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Sunday, 13 March 2011

Andrei Tarkovsky 1932 - 1986

Hi friends, sorry for the recent inactivity but I've been rather busy in between socialising and playing Fallout as well as being rather lazy. But I'm back, so expect to see quite a few posts going up in the next couple of weeks.

I've decided that when I have seen all of the films of a certain director, or at least all the films available to me, I will write a post reviewing all their work and their styles and legacies as directors.
Andrei Tarkovsky is the first one to feature as he directed few films and I have seen them all. I will attempt to write about lesser know, overlooked, non English language directors instead of all the widely recognised greats such as Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, although that doesn't mean I won't write about them someday...

Full Name: Andrei Arsenyevich Tarkovsky  Born: April 4 1932  Died: 1986  Lived: 54 years
Nationality: USSR, but spent time (and made films) in Italy and Sweden after his exile.
Years Active: 1962 - 1986 (24 years)
Number of Feature Films Directed: 7

I'm sure all of you films buffs will have heard of Andrei Tarkovsky. I would say (and I'm sure I'm not the only one) that his works are an important part of any Cinematic education and simply cannot be missed.
You might not "enjoy" his films, but if you love Cinema you cannot fail to be amazed at the artistic accomplishments that they are.

Tarkovsky was born in 1932 and went to the famed Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (Moscow) in 1954, thus he luckily arrived just as Krushchev was trying to defuse the Cold War and was allowing more aspects of Western Culture to reach the inhabitants of the Soviet Union. So he was able to see the influential work of the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism.
He made some short films and was subsequently signed on as a director to the film Ivan Childhood and his career just kept getting better from then on.
That is until he is exile in 1982, he had had continuous problems with the Soviet authorities throughout his whole career concerning the content of his films. Thus he was actually held in a rather low regard by his fellow Russian directors who were highly critical of his work, especially of the spiritual and metaphysical themes. So while shooting Nostalghia in Italy he decided never to return to the Soviet Union even if that meant completing the film without MosFilm's funds and living the rest of his life in exile. Thus the Soviets lost their most talented director through no ones fault but their own.
Tarkovsky finished the highly autobiographical Nostalghia with Italian funds and then turned to Sweden, the land of one of his favourite directors Ingmar Bergman. He undertook the voyage and commenced filming only to learn he had terminal lung cancer, contracted during the shooting of Stalker near a radioactive zone. This didn't prevent him from finishing his final film but it did prevent him from making anymore, for he died in Paris on December 29, 1986 at the age of 54.

My personal experience with Tarkovsky's work is one of slow enlightenment, for at first I was unimpressed with his work when I watched Solaris (1972) so I did not feel the urge to see more of his films immediately but  then after some time I watched Stalker (1979) and loved it, then  I slowly discovered Ivan's Childhood (1962), Andrei Rublev (1966), The Mirror (1975), Nostalghia (1983) and The Sacrifice (1986).
These 7 films are his entire body of work as a director, if one excludes short films he made in film school. All of then were made in the Soviet Union apart from Nostalghia which was made in Italy and The Sacrifice which was made in Sweden.
Here I will give my thoughts on all of this films:

Ivan's Childhood; Ivanovo Detstvo - 1962
I mentioned this film in my list of Best Film Debuts earlier because it really is a stunning film even if one doesn't take into consideration that it's his first feature length film.
But it isn't one of his best, it didn't feel as infused with Tarkovsky presence as all his later films did, mainly because he wasn't allowed full creative control over this one and because it was based on a book, whereas his later films were entirely of his doing.
It's a touching film with a terrific performance from the leading child actor, but it did feel unfocused and I felt there were quite a few missed opportunities.

Andrei Rublev - 1966
Andrei Rublev is often cited as one of the greatest films of all time, and for good reason, watching this is an awe-inspiring experience. After watching this I was speechless for a while will thinking about what I had just seen, but as always in Tarkovsky's films the greatness always seems vague and while present in every single shot it is hard to figure out exactly what makes this film so remarkable. But it is remarkable, it tells the various tales of a iconographer (Andrei Rublev) and his loss of faith, a Tartar raid on a town, a young boy's bell-making and more. These various chapters are all loosely drawn together by the presence, however slight, of Andrei Rublev. Together they offer the most intriguing look at Russia at that time that I have ever seen put to film.
Don't let the length or the abstractness put you off, it's a film all film buffs must see at least once.

Andrei Rublev is a film about art and artists. It shows that art is best when created in tough circumstances, the adversity brings out the best in the artist, this is something Tarkovsky would have been familiar with as his films were never easy to make.

Solaris; Solyaris - 1972
This was the first Tarkovsky I watched and I have to admit that I was expecting some kind of Russian 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I was disappointed and often bored as this was my firs taste of Tarkovsky unique film making style, and it's definitely a strange style that took me a while to warm to.
Now I hold Tarkovsky in higher esteem than I did when I first watched this film but I still think this is one of his weakest.
The idea at the centre of the film was extremely intriguing but the film diverted far to often.
Of course it is very well made of it's time and is filled with impressive and enchanting scenes but I just thought the final result was less mesmerising than some of Tarkovsky's other films.
Indeed, although this just might be his most famous film outside Russia and has even spawned a terrible looking remake, Tarkovsky claimed it was his least favourite of his films.

