Because What is Hardened Will Never Win

After more than a year of constant analysis we’re about to move on.The final film in our series on Tarkovsky is “Stalker” (1979), which turned out to be his last film made in the USSR. When you watch his movies, or become familiar with the work of Russian masters, it is hard to understand why Russians and Americans are so often portrayed as enemies. Who can become acquainted with the likes of Stravinsky, Dostoevsky, Chagall, Chekov and Tarkovsky and not be moved. One would expect such countrymen to be our natural friend. Why should we want to be at odds with them?

Here is where world cinema comes in. What better way for Americans of average education and limited economic means, like myself, to obtain an accurate understanding of foreigners and their lands than by watching their films. We can’t all afford to be world travelers. So the world’s greatest artists, from every country, keep pushing the boundaries of their art form, giving their audience a far more accurate assessment of our potential relations than other media sources.

We should make it public policy to turn off the TV and view the flicks of our so-called opponents on the global stage, particularly those countries with which we are most polarized. It would straighten out our thinking on a mass scale about the supposed chasm that divides us. World cinema makes the case that Americans and Russians, for instance, do not have big differences. Films help us see how the little differences make us better allies than adversaries.

In thinking about what to zoom in on next, I am contemplating a survey of movies made by our present day so-called enemies. I’m talking about nations of people, not gangs of thugs, which can be found in every country. Film is the antidote to such animosity. A motion picture can have the opposite effect of a gun.

In counterpoint to what we are told about Russia on the evening news, think of their indelible cultural contributions. Their arts and sciences give more than enough proof that Russians are among the greatest pathfinders, poets, philosophers and prophets in history. Likewise, masterworks by filmmakers such as Tarkovsky, Paradjonov, Konchalovsky and Shepitko convince me we have more in common than not.

For example, I would have felt honored to have a friend such as the hero Ivan from Tarkovsky’s first film “Ivan’s Childhood,” Just like the army officers in the story who loved and protected him, I could never have mistaken him for an enemy.

My heart went out to Sotnikov in Shepitko’s “The Ascent” (1977) as well. He was not perfect, nor was his sacrifice. Who doesn’t relate to that?

I bring up “The Ascent” again because it was released in 1977. Shepitko is it’s director. My favorite woman director of all time. She and Tarkovsky were friends. They were both rising stars. Larissa was a first-class artist of the Soviet era, also a student of the same teacher, Mikhail Romm. Both would have been aware of being their mentor’s favorite students. Ever since those days, there was a friendly competition going on between them.

Production on ”Stalker“ was begun at relatively the same time period as “The Ascent” but the entire first year of shooting on the film was destroyed and Tarkovsky’s fifth and greatest film almost miscarried. I chose to focus on this one last, because of this complicated twist of fate, and also, because I like “Stalker” the best. In fact “Stalker” may be my favorite film, period.

Incidentally, actor Anatoly Solenitzyn performs in both “Stalker” and “The Ascent.” Let me confess, I disagree with Tarkovsky completely on one thing. He publicly dissed Larissa Shepitko’s film for being possessed of some lame performances. Tarkovsky was out of line. The acting is fine in “The Ascent.”

I have a theory. Since the Soviet critics were supportive of Shepitko’s film, Tarkovsky was compelled to belittle it. They submitted “The Ascent” to the Motion Picture Academy for the Best Foreign film. That should have been Andre’s honor, except for a botched film development process that resulted in critical loss. As it turned out “Stalker” wasn’t released until two years later.

Think of it. The film had to be funded and shot twice, which must have been an utter slog. But, fortunately, by then, the director, actors and their stories were are a lot further along into the emotional arc than they had been. A sense of maturity set in. It had to have felt totally stressful at the time, but the result is something sublime. Both were tests of Tarkovsky’s resolve. He and his cohorts somehow rose to the call.

The movie he made that year was as good as any movie ever made. It just so happened to cost him his life but that’s a story that has been told elsewhere. It would be a sin to pity him. Even though he died at 54, he lives on. Time is sculpt able. No one knows that better than Tarkovsky.

He doesn’t just sculpt with time in “The Stalker,” he railroads it into alternate dimensions. I agree with his assessment that very few filmmakers seem to be interested in exploiting the unique power of cinema. Not to the degree he does anyway.

Examining the opening of the seventh and final title in our series, “Stalker” (1977), the sound of a tumultuous train barrels through the soundtrack. It’s loud-ass presence contrasts incongruously with an overhead tracking shot, in a desolate bedroom, gazing down on a trio of figures in a bed. Middle-aged ma stares off camera in profile, she’s back to back with a head-scarved, adolescent who appears to be dreaming. Finally, the male figure comes to view with eyes cast sideward toward his daughter and wife.

The ramshackle flat begins to rumble and rattle. Not one of them acknowledges a thing. Gradually they are absorbed in an envelope of railroad racket. This radically retro, sepia and spinning whine of grotesquely swollen sound lashes up a mythical, moody dissonance that draws in our primitive sympathies.

Train clatter that would overwhelm normal sleep invades the soundtrack to such a degree now, the vibration causes a glass of water to skitter slightly across the seat of a wooden chair beside the bed. It makes you want to laugh, but then tragedy and comedy mesh, and you could weep for any child that has to sleep in such a mess.

Later, however, at the very last scene of the film, in fact, that same young girl appears to magically make household items slide across the table under their own power.

This little cinematic spell possesses a rich dream logic. The intense vibrations of the train passing make things in their apartment move involuntarily all the time. It was only a matter of time before a young girl would fantasize about being able to move them with her will.

