Saturday, July 7, 2018

Short Essays on Film: On Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, Nostalgia

This is film as the art of contemplation. Tarkovsky, here as elsewhere, employs long, lingering shots that ultimately suggest that the story isn’t created there on the screen but in the viewer’s imagination. For most modern viewers seeking fast-paced entertainment, Tarkovsky’s approach could be maddening, eliciting a painful feeling of boredom. But for a viewer who can settle in and is willing to spend the time required, without recourse to speed and flash, a Tarkovsky film can be thoroughly enlightening and entertaining. Nostalgia is just such a film. When it first came out, the New York Times reviewer, Vincent Canby, said that this is a film in which “nothing happens”. It’s true – nothing happens, and it’s marvellous.

Though the plot is fairly straightforward, the approach is not. Russian poet, Andrei Gorchakov, is in Italy to research the life of an 18th century Russian composer who had lived in Tuscany. Andrei employs a beautiful Italian translator, Eugenia, who falls in love with him and ends up leaving because the poet rebuffs her advances. Before this, they travel to an Italian village to view frescoes by Piero della Francesca in a Tuscan convent where the Madonna of Childhood is visited by young women hopeful for a child. In the village, Andrei meets Domenico, a rather mad prophet, who asks the poet to fulfill the task of carrying a lit candle across a mineral pool to save the world. Throughout, time is used by Tarkovsky as a tool of free association – scenes don’t necessarily follow in a linear order.

Every frame in the film is a painting by Caravaggio or Rembrandt or Titian. If Caravaggio were a filmmaker, this is the film he would shoot. In one of those long takes that Tarkovsky loves, we see two bottles standing in the rain, slowly filling with rainwater as the two main characters walk about, talking. As in many of his films, the rain is falling indoors, in an old rundown house in the Italian countryside where Domenico lives. Although Tarkovsky would likely deny it (‘rain is rain,’ he said), for me this recurring image of indoor rain suggests the fecundity of imagination, the richness of inner worlds and dreamscapes.

A film by Tarkovsky is much like a long poem, with its recurring images that resonate with each other in a kind of visual rhyming. (I’m reminded of the Odyssey’s repeated refrains about the ‘wine-dark seas’ and ‘rosy-fingered dawns’.) In Nostalgia, these images include mirrors (that often reflect the two main characters), circles, rain (as already mentioned), a dog, a child, mist, a ruin of a church open to the sky, lit candles. Even background sounds have their repetition: rain again, dripping water, clocks, ringing phones, voices, bells, and so on.

In some sense, everything is inverted in this world: rain falls indoors, churches are open to the sky, out of nowhere a large dog suddenly appears in a hotel room.
The echo or resonance of several of these images and visual rhymes is subtle and intriguing. A round mirror in the hotel bathroom is later echoed by a bicycle wheel which is echoed by a high empty window in the church ruin which is echoed by the rising sun. All these circles are roughly the same size on screen.

Many of the scenes in this film are stunning. In a chapel, a young woman kneels before the Madonna of Childbirth as she intones a prayer that reveals her longing for a child. At the end of the prayer, she pulls open the lower portion of the Madonna’s robes, suddenly releasing dozens of small birds on the air.

Tarkovsky is a master of scenes that incorporate his favourite images. In another scene, the police have rescued a family in the village after seven years of entrapment in their house by their father and husband, the mad Domenico, who fears the craziness and absurdity of the world. Once outside, the mother falls to her knees and kisses the earth. Right next to her, a full bottle of milk is chugging out its contents onto the ground. Milk appears as a significant image in every Tarkovsky film.

In another scene, Andrei takes an afternoon nap in his hotel room. We see him fully clothed, asleep on the bed. On one side of the room, the shutters have been opened wide and a heavy rain falls into thick foliage outside. On the other side, we see into a bathroom with the round mirror on the wall and a bentwood chair with a circle at its back. Suddenly, inexplicably, a large dog hurries out of the bathroom and settles on the floor next to the bed. There has been no indication that a dog was lurking in the bathroom. Is this the arrival of a dream? Perhaps.