The Mirror; Zerkalo - 1975

The Mirror is one of my favourites of Tarkovsky's films, I would rank it up there with Stalker and The Sacrifice. All 10/10's.
But it is one of his least known films, of course all film buffs have heard of Solaris and Andrei Rublev and maybe the others but I've noticed that this film is largely forgotten.
It is extremely autobiographical, dealing with the directors childhood memories and featuring some of his father poems. It follows no clear narrative, instead wandering wildly in between scenes, most of which are memories and dreams. If you try to comprehend everything you will become frustrated and end up disliking the film, but if you just go with the film and experience it instead of analysing it, it will not fail to impress.
It is naturally very well shot, each camera movement is flawless, but this film unlike most of Tarkovsky's features a really standout and remarkable performance, that of Margarita Terekhova in a dual role.

Stalker - 1979

Read My Review Here!
This is the film that first awoke me to Tarkovsky's amazing quality as a director. It is widely believed to be one of his finest films and rightfully so for it is a fascinating watch filled with countless intriguing thoughts.
A rather long film that can be tedious at times yet still manages to keep one involved throughout. I wouldn't really call it a Science Fiction film even if it might have elements of that genre, I think it could better be called a film about Human Nature, but then again all Tarkovsky's films are about that.

This film is definitely a hard one to get ones head around, but it's definitely worth watching and of course beautiful to look at.

Nostalghia - 1983
I thought this film was one of Tarkovsky's weaker ones, this film was slow even by his standards. I got bored many times watching this and didn't understand much but after watching it I felt glad I had finished it, it was a test of patience but it was worth it in the end.
This in one of his most personal films, along with the Mirror. Thus it is easier to have a bit of information before viewing the film otherwise one will understand even less.
The acting is good, with a couple of his regulars appearing.
A couple of scenes did stand out in particular, one because it was suddenly full of energy and lively music amongst all the slowness (a scene in which a man sets himself on fire) and one because it just might be one of the longest takes I've seen and one of the most impressive. But I won't spoil that for you as it is quite an experience to watch, in both a good way and a bad way.

The Sacrifice; Offret - 1986
Tarkovsky's final film just might be his finest in my opinion, this isn't an opinion I share with many other critics and such because The Sacrifice is generally considered one of his weaker films yet I absolutely adored it.

There was something about this one that captured my attention far more than any of his previous films, I felt this was his masterpiece, his most fully formed film and greatest accomplishment. 
The characters were engaging, the dialogue even more thought provoking than usual and the setting absolutely stunning, the story also stayed rather simple so I had no problem following the broad outline of events, of course some individual sequences were lost on me though and I would very much like to watch this film again to gain a firmer understanding of it.

The final shot, which is long take lasting several minutes, is one of the most incredible feats of Cinema I have ever witnessed.
When this film as over, I was saddened as I cam to the realisation that this was the last film made by this great director, who died relatively young and who could have accomplished even more extraordinary feast behind the camera.

Despite being frowned upon by critics in the Soviet Union, Tarkovsky's work has always been able to find an audience in the rest of Europe. Tarkovsky himself could be said to be a rather European director, as he directed two films in two different European countries and never made any Soviet propaganda of any sort. He was certainly detached from his colleagues and yet was a true Russian in his heart, this much is evident when watching Nostalghia, another very autobiographical film of his in which the main character yearns to see his Motherland again after years of exile in Italy.
I've been a fan of Russian literature for years now and I have to say that something about these films reminds me of Russian Classics such as The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishement and Anna Karina.
Something about the prose like quality of the dialogue, the metaphysical musings that, if we are to believe Russian authors and film makers, are part of everyday dialogue in Russia. The way Tarkovsky manages to pack so many interesting thoughts and lines of dialogue that don't make up a particularly coherent conversation but are very thought provoking. The questions of morality, spirituality and humanity. All these things combined just makes me thing of classic Russian literature and Russia in general.

Tarkovsky's films are certainly very slow, their pacing is some of the most "relaxed" I've ever seen.
Even Tarkovsky himself has called some of his work "tedious", and for a director to openly point out the flaws of his own films is rare.
But even if his films seem to blatantly disregard any expectations the audience might have in terms of content and pacing, they are still fascinating to watch due to the large amount of symbolism and the perfect cinematography.
When I say that the films disregard the audiences expectations I mean that one gets the feeling that Tarkovsky was making the film exactly how he wanted to make it, he didn't mind if the audiences didn't enjoy it, he wasn't making it to please them.  Thus his films often stray in unpredictable directions and tend to wander through confused narrative.

