I was going to start this episode by saying, “I’m back!” But then I thought, “Who cares that I’m back? And if someone does care, he surely doesn’t want to hear me say that I’m back as if I think so highly of myself that I imagine hundreds of listeners just salivating for my next episode: When will he be back?” The real question is why it has taken me so long to post a new episode. I would like to think that the cause has more to do with busyness than laziness, but who knows. No one could be more busy than Frs. Soroka and Hopko, and yet, there they are, churning out podcast and podcast, each more fascinating than the last, with no sign of fatigue whatsoever. Whatever the cause, I’m back now. There, I said it. Now let’s get to the matter at hand.
Once I had completed my coursework for my terminal master’s program in British literature, I was faced with the option of either composing a thesis or taking a comprehensive exam. I opted for the exam, thinking at the time that I would vomit if I had to write another prolonged investigation into a literary text. In retrospect, of course, I wish I had done the thesis. The process of preparing for and completing my comps was so stressful that I ended up vomiting anyway. I’m not kidding. I had to be excused from the testing room to quite literally throw up.
We had been assigned at the start of summer five novels from various historical periods and of disparate genres, along with piles of literary criticism addressing themes within those novels. We were to read and analyze these books on our own and show up just before fall term to answer in essay form a series of six questions that would require us to compare and contrast all five books. We had no idea what these questions would be, and we were told in advance that anything in the novels was fair game. I’m getting sick again just thinking about it.
To make matters worse, the exam was pass/fail. If you failed, you’d have to go through the process all over again with five different books. If you failed a second time, you were done: no degree. Needless to say, I spent all day, every day that summer, reading and rereading the books in question. We were permitted to bring into the testing room only the books themselves, so I annotated them with all manner of colored highlighter and sticky-note until these tomes were bulging to over twice their original size.
By far the book to which I did the most violence—and I’m looking at it right now—was a contemporary novel called Possession. Written by A.S. Byatt, it is an example of what might be called a self-reflexive text, that is, a novel that comments endlessly upon itself and makes reference to its own artificiality or contrivance. In other words, Possession is a Victorian-style romance about Victorian-style romances. Its main characters also happen to be literary critics, so it likewise comments on literary criticism. The book is thus a sort of puzzle box, or, to be a bit more accurate, a hall of mirrors. Its narrative explores the parameters of the romance genre at the same time that it embodies that genre. To put the matter yet another way, it is an extremely hard and brilliant book, comprised of stories within stories, original faux Victorian poetry, and an almost interminable variety of examples of the ways in which we all attempt to possess things, whether people, concepts, or objects, hence the title.
Incidentally, a movie was made of the book several years ago that is absolutely terrible. The film reduced this complex and elegant work to a mere love story, of all things. I can’t emphasize enough that you must never see this movie. I repeat: Do not see the movie, Possession.
I had to read Byatt’s book twice to be confident that I had accurately followed the plot, and then the real work began. Metaphorically speaking, I splayed the book open and performed a vivisection on it, plucking out organs and arteries and tendons, and then arranging them on the table beside me. It was a messy, nausea-inducing process. I must admit that I hated the book at first for its apparent opacity. The more I spent time with it, however, the more it opened itself up to me. By midsummer, the book had possessed me—pun very much intended. I couldn’t get enough of its perfectly arranged circuitry. It seemed as though every sentence, every word, meant something important, and many times I found that I had forgotten to eat, so enjoyable was my dissection of it. Today it is by far my favorite book, and unearthing it as I have I am finding it very hard to resist laying aside my work on this podcast to begin reading it again right now.
So what does all this have to do with movies? Well, every once in a while you come across a film that demands this same sort of meticulous attention. In fact, the best movies almost always do. You experience them more than watch them the first time around, and come away affected, but without any idea why. You may not even be able to recount the plot at first. You remember individual images, but you don’t see how they connect or what they are trying to convey. So you watch the film again, and again, and again, and slowly, almost imperceptibly, you begin to arrive at meaning. Your effort eventually pays off, and you find that you are so glad that you took the time to attempt to understand.
When I was an undergrad, one of my professors was always encouraging us students to treat lectures the same way. “When you finish with class,” he used to say, “your muscles should be sore. You may even have a headache from listening so intently to what the presenter had to say. Only then will you be truly learning.” I feel similarly about some movies. It should hurt to watch them, if you are watching them correctly. But what you get out of them will be well worth the pain.