In another, later scene, mad Domenico has gone to Rome. We see him giving a speech about mankind’s need to return to a simpler, less selfish way of life. The thin crowd appears to include escapees from an asylum. As he speaks, he stands on the hindquarters of the horse of Marcus Aurelius, a famous statue on the Piazza Campidoglio in the heart of Rome. At the end of his speech, he douses himself in gasoline and self-immolates, falling to the ground to the sound of a barking dog. Domenico, in flames, rolls to the feet of a person holding a sign which reads ‘Tomorrow is the End of the World’. The end of the world is, of course, another favourite Tarkovsky theme.

In the final scene of the film, we see the Russian poet and the dog sitting on the ground, a pool of water before them. Three thick, candle-shaped reflections can be seen in the pool. As the camera pulls back, we realize they are sitting inside the roofless church open to the sky. The reflections in the pool are from three empty windows high up in the church. We notice that everything is inside the church: the poet, the dog, the pool of water, a country house, the countryside. This being Tarkovsky with his interest in the spiritual life, the message here seems clear to me – not just the church and its contents are sacred but the entire world is sacred. Nothing is excluded.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Morphing of Fellini

In the final scenes of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), the journalist, Marcello Rubini, (played by Marcello Mastroianni) has gone with a crowd of revellers to the beach near Rome to greet the dawn. His face shows the ravages of the all-night saturnalia he has attended, which clearly depicted the decadent lifestyle led by him and his companions. As they walk along the seaside in first light, Marcello glimpses across an estuary a young girl with her family, a girl he had met earlier in another context. The beautiful girl is the absolute image of innocence and purity. He calls to her across the intervening water. She recognizes him. She puts her hand up to her ear. She can’t hear because of the roaring of wind and the waves pounding the shore. She calls to him. He can’t hear her either. Eventually, faced with the impossibility of communicating with this figure of innocence, he shrugs his shoulders, gives up and rejoins his dissolute friends.

In the final scene of Fellini’s later major film, Fellini Satyricon (1969), Encolpio, the main character who has been exploring the degraded and dissolute world that was imperial Rome, is heading to the seashore with a young black friend. They hope to catch a sailing ship, whose masts and rigging can be glimpsed projecting above the sand dunes, and thence travel away to new worlds hopefully untouched by the decadence, depravity, and corruption of Rome. They long to begin life anew. As they walk, they pass a number of older patrician men sitting in rows on the benches of a small outdoor amphitheatre. All these men are staring straight ahead at the camera and chewing, chewing, chewing. The looks on their faces appear blank and debauched. They are consuming the corpse of their colleague who has died. He was a powerful landowner who willed that his associates could only inherit his holdings if they actually consumed his flesh after death. So, in their hunger for wealth, they are willing to debase themselves entirely. Meanwhile, we see the pair of young friends walking past, the lithe black man dancing and gambolling about, and shouting, ‘Vita! Vita! Vita!’.

The difference in these two endings seems to signal a significant change in Fellini’s view of the world. In both films, he explores decadence: first in modern Rome and then in ancient Rome. Both films end at the seashore. However, La Dolce Vita (the irony of the title is noteworthy) appears to conclude with a clearly negative, perhaps even nihilistic, image – his character’s inability to communicate with the world of innocence and life. The journalist shrugs his shoulders and gives up, his voice swallowed in the turbulence of wind and wave. He is lost in the tumult of life. On the other hand, in Fellini Satyricon, although he has again explored debauchery and decadence to the full, even noting the cannibalism of the patricians, Fellini ends with a life-affirming shout to the heavens.