But the vagueness and the rather frequent dullness of his film are more than made up for by the excellent visuals.
The meticulous carer put into the preparation into each and every shot of his films is obvious at a glance,  not one shot is rushed although many seem to overstay their welcome.
Tarkovsky and his cinematographers invariably use interesting techniques and colour palettes. Some techniques I have never seen in any other films, others are more common. The faded, greenish/grey or blueish/grey colour seems to be present in many of his shots, yet it is occasionally illuminated by something bright like fire.
For his most impressive shots, the extended long takes with very slow zoom, he had to perfectly choreograph each movement the actors should make beforehand. The result is quite amazing, I don't think any directors have achieved such excellent long takes with very slow camera movement as Tarkovsky.

I mentioned the presence of fire in Tarkovsky's films earlier, and would like to say a quick word about that, in fact all the elements (fire, water earth and air) were omnipresent in Tarkovsky's work, we see water everywhere, dripping from rocks, in puddles, raining.... his films are always wet. Fire is another matter, it is included only a few times in his work but is always climatic and highly significant, the examples that spring to mind are the man setting himself alight in Nostalghia and the burning of the house in The Sacrifice. Air or wind as the case may be is always represented as well, many shots of the wind rushing through long grass or trees are included throughout Tarkovsky's body of work, they have no apparent purpose but are always pleasant. I need not mention Earth, of course it is always present, but in fact many of his characters tend to either play in mud, or be covered in mud, or lay on the earth.

 When it comes to such a director as Tarkovsky it is very hard to analyse his films, to pick out a specific scene that was particularly well done and take a look at the techniques employed for his films don't just contain a few remarkable scenes, they are remarkable as a whole. Thus any attempt to analyse them will result in analysing countless unique techniques and excellent shots.
For the finest essay on Tarkovsky and his work I would recommend Chris Marker's One Day In The Life of Andrei Arsenyevich (watch it for free and in English here!!!), it is by far the most intelligent and articulate essay on this director.

His films aren't designed to be enjoyed but they must be seen and experienced by all film buffs, they will be admired and respected but it's hard to really enjoy them. Tarkovsky is the polar opposite of a popular director, he did not make films for the entertainment of the masses he made films for art.
There is nothign wrong with entertaining films made for the masses, they have their place just as artistic films have theirs and as such I can't really recommend these films to everyone, if you are just looking for something to pass the time with in an enjoyable way, then these films are not for you, but if you are a serious student of Cinema then these films cannot be missed or even if you don't enjoy them you will recognise their merits and respect them.

I hesitate to call him one of the most influential directors (although he certainly is one of the best) because despite the fact that his films are excellent, I can't really think of anyone whose work really bears an obvious influence. That's not to say he isn't a respected director, he definitely is by most film buffs and film makers yet there is something about his work that cannot be replicated, maybe his Russian sensibilities. I think he is a director that is held in awe by many and thus his work is considered somewhat untouchable, this would explain the small amount of homages and references to him that exist, for he is much less of an accessible director than say Hitchcock..
This does not mean that his work stood alone in time though, of course he was inspired by those that came before him and has inspired those that came after him. But few directors can really be likened to Tarkovsky in any satisfying way, except of course for the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman.
But naturally he belongs to that group of artists in Cinema that includes the likes of Kurosawa, Bunuel, Bresson, Mizoguchi and Dreyer. These directors are artists in the purest sense of the word and were Tarkovsky's major influences.For above all he wanted to raise Cinema to the same level as the other older arts.

Filming The Sacrifice with Sven Nykvist, Ingmar Bergman's celebrated Cinematographer
Tarkovsky admired Bergman considerably yet interestingly Bergman also greatly admired his work, saying "Tarkovsky for me is the greatest [director], the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream."
Kurosawa as well often praised Tarkovsky later work.
The work of these two mutually admiring directors has much in common, the dream sequences, the metaphysics and spirituality, the beauty of the cinematography etc...
One notable difference would be the quantity of their works, Tarkovsky only directed 7 feature length films where as Bergman directed about 63 films. Thus I would say that Bergman has had a slightly larger impact on Cinema due to the sheer quantity of his work.
But Tarkovsky also had a considerable impact, he was the most recognised Russian director outside of Russia since the days of Eisenstein.

Andrei Tarkovsky is one of Cinema's most treasured directors, not all his films are masterpieces yet they all have a distict quality about them and are all truly "his" films which is something I admire.
Thank you Tarkovsky for the inspiration and the many hours spent watching your beautiful films and may you rest in peace knowing you accomplished you goal, to place Cinema alongside the other art forms, as an equal.

Thank you for reading my various opinions on Tarkovsky and his work. This is far from a complete essay on the man but I hope that it will encourage those of you that are unfamiliar with his work to check it out.

To summarise, this is how I would rank his work:
  1. The Sacrifice
  2. The Mirror
  3. Stalker
  4. Andrei Rublev
  5. Ivan's Childhood
  6. Nostalghia
  7. Solaris

Check out this interesting Tarkovsky related site:

Here's the link to Chris Marker's film about Tarkovsky in case you missed it, I really recommend watching it!

Tarkovsky's IMDb (got some excellent quotes you might want to check out)

Next up are Chris Marker and Sam Peckinpah!

If you think I failed to mention something, if you disagree with me or have any feedback whatsoever please don't hesitate to comment!

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