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…
We’ve penetrated the center of this great director’s ouvre by gazing into his “Mirror” (1974). Might as well go wide now by contrasting his first feature, “Ivan’s Childhood,” (1962) with his final one, “The Sacrifice” (1986). From there, we’ll work our way back to the core.
It was not a totally random choice to compare Tarkovsky’s first film with his last. One is set in WWII, the other in WWIII. They both begin and end with a boy and a tree. “Ivan’s Childhood” opens at the base of an evergreen. A child walks out of the frame and the camera cranes upward along its trunk to the top. Tarkovsky’s final feature begins with practically the same image, except the boy doesn’t walk out of the shot; the camera leaves him. In another deviation from Ivan, with Sacrifice, the camera stops before we reach the top.
The film was dedicated to his son. I suppose that last shot was a self-portrait, of sorts, dreamed up by the poet and left behind to be remembered by. By the time principle photography on “The Sacrifice” had commenced, Tarkovsky was terminal with cancer and knew he would never attain old age. This barren tree, appearing late in his last opus is rueful, in the context of its prominence in the opening of his first film, when the camera floats all the way to the growing tip of a sapling with all promise of genius in full bud.
Experience accumulates and organizes itself as knowledge along great forked trunks and on down the branched, limbed, twigged networks in our minds. Tarkovsky’s camera conducts itself along similar lines. He employs very long takes, with camera in motion, inducing perceptual shifts, drawing us even deeper in with mirrors and other reflections, rooms within rooms, frames within frames, mimicking the natural paths of attention and accumulation of awareness.
For this filmmaker, capturing a passing moment with motion in space is sculpting in time. His cinematic chisel consistently modulates, like good music, between finite and cosmic. What a poet expresses with choice words, a composer does with appropriate musical instruments. Tarkovsky plumbs the possibilities of leitmotif with trees, wind, rain, water, milk, mirrors, snow, ash, stairs, ladders, mist, steam, smoke, fire, gravity, weightlessness and on and on. In his first film an expansive forest of birch stands like a great intersection of chords in a high mass. In his final one, a solitary tree soothes like a Japanese flute riffing in a solitary key.
The outcome of both is tragedy within triumph. In Sacrifice, an aging artist forfeits position and possession to reverse a cataclysm. In Ivan war orphan lays down his life behind enemy lines to repel the Nazi’s. But Ivan is not a common infantryman. He’s a scout, resigned to beat the enemy singlehandedly if necessary.
The boy soldier’s winning qualities are instantly recognizable in scene one when he behaves as if he outranks the officer assigned to interrogate him. In the quality of sheer bravery, he does outrank everyone. Our diminutive hero exudes formidable cheek and grit with anyone that threatens to stand in his way. He is so traumatized by war he can neither digest food, nor rest without reliving what’s lost in his past. He seems only able to counter it by leading the heroics.
His adoptive kin are all army officers trying to protect him. It just so happens the battalion could really benefit from some good intelligence, at the moment and Ivan’s age and size provide an edge.
Despite his sacrifice, Ivan’s not a Christ and this is not a passion play in military drag. We encountered that hybrid about a year ago in another Soviet era masterpiece, Larissa Shepitko’s “The Ascent.”
I’ve heard Tarkovsky criticized for wearing his religion on his sleeve. What religion? Nothing is entirely black or white in his works except some film stock. His complete works demonstrate that opening doors of perception is this filmmaker’s fascination, not deifying invisible entities. For example, during the transition to a flashback early in the first act, Ivan is tri-located for an instant. He is catching some rest in an army bed and he is waking up in the bottom of a well and finally, he is caught in the memory of standing over the well with his mother before she was killed.
“If a well is deep enough,” she tells Ivan, “you can see a star even on the brightest day.” “What star?” He asks. “Any star,” she answers. Notice that Ivan and his mother are gazing deep into the earth in search of something far out in space. Poetic inversions abound in Tarkovsky’s films. An exquisite communion of opposites is achieved with this one. Other than the veritable yin/yang symbol itself, what more all-inclusive vision could convey such otherwise unspeakable insights?
