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.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Short Essays on Film: Arrival

Short Essays on Film

The Question and the Message in the film ‘Arrival’

In the film ‘Arrival’, the Quebec director, Denis Villeneuve, poses an intriguing question. The aliens have arrived on earth but ‘Arrival’ is much more than a sci-fi thriller or a science and tech orgy, like so many recent films on the same or similar subject.

The question that Villeneuve has the character played by Amy Adams, a linguistics professor, pose is this: If you saw what would happen in your entire life, past and future, would you change anything? In the context of the film, Adams sees a future in which her baby daughter will grow up and, as a young woman, die of a ‘rare disease’ (which might be some form of cancer). Of course, she doesn’t choose that her child not be born at all. Clearly, she realizes that the joys of life include the other side which we define as pain and suffering.

But it’s an absurd, impossible question. We can’t change anything about our lives. We certainly cannot go back into the past and alter events that have already happened. And, as for the future, we might think we have the free will to choose what direction things might take but we are fated to make those choices that free will allows. In other words, fate and free will are the same. This is not quite the same as saying that free will is an illusion, for we are free to make choices but how we act on that freedom is fated. (Some might call this karma, but that’s another subject.) To realize that they are the same is to answer the question, No, I wouldn’t change anything in my life, past or future. I can’t change anything and I choose not to change anything. The image that arises for me is that, at the moment of death, we enter the mirror and realize that that moment is the perfect moment to die, that is the moment that, somehow, we choose.

All of which brings us to the question of Time. In the film, Adams is attempting to communicate with the aliens but nothing clicks until she realizes their language isn’t linear and temporal like ours. We go from one word to the next and the end of this sentence is in the future until it arrives. And then it’s in the past. And that relationship with language affects and determines how we think about Time. However, the aliens have a different view of language, and a different relationship with Time. Their language, like their sense of Time, is circular and holistic, not linear.

Past and future exist in the present. Let’s examine that. The present is nothing more than the process of the future becoming the past. The past no longer exists, the future does not yet exist. But, the truly shocking thing is there is no fixed moment called the present, there is only this process of future becoming past. Nothing to fixate on, nothing to hold onto. And yet, this process is always happening, future in every moment is becoming past. That shooting star never stops, never burns out. Because it isn’t fixed in a distinct, isolate moment, the present is eternal.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Bad Wines (1)

Most wine reviews talk about the good wines, the ones people enjoyed, or they simply rate them on a scale of numbers or stars. I'd like to occasionally warn people off from certain wines, either because they are plain bad or don't live up to the price charged.

Here's two wines that I think you should avoid:

1) Red Hill Estate, 2014 Pinot Noir, from Australia: at 23.95, this wine is a total rip-off. No smoothness, rough, very disappointing.

2) Chateau Fonreaud Listrac, 2010, from France; it's hard to believe they charge 44.75 for this wine as it's nothing special, dull, flat; for a seven-year old wine, it had little character and no flavours left; again, very disappointing especially at that price.

Be forewarned!

One recent wine that I enjoyed (and at a good price) was a Cabernet Sauvignon from Lander Jenkins (Round Hill) (2014); smooth and with a touch of oakiness but not too much. A good deal at 19.95.