Backtracking: jazz encounters in the room of dreams

Backtracking: jazz encounters in the room of dreams

It’s a curious thing, but just as I was entering the time of sleep lost after the arrival of the new pup, I began listening to the new release on the ECM label from the Tarkovsky Quartet. Not only was the album entitled Nuit blanche (‘sleepless night’ this side of the Channel), it also featured a dog on the cover. Not only that, the quartet, founded some years ago by the French pianist François Couturier and consisting of cellist Anja Lechner, soprano saxophonist Jean-Marc Larché and accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier takes its name from the Russian film director whose greatest works include Stalker – which was itself the subject of Zona, a brilliant meandering, meditative book by Geoff Dyer, a bunch of whose books were all that I could focus on in the indolent, zoned-out state in which I found myself. In situations like this you can’t help asking, ‘What’s going on?’ Continue reading “Backtracking: jazz encounters in the room of dreams”

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Bruegel in Vienna, part 1: through the seasons

Bruegel in Vienna, part 1: through the seasons

For true believers, the Bruegel room in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum must be the holy grail. Though paintings by the artist occupy two rooms in the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, they are interspersed with works by his two sons. But the room in Vienna is a concentrated showcase of the whole spectrum of Bruegel’s work: The Tower of Babel and The Procession to Calvary are major examples of works with a religious theme, while the three pictures from the seasons cycle illustrate Bruegel’s skill as a landscape painter. Then there are the depictions of everyday life portrayed in The Peasant Wedding and The Peasant Dance for which Bruegel is particularly renowned. Without question this was the high point of our pursuit of Bruegel across Europe. Continue reading “Bruegel in Vienna, part 1: through the seasons”

Zona: Geoff Dyer’s personal take on Tarkovsky’s Stalker

Zona: Geoff Dyer’s personal take on Tarkovsky’s Stalker

Stalker is a film about a journey to a room undertaken by three men. Possibly searching for the meaning of life. Stalker guides the other two men through the Zone towards the room, circling, weaving, never approaching the chosen destination directly.  The room may be the place where their deepest desires are fulfilled. Or it may be that it is the journey itself which is the key.

Zona is ‘A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room’ by Geoff Dyer, who first saw Andrei Tarkovsky’s film thirty years ago, at a time when ‘took LSD and magic mushrooms quite regularly’.  Since then he’s seen Stalker a hundred times – in the cinema, on VHS recordings of TV transmissions, on DVD, and projected onto the walls of his flat. Now Dyer has written a book about this miraculous film (as he observes at some point,when people discuss Tarkovsky’s films, it’s not long before the miracle word crops up).

Stalker
Are you going to teach me about the meaning of life?

In some kind of  totalitarian society, the shaven-headed guide known as Stalker leads Writer and Professor to a forbidden the Zone, an abandoned area under heavy military guard.  Something strange happened years before – perhaps a meteorite crashed – and the Zone is now a place of deserted ruins and luxuriant natural growth full of deadly (though possibly imaginary) traps for the unwary.  This is why you must employ the services of a stalker if you intend to reach the Room, the place at the heart of the Zone where all desires may be granted.

Once the trio have evaded the security guards and entered the Zone, they edge towards the Room following a circuitous route insisted upon by Stalker. As they proceed there is much acrimonious debate. Professor has rational views on every issue and enormous doubts about the mystery surrounding the Zone and the Room, while Writer is world-weary and cynical, sceptical about his profession as a writer; he is convinced that he will fail and nobody will read his books.

Stalker edgelands 2
Stalker: entering the Zone

It’s a challenging film, slow-moving like all of Tarkovsky’s work and replete with haunting cinematography and astonishing images.  It is a film full of poetry, and the closest cinema has come to a producing a film that is a poem in itself.  So the writer Geoff Dyer faced a real challenge: how to translate this beautiful and luminous film into words.

It would be quite possible to read – and enjoy – Zona without ever having seen the film, so entertaining and fluent is Dyer’s approach.  At one point he insists that his book is not a ‘summary’. So what is it?  Dyer suggests that Zona is an ‘amplification and expansion’, which is certainly true.  It is unlike any other book about a film that I can recall: a meandering, meditative essay that is autobiographical self-examination and commentary in equal measure.  The film that  Tarkovsky made before Stalker was Mirror, and Dyer’s book is a bit like a mirror in which we see the author scrutinizing himself watching a film that ends with a character looking at us looking at her.