In the final shot of Fellini Satyricon, one of the most beautiful conclusions in film, the little sailing vessel and the two young characters morph into still images of an ancient fresco on a wall. The message is clear yet subtle: these two vital young men escaped, sailing away into a world more innocent and humane, full of promise and possibility. A world full of life.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Memorable Scenes from Ivan’s Childhood by Andrei Tarkovsky

• The opening shot: a beautiful blond-haired boy, Ivan, stands by a tree, looking at the viewer through the greenery. The camera slowly pans up the tree to the very top and gives us a view of the boy walking away.

• Later, a view into a small stove, its fire raging; in the background, the sound of trickling water.

• Two beautiful children, Ivan and a young girl, sit on a truck loaded with apples. It’s raining and the camera closes in on their rain-soaked faces. The apples are slick with rain, as he chooses one and hands it to her. Later, some of the apples will spill across a beach where several horses come to eat them. (Rain is another visual trope in Tarkovsky’s films, the rain that is life-giving and fecund and the rain that washes away and erases memory and the past.)

• A warplane projects at an angle out of the earth where it crashed.

• A close-up of a man’s hand carefully placing two eggs, some chunks of dark bread, a piece of cheese on a cloth.

• A beautiful young woman, a nurse, with dark hair and ivory skin stands in a forest thick with straight white birches.

• The sky reflected in a swamp; distant flares falling from the heavens at night.

• A strange metallic cross, with several circles at its centre, stands crookedly against the sky.

• This film seems to represent and commemorate the murdered childhoods of millions of children during World War II, including the lost childhood of Tarkovsky himself.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Short Essays on Film: Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice

On the Spiritual in Film: Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice

Andrei Tarkovsky was arguably the most spiritual of filmmakers and The Sacrifice is, without a doubt, his most spiritual film.

A number of Tarkovsky quotes attest to the importance of the spiritual in his work (all quotes from Sculpting in Time):

“With man’s help, the Creator comes to know himself.”

“Art must transcend as well as observe; its role is to bring spiritual vision to bear on reality...”

“It is obvious to everyone that man’s material aggrandisement has not been synchronous with spiritual progress.”

“Artistic creation demands of the artist that he ‘perish utterly’.”

“Self-expression ultimately an act of sacrifice.”

“The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”

“In the end everything can be reduced to one simple element which is all a person can count upon in his existence: the capacity to love.”

“ the final analysis, the artistic image is always a miracle.”

And finally, this startling quote that sounds as distinct and puzzling as a Zen koan: “Not knowing is noble, knowing is vulgar.”

Despite his lifelong interest in icons and the Russian Orthodox Church, I suspect, by the tenor of the quotes above and from his films themselves, that Tarkovsky’s interest in the spiritual had little to do with religion. Especially in The Sacrifice, he appears to be addressing or conjuring a spirituality that was alive in human beings long before Christianity, or Islam or Judaism or the Greek and Roman gods, or Buddhism or Hinduism or even animist religions. His idea of the spiritual was something inherent in the individual human being, a longing to go beyond the self, a longing for sacrifice. Perhaps this vision was first celebrated in the caves of Lascaux and Altamira and other Paleolithic sites, in which it was clear that the life of the spirit was not separate from art or from the material world as it exists before our eyes. Of course, this spirit can manifest under the banner of any religion but any particular religion is not its ultimate source for its ultimate source can only be the human heart.

In The Sacrifice, the paterfamilias, Alexander, discovers that he can only save the world, and his child and his family, from nuclear annihilation by sacrificing himself. This sacrifice turns out to be more psychological than physical. He needs to break down completely his idea of who he is; he needs to ‘perish utterly’ in Tarkovsky’s words. The vehicle that delivers this breakdown is a ‘white’ witch, a woman who works in his house. He must have sexual relations with her in order to alter fate. But this act destroys all his masks. In the end, he watches as his house, consumed in flames, comes crashing down.

While Tarkovsky claimed he did not employ symbols in his films (when asked about symbols, he stated that “rain is rain...the Zone is a zone”), the burning house clearly represents the end of Alexander’s world: his relationship with his family, his former life, all that he holds dear, his personality, all that he stands for, even his own mind. In the end, he is driven off in an ambulance, presumably to an asylum. For, in our times, it is considered pure madness to sacrifice oneself for the benefit of the world.

