When the image become so loaded, so ravishing and mysterious that you can no longer remember the one that immediately preceded it, then you are probably watching a movie by the next director featured in our series.
From Dryer to Von Trier, bookends of Danish film history, we pan east across the map. The equivalent to any other filmmaker that ever lived, Andrei Tarkovsky has been on my mind the entire time we’ve focused on the Danes. I did some catching up on Von Trier’s and Dryer’s films last winter and can’t help now but speculate on ways that Lars has emulated Andrei and how Carl Theodore informs both.
There are several more films by the Danes that will likely be pulled in to this series. I left off, in the last post, with the latest film by Von Trier who seemed to be employing the very material his story was fashioned to criticize. This makes us somewhat confused as to its intent. Whether or not he intends to do so with his latest double-bill, he provokes enough outrage for some of his audience to question his taste. Ironic how the scenes in his film that people condemn the most, by description at least, are less heinous than the majority of films by say, Martin Scorsese. From “Raging Bull” to “Casino,” we we’ve complimented that master for his vividly portrayed, ruthless protagonists, all of them misogynists.
One could argue misogyny is one of Scorsese’s key preoccupations. Throughout more than half of his prodigious output, he depicts the brutalization of women with unflinching detail. Anyone might argue this point, saying it is not his camera but a certain subspecies of male human being that provides the imagery; his camera just records it. That doesn’t matter to Lars Von Trier. What does is the fact that, while Marty’s martyrs are mostly married to their oppressors and resisting valiantly against the odds, Lars’s leading lady in “Nymp()maniac Vol II” is lusting for the lash and therefore, in league with her violator. Doesn’t that make Von Trier’s (2014) opus, at least in principle, less violent than the domestic bullying of Scorsese’s American gangsters? I’ll move on from this now until someone comes forth with a response. And now for our feature presentation.
It’s relatively easy to study Tarkovsky’s film output. He made two shorts, a documentary and seven fictions. He directed a few stage gigs as well. His father was a poet, as was Bertollucci’s, coincidentally. Tarkovsky, the younger, authored a book as well, “Sculpting in Time (1986) expounding his theories of art and cinema. He died young, like another filmmaking prodigy, Jean Vigo. Vigo was a favorite influence of Tarkovsky’s. Their names are frequently mentioned together. Vigo’s career was even shorter. Besides abbreviated lives, making poetry with cinema is their common bond.
I was introduced to Tarkovsky’s work only about a half dozen years ago with “The Mirror” a Kino Video release on DVD. His fourth film, I’ve watched it more than all the rest. At first viewing, the narrative line seems to be all over the place. As I’ve gotten to know it better, I find it quite intuitive to follow, but the burning forest house in the beginning and the wind-swirled, milk and lace finale leave such lasting impressions, its hard to remember what else happens. Every one of Tarkovsky’s films contains virtuoso passages; surreal, metaphysical dreamscapes designed to repeatedly reset our attention to a state of awe.
“The Mirror” has been labeled Tarkovsky’s most personal film. Some have called it the most beautiful ever made. It incorporates his theories about sculpting time. At the mid-point of the film we are treated to some fascinating documentary footage that seems rather remotely related from what is spliced on either side of it. Clips from a tactical balloon demonstration over an aviation field somewhere inside Russia may seem befuddling at first, especially since it is found footage inserted abruptly after a rather comical passage in which the boy’s Spanish uncle reenacts the climax of a famous bullfight. But what better collision of images would illustrate the sinister alchemy that converts the wonder of childhood memories into the wounds of war? Witness all that military personnel gazing skyward, looking like a yard full of children at play.
In each of his films Tarkovsky leaves amble room in his story for audience interpretation. None more so than this film. Lapses in chronology, character and location occur throughout “The Mirror.” Events unfold in such deliberate dislocation they are not easily committed to memory. He’s not a storyteller in the classic sense. The director was fascinated with capturing eternity and the evanescent in single cinematic moment. For him that is stuff just waiting to be carved out of time, preserved and repeatedly played as a virtual present in our future.
At the same time, he often builds up the his most vivid sequences with themes and elements borrowed from previous virtuoso passages. It’s interesting to think of Tarkovsky’s work like a progression of symphonic compositions. He uses dripping water like Mozart uses woodwinds. He was in no hurry either. He’s known for extremely long takes that require everyone involved to think carefully about before hand and rewards the patient, alert viewers in his audience.
Case in point, in the opening scene of “The Mirror” a powerful wind blows through a field starting in the background and rolls like a wave over the grassy field into the foreground, connecting the man and woman elementally. It’s a ravishing moment, brimming with passion and possibility.. The couple stand about fifty yards apart. The man turns around and looks at the woman acknowledging the wonder of such a sign, coming from nature at such a moment. The woman is trapped in the past and doesn’t acknowledge a thing. The wind, however, will not be denied and asserts its presence like a spiritual entity, throughout the rest of the film.
Let us pause and expose the layers of preparation that were put in place in order to achieve that stunning effect. It might have required a whole array of wind machines set next to each other, just off camera, turned on and off in impeccable succession to make that wind look like nature’s work. We’re talking about a synchronized dance between camera, crew, tools, actors, the director and nature. How many in the audience are aware of this well-oiled mechanism while it is happening? Nearly none I’d guess. It was quite an challange, no doubt, but Tarkovsky lets us take it for granted.
There is a prologue to “The Mirror,” a mock television documentary featuring a soviet hypnotherapist curing a young boy of a bad stutter. If “The Mirror” is about memory, and the first frame sums up the entire film in a flash, then how does a speech impediment resemble toxic memories and how does the filmmaker perform the service of a hypnotherapist.
Almost any filmmaker could relate to hypnotism with regard to the art of filmmaking. It’s obviously on Tarkovsky’s mind. He challenges an audiences limitations, time and again, commanding our attention with enigmatic set ups, then exciting our subconscious with a subtly mutating, profoundly transforming sequence of images. These are often achieved in one long, slow take that makes a single statement, standing our expectations on end, then inside out, stopping the world, confronting us with timelessness just long enough for an unforgettable brush with transcendence…
To be continued…