Like Stalker in the film, Dyer is constantly veering off the direct route to the chosen destination.  A goodly proportion of the book consists of footnotes, given equal weighting and spacing and sometimes usurping the main text for several pages. These footnotes contain details of the film’s fraught creation, but also make wild digressions into all sorts of other reflections, both cultural and deeply personal.

Dyer tells us that at one stage he had intended breaking the book into 142 sections, each corresponding to the 142 shots of the film. But then, as he became engrossed and re-engrossed in the film, he kept losing track:

 This forgetting or not noticing is an authentic and integral part of watching any film – and this book is an account of watchings, rememberings, misrememberings, and forgettings; it is not the record of a dissection.

Later on in the book, Dyer wonders, ‘what kind of writer am I, reduced to writing a summary of a film?’

Especially since there are few things I hate more than when someone, in an attempt to persuade me to see a film, starts summarizing it, explaining the plot, thereby destroying any chance of my ever going to see it.

Dyer sees what he is attempting here as being the opposite of a summary: it’s ‘an amplification, an expansion’.  Nevertheless, he  wonders whether doing this is a reasonable way to spend one’s days:

What is the purpose of such an exercise? The exercise is, of course, its own purpose, an end in itself. Whether it will amount to anything – whether it will add up to a worthwhile commentary, and whether this commentary might also become a work of art in its own right – is still unclear. The point is that, as a direct result of embarking on this summary, I am not in the despond in which Writer finds himself. I’m not perched on the edge of a tubular abyss in a soaking wet overcoat; I’m sitting at my desk in a nice warm cardigan. I’m getting on with something, making progress, moving towards a Room of my own.

Stalker 2
Stalker: Writer and Professor

Dyer recalls that the first time he saw Stalker was soon after it had been released in this country: in the early 1980s, towards the end of what can now be seen as a golden age of cinema to which we may never return.  ‘If I had not seen Stalker in my early twenties my responsiveness to the world would have been radically diminished’, he says. Tarkovsky’s aesthetic, in which the length of take demands ‘a special intensity of attention’,  is, Dyer argues, the inverse of what now dominates much of contemporary culture where, ‘a lot of what’s being shown on the world’s screens is fit only for morons’.  Cinema has become ‘the most debased wonder in the history of the earth’ as glimpsed in cinema trailers, riffs Dyer in this wonderfully grouchy passage:

It means explosions, historical epics in which the outcome of the Battle of Hastings is reversed by the arcane CGI prowess of Merlin the Magician, it means five-year-old children turning suddenly into snarling devils, it means wrecking cars and reckless driving, it means a lot of noise, it means that I have to time my arrival carefully (twenty minutes at least) after the advertised programme time if I am to avoid all this stuff which, if one were exposed to it for the full hour and a half, would cause one’s capacity for discernment to drop by fifty percent (or, conversely, one’s ability to tolerate stuff  like this to increase a hundredfold). It means sitting there shaking one’s middle-aged head; it means that one is wary about going to the cinema. It means that there are more and more things on the street, in shops, on-screen and on telly from which one has to avert one’s ears and eyes. With television I have my strict rule, a rule applying to Jeremy Clarkson, Jonathan Ross, Russell Brand, Graham Norton and a whole bunch of others whose names I don’t even know: I won’t have these people in the house. It’s not – as Stalker claimed – that all the world’s a prison; it’s just that a lot of what’s being shown on the world’s screens – televisions, cinemas, computers – is fit only for morons.

Tarkovsky described film as ‘sculpting in time’, and now that Dyer has got this idea between his teeth, he continues to give it a jolly good shaking, seeing the cinematic move from lengthy takes to fast cutting as being symbolic of the medium’s decline:

Antonioni liked long takes but Tarkovsky took this a stage further: ‘If the regular length of a shot is increased, one becomes bored, but if you keep on making it longer, it piques your interest, and if you make it even longer, a new quality emerges, a special intensity of attention.’ This is Tarkovsky’s aesthetic in a nutshell. At first there can be a friction between our expectations of time and Tarkovsky-time and this friction is increasing in the twenty-first century as we move further and further away from Tarkovsky-time towards moron-time in which nothing can last – and no one can concentrate on anything – for longer than about two seconds. Soon people will not be able to watch films like Theo Angelopoulos’ Ulysses’ Gaze or to read Henry James because they will not have the concentration to move from one interminable scene or sentence to the next. The time when I might have been able to read late-period Henry James has passed and because I have not read late-period Henry James I am in no position to say what harm has been done to my sensibility by not having done so. But I do know that if I had not seen Stalker in my early twenties my responsiveness to the world would have been radically diminished.

