expectational cinema that one excepts from an audience that needs to constantly be “wooed”.
If you are a first time viewer of Tarkovsky’s science fiction films Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979), and running on the excitement that would define a generic viewer of the Star Wars or Aliens franchise, then there is always the chance you may feel disappointed or misled by the drawn out, immersive aura of Tarkovsky’s cinema.
As a response to the Soviet State Committee of Cinematographer telling him that the film was too slow and dull, the director amusingly responded that “the film needs to be slower and duller”. In spite of how idealistic and lofty his aspirations were, we are still speaking of a director who had the following to say about James Cameron’s The Terminator;
“The brutality and low acting skills are unfortunate, but as a vision of the future and the relation between man and his destiny, the film is pushing the frontier of cinema as an art.”
Though he held a lofty and idealistic view of what he believed made his cinema, and that of those he admired (Bergman, Ozu, Bresson, Bunuel), it was clear that he could still grasp the depths of cinema that was more geared primarily towards entertainment that art. Yet for his own craft, he called it “sculpting in time”.
Whether this concerned the bleak, science-fiction otherworlds of Solaris and Stalker, the icons and epiphanies of Andrei Rublev and Nostalghia, or the non-linear, “autobiographical” Zerkalo (1975), Tarkovsky’s films are meticulously crafted pieces of work that demand a total yet singular attention to be appreciated fully.
If you’re born, raised and inculcated into a culture that encourages the “expectational” mindset that I have referred to, one of increasing technological immersion and addiction, and overt emphasis on extroversion, then Tarkovsky’s “advice” for the young certainly gives a good insight into his own inner world and thoughts. It also suggests how you also might best approach his films, as a solitary, ambient ritual;
“I don’t know… I think I’d like to say only that they should learn to be alone and try to spend as much time as possible by themselves. I think one of the faults of young people today is that they try to come together around events that are noisy, almost aggressive at times. This desire to be together in order to not feel alone is an unfortunate symptom, in my opinion. Every person needs to learn from childhood how to spend time with oneself. That doesn’t mean he should be lonely, but that he shouldn’t grow bored with himself because people who grow bored in their own company seem to me in danger, from a self-esteem point of view.”
This type of value is one that is largely lost on many within contemporary Western society, where introspection, contemplation a sense of looking inwardly is looked down on within a heavily mechanized zeitgeist. Tarkovsky said this at a time before digital technology had truly penetrated cinema, and the internet and social media were yet to even be commodified.
The statement that the Russian director made about Terminator was essentially a foreknowledge of these intense new developments that are now taken for granted. In an environment where restrictions bought about by the medical crisis of COVID-19 force people out of work and into greater social isolation, it is these very sentiments that Tarkovsky critiques which have been put to the test.
People who will be forced out of work, or out of the “grind” of their daily routine will be left with more free time, and with a greater vacuum in their usual bustle of production and consumption, be forced to comprehend what life truly means to them. For many this may leave a void, a profoundly spiritually empty void.
On first viewing the movies of Tarkovsky some years ago, I felt that the best of my attention was spent primarily on the aesthetics of his films, particularly the mood and ambiance that was conveyed by his classic “long take” motifs. The use of classical music and ambient electronic scores by long-term collaborator Eduard Artemiev also empowered this initial attraction to his work.
Though I had found myself neglecting other and more fine details, this was more greatly refined by reading his seminal book on directing, “Sculpting In Time”. Whilst the lush, dreamy cinematography, choices of shots, choices of music and sound design most certainly give an “essence” to his filmography, these aspects don’t necessarily make them personable. Which brings us to how and for what purposes actors are used in his films, and how they might serve to further fulfill a sense of the “divination” in his work.
This is made quite explicit in his use of acting leads, particularly Anatoly Solonitsyn, who plays leading roles in Andrei Rublev, Solaris, Stalker, and a smaller part in the director’s “biographical” Zerkalo. Were it not for his untimely death, Solonitsyn was also written in mind for the lead roles in Tarkovsky’s final two works, Nostalghia (1983) and The Sacrifice (1986). The placement of Solonitsyn by the director in his movies is a crystallization of the authors ideas, or the placement of his abstract ideas into a material, living form, whether the actor plays a medieval icon painter or a scientist.
For those new to Tarkovsky’s work, or vague on what his cinematic world is meant to highlight, then a more specific way to understand this relation is to use films you already know as a point of reference. For the writer of this article, David Lynch’s Dune (1984), Blue Velvet (1986), and the entire Twin Peaks franchise appear to use Kyle McLachlan as a more “youthful” embodiment of how the director wishes to see himself in his own cinematic universe.
It may be convenient to say that Tarkovsky worked with Solonitsyn similarly, though rather as a representation of an idea, rather than the projection of the artist as they wish to represent themselves on a screen. The director-actor partnership is nothing new to cinema, and to Tarkovsky and the seasoned viewer of his movies, then some of the partnerships of his favourite directors may act as more solid references.
The stoic, Nordic heroism that Max Von Sydow portrayed in movies such as The Seventh Seal (1957) or The Virgin Spring (1960) may seem the most conspicuous if we see this merely from the perspective of the Tarkovsky-Solonitsyn partnership. The use of actresses such as Setsuko Hara by Yazujiro Ozu, or actresses such Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman in the films of Ingmar Bergman also indicate how the female role in the cinema may be expressed.
In doing this, delicacies, sensualities and various psychological underpinnings associated with their manifestation can be expressed. This can all be tied back to how Tarkovsky works with female leads in his work. This can be said for Natalya Bondarchuk as Hari in Solaris and Margarita Terekhova as Maria, playing the “mother” role in Zerkalo (1975), where these characteristics are embodied and then played out.
Concluding, for those unfamiliar with Tarkovsky’s work but with a deep interest and passion for cinema, purchasing a copy and reading the directors excellent book Sculpting In Time would be highly advised. It is here in which the artist states his intent for film as a means of composition and form, as well as the nature of his films and the objectives of how he wishes to create a new form of poetic language through the cinematic medium.
For those familiar who are still yearning to make sense of the dreamy, abstract narratives of his work, then it is this book that will ultimately help you make more rigid, structural sense of them. In addition to some wonderful personal insights and thoughts of his, as well as some beautiful illustration and the inclusion of the poems of his father Arseny, it can be used as an essential “footnotes” section to the vast wealth of his essential cinematic legacy.