Almost immediately upon searching, Ivan declares he can see a star as he reaches down the mouth of the well. Suddenly is relocated there, caressing its reflection on the surface of the water. Here is an early bit of evidence of the boy’s exceptional gift for observation, so we can appreciate it is not just raw revenge that qualifies him for his vocation, but a child’s eye opened wide on the world.
For added fascination, notice the view down the well is not the reflection of a star as Ivan sees it but the POV of Ivan and his mother looking back at us. It’s a magnificent shot. Where’s the camera? We’re looking straight into it. The actors are too, right down the barrel of the lens, but we see their reflection backed by the sky above and encircled in the mouth of the well. The camera is looking at us as well, but from what position? This is just the first of countless fresh flourishes that supercharge Tarkovsky’s films, front to back.
The spell of memory is evoked by the artist with this deep yet simple scene, buoyed by equally evocative talk. “It’s daytime for you and me,” Ivan’s mom explains, “but nighttime for the star.” Every single sequence in Tarkovsky;s films seems embedded with counterpoint such as this. The image of star in full daylight is a kind of epigram. Tarkovsky is conditioning us for deep shifts to come. Our preconceptions will be subverted, time and again, with fascinating, alternate conceptions in abundant variation. Once again, I am reminded of the great Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte. Appreciate with me how paintings of his such as “The Enchanted Domain,” (1952), “The Kiss” (1951) and “The Blank Page” (1952) assist our senses in with radical realizations about reality.
“Ivan’s Childhood” proposes that children possess the courage that adults lack. Chimes play on the soundtrack while Ivan looks out over the prow of the rowboat on his final mission. The choice reminds us of the hero’s immaturity even as he is about to act.
While Tarkovsky’s movies distinguish themselves for being planned and executed with consumate craft, there are some scenes so uncanny, surely they must be a result of sheer luck. For instance, just as Ivan makes landfall, says farewell and slips behind enemy lines for the last time, an enemy flare lands in the background. It’s grey column of smoke remains perfectly slender and vertical like one of the trees as it drifts on an invisible draft like a silent bludgeon sneaking between scattered black trunks, on a rendezvous with Ivan. The convergence takes place just as he disappears in the dark.
In the end, we are told Ivan was hanged. The final shot tilts down out of the clear sky, descending a dead tree on the riverbank with Ivan, before the war, in the foreground. The last shot of the film refers back to the first. The camera tilts down the length of a tree, this time and fading out on a war scorched trunk.
This description may read like bad poetry but my feeble effort is to blame. If what I’m talking about could have been conveyed in writing, Tarkovsky would not have bothered to commit it to film Much like Ivan, Andre was a scout at heart; his films probe the frontiers of poetic potential. Ivan’s attitude and actions shame fellow soldiers for not showing greater courage. Andre criticized most filmmakers for not taking full advantage of their art form. Precious few heard.
It seems like I’ve heard “Ivan’s Childhood” mentioned less often than other motion picture child memoirs of the era such as Truffaut’s “400 Blows,” (1959) or Schlondorff’s “The Tin Drum” 1979. I’m not sure why, Ivan is every bit as compelling. It contains Tarkovsky’s most straightforward narrative with an unforgettable central character whose predicament is loaded with tragic irony and portrayed with deep humanity, boundary pushing style and heartrending detail.
I will leave a choice center-cut of this complex and beautiful film for you to form your own unfettered opinions and keep my analysis to its edges. Next up, “The Sacrifice” which comes in second, of all Tarkovsky’s films, with regard to clarity of story. The balance of his output plays checkers with structure. This coming November, at Open Channel Content, Tarkovsky contemplates nuclear winter.