There’s more in this vein in a lengthy footnote that observes how Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan used Stalker in a sequence of great deadpan comedy in Uzak, where contrasting responses to Tarkovsky’s film by two brothers sharing an apartment help reveal their differing personalities.

Stalker edgelands
Stalker: on the trolley

The sequence in question is, avers Dyer, ‘one of the great sequences in the history of cinema’.  In it, the camera tracks from the faces of the three questing travellers as they ride a trolley along  the railway track into the Zone:

These are the faces – the expressions – of travellers anywhere, from Columbus’s crew in search of the Americas to tourists in a taxi on their way from the airport to a city centre that they – Writer and Professor at least – have never visited before. They’re taking everything in even though they’re not sure if what they’re seeing is any different from what they’ve already seen or where they’ve just been. Frankly, they’re not entirely sure that what they’re taking in is worth taking in, a feeling we’ve all had as we make our hyperattentive way through the universally uninteresting, often desolate stretch between airport and the luxurious promise (hotel, cafes) of the city centre. Occasionally the camera permits a focused glimpse of what they are passing through- mist, a brick building, piles of discarded pipes, crates, a river (or possibly a lake) – but even then, even when we can see clearly, we are not sure what we are seeing. Outskirts, periphery, abandonedness. Buildings that are no longer what they were once intended for: sites of decayed meaning that may, as a result, have acquired a new and deeper meaning. It depends.

Montage from Stalker: the film in five minutes

What is the meaning of this place, the Zone?  Tarkovsky was famously hostile to symbolic readings of his films, including the meaning of the Zone itself: ‘I’m reduced to a state of fury and despair by such questions. The Zone doesn’t symbolise anything, any more than anything else does in my films: the zone is the zone, it’s life.’  Certainly, one thing that is remarkable is that, as soon as we reach the Zone the film, which up to now has been shot in a particularly dark and muddy monochrome, bursts into colour. Stalker says something meaningful: ‘Here we are… home at last’; so is this a return to some kind of Eden?

Stalker edgelands 3
Stalker: Professor and Stalker survey the edgelands

It doesn’t look or feel like that: in fact, it feels more like the edgelands (discussed in the previous post here): rampantly overgrown industrial ruins, ruined buildings overgrown and subsiding beneath drifts of cow parsley, the indecipherable wreckage of machinery, water pooled and dripping and littered with detritus.  Dyer realises this, too, in a wonderfully evocative passage, lit with childhood nostalgia:

Landscapes like this had been seen before Tarkovsky but – I don’t know how else to put it – their beingness had not been seen in this way. Tarkovsky reconfigured the world, brought this landscape – this way of seeing the world – into existence. […] If Stalker had not been the first Tarkovsky film I saw I might have recognised elements of this landscape from Mirror – the cross T’s of the telegraph poles, the greens (made more lush, somehow, by being subdued), the distinction between the man-made and the natural being eroded before our eyes. If I had seen Mirror I might have recognised this landscape, these elements, as Tarkovsky-land, might have echoed the first words uttered by Stalker: Here we are. Home at last. And yet, at some level, I must have recognised or at least been familiar with a modest and local variant of this kind of landscape-which perhaps accounts, in part, for why the film has made such a deep impression on me. There is just one train station now in Cheltenham, where I grew up, but in the late 195os and early 196os there were four. One of these, Leckhampton, was only a five-minute walk from where we lived. My father used to take me up there when I was a toddler to watch trains steam in and out. The line and the station closed down in 1962, when I was four … but I have strong memories of heading off to this abandoned, brambly zone to play with a couple of friends, when we were eight or nine. The windows of the disused station building had been smashed and the rain had seeped in; it looked as if it had long ago fallen into decay. … The tracks had rusted, were overgrown with weeds, grass, stinging nettles, dandelions. Sometimes we followed them for a while, beyond the ends of the platforms, but never as far as the next station along the line-also abandoned-a couple of miles away, in Charlton Kings.

Here we are, says Stalker. Home at last.

Stalker edgelands 4
Stalker: ‘tremors from the future’

But if for Dyer Stalker evokes memories from the past, it also sends ‘tremors from the future’.  You cannot watch this film, made in 1979, and not think now of Chernobyl or Fukushima, both sites of nuclear disasters now sealed off in evacuated and abandoned zones. Dyer refers to the remarkable photos taken by Robert Polidori in Chernobyl and neighbouring Pripyat.  In the week following the Chernobyl catastrophe on 26 April 1986, more than 116,000 people were permanently evacuated from the area surrounding the nuclear power plant.  Declared unfit for human habitation, the Zones of Exclusion include the towns of Pripyat and Chernobyl. In May 2001, Robert Polidori photographed what was left behind in this dead zone.