To end the movie on Monkey (the young girl), whom we’ve been hardly more than introduced to, and to focus on her having a private moment that invites us to be swept up inside her imagination with, strikes me as a supremely poignant and beautiful conclusion.

What exhilaration to start out with, that little clip of existential wit. It’s a shame so few people I know have seen this flick.

So we will ease into the new subject with a cross-dissolve out of our 13-part series on seven of the greatest Russian films ever made and we will go on a quest for films from countries like North Korea, Afghanistan, China, Iran and Venezuela.

Be back soon,right after this, our enemies through the eyes of world cinema…

“Because weakness is great and strength is nothing”

We continue with “Stalker” (1979) from last month as we gradually wind down the yearlong survey of films by Andre Tarkovsky.  In the opening shots, after the introduction, we begin by pushing in through half-opened doors, but notice how we immediately find ourselves hovering over the face of the stalker’s wife before introducing the rest of the family. His daughter’s face will be the last to grace the screen at the finale.

The stalker’s family is of paramount importance to this story, even though they make up only a fraction of what we see and hear. It’s not his wretched living quarters next to the tracks nor that dismal drinking establishment in the shadow of the cooling stacks, but the man’s wife and child that bring him back. It becomes his heart’s desire to take them with him to The Zone.

It’s a sly touch of comedy to have such a lost clown lead a prominent scientist and a celebrated writer on an expedition into the unknown. The stalker is occasionally referred to by his companions as a “chinkgachook.” It translates as something like “restless soul” or “holy kook,”but he alone can provide safe haven through a place where, years back, on account of some cosmic fluke, nature rid itself of humans. Almost everyone who ever went in there since was lost.

This chingachook’s been there and back so many times he’s a master. Where you or I see a safe path, the chinkgachook sees traps. We can only comprehend the complications of the labyrinth we inhabit by watching him pilot his companions through its funky kinks and cul-de-sacs. Tarkovsky trusts his audience to feel and think. His synthesis of time, through sound and image, maximizes space for audiences to fill in lots of blanks.

There’s a fence around The Zone and guards won’t let anyone in. They won’t go in either; they wouldn’t dare. It’s like chutes and ladders in there. You risk hell in following a stalker’s advice, but if you make it, you’re a citizen for a spell in paradise.

Actually, The Zone is not pure bliss. Like our own biosphere, it is equidistant from extremes. The Zone is merely Nature coming back from the effects of industrial blight, but the fact that she’s been spoiled makes her all the more precious and delicate. As a composer does with counterpoint or a painter does with darks and lights, Tarkovsky ups the emotional pitch of his subject by depicting polar opposites.

Light as it sounds, something seems to be pressing down on everyone in The Zone. One can hardly hold oneself up and it hardly matters where you lie down. Even when it’s soaking wet, nobody minds. Pilgrims slog and scale about the bag-end of Eden wrestling with inner demons, eventually penetrating an abandoned power plant with serpentine tunnels, treacherous currents and murky crossings. It makes a compelling visual context for characters to self-isolate, conspire, then snap back to ordinary again after each of them confronts the pros and cons of their most private desire.

At times this movie calls to mind the mind-bending paradigms in tales by Castaneda and Borges. Ordinary reality cedes to the outrageous. Passage through The Zone is a struggle between feeling and numbness, spontaneity and habit, pressure and suction. Characters plunge into unconditional reality and must sink or swim. Stalker cautions his entourage to hang close to him and takes the responsibility seriously–almost mystically. Rumor has it some legendary stalker named Porcupine lost his only son.

Great story. Now set it aside and shift the emphasis to what most interested Tarkovsky, the thing he called “sculpting time,” or how he frames the stuff of Nature in space to achieve awe-inducing spells. The artist’s pet pursuit programs cinematic progressions and rests at fluctuating rates and intervals. “Time pressure” is how he relates. A breeze lifts vapor and dust through the landscape, turning it to liquid space; time itself becomes visible as backgrounds and foregrounds dislodge. Actors pause and pace, water drips, steam rises, the camera dips and dodges to a tempo in which life itself thrives and bathes.

There are no literal mirrors in “Stalker.” Instead, dried silt in an arid lake bed lofts into the air on sudden gusts and with this image Tarkovsky somehow epitomizes the sodden journey of three conflicted men, each confronting their deepest desire.

Like a dune in the wind, never appearing the same twice, reality is in continual shift and flux inside The Zone. In other words, these mens’ very presence irreversibly alters the balance of space; as human presence has always done, conquering wild places. I consider this cinematic sequence as enlightened a statement of our predicament as any ever attempted by anyone before or since.

“Stalker” was well received internationally but back home its director was harassed. I wonder, did the maestro make a conscious decision to do away entirely with the mirrors in this film in an effort to transcend them, or was it just coincidence? We began this series over a year ago with his third film called “Mirror,” a movie that got the most heat from his detractors. Not everyone liked what they saw in the looking glass. Its intensely personal subject matter put off some viewers while exhilarating others. Within the state-run movie system of the Soviet Union, the negative response to “Mirror” probably sealed Andre’s fate as an ex-pat in the future.

Mirrors were never limited to shiny glass in this director’s films anyway. They can be found in placid ponds or on burnished shields too. They are equally abundant in both metaphor and simile as well.

Looking in the mirror means taking personal responsibility–our most pressing business on the planet. Like the best of the great artists, Tarkovsky was an oracle overlaying an enlightened frame on the future, using every thing available to him to settle technology’s debt with nature.