Tarkovsky wrote, expressing the ultimate dignity portrayed in The Sacrifice: “ yourself so much that you respect in yourself the supra-personal, divine principal, which forbids you to pursue your acquisitive, selfish interests and tells you to give yourself, without reasoning or talking about it; to love others. This requires a true sense of your own dignity: an acceptance of the objective value and significance of the ‘I’ at the centre of your life on earth, as it grows in spiritual stature, advancing towards the perfection in which there can be no egocentricity.”

Friday, August 25, 2017

Short Essays on Film: ‘The Bell’ Chapter of Andrei Rublev

In the eighth and final chapter of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, ‘The Bell (1423-1424)’, we are introduced to the character Boriska, the son of a master bell maker who has recently died of the plague. When the Prince’s men come to the village looking for the bell maker, young Boriska convinces them that his father gave him the secret of bell making on his deathbed, though this is a lie.

Boriska is allowed to begin work on the project and puts all his youthful energy into it, working himself into a frenzy that saps his strength. Everything depends on the bell. The Prince, who has provided silver and copper for the bell, has made it clear that if Boriska fails and the bell cannot ring, then the young bell maker faces beheading. The bell is Boriska’s great creative project, he bets everything on his ability to remember how his father made bells. At the same time, he must trust his own creative ability. The bell is also Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky’s film itself. In the end, Boriska succeeds, the bell rings out over the countryside, Tarkovsky’s film is complete. Andrei Rublev, the icon painter, finds the young man almost comatose in a field; he holds him in a scene reminiscent of the Pieta, Boriska weeps, he is spent, utterly emptied from his great effort and the pressure and stress of completing the bell. Like a film, making the bell involved a multitude of hands and helpers, as well as resolute, continuing effort and a trust in the creative. But Boriska is too wasted to celebrate, he can only weep in the utter fatigue of his fulfillment.

The chapter ends with a long steady shot of burnt lumber, a tangle of blackened wood. Boriska, and Tarkovsky, have burnt themselves to the core in order to accomplish their task, their great work.

The Epilogue that follows depicts a series of extreme close-ups of Andrei Rublev’s icon paintings, some resembling worn frescoes and others still vibrant with colour. The final icon reveals the face of Christ the Redeemer. As the camera slowly pans the image of Christ’s face, the sound of distant thunder can be heard, accompanied by the refreshing, cleansing, fertile sound of a rainstorm. The icon fades into the image of four horses standing by a river in the rain. We see the rain falling heavily, several of the horses swishing their tails. All is completed and fulfilled. All will be renewed.

Certain works of art are best understood and appreciated when one comes to them in one’s mature years, after a lifetime of experience. Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, I believe, is one such work.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Notes on Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev

• Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, Andrei Rublev (1968), set in medieval Russia of the 1400s, tells the story of a famous icon painter while subtly addressing the role of the artist in society. The prologue of the film depicts a man being chased by a mob in half a dozen boats. He lands his own boat, runs up a hill, climbs the tower of a church and, bizarrely, harnesses himself into a rudimentary hot air balloon that looks as if it has been assembled out of large leather bladders. He then takes off, hanging under the balloon, and escapes. He is thrilled and excited to be flying above the landscape but soon comes crashing down to his death. This Icarus figure (the fact that he uses a balloon and not wings is absurdly humorous) has no narrative connection to the rest of the film but sets the theme – the artist might take flight and escape the mundane world at times but, in the end, he and his works will always be brought down to earth. But, as Tarkovsky mentions elsewhere, “art would be useless if the world were perfect,” adding that for the artist to venture forth is more important than ultimate success or failure. As Canadian poet Don McKay writes in his poem, ‘Icarus’: “Icarus isn’t sorry.” Icarus fails in the end but the artist must attempt to fly.