I’m certainly not the first cinephile that wishes they could have had a conversation with Tarkovsky. Back in the nineteen eighties, I’ve recently figured out, we were in Italy at the same time. I was just writing my first travel journal. He was writing his book “Sculpting in Time.” Our paths would not converge there. I was not quite half his age and only recently introduced to world cinema . He was writing his testament, “Sculpting in Time. ” In it he says, “If there are cinema-goers for whom it is important and rewarding to enter into dialogue specifically with me, that is the greatest stimulus I can have for my work.” If he were alive today, I’d look him up.
In reading from chapter seven in his book “Sculpting in Time,” I am gratified to find so much confirmation in his writings of my own thoughts with regard to his films. The subject is of the artist’s responsibility. I have written about it in several previous posts, most lately in relation to pornography, screen violence and theater of cruelty. In any discussion about an artist’s social obligation Chapter VII of “Sculpting in Time,” should be quoted aloud and “Stalker” should be required viewing.
What I gather from Tarkovsky’s philosophy is that any image rendered in service to truth is worthy of projection. Most often, according to him, it is rendered in service to money. Tarkovsky likens the makers of modern entertainment to merchants of commodities rather than artists. That was due to the high cost of filmmaking in the days of celluloid, but modern digital tech has leveled the playing field. Anyone can make a movie that could be seen by millions of viewers nowadays. What hasn’t changed, however, remains what is most important. The intention of the filmmaker determines whether what they make will contribute more to culture or commerce. Tarkovsky speaks of art as an act of sacrifice for the sake of love and as a potential unifier of humankind. What a thing to say in a book about filmmaking.
“Cinema uses the materials given by nature itself, with the passage of time, manifested within space”Andre Tarkovsky.
Here’s one thing that sets this filmmaker above the lot. He builds perceptual provocation into every shot. The long take, by its very nature, affords the viewer plenty of time to reevaluate their first impression. When someone as fine tuned as Tarkovsky lavishes each frame with purposeful detail, there is no getting back to the mindset you occupied when the shot first struck your retina. Tarkovsky’s cinema, like no other, conspires to take us on a journey of no return, and regarding the filmmaker’s intention, no film more than “Stalker” (1979) shows higher concern.
A typical Tarkovsky image constantly evolves, constantly challenging us to reconsider what we think we know. What we assimilate at first, by the effect of a moving camera, is a space filled with currents that move at deliberately devised rates. Almost the same way composers uses notes, Tarkovsky busies himself making intervals of time stand out to our sight. His layers of complexity compare and contrast with each other, over and under, to drive out lazy assumptions, bring our senses around, restore a sense of intimacy and wonder.
“Failure to develop the audiences capacity to criticize our own judgments is tantamount to treating them with total indifference.” Andre Tarkovsky
Film snatches events from the unconditional world and this skilled film director constructs an image of whole truth with captured fragments from such stuff. Tarkovsky goes to all this trouble to help the audience recover ‘lost past’. Assuming that a movie projector, as I have suggested in a previous post, is a kind of celluloid clock, Tarkovsky sculpts time inside that beam that connects the filmmaker’s heart to the audience’s brain. We’ve delved into this subject in a previous post, “A Camera is Simply a Clock with a Lens.” (OCC March 2012)
It’s not enough to call Tarkovsky a filmmaker or even an artist. We have reached the core of this beloved humanist’s work with his fifth film “Stalker” (1979), the greatest dystopian drama of all time. It is the last of his films we will discuss in this year-long series focused on the greatest Russian artist of the 20th century.
Andre Tarkovsky had a penchant for confronting our worn-in perceptual habits and restoring a sense of awe and wonder to the ways we see. Relatively ordinary scenes and settings in his films always have a way of transubstantiating into spiritual states.