Robert Polidori – Zones of Exclusion: Pripyat and Chernobyl from PhotoBookStore.co.uk on Vimeo.

Dyer also reminds us of the photographs taken by Jonas Bendiksen in Kazakhstan, in an area where debris from Soviet spacecraft regularly fell to earth.  Bendiksen’s most famous image – beautiful in the way that the Zone in Stalker is beautiful – shows two villagers atop the remains of part of a spacecraft ‘in the midst of  an idyllic green landscape and blue sky, all snow-blurred by the wings of thousands of white butterflies’.

Jonas Bendiksen Kazakhstan spacecraft crash
Jonas Bendiksen: Kazakhstan spacecraft crash site

There is a wind in the films of Tarkovsky, a wind that springs from nowhere. We saw it first near the beginning of Mirror and for me it remains one of the most beautiful cinematic images that I have ever seen. Geoff Dyer has noticed that wind, too. Tarkovsky, he writes, is the cinema’s great poet of stillness.His vision is imbued with the still beauty of Russian icons like those painted by Andrei Rublev, the subject of his second great film.Dyer writes:

Tarkovsky’s stillness is animated by the energy of the moving image, of cinema, of which the wind is expression and symptom. Out of this comes the most distinctive feature of  Tarkovsky’s art: the sense of beauty as force.

Dyer adds, in one of the extensive footnotes that define the book:

This wind that springs from nowhere, suddenly appearing with a force capable of carrying it across the steppes of Russia: genealogically it springs from the opening sequence of Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s 193o silent Soviet classic, Earth, a film Tarkovsky watched ‘over and over again’ without ever being able to explain why it touched him ‘so deeply’.

Stillness.  Dyer observes how often in Stalker, when nothing appears to be happening, the camera is actually closing in, so slowly and so slightly it makes almost no difference, other than to alert us even if only subliminally – to the fact that something is always either happening or is about to happen or might happen. Any deviation from the route indicated by Stalker through the ritual of throwing a nut wrapped in a piece of cloth is, he claims, dangerous. Dyer continues:

Writer, having been initially fearful, is getting fed up with Stalker’s nut-chucking idea of route planning. He might be Russian but he is the embodiment of a distinctly English attitude: fuck this for a game of soldiers! Why can’t we go straight to the Room? We could be there in a few minutes. … It’s dangerous, Stalker says again. Actually, the main danger seems to be coming from Stalker himself. When Writer starts idly tugging on a tree, vandalising the place, Stalker (who, let’s not forget, had himself damaged a telegraph pole just a few minutes earlier) chucks a weighty metal tube at his head for being flippant.

There’s something here that I thought Dyer missed, despite his earlier recollections of an edgelands childhood.  Watching Stalker, it has always struck me how like a children’s game this crab-like progress through the Zone actually is.  It reminds me of how the collective imagination of a group of kids could enact some boundless, fantastical drama across a limited terrain.  The space was small, but the stakes were high and the journey was long. In the film, Tarkovsky recreates the fantasy space of childhood play through cinematic space in which the usual measurements of space and distance – miles, kilometres, acres – are irrelevant:

The camera moves forward in what we assume is a linear fashion only for us to discover we are back where we started.  ‘The single most important force in Tarkovsky’s construction of space’, writes Robert Bird, ‘is the motion of the camera’.

It’s around this point that we encounter one of Geoff Dyer’s funniest asides.  He’s talking about the moment when Professor’s refuses to go any further because he’s left his knapsack at their last staging post.  He wants to go back for it, but, in the Zone, Stalker asserts, there is no turning back.  And anyway, Stalker adds, why worry about a knapsack? You’re going to the Room where all your wishes will come true.  You can have as many knapsacks as you like.

Here Dyer breaks off to explain why he absolutely identifies with Professor at this point: years ago he lost a Freitag bag that meant a great deal to him.  ‘At this moment’, he writes, ‘if I found myself in the Room, my deepest wish is that I could be reunited with my Freitag bag.’  If this sounds more flippant than a serious film by Tarkovsky deserves, don’t be deceived: it leads Dyer into a deeper discussion of desire and disappointment.  Dyer doesn’t evade the film’s existential agenda;  rather he approaches it in a way that makes its ideas accessible. He is witty and entertaining where he could have been mightily pretentious (just try reading that book by Robert Bird that he cites now and again).