• Scenes in The Bell section of the film, in which a multitude of characters are constructing a huge bell for a church, are reminiscent of certain paintings by the Breugels, Elder and Younger – distant views of landscapes crawling with workers, priests, animals and nobility on splendid horses.

• An earlier chapter of the film shows a small group of people (seven or eight) in the medium distance in an empty church. They are depicted at various distances from the viewer, all facing the camera. The tableaux and choreography here echo certain scenes in Fellini’s films, particularly the final scene of Satyricon, in which the patricians sit facing the camera, chewing away on the corpse of their wealthy friend.

• A film with a fragmented narrative, such as Andrei Rublev, suggests, perhaps even demands, a fragmented essay.

• The film is also a homage to horses. Horses gallop everywhere through it, much like the automobile would be ubiquitous in a fifties film about New York City. The Tatars, shown invading Russia at that time, ride extremely lively horses throughout, some kicking out their back legs in exuberance as they gallop about the town they have attacked. Near the beginning, Tarkovsky shows a horse rolling about on its back in seeming delight; another scene (in The Raid section) depicts a horse trying to negotiate its way down a flight of outdoor steps and falling over the side railing, landing upside down. The horse is immediately speared in the breast by a Tatar soldier.

• The film is filled with striking images, some of them horrific, some humorous: a cow rushes madly about a peasant woman’s house, its back in flames; a jester flips upside down, pulls down his pants and reveals a face painted on his bare ass; an artisan has his eyes gouged out; another man is tortured by Tatars by having hot metal from a melted down crucifix poured in his mouth. Later, cool relief is provided by the camera dwelling on an extended close-up of the wind tossing leaves on a tree.

• Rain, like milk, is another image repeated in many Tarkovsky films. The short final scene of Andrei Rublev – a frieze of four horses on an island in the medium distance standing in the rain – is one of the most beautiful in film. The horses are calm, flicking their tails or nodding their heads. Thus, this film, about art and artists, ends on a note of transcendent beauty.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Tarkovsky and Milk

Tarkovsky and Milk

In Tarkovsky’s film, Stalker, there is a domestic scene that takes place in the dwelling of the main character and his wife. The couple have been arguing about his plans to leave their domestic situation and their child to go off to explore the mysterious ‘Zone’. On the kitchen table stands a full glass of milk that somehow is knocked over during their argument. Tarkovsky spends a lot of film time watching the flood of white as it expands, covering the table and dripping to the floor. The spilling of milk here, I believe represents a break in the warmth and bond of their familial relationship.

Scenes of spilt or splattered milk also appear in the films Andre Roublev, Mirror and Nostalghia, as well as in Tarkovsky’s later, and last, film, The Sacrifice.

In The Sacrifice, a well-off extended family has come to their country house on an island in Scandinavia to celebrate the sixty-fifth birthday of the family’s paterfamilias. While the family and the maids are momentarily absent from the scene, the camera explores the spacious dining room of the house in silence. Against the wall stands a tall sideboard with shelves. Near its top shelf rests a capacious glass milk jug. As the camera scans this domestic scene, unexpectedly the silence is fractured by what sounds like a pair of jets flying low over the island. As the jets approach, the entire house begins to shake, the tall sideboard with it. As they are heard passing overhead, in a scene that is one of the great images of twentieth century filmmaking, the jug teeters and falls to the floor where it shatters, the explosion of milk covering the wooden floor.

Soon after, the family hears on a radio broadcast that something extremely disturbing and cataclysmic is about to happen in the outside world: all-out war and possibly nuclear holocaust. Looking back, the viewer can see that the scene ending in that white milky blank is suggestive of the finality of a nuclear explosion.

How fascinating that Tarkovsky uses milk for this scene, milk being a symbol of nurturing and fertility, domesticity and life. This is a perfect contrast to the idea of nuclear annihilation which is diametrically opposed to that sense of tender vitality.