Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky only made seven feature films before cancer cut his life short at the age of 54 in 1986, but those seven are sometimes heralded as among the best ever made. As of today we can buy all seven in a box set. Finally.
The release of this box set has coincided with a media hoo-ha about Tarkovsky’s work. In late April writer Dan Kois amusingly likening watching Tarkovsky’s films to eating your greens in an article in the New York Times (presumably vegetables are still a chore for most adults in the USA). The principle NYT film critic, Manohla Dargis, and her colleague A.O. Scott, then countered with In Defence of Slow and Boring. The fallout from this little exchange has included an article on Salon.com In Praise of Boredom, a ten best In Praise of ‘Boring’ films and, on this side of the pond, last weekend The Observer asked Are Boring Films Good for the Soul?
Most people would agree that Tarkovsky’s work can be challenging, but don’t let this put you off. You might say that his attitude to his audience is similar to that of David Simon, the creator of The Wire. A few years ago On BBC 1’s The Culture Show, Lauren Laverne asked Mr Simon “What about the casual viewer?” to which he shot back, “Fuck the casual viewer!” Unlike David Simon’s TV work, Tarkovsky’s films are not dramas and intricate plots are not their strength, but his work is also not for the easily distracted. But if we manage to pay attention, the films are rewarding.
These films are ideally suited to a box set as they benefit from repeated viewing. Tarkovsky’s films proceed at their own gentle pace, but although you won’t miss a witty aside or clever reference in a melee of frantic cutting, they do not reveal themselves instantly. Geoff Dyer, the author of Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It among other books, admitted in The Guardian that has watched Stalker numerous times. “Like the Zone, it’s always changing”, he writes.
Dyer is so keen on the film, that he’s even writing a book, Zona, about it. That is a good thing for us, because he’s a very amusing writer indeed (Steve Martin called Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, “the funniest book I have ever read”) and his insights on Stalker should add a layer of humour to a rather serious film. Another Stalker fan is Cate Blanchett, who has admitted that it took her three days to watch.
We may not want to devote three days to Stalker, but Tarkovsky’s films are not short and a little preparation might help. It can be difficult to concentrate when faced with such relaxed pace and so many long sequences, but author Toby Litt, in an essay on watching Tarkovsky, reminds us “We are bound to drift off and return. We are – I think – meant to drift off and return, and to feel conscious, if not guilty, of having drifted off.” We can think of watching Tarkovsky as the cinematic equivalent of driving the scenic route down the spine of the Blue Ridge mountains in the USA. The Blue Ridge Parkway is long (469 miles) and the speed limit is an extremely cautious 45 mph. Our mind is bound to wander, but will return to the remarkable landscape. As Carl Sandburg wrote in his poem Blue Ridge: “I am glad I have seen racehorses, women, mountains.” and Tarkovsky films, we might add.
It might seem like Tarkovsky films have locked themselves in the art house and thrown away the key, but his first sci-fi epic, Solaris, was remade in 2002 starring George Clooney, surely one of the most popular movie stars on the planet. The remake was directed by Steven Soderbergh, director of blockbusters such as Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13 as well as more arty projects like Sex, Lies and Videotape, who saw the project as “very different interpretation” of Stanislav Lem’s original book. Soderbergh revealed that he got the rights to the film from James Cameron who had spent five years negotiating to acquire them. So, the world narrowly missed ‘James Cameron’s Solaris’.
We are less likely to see a remake of Andrei Rublev the story of the 16c Russian icon painter, which although the favourite film of Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, doesn’t have the same genre advantage. Sci Fi, even metaphysical Sci Fi, has a ready audience that medieval and monastic movies just don’t.
So what are Tarkovsky’s films about? He is often credited with introducing a profound spirituality into cinema. Tarkovsky was a man of faith, and this faith is somehow linked to an open artistic vision. His films are dense with metaphor, but if were hoping this might provide a key for unlocking a simple symbolic meaning, he denies any possibility of easy interpretation. For Tarkovsky symbols were definite and finite in meaning, while “metaphor is an image. An image possessing the same distinguishing features as the world it represents. An image — as opposed to a symbol — is indefinite in meaning” There is no final interpretation of metaphor, indeed its power is lost once we try to completely understand it.
If the journey into Tarkovsky-land is long, it constantly provokes questions and never provides a commonplace image or sequence. Finally, it might be best to let Tarkovsky speak for his own artistic aspirations when he writes of being touched by a masterpiece, “in those moments we recognise and discover ourselves, the unfathomable depths of our own potential, and the furthest reaches of our emotions.”
The box set features all seven of Tarkovsky’s feature length films:
Ivan’s Childhood (1962)
Andrei Rublev (1962)
Voyage in Time (1982)
The Sacrifice (1986)
The box set also includes Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky a documentary by Dmitry Trakovsky. Marking the twentieth anniversary of Tarkovsky’s death, this film explores the great director’s legacy and features contributions from Tarkovsky’s friends, family, colleagues and admirers.
Fans will appreciate Nostalghia, a website dedicated to all things Tarkovsky.