I am reminded of another wizard of pictorial rigor and invention, Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte. I introduced Tarkovsky in these pages after mentioning some Danish filmmakers and promising to compare and contrast them with him. I haven’t gotten around to that yet. This is what can happen when you open the iris on a vast and intricate subject such as this. In doing so, it feels natural to identify another root influence in modern art that helps me comprehend and appreciate Tarkovsky all the more. There seems to be some overlap in these two artist’s interests. Magritte addressed what he called “the problem of the mirror” in a number of paintings. None is more effectively than his “Not to Be Reproduced (1937).
Magritte said his pictures were material evidence of freedom of thought. In addition to this similarity, Magritte’s paintings came to my mind while watching “The Mirror,” when Ignat is leafing through a book of drawings and paintings by Leonardo. The last color plate in the series is a study of hands. I’m not sure of Tarkovsky’s intent, but the disembodied particulars on that picture plane reminded me of paintings like “The White Race “(1937), “Acrobatic Ideas” (1928) and “One-Night Museum” (1927) from Magritte’s catalog. This might seem a rather obscure association if it were not for all three artists’ fascination with perspective. Where the overlap occurs is in their shared penchant for confounding our habitual ways of seeing.
Maria, the main character reflected in Tarkovsky’s mirror is heartbroken and grieving. Like Dreyer’s “Gertrude” she clings to idealized love. Gertrude imagines eventually meeting the object of her infatuation in the future. Maria’s ideal is anchored in the past. It invades every image in which she appears. We witness her emotional preoccupation even more acutely, with every close up, but we aren’t invited to share in it, because that’s what we’re accustomed to.
We are treated to something far more rare, Tarkovsky’s universe. His camera follows, not the characters onscreen, but the essence of a vivid moment in their past, as that very moment is imprinting in their memory. The camera grabs on to random details similar to the way our imagination does, for mental prompts associated with that time and place.
As a case in point, recall the spectacular image which takes place in the beginning of “The Mirror,” the barn fire. The sequence begins in the kitchen. Neighbors are shouting, a low rumble fades in on the soundtrack. A couple of children eat from bowls at a table. Their mother tells her children to come see the fire. The room empties out, but the camera remains. We hear the roar of combustion and voices shouting off screen, but we’re made to pause on a static view of the empty room–until a bottle falls off a table and lands on the floor mysteriously, without visible provocation. Then we move on.
Some kind of anomaly is present in the vast majority of Tarkovsky’s virtuoso passages, a small detail that defies ordinary laws. Is this because it was misplaced by the imagination of the rememberer; a floater or phantom, the shred of something not quite in sync with the rest, but somehow part of what happened back there in the past? Here in Tarkovsky’s frame it waves to us all from the shores of the unconscious.
Only after we receive that sublime salutation are we allowed to leave the kitchen and pan left to the much-anticipated fire. When we finally do, we think we must be looking through a rain saturated window, at the backs of the children, noting its glow on their faces. It turns out we are actually gazing at a reflection in a mirror. We come to discover this as the camera moves on.
The real action is gradually brought front and center with a 180 pan, then we push-in through the front door. As we track right over the threshold, the filmmaker’s first unforgettable, mesmerizing vision of “The Mirror” wipes in from behind a ladder and some trees. Finally, what we’ve been hearing about and anticipating since the first shot in the kitchen is set before our eyes, spitting and roaring up there on-screen.
Tarkovsky’s movies are often criticized for being slow, but that’s only valid, for instance in this case, if you’ve missed everything between when mother and children slip out of the kitchen and the moment we finally get a look at what they went outside to see. When it does happen, what a delectable feast for the senses; all those snapping fangs of heat and slashing claws of flame, crouch in the calm, damp green like Rousseau’s beast.
We the audience are set upright again, metaphorically speaking. That bold, dramatic, visual statement is reassuring after the woozy, misty transition from the kitchen, yet the loss of a barn is not the point of the cinematic sequence. All the alternatively oriented images that accumulated and morphed on the way to the fire expose the real root preoccupation in Tarkovsky’s work.
