Five Shots of Tarkovsky

Five Shots of Tarkovsky

“My objective is to create my own world, and these images which we create mean nothing more than the images which they are.”

Andrei Tarkovsky

More than three decades after his passing, the films of Andrei Tarkovsky retain their ability to startle and astonish, as if they were transmissions from another universe. Whether transporting viewers back to the Middle Ages, confronting the apocalyptic extremes of the twentieth century, or taking a leap into our unknowable future, the Russian master bent time and space to his will, creating a cinematic language all his own against great political odds. In conjunction with a career-spanning retrospective now playing on the Criterion Channel, we asked filmmakers Michael Almereyda and Peter Strickland, artist Shirin Neshat, and writers Geoff Dyer and Colm Tóibín to dive into individual moments from Tarkovsky’s films that have moved them and continue to haunt them. Ranging from close readings to personal reflections, their responses celebrate a body of work that rewards a lifetime of contemplation.

The Jester Scene in Andrei Rublev
By Michael Almereyda

The bald man with a rascally, bearded face, darting eyes, identified in the title card as “the Jester,” looks almost proud, half smiling and only slightly reluctant as he stands, walks to the door, and shrugs off the shirt draped over his shoulders while handing off the lap harp he’d been tuning moments earlier. He’s been summoned—“You, come here”—by three stern men hovering at the threshold. He glances back to his audience (including Rublev, the film’s soulfully passive painter protagonist, with whom he hasn’t exchanged a word) and grins like a truant schoolboy. One man pulls him forward by wrapping a hand across the back of his neck; another takes his arm, then his wrist.

“What are you doing?” he says. He’s now outside the cabin in which Rublev, his two cowled companions, and a couple dozen peasants have been waiting out the rain, and he’s half obscured by the door frame, his exposed back and hunched shoulders providing an achingly eloquent illustration of humiliation and helplessness. The men flanking him, firmly holding his arms, march him away from us, swinging him with expert precision, head-first, into the trunk of a tree.

The moment of grappling, the uncertainty, is part of what makes the action so convincing and the shot so haunting. No one speaks or raises a hand in the man’s defense. The camera remains fixed, watching through the door as he drops to the puddled mud, sits up for a dazed moment, then collapses in a heap, lying very still.

The rain has subsided; a residual trickle shivering down from the formerly innocent tree as one of the thugs efficiently gathers the man in his arms and slings his body across the back of a waiting horse.

The camera pulls back as the primary horseman enters the cabin, confiscates the lap harp, then steps outside and smashes it on the ground. (Part of the miracle of the whole sequence involves the lighting; we’re able to see everything inside the cabin and the sodden, rain-soaked landscape outside.) Almost immediately Rublev’s pious senior colleague steps into the threshold, having furtively slipped out the back at the first sign of trouble.

All of this (and plenty I haven’t described) in one shot.

Before the horsemen’s arrival, the Jester had just finished a hyperkinetic stand-up routine: riding on a baby goat, walking on his hands, slapping a tambourine, jabbering nonstop. In a pre-echo of the violence that awaits him, he pantomimes bashing his skull on the wooden beam in the cabin’s center. When Rublev and his pals show up, there’s an abruptly gentle pause, an interval of mute suspension, with everyone seemingly spellbound by the rain. Among the ruined, rustic Bruegel types, Tarkovsky’s camera intercepts two of the most unsentimentally open-faced, watchful children in the history of cinema. Later in the story, the Jester resurfaces; his tongue has been cut out, he seems addled, and he blames Rublev for what’s happened to him. Plainly enough, he is Rublev’s profane surrogate, one of a sequence of shadows and mirrors appearing throughout the movie’s majestic roil of events. These include the daring, doomed inventor of a not-quite-successful medieval flying machine in the film’s prelude, and the fourteen-year-old boy genius who bluffs his way into casting a magnificent silver bell in the soaring final episode. In between there’s Jesus Christ, trudging through thickly pouring snow on the way to his crucifixion. They’re all surrogates for Tarkovsky, of course, and for any artist searching for personal truth—reaching in while reaching out—perpetually caught off guard, undefended, imperfect, in an unfathomable world where tenderness and torture coexist.