Unlike critics like Bird, however, Dyer’s purpose in this book extends beyond offering a commentary on Tarkovsky’s film.  He is interested, too, in exploring  its personal meaning  for him, and how the film and others of its era shaped his cinematic consciousness. He breaks off from discussing a scene midway through the film, when the three exhausted travellers lie down (in a stream!) and fall asleep while discussing the role of art and artists in society, to offer an extended footnote about how your age when you first see a film will determine your whole attitude to cinema:

The first few times I saw Stalker were during a phase in my life when I took LSD and magic mushrooms quite regularly. It was also a phase of intense cinema-going. The prominent place occupied in my consciousness by Stalker is almost certainly bound up with the fact that I saw it at a particular time in my life.  I suspect it is rare for anyone to see their – what they consider to be the  – greatest film after the age of thirty. After forty it’s extremely unlikely. After fifty, impossible. … Gradually, usually in your late teens and twenties, you start to watch the major works of the medium.  At first it is difficult to make sense of these alleged masterpieces: they are too different, often too boring and challenging. … By the time I came to see Stalker I was ready to sit through it even if I was not able to enjoy it.  I understood enough – barely enough – of the grammar and history of cinema to see how they were being enlarged, adapted and extended by Tarkovsky. … My capacity for wonder was . . . subtly enlarged and changed.

More than that (and here we return to a theme Dyer introduced in the first few pages of the book):

It happens that the phase of my getting into serious cinema … from the mid-1970s onwards, overlapped with the intensely creative period of what might be called mainstream independent film-making, when American directors, having absorbed the influences of the European auteurs, carved out the freedom to realize their cinematic ambitions. I saw Taxi Driver when it was first released, and Apocalypse Now (and Jaws and Star Wars, which, together with the financial catastrophe of Heaven’s Gate, heralded the end of this phase).  I saw Stalker slightly later but I saw it when it came out, within a month of its release, when Tarkovsky was at his artistic peak. I saw it, so to speak, live.  And this means that I saw it in a slightly different way from how a twenty-four year old might see it for the first time now, in 2012.

Meanwhile, on screen, the travellers are attempting to sleep in the stream.  But first they debate some important questions:

Writer: Listen, Professor. A man writes because he’s tormented, because he doubts. He needs to constantly prove to himself and the others that he’s worth something. And if I know for sure that I’m a genius? Why write then? What the hell for? Well, I must say that we exist for…

Professor: Will you be so kind and leave me alone? Let me get a wink, I haven’t slept all night. Keep your complexes to yourself.

Writer: In any case, all this technology of yours…all those blast furnaces, wheels…and other bullshit are only designed in order to work less and eat more. They are all just crutches, artificial limbs. And mankind exists in order to create…works of art. Unlike all other human activities, this one is unselfish. Great illusions! Images of the absolute truth! Are you listening to me, Professor?

Professor: What unselfishness are you talking about? People still die of hunger. Have you fallen from the moon?

Writer: And they are considered to be our brainy aristocracy! You’re not even capable of thinking in abstractions.

Professor: Are you going to teach me about the meaning of life? And also how to think?
Writer: It’s useless. You might be a professor, but an ignorant one.

Are you going to teach me about the meaning of life?

Stalker room
Stalker: in the Room

On screen the trio of travellers have finally arrived in the Room, the place that promises to realise their innermost desires.  On the page, Dyer meditates on what his innermost desire might consist of.  Is one’s deepest desire the same as one’s greatest regret? He ponders that, but wonders also whether your deepest desire might be manifested by your daily life and habits?

Then mine, apparently, is to potter about, to potter my life away, drifting from desk to kitchen (to make tea), from house to cafe (to have coffee).  It all comes down to that line in Solaris about never knowing when you’re going to die.  If I had a week left to live it would be absurd to potter around my house like this.  I’d rather be doing something exciting (though what that something might be for the moment escapes me).

It’s around this point in the film that Stalker regards his fellow-travellers and expresses his hopes for them:

Let everything that’s been planned come true. Let them believe. And let them have a laugh at their passions. Because what they call passion actually is not some emotional energy, but just the friction between their souls and the outside world. And most important, let them believe in themselves. Let them be helpless like children, because weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing. When a man is just born, he is weak and flexible. When he dies, he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it’s tender and pliant. But when it’s dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death’s companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being. Because what has hardened will never win.