Now, zoom out with me just long enough to appreciate the fresh vision, precocious daring, admirable craft, uncanny timing and impeccable collaboration required to pull off a bravura shot like that in a single take with no digital FX! This is why Tarkovsky is perhaps Russia’s greatest artist of the 20th century.
There’s a lot of second hand war footage in the second act of “The Mirror.” It puts some viewers off and may seem out of place at first. I think it effectively represents what kinds of things remain lodged in a war child’s mind. I find the content of the found footage emotionally earthshattering from a that point of view. It’s not only Tarkovsky’s originality in movie making, it’s his compassion that draws me to his films.
Tarkovsky would say the experience of the present is elusive, a slippery one where anything could yet develop. The past is certain, it is therefore more solid. Evidently even a sculptor of time seeks something substantial for his chisel.
Its difficult to talk or write about Tarkovsky and not grow tired of the sound of my own voice. Nevertheless, I will proceed next month…
Rewind to Christmas 2013 when, in homage to the most celebrated hanged man in history, we analyzed institutional hangings in two movies. This Christmas we look at a film featuring a mystic from the Middle Ages, famed for painting that most talked about torture victim of all time.
“Andre Rublev” (1966), Andre Tarkovsky’s second feature, equates the creation of art to an act of faith. A Russian monarch summons medieval monk Andre Rublev to paint scenes from the Last Judgment in his splendid new church. On his way to the gig, the gifted, medieval icon painter becomes an eye-witness to an act of ruthless destruction followed by one of sublime creation.
In this meandering epic, Tarkovsky comments on the moral predicament of an artist. Andre the monk doesn’t believe churches should be decorated with devils and dungeons, so he defies the prince. His conscience dictates that he be responsible to his audience for the images he creates. As the artist’s work matures and comes into its own, each artifice he or she erects is a gamble in which one wagers their soul as well as their worldly reputation and for which there is no return and no second chance.
Andre’s friends and masters warn him to stop procrastinating. They keep urging the reluctant genius to just go give the devil his day and be done. Instead, the forlorn mystic of brush and pigment wanders the countryside, taking shelter in poverty, chastity and trying to be kind. Everyone is terrified of what the prince might do if he doesn’t paint the Last Judgment in time. Andre is unmoved. Why glory in the ungodly, he muses, when cruelty is so prevalent in daily life?
One thing Andre Tarkovsky proves through Andre Rublev, with his tryptic lens, is that we can pick from just about any point along the continuum of history to find inspiration for the Last Judgment. In Rublev, the theme echoes in three distinct variations. In the representation of the biblical event the artist is commissioned to paint; in the ritual of torture that we witness during the sack of the town of Vladimir; and finally, in the casting of a huge bell from molten bronze by a young craftsman.
The middle section of Rublev depicts a bloody invasion. In Rublev’s time, the Tatar were hired to do the dirty work. They served a similar purpose as the torturers that came to light recently in the US interrogations report. It seems every generation enacts its version of the Last Judgment.
During the invasion of this picturesque Medieval Russian town, we observe an act of torture in horrid detail. Men are blinded and left groping on hands and knees; a horse falls backward through a staircase, gets speared through the heart and bleeds to death onscreen. These crescendoing, atrocities unreel before our eyes as we witness the overthrow of the feudal prince by his brother and the torching of a town with the help of hired guns. Their leader wears a horned helmet and is the very picture of a charismatic warrior on the back of his powerful steed.
The climax of the pillage surely must be when an official of Vladimir is interrogated. His inquisitor is all smiles while he’s blindfolding the victim and binding him to a board before laying him back, forcing his mouth open and filling it with boiling pitch. Then the poor fellow is dragged on the ground behind a horse.
Cruelty stalks this film but I ask you to compare it with another movie I recently reviewed. Some readers may wish to revisit our previous zoom-in on a discussion begun last July, about the Theater of Cruelty. Why not highlight the different ways the concept is experimented with in these two films?