Enter Andrei Arsenyevich Tarkovsky, the Russian filmmaker, writer, film editor, film theorist, and opera director. At the time of his death in 1986, he had created not one but eleven films of unparalleled difficulty. Each of these movies, however, also has more moments of significance, of eye-opening insight and spiritual import, than the entire oeuvre of a Stephen Spielberg or a Martin Scorsese. This is not an exaggeration. No other director in the whole history of film has made as many challenging movies that reward the sincere struggle to understand them. The Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman, no slouch himself, said of him, “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.” And the best part? The guy was a Russian Orthodox Christian.
Tarkovsky did indeed invent a new language for film, and that is part of why his movies are such tough nuts to crack—but more on this in a second. Permit me to begin instead by telling you a bit about the director’s life, since much in his work is semi-autobiographical. Born in the village of Zavrazhye in Kostroma Province in 1932, Andrei Tarkovsky came into the world with a serious artistic pedigree. His father, Arseny Alexandrovich Tarkovsky, was a poet and translator, and his mother, Maria Ivanovna Vishnyakova, was a graduate of the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute. That said, Tarkovsky did not have a chance to learn much from the former, due to the fact that Arseny left his family in 1941 to fight for the Soviet Union in World War II.
Upon his father’s departure, Tarkovsky moved with his mother and sister to Moscow, where he began attending Moscow School Number 554. When the war intensified, the three had to evacuate Moscow for Yuryevets, but they returned to the city in 1943, and Tarkovsky began attending classes at an art school. In 1947, he acquired tuberculosis and was hospitalized for over a year. All of these events—the evacuation, his time in the hospital, his absent father, his erudite family—would become key themes in his filmwork.
Beginning in 1951, Tarkovsky studied Arabic at the Oriental Institute in Moscow, part of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. But he dropped out the following year to work as a prospector for the Academy of Science Institute for Non-Ferrous Metals and Gold. It was while working this job that he decided to start studying film, and in 1954, he applied to the State Institute of Cinematography and was admitted to the film directing program. Here he met his first wife, Irma Raush.
As talented as Tarkovsky would prove to be as a filmmaker, a confluence of historical events also contributed to his ability to make great films. Foremost among them was the fact that Nikita Khrushchev came to power just as Tarkovsky was beginning to make movies. See, in the early days of the Khrushchev era, the Soviet Union relaxed its stranglehold on the populace, allowing artists to create with more freedom than they would ever again enjoy. Tarkovsky took advantage of this thaw, from the start making the movies that he wanted to make and earning a fan base around the world as a consequence. By the time the Soviets began to crack down on artists again, it was already too late. Tarkovsky was widely regarded as a genius and a national treasure, and the government was forced to grant the director a degree of creative control that was not afforded others.
Another contributing factor to Tarkovsky’s greatness was the development of the auteur theory of directing: the idea that a director should put his signature on all aspects of the filmmaking process, but most especially the style. Made popular of the directors of the French New Wave, auteur theory had a great impact on Tarkovsky and offered him the justification he sought to follow his artistic vision, and no one else’s. Part of this vision was Tarkovsky’s belief in the spiritual realm, which he depicts over and over again in every one of his films, enraging the atheistic Soviet government.
Thus, while Tarkovsky was indeed permitted to make movies the way he wanted to make them, their release was another matter entirely. After he completed his film, The Mirror, in 1972, for example, Soviet authorities arranged for it to only be played in third-class cinemas and workers’ clubs. They also held Tarkovsky’s 1965 film, Andrei Rublev, from theaters until 1971, and then made sure that when it was entered into the Cannes Film Festival it would only be screened at four o’clock in the morning. Despite such interference, Tarkovsky’s films continued to win awards and other accolades, emboldening the director in his struggle against the state.
These battles with Soviet officials made Tarkovsky—in some people’s eyes, at least—a cinematic martyr. His diaries would even become known as a martyrologue. In 1984, they convinced him to defect to the West. Even so, the Soviets may have had the last word on Tarkovsky’s career. After he died in Paris in 1986, it was alleged that his terminal cancer had no natural cause. Several KGB agents claimed that Viktor Chebrikov, the head of the KGB, had given the order to radiate Tarkovsky to prevent him from making any additional pro-religious films. After it was discovered that Tarkovsky’s wife and favorite actor both died from the exact same type of rare lung cancer, one of the director’s sound designers, Vladimir Sharun, publicly stated that all three had been deliberately poisoned.