The Final Shot of Mirror
By Geoff Dyer

Perhaps a mild spoiler alert is needed here since, from a hundred possible choices, I’ve opted for the very last shot of Mirror. Simultaneously premonition and memory, it shows an old lady and two children walking across a green meadow toward the almost stationary camera while the sun sinks behind them. The camera slowly tracks the trio as they  move left, the blaze of Bach’s St. John Passion dies down, and the little boy, who has fallen a few steps behind, fills the now-silent twilight with a Tarzan-y cry.

I read somewhere that while Tarkovsky, in Mirror, was making a film about his childhood, the cinematographer, Georgy Rerberg, felt like he was filming his childhood. This slight misalignment proved extremely fruitful—during the making of Stalker their collaboration would dissolve in bitterness and recrimination—and perhaps helps to account for the way that we end up with a vision of childhood that is at once highly particularized and universal. As the camera retreats into the shadows and eventual darkness of the trees we not only see but relive the experience of our own childhoods—even, potentially, our own lives—drawing to an end, receding even while being preserved and enhanced by memory: more exactly, by imagined memory.

On the A40 between Oxford and Cheltenham, the town where I grew up, there is a place where the fields of the Cotswolds can be seen only through a copse—or, better, a screen of trees. I’ve driven along the road hundreds of times without remembering exactly where this spot is; but on each occasion, for five or six seconds, it becomes impossible to separate the actual view of England, my England, from those last, utterly profound moments from Mirror, of Tarkovsky’s Russia.

A Moment of Hope in Stalker
By Shirin Neshat

Coming from a visual arts background, I didn’t grow up watching a lot of classic cinema, but I knew that I had to study film history if I was going to make films. When I first encountered Tarkovsky, I think I wasn’t prepared for him; I found his movies too slow. Then, years later, Lincoln Center organized a retrospective of his work, and I went and saw every single film.

I remember one night running into a good friend, the legendary Iranian filmmaker Amir Naderi, and asking him for his advice on filmmaking and films to watch. He offered me a list of movies I should see before I embarked on making my own, and Tarkovsky’s were on it. I remember him telling me that when I finally watch these films, I should make sure that I write down the date and the time I see them—because my life would never be the same after that.

It’s not an exaggeration to say I found that to be true; by the time I completed the Tarkovsky retrospective, I felt a profound transformation, spiritually, artistically, and intellectually. Every moment, every shot, every line touched me, and I was reminded of the power of art.

Later, I made a movie called Women Without Men, about a group of women who flee Tehran during a turbulent time in search of somewhere away from civilization that can provide some safety and happiness. I used the Zone in Stalker as a kind of model for this. It’s a mysterious place that is punitive and forbidden but is also able to make dreams come true. The shot that haunts me the most in the film takes place just outside the Zone. The protagonist is overwhelmed by the demands of guiding people through this harsh landscape, and he’s taking a moment to rest and lie down in a canal. Right then, at the height of his sorrow and exhaustion, a dog comes into the frame. It’s a magical presence of love and affection. When it comes bounding toward the stalker and lies down in the water right next to him, I want to start sobbing.

You wonder, who is this dog? Where did he come from? But you’re never given the answer. The stalker is such a lonely, sacred figure; his family has been torn apart, and he’s been treated terribly. The film is so dark, and the pace is so slow but also powerful and mesmerizing. I found it incredibly moving how, during his tormenting  journey, a dog comes to the stalker’s side. Perhaps he has imagined it—the way Tarkovsky interweaves color and sepia cinematography, it isn’t always clear what’s real and what isn’t. But in the midst of the character’s loneliness there is a moment of hope and bliss. Few directors could take such dark political subtext and create something so universal and timeless. Some people complain that Tarkovsky is too much of a romantic, that there’s too much beauty and poetry in his films. But maybe because I come from Iran and have seen how the pressures of society can override a person’s vision, I understand what he must have gone through in Russia, and how badly the government treated him. I admire how he created a beautiful mix of abstraction and mysticism out of such an oppressive situation, and there aren’t many filmmakers who have left us with as many masterpieces as he did.

A Close-Up of Bruegel in Solaris
By Peter Strickland

In the context of a science-fiction film, the appearance of a Northern Renaissance painting as familiar as Bruegel’s The Hunters in the Snow is unexpected enough to trigger a reappraisal of how we process such works.