I have proposed that, with his recent film, “Nymph()manic” Vol II (2014), director Lars Von Trier intended the audience to push back. He provokes the viewer to employ self-defense, which led the film reviewer at our local independent free weekly paper to pronounced it “shit.” That left dozens of valuable debates on problems in our society never to be exchanged among the readership; at least among those that accepted the reviewers lazy condemnation and stayed home. Violence against women is in the headlines, so why was Von Trier’s film considered taboo instead of tuned in? Does the nightly news claim to have the sole right to sensationalize society’s ills?
I think Theater of Cruelty can be either toxic or tonic. When I watched Von Trier’s film, I did not read his intentions as being disrespectful to women any more than men. I found the pictures he made alarming and painful for anyone to endure. I closed my eyes through some of it. Nevertheless, after I left, I did not hold a grudge. I have been intrigued by many of that director’s previous movies, enough to swallow his bitter draft from last year, if for no other reason than to search for and discover its antidote in another film, as I believe I have in “Andre Rublev”.
In “Andre Rublev”, Tarkovsky’s application of the Theater of Cruelty is fashioned to nourish pity, tug at the heart and urge us toward compassion and harmony. He intends for me to empathize with his victims. With Von Trier’s “Nymph()maniac” Vol. 2. (2014), being harder to watch, the intent of the film is therefore harder to interpret. View, if you can stand, the controversial passages before you draw your own conclusions. Next month, “Andre Rublev” Act III.
In his book “Sculpting in Time,” the director adopts the attitude that the more the artist’s views are hidden the better for the work of art. I am not convinced Tarkovsky practiced this. The artist’s view seems to me to be the most obvious thing about any work of art. It’s the very thing that makes it art. So, we obviously don’t agree on what the term “artists view” means. Does he mean that art is less pure if the artist creates it to solve personal problems rather than collective ones? The artist’s conscience is on trial.
What is the point of hiding your views if you are an artist? Does he refer to the artifice that we create as the thing we hide our views behind? If so, does it follow that the more splendid the artifice, the better concealed the artists views? I don’t think so. Does he mean to hide his views so that they cannot be found or so that they cannot be easily detected? Are they to be walled-off from the work entirely?
No, they are to be disguised and smuggled in, silently, right through the audiences’ self-limiting defenses, past their precious prejudices to side-slip our cultural conditioning. If art helps us find meaning, as Tarkovsky states in his notes, then an artist would be obliged to share any vestige of meaning he or she has gathered through experience with his art. Sharing helpful information is what its about, is it not? Tarkovsky was making a statement against propaganda. He’s not going to pry open our minds so he can fill them up with what is in his. His objective is to leave behind a community of wide-open minds.
We’re at the point in our brief analysis of “Andre Rublev’ where Tarkovsky and his band of master Soviet craftsmen stage the casting of a massive church bell for the camera. Imbibe, with me, some of his potent allegory. Four blast furnaces dispense blazing bronze into an earthen mold meters deep in the ground. It would be hard to find a moving image with more poetic power than the casting of bronze to articulate the refinement of artistic conscience.
I’m going to digress briefly here and confess why the third act of “Andre Rublev” especially impresses me. There are bell makers in my family. They own a foundry to this day. Its bells ring all over the old country. The relatives that immigrated here from the Balkan alps found work in mines, metallurgy labs, and steel works along the Rockies in Colorado, but back in the old country they were bell makers. I was a jeweler for much of my life and so a predilection for liquefaction of metal can, evidently, transfer through the blood.
Deep background aside, just try and snore through the action in Act III once the fire begins to roar. Tarkovsky commandeers all possible avenues to our senses to capture the imagination, not to enslave, but to woo.
The filmmaker penetrates deep into our subconscious recesses with his novel explorations of mid-tones and greys, his uncanny knack for rhythm and pace, precocious echoes and rapturous vapors, mysterious murmurs from nature beckon from enchanted byways, all scintillating in supportive counterpoint to character arc and story beat.
