Andrei Tarkovsky: Sculpting in Philosophy

Today would have been Andrei Tarkovsky’s 87th birthday. Ingmar Bergman, a great director 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.”

Andrei Tarkovsky: Sculpting in Philosophy Andrei Tarkovsky: Sculpting in Philosophy Source :

Tarkovsky is remembered as a poet of cinema and the same perspective pervades his approach to the medium. As Natasha Synessios wrote, "Most of us still visit the cinema for entertainment, or escapism, not for spiritual sustenance, for revelations and benedictions. Yet those of us who are "Tarkovsky-marked" experience his films in just such religious terms. Analysis is not usually conducive to this type of experience, yet through it one hopes to unravel something of the mysterious and ineffable process of creation." Many have felt that Tarkovsky's films have an intrinsic mystery about them and the rewards lie in finding the mystery rather than unlocking it. And every time you revisit, new mysteries emerge in his films like new changes in us.

"Tarkovsky's oeuvre can be differentiated in a triptych of historical, familial and philosophical phases. However, these distinctions are offhanded as films of Tarkovsky are also understood to be intersectional and homogenous in nature. Tarkovsky's life and work are inextricably entwined. As Peter Green observed, "the subjects of his films - childhood, war, a yearning for belief, the complexities of family life, nostalgia for home, exile and death - are also stations in his own life. There is a rare congruence between subject and object that goes beyond the usual autobiographical parallels artists draw in their work." What Natasha Synessios's wrote on Mirror are valid for the whole of Tarkovsky's work: "when all is said and done, this film works on the heart and soul, not the mind; it is with them, first and foremost, that we must approach it."

Andrei Tarkovsky was a part of the generation of Soviet filmmakers that emerged during the Khrushchev Thaw years, which also saw the emergence of such directors as Otar Iosseliani, Sergei Parajanov and Andrei Mikhalkov Konchalovsky. Tarkovsky made only seven full-length films, yet this slender oeuvre has established him as the most important and well-known Russian director since Eisenstein. Although Tarkovsky's reputation continues to grow, especially in North America, where initial critical reaction was decidedly cooler than in Europe, his genius was recognised within his own lifetime by Jean-Paul Sartre, who championed Tarkovsky's first feature, Ivan's Childhood, and Ingmar Bergman, who regarded Tarkovsky as ‘the greatest of them all'.

In the eyes of the faithful, an encounter with virtually any of Tarkovsky's films holds the promise of awe-inspiring aesthetic transport liable to stir the innermost reaches of the spirit. His admirers include directors like Victor Erice, Terry Gilliam, Peter Greenaway, Krzysztof Kieslowski and Lars von Trier. Tarkovsky's films are slow, dreamlike searches for faith and redemption, and it comes as no surprise to learn that, during his years in the Soviet Union, he was often criticised for ‘mysticism' and his continued failure to tackle subjects in a style more acceptable to socialist realism. And yet Tarkovsky and his films were very much a product of the Soviet system, which ironically allowed directors a great deal of freedom to express themselves. Before we move on to examine Tarkovsky's films, writings and works in other media, it is instructive to explore briefly the Soviet film industry as it was when Tarkovsky was working within it and Tarkovsky's own biography, as both played an important part in making Tarkovsky's films what they are.

When Steven Soderbergh deigned to remake Solaris, in addition to clarifying to all the disparagers that it was Stanislaw Lem's book he was remaking into a film and not Tarkovsky's film itself, his praise for the latter was unhesitating, describing Tarkovsky's version as " a sequoia" compared to his "little bonsai."' For the late American experimental director Stan Brakhage, whose enthusiasm for Tarkovsky's work was resolutely unrequited (a wincing, near-comical account exists by Brakhage of his attempts to screen his own films for Tarkovsky on a hotel room wall during the Telluride Film Festival), Tarkovsky was "the greatest living narrative filmmaker." Eloquently elaborating on this declaration, Brakhage stated that "the three greatest tasks for film in the twentieth century are to make the epic, that is, to tell the tales of the tribes of the world; to keep it personal, because only in the eccentricities of our personal lives do we have any chance at the truth; to do the dream work, that is, to illuminate the borders of the unconscious. The only filmmaker I know that does all these three things equally in every film he makes is Andrei Tarkovsky."

Asked by Gideon Bachmann during the 196z Venice Film Festival to describe his theoretical principles, Tarkovsky responds that he does "not believe in the literary-theatrical principle of dramatic development. In my opinion, this has nothing in common with the specific nature of cinema . . . one doesn't need to explain in film, but rather to directly affect the feelings of the audience. It is this awakened emotion that drives the thoughts forward." Already presaging the formal complexity of such films as his autobiographical masterpiece, The Mirror, he tells Bachmann, "I am seeking a principle of montage that will allow me to expose the subjective logic-the thought, the dream, the memory instead of the logic of the subject." While applicable to any one of Tarkovsky's works, one can again detect the seeds of The Mirror germinating when in 1971 Tarkovsky tells Naum Abramov "I've noticed, from my experience, if the external, emotional construction of images in a film are based on the filmmaker's own memory, on the kinship of one's personal experience with the fabric of the film, then the film will have the power to affect those who see it."

It was his ambition to raise the art of film to the level of the great works of poetry, painting or music, to that of Dostoevsky, Leonardo or Bach - and it was with this humanist-Christian tradition that he identified. Despite his essentially Russian upbringing and temperament, it was the universal aspects of European culture that interested him and that ultimately make his work so widely accessible.

The path Tarkovsky followed was a personal one. The films he managed to realise were wrested in a sense from the circumstances in which he found himself; and in the end, it seemed as though he was overtaken by the events and images he had conjured on the screen - by emigration, nostalgia and sacrifice, by his horses, and the Apocalypse and the vision of St. John: 'And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death.'"

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Sean Martin - Andrei Tarkovsky, Pocket Essentials (2005)

Peter Green - Andrei Tarkovsky-the winding quest, Macmillan (1993)

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