In Solaris, cosmonauts’ visions provoked by the atmosphere of a strange planet culminate in the main protagonist witnessing the supposed resurrection of a former lover. Prior to the space station changing orbit, we see this woman reminiscing on life back on earth through the luster of Bruegel’s painting, which leads to a visual dissection of its surface through a rostrum camera that almost feels as weightless as the film’s characters. The deification of objects and texture in Tarkovsky’s films is often a means of exploring the emotional fulcrum of a character, and the Bruegel is no exception in its evocation of homesickness and loss through earthly surfaces, along with quotidian winter scenes of ice skating and hunting, rendered in the medium of paint.

The beauty of the Bruegel sequence is in how time turns in on itself. One feels as if one has entered a portal and landed in a well-known tableau, yet its pictorial bearings are under the laws of Tarkovsky’s unique gravity, as a tension unfolds between motion and stasis. Under the spell of Tarkovsky’s gaze, the life once captured by a painter is undergoing its own resurrection. The impression of life created by the rostrum camera’s roving, devotional eye is heightened by the depth and distance of Eduard Artemyev’s soundtrack, with its somnambulant tones, Corvid chatter, and other sonic signifiers of a Flemish winter valley.

Tarkovsky’s almost sacred approach to the kind of objects and materials that most directors overlook made a very strong impression on me when I first saw the film in the early nineties, especially because those very objects and materials unlocked the human and spiritual mysteries of his films. Such emphasis on tactility in relation to a character’s state of mind was hugely influential on me as a filmmaker.

The Opening Shot of The Sacrifice
By Colm Tóibín

As the opening credits of The Sacrifice come up, the film shows us a religious manuscript. Playing in the background is one of the most exquisitely beautiful and somber arias from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The music fades and then a single shot, lasting almost ten minutes, begins, as Alexander (Erland Josephson), whose birthday it is, is filmed in a coastal landscape as he calls on a small boy, who is mute, to help him try to plant a small, bare tree. In the background, we hear the shrill cries of seabirds.

What we notice is the painterly quality of the scene. There is a band of subtle, molten sunshine on the calm sea. The landscape is bathed in thundery summer northern light; it is windless in a place that must often be windswept. There is a sparseness in the air and in the color. The sky is neither blue nor cloudy, but pale, withdrawn, as though blanched. The grass grows low in sandy soil, through which is cut a narrow, rutted lane. In the distance, on a small promontory, is a small hut.

The washed light is created with immense depth and sonorousness. When Alexander is joined by the small boy, we see the light intensify over the sea as the stillness also becomes more acute. The boy’s white hat stands out against the other, more muted colors.

The skinny and wayward branches of the tree against the complex light stand out and, in their wistful, fragile beauty, carry a strange emotion. The intermittent cry of seabirds also carries a plaintive weight. Even though Alexander tells a story to the boy and talks about philosophy, what counts here is the stillness in the scene, the composure in the frame.

In this first shot of the film, Alexander and his son are visited by the figure of Otto (Allan Edwall), who is on a bicycle. As they talk, the camera moves away from the coastline to focus more on the sparse meadow, covered in wildflowers that range from the pale yellow and white to a sort of brown. As with the tree filmed against the light, this meadow has a stark painterly quality that makes it look like something wavering between art and nature. As the camera moves further inland, following the characters as they muse on the meaning of life, stunted bushes take on a life of their own. While the three figures move about, the bushes are utterly still. Against the two adults’ weighty talk, a tone of levity is introduced by the boy, who seeks to tie a wheel of the bicycle to a bush.

There are distant sounds of cows lowing and cowbells ringing and then, behind the voices, a silence broken by thunder or what could be an explosion. Alexander looks into the far distance, concerned, but then our attention is distracted as Otto attempts to ride away on his bicycle, not knowing that it is tied by the rope. He feigns anger before mounting the bicycle once more. The boy pulls the rope out of the frame while he makes his first faint sound, like a little whimper.

The film, with slow care, explores ideas of faith and spiritual isolation. Each moment is captured with a sense of depth and stillness. The lighting and the camerawork create a tone that is grave and somber, also exquisite. The film is about mystery rather than certainty. This opening shot, in all its ambiguity and resonance, its way of capturing light, sets a tone for the rest of the film, a tone that is tentative and suggestive.

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