Stalker recites a poem by Tarkovsky’s father, Arseny Tarkovsky:

Now summer is gone.
And might never have been.
In the sunshine it’s warm.
But there has to be more.

It all came to pass,
All fell into my hands
Like a five-petalled leaf,
But there has to be more.

Nothing evil was lost,
Nothing good was in vain,
All ablaze with clear light
But there has to be more.

Life gathered me up
Safe under its wing,
My luck always held,
But there has to be more.

Not a leaf was burnt up
Not a twig ever snapped …
Clean as glass is the day,
But there has to be more.

Tarkovsky was notoriously averse to discussing his films and any meaning which they might have.  But in his memoir Sculpting in Time he did reveal something of what inspired him to make his extraordinary films:

In Stalker I made some sort of complete statement: namely that human love alone is – miraculously – proof against the blunt assertion that there is no hope for the world. This is our common, and incontrovertibly positive possession. Although we no longer quite know how to love…

In this film I wanted to mark out that essentially human thing that cannot be dissolved or broken down, that forms like a crystal in the soul of each of us and constitutes its great worth.  And even though outwardly their journey seems to end in fiasco, in fact each of the protagonists acquires something of inestimable value: faith.  He becomes aware in himself of what is most important of all; and that most important thing is alive in every person.

So how to assess Geoff Dyer’s examination of Stalker?  Dyer celebrates Andrei Tarkovsky’s film in an unpretentious and  straightforward manner, and although you might feel at certain points there is more that might be said, each scene in the film is scrupulously examined and Dyer’s playfulness and matter of fact style is enjoyable. Dyer wears his intellectual powers lightly: if he’s describing a magical sequence, he refrains from over-elaborate interpretation.  As we have seen, the frame-by-frame analysis is a springboard for an investigation into everything from faith to knapsacks: honest, irreverent, and deeply personal.

Stalker Monkey
Stalker: Monkey in the film’s final scene

There is no more extraordinary scene in Tarkovsky’s films than the final scene in which Stalker’s daughter Monkey reads and memorises a poem by the early 19th century Russian writer Fyodor Tyuchev:

I love your eyes, my dear
Their splendid sparkling fire
When suddenly you raise them so
To cast a swift embracing glance
Like lightning flashing in the sky

But there is a charm that is greater still
When my love’s eyes are lowered
When all is fired by passion’s kiss
And through the downcast lashes
I see the dull flame of desire

What happens next is describable, but inexpressible.  Monkey lays down her book and rests her head upon the table.  She  focusses her attention on a glass standing there, and seemingly in response to her thoughts the glass begins to move down the table.  The glass falls from the table but does not break.  Dyer ends his book with the film’s conclusion:

A train is approaching, making the windows rattle, making the jar shake and the table too, as it did right at the beginning, when she was asleep in bed with her mum and dad, before he went to the Zone and got her a nice doggy. The vibrations from the train are so strong that her head is being shaken as it rumbles and rattles past, blaring out Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’. Eventually the noise diminishes and the train passes and there is just the rattle of the train that has passed and her eyes, her watching eyes, and her face and head, resting on the table, watching us watching her, fading to black.

Final scene

Trailer

See also

Tarkovsky revisited: Andrei Rublev

Chatting with a friend recently we got to talking about the films of Andrei Tarkovsky; he hadn’t seen any, but had been reading a reviews of the new box set which had whetted his appetite.  I urged him to embark on a cinematic journey through extraordinary, visionary and beautiful films – masterpieces whose slow, mesmerising passages have haunted my imagination for the past four decades.

It’s been a few years since I last watched any of these films, so I said I’d join him on the journey – revisiting the seven full-length features that comprise the Tarkovsky canon so that we can share our thoughts as we go.  I’ve started with Andrei Rublev – not necessarily the film I’d advise someone new to Tarkovsky to watch first: it’s three hours and 25 minutes long, shot almost entirely in black and white, without an obvious unifying narrative, in which for long stretches the central character doesn’t utter a word.

But this is a film of strange and terrible beauty that, like all of Tarkovsky’s films, is difficult to describe without sounding slightly demented.  After watching a Tarkovsky film you feel not just that you have seen a movie, but that you have been through some kind of transfiguring experience.

The film ostensibly concerns the 15th century monk Andrei Rublev, ranked as one of the greatest medieval Russian icon painters.  But little is known about Rublev, and the seven episodes in Rublev’s life that comprise the film are figments of Tarkovsky’s imagination, through which he aims to express ideas about art, faith and truth.