Whatever the cause of his death, Tarkovsky, with his eleven films, had already changed the cinematic world. The damage had been done. Here was a director who uncompromisingly challenged religious faith—not exactly a popular theme among artists—but did so with such artistry that even the likes of the atheist lesbian writer Susan Sontag could not help but hail him as the greatest movie director of all time.
Now, Tarkovsky was by no means a perfect man. He divorced his first wife in 1970 and left his son behind when he defected, though it should be noted that he spent the rest of his life trying to correct the latter mistake. He was a bear on the set, belittling his actors and his crew and making impossible demands of them in his pursuit of perfection, and he had an unhealthy interest in astrology and other occult practices. At the same time, however, he was truly devoted to Orthodox Christianity and tried his best to make his movies “the extreme manifestation of faith.”
“The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example,” Tarkovsky once wrote. “The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plow and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” Talk about Orthodox movie-going fodder!
So what makes Tarkovsky’s films so difficult to understand? Well, it all goes back to what Ingmar Bergman identified as a new language true to the nature of film. Tarkovsky believed that the visual nature of movies meant that they should behave far differently from novels. They shouldn’t tell stories in the usual sense, or even follow the traditional story arc. Instead, images and scenes are what a film should be about. In short, he believed that images should carry the meaning of a film, and not words or actions. Thus, at first glance many of his movies appear to be without plot, but nothing could be further from the case. A story is being told, just not in a conventional manner. The types of stories that Tarkovsky sought to tell, almost always about the spiritual dimension of man, transcend words anyway. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the meaning is experienced in a Tarkovsky film, as opposed to learned.
The director called the theory behind his technique “sculpting in time.” By this he meant that the cinematic medium should take our experience of time and alter it. He accomplished sculpting in time by using extremely long takes, and the purpose of doing so was to provide viewers with the sense of time passing, time lost, and the relationship of one moment in time to another. Tarkovsky also employed a ton of symbolism: running water, mirror reflections, fire, clouds, and levitation are all themes that appear over and over again in his work. They only make sense when his oeuvre is taken as a whole. Yes, I’m afraid so. You must see all of Tarkovsky’s films in order to truly understand any one of them.
And then there is the director’s dislike of color. Tarkovsky believed that color film was a commercial gimmick that could not be used meaningfully by the cinematic medium. Therefore he used it only sparingly, to emphasize certain moments and objects. He didn’t want his movies to be mere moving paintings or photographs, which he found too beautiful to be realistic. Images instead of stories; long, slow takes instead of quick, watchable cuts; heavy symbolism instead of readily accessible reference points; black and white filmstock instead of color—all combine for a most unique viewing experience, but one that is not immediately comprehensible.
But here’s the thing: these are not playful post-modern works that are ultimately devoid of meaning. On the contrary, there is much truth to be found in them, and that truth is discernible. Not only that, but it’s truth of the most profound sort, the kind that could be life-changing, if you will only make the effort to find it. Part of the reason that I want to look at Tarkovsky’s films now is because it is, after all, Lent, and there may be no more appropriate viewing option for the lenten season. These films will remind us of our sinfulness, even as they offer hope for our redemption. Plus, they require spiritual discipline to get through, which is precisely what we are all attempting to put into practice at this time of year.
I propose that we look at the six most spiritual of Tarkovsky’s films, all of which are available through Netflix except one. In chronological order, they are Andrei Rublev, Solaris, The Mirror, Stalker, Nostalghia, and The Sacrifice. I will review them in this order, and I would encourage you to watch each before you listen to my review. I would also encourage you to contact me with your own interpretations. Believe me, I do not have an inside track to understanding Tarkovsky, and I’m sure many of you will make better sense of his films than I ever could. I would like to call upon your insights in my own reviews, so be sure to send them to me early and often.
Just recently I picked up a copy of Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis at a conference I was attending. Somehow I missed out on Lewis’ Space Trilogy and am eager to rectify that situation. As I was taking the book to the cashier, a fellow conference attendee said, “You’ve never read that before? Oh, you’re in for a treat! I wish I could read it again for the first time.” This is precisely what I am thinking now, as we begin this exploration into Tarkovsky. If you’ve never seen one of his movies before, then you, my dear listener, are indeed in for a treat. How I wish I was watching these films for the first time as well. Don’t forget: first up is Andrei Rublev. See you next time.