I have been searching for a word or phrase that stands for what Tarkovsky mastered and I found it on the splendid art series by Charles Greenleaf Bell, the entirety of which Open Channel Content LLC has posted on YouTube for your edification.
“Omnivoyant” is the word Dr. Bell’s series supplied and also a quote to help explain it. This is from part fourteen of the “Symbolic History Through Sight and Sound,” entitled “Fifteenth Century – Early Renaissance.” The actual quote is by a medieval philosopher talking about the eyes of Christ in devotional painting.
“If I strive in human fashion to transport you to things divine. I have found nothing better than an image which is omnivoyant… such… I call the icon of God. This picture, brethren, ye shall set up in some place… and each of you shall find. From whatsoever quarter observed, that it looks at him as if it looked at no other…As in a mirror, an icon, a riddle. I see life eternal which is nothing less but that blessed regard, that gaze of love that never ceases to behold me even in the most secret places of my soul.” Cusanus (1401-1464)
This is what Tarkovsky’s movies do. They tap in to the root of the collective unconscious and look back at me and you with great regard. In act III of Rublev, for example, the horned helmet and his ruffians ride into the churchyard acting contemptuous and rude. The same clan of Tatar horsemen that conquered the town ten screen minutes ago are back in the churchyard, inciting a fight among the local dogs with spoiled meat.
Right here, Act III scene one flips fate’s coin from abduction to seduction. At the mid-point of the previous act, Rublev the monk adopted a young woman who is a bit touched, but very tuned-in to human nature. Durochka is her name and Andrei, the monk, kills a soldier to spare Durochka being raped.
So here in Act III this charmed female savant gets caught up in some tawdry snare again. The haughty heathen appraises his little rabbit, up and down, amused that she comes across more childlike than full-grown. Andrei looks on from a safe distance, while the foreign raiders box in the peasant girl for their horny lord. Up to now, Durochka’s lived by a simple sort of native grace, but all that might be about to break. Andrei’s faith is tested twice. If he doesn’t do something she’s lost for good. Yet, if he does, they will surely do him harm.
The monks stand by in collective disgrace looking more marooned on an island than ensconced in God’s dwelling place. They couldn’t look more distraught. It’s dead of winter. Dogs snarl and tear at each other. The harvest has gone to rot. Now these well-fed Tatars gallop in making sport. Hired horsemen cajole and corral the helpless one they’ve caught.
Watch how she endears herself to us as an uncommonly curious soul with some native twinge of witch in the mix. Watch now while the fierce warrior and the enchanted waif face off. From cloak to tongue they appear distinctly different stuff, but when he asks her to become his eighth wife, she more than catches his drift.
Everyone else has a good laugh. Meanwhile, this proud stud of a medieval mobster gets caught off guard by the charms of a girl that seemed retarded. We are watching one of the most enchanting moments in motion pictures. Of course, it involves a mirror. The sculptor of time was never keener than when Durochka pulls herself close to that devil’s belly, polishes his breastplate to catch a glimpse of herself, then gazes up in the eyes of her plunderer with hers lit up in raw and wild wonder. His expression mirrors her effect, to us, as that beast’s intents are bent to love from lust.
This film’s in a class of its own, like so much Russian art, music and lit. Tarkovsky’s art combines harmonics for the most discriminating sophisticate. Who could have seen it coming when the most frightening figure in the story becomes the disadvantaged peasant girl’s ticket. In a final pass by the lens, late in Act III, we see Durochka clothed fresh, head to toe, a good deal better off yet still as comfortably herself as ever with lovely Tartar horse and child in tow.
Tarkovsky was an alchemist, a shaman and folk physician. May his illusions live on to enchant generations. Positive and negative charges, visible and invisible rhythms, complimentary opposites and their parental nodes balance, almost algorithmically, throughout his life’s work. For me, the seven stories Tarkovsky fashioned for the screen are among the finest antidotes for the handful of toxic things in this world I wished I’d never seen.