In his artistic testament, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema, Tarkovsky wrote:

Why does  art exist?  Who needs it?  Indeed does anybody need  it? These are questions asked not only by the poet, but also by anyone who appreciates art – or, in that current expression all too symptomatic of the  twentieth-century relationship between art  and  its  audience – the  ‘consumer’.  Many ask themselves that  question, and anyone connected  with art  gives  his own particular answer. … Every artist is ruled by his own laws but these  are by no means compulsory  for  anyone else. In  any case it is  perfectly  clear  that the  goal for all  art – unless of course  it is  aimed  at the  ‘consumer’,  like a saleable  commodity – is to  explain  to  the artist himself and to those around him what man lives  for, what  is  the  meaning  of his  existence.  To  explain to people the  reason  for their appearance  on  this planet; or if not to explain, at least to pose the question.

In Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky probes this question: what is the point of art, or of the artist – especially in a brutal world seemingly devoid of inspiration, beauty and fellow-feeling?  Rublev struggles to create meaningful art in a time of hardship.  For Tarkovsky, the doubt and tribulation experienced by Rublev 600 years earlier was not far removed from that of the artist in the Soviet Union in his own lifetime and that of his parents. Tarkovsky reflects on the responsibility of the artist to represent the truth, though Tarkovsky’s Rublev is not the heroic artist of Hollywood biopics: rather, he is one who is plagued by doubt – both about the value of his work, and his virtuousness as a human.  He is a monk tempted by the flesh in an encounter with a woman from a community celebrating pagan  rites, an artist doubting his skills in completing a church, and a Christian who commits a fundamental sin.

The film opens with a prologue in which a man fords a river, climbs a church tower and clambers aboard a primitive hot air balloon constructed from goat skins. He soars above the river, over the  heads of curious monks and peasants watching below. Soon, balloon and balloonist crash to the earth; Tarkovsky cuts to an image of a horse ecstatically rolling on the ground, legs akimbo.

In just a few minutes, Tarkovsky has presented us with images of freedom –  soaring from the constraints of earthly forces, and from religion and society. It’s a sequence which asserts the necessity of intellectual freedom, the search for truth and knowledge, in the face of dogma and authority:

The only condition of fighting for the right to create is faith  in your own vocation, readiness to serve, and refusal to compromise. Artistic creation demands of the artist that he  ‘perish  utterly’, in the full, tragic sense of those words.
– Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time

No narrative arc connects the episodes which follow: events occur inexplicably and unexpectedly, and we feel a real sense of the unfathomable nature of life in medieval times, with death and destruction hammer into the everday world without warning. In the first episode Rublev, accompanied by two fellow monks, take shelter from the rain in a hut crowded with peasants. A jester entertains by leaping around and singing bawdy songs; suddenly soldiers enter and drag him outside, smashing his head against a tree before carting him away, unconscious.

Gradually, Rublev is revealed as a disillusioned man who cannot resist his own lustful desires, and who struggles to find beauty in a turbulent and brutal world of random violence.

When I speak of the aspiration towards the beautiful, of the ideal as the ultimate aim of art, which grows from a yearning for that ideal, I am not for a moment suggesting that art should shun the  ‘dirt’ of the world.  On the  contrary!  The artistic  image is always a metonym, where one thing is substituted for another, the smaller for the greater. …Hideousness  and  beauty are contained within each other. This prodigious paradox, in all its absurdity, leavens life itself, and in art makes  that wholeness in which harmony and tension are unified.
– Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time

Rublev is chosen to work with the famous icon painter Theophanes the Greek, who becomes his teacher and mentor.  But when Rublev is commissioned to decorate a cathedral with The Last Judgment, he fails to complete the work because he cannot bring himself to paint admonitory scenes of souls in torment.

In scenes of astonishing violence and brutality, Tartars raid the town.  When the Tartars enter the church, Rublev prevents the rape of a young woman by killing her attacker. Shaken by this event Andrei falls into self-doubt, decides to give up painting, and takes a vow of silence.

It’s the seventh and final episode that will always live in my memory of this film. In a 40-minute sequence which must be one of the greatest  in cinema, Tarkovsky shows Rublev witnessing the casting of a bell. Soldiers acting on the orders of the Grand Prince search for a master artisan bell-maker to cast a giant bell. But the bell-maker has died. Impulsively, his young son tells them that his father passed on to him the secret of casting, but he’s lying.

As Rublev watches, the bell-maker’s son supervises the stages of the casting – digging the pit, selecting the clay, building of the mold, firing the furnaces and, finally, the hoisting of the bell. If he fails, he faces certain death.  But, in the presence of the Grand Prince and assembled dignitaries, the bell rings perfectly.

The son collapses in tears, admitting to Rublev that he never knew the secret. Witnessing this act of artistic blind faith and seeing his younger self in the boy, Rublev breaks his vow of silence and tells the boy that they should work together: ‘You’ll cast bells. I’ll paint icons’.  The camera slowly tracks outward, soaring overhead, like the inventor in his hot air balloon. Rublev’s passion is restored.

It’s at this point that the film, up until now in black-and-white, explodes into colour as, in a series of slow tracking shots, Tarkovsky has the camera linger on the exquisite details of several of Andrei Rublev’s icons, in a near-abstract montage. This is the consummation of the thread that has linked the episodes  in the discontinuous narrative of the film.  It is the triumph of art:

We have almost totally lost sight of the beautiful as a criterion of art: in other words,  of the aspiration to express the ideal.  Every age is marked by the search for truth. And however grim that truth, it still contributes to the moral health  of humanity. Its  recognition is a sign of a healthy time and can never be in contradiction with the moral  idea.  Attempts  to  hide the truth, cover it, keep it secret, artificially setting it against a distorted  moral  ideal on the assumption that the latter will be repudiated in the eyes of the majority by the  impartial  truth – can  only  mean  that ideological  interests  have been substituted for aesthetic criteria. Only a faithful statement about  the  artist’s  time  can express a true, as   opposed  to a propagandist, moral ideal.  This was the theme of Andrei Rublev. It looks at first sight as if the cruel truth of life as he observes it is in crying contradiction with the harmonious ideal of  his  work.  The crux of  the question, however, is that the artist cannot express the moral ideal of his time unless he  touches all its running sores, unless he  suffers and lives these sores himself.  That is how art triumphs over grim, ‘base’ truth, clearly recognising it for what it is,  in  the name of its own sublime purpose: such is its destined role. For art could almost be said to be religious  in  that  it  is  inspired by commitment to a  higher goal. Devoid of spirituality, art  carries its  own  tragedy within  it. For even to recognise the spiritual vacuum of the times in which he lives, the artist must have specific qualities of wisdom and understanding. The true artist always serves immortality, striving to immortalise the world and man within the world.
– Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time

Finally, in a slow dissolve from the icons, we see (in a motif that will become familiar in subsequent films from Tarkovsky) rainwater streaming over a surface of peeling paint and then a group of horses standing by a river in the rain.

This is how Steve Rose concluded his review for The Guardian, in which he argued the case for Andrei Rublev being the best arthouse movie of all time:

Despite its apparent formlessness, Andrei Rublev is precisely structured and entirely aesthetically coherent. Acts of creation are mirrored by acts of destruction, there are themes of flight, of vision, of presence and absence; the more you look, the more you see. And then there are the horses, Tarkovsky’s perennial favourite: horses rolling over, horses charging into battle, swimming in the river, falling down stairs, dragging men out of churches. At times the screen resembles a vast Brueghel painting come to life, or a medieval tapestry unrolling. We’re always conscious of life spilling out beyond the frame, and never conscious of the fact that this was made in 60s USSR. In Tarkovsky’s own turbulent time, the film lit all manner of controversy. Its Christian spiritualism offended the Soviet authorities; its depiction of Russia’s savage history upset nationalists like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and its challenging form led to various cuts. After opening in Moscow in 1966, it was suppressed until the 1969 Cannes film festival, and didn’t reach Britain till 1973.

We don’t necessarily know, or need to know, how Andrei Rublev works or what it’s telling us, but by the end we’re in no doubt it’s succeeded. When in the final minutes, the film pulls off its most famous flourish: the screen bursts into colour and we’re finally ready to see Rublev’s paintings in extreme close-up – coming at the end of this epic journey, they can reduce a viewer to tears. As the camera pores over the details, the tiny jewels on the hem of a robe, the lines forming a pitiful expression on the face of an angel, the tarnished gilding of a halo, we feel like we understand everything that’s gone into every brushstroke. We’re reminded of what beauty is. It is as close to transcendence as cinema gets.

Links

Amazingly, you can now legitimately watch several Tarkovsky films in their entirety for free on YouTube: Mosfilm, the Russian film studio responsible for most of his films (as well as many other classics of Soviet cinema) has released them onto the Internet with English subtitles.