[28 April 2009]
PopMatters Features Editor
Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the most influential filmmakers of the past 50 years, had a near-complete blind spot when it came to commercialism. He detested the idea of creating art for entertainment’s sake. Indeed, his half-dozen-or-so films stand (along with those of Ingmar Bergman, one of his greatest admirers) as some of the finest examples of cinema as personal expression. His movies were trying, slow, meditative, beautiful, idiosyncratic, and rarely fun.
Did Tarkovsky even have a sense of humour? I can’t tell. But, there’s never been any question as to whether Tarkovsky had a sense of beauty, a sense of light, a sense of the depth and texture of human emotion. He was a poet of the alienated man, of the distance between reality and the idealized life, and he was taken up by the yearning for certainty in an uncertain universe. To enter into Tarkovsky’s world is to shed any sense of life as “reality”; it is to embrace the image of life, to see your reflection in an as-yet-undisturbed pool of water.
The packaging of one of his very first films with one of his very last seems an inspired decision for those of us who would like to get closer to this man and his work. The Steamroller and the Violin, prepared in 1962 as a kind of thesis for his film school diploma, is here presented alongside Voyage in Time, a 1983 pseudo-documentary he made while in exile in Italy and approaching his own early death, from cancer. On paper, this appears to be a fascinating opportunity, a chance to contrast the work of a master at the outset and the denouement of his career. In practice, unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that way.
The Steamroller and the Violin is utterly gorgeous, and rewards repeated viewings. It is uncharacteristically wistful and light, a beautiful tale of unlikely friendship and existential longing. At only 43-minutes, it feels astonishingly complete, vast and yet precise.
The story is spare: an artistic child struggles to fit in with the aggressive boys in his block of flats, fails to impress his stern violin instructor, and then befriends a handsome steamroller operator who is taken by the boy’s fragility, impressed by his talents, and with whom he shares his lunch before they make plans to see a movie together that evening which the boy’s mother will ultimately scupper. The film ends with the dreamy image of the boy imagining himself riding off into the sunset on the back of the steamroller with his new, but already lost, friend.
The picture, then, is a study of contrasts – the violin and the steamroller, age and youth, power and weakness, freedom and imprisonment, responsibility and idealism, dreams and reality. The innovative camera work, the use of water as a metaphor for impermanence and mystery (a strong theme in all of Tarkovsky’s subsequent work), the subtle shifts in perspective, and the dizzying profundity of the deceptively simple narrative all combine to make for a tremendously rewarding experience.
Voyage in Time is a different story. Tedious, unfocused, confusing, and not exactly illuminating, it details the location scouting for the film Nostalgia (which, isn’t it obvious, should have been the film it was packaged with?). It is a combination of vérité, staged contrivances, static camera work, sluggish zooms, and weird sound effects. There are moments of beauty, to be sure, but they come at the expense of many minutes of perplexing, seemingly random discussions and images.
If there is a story here, it is that Tarkovsky cannot find the location he wants, for various reasons (which are more poetic than practical), until he finally does. At a deeply unenergetic pace, this 60-minute film feels hours longer than it is. My wife, for whom “Tarkovsky” is little more than a beautiful word, exclaimed that each minute of this thing felt like a goddamn voyage in time.
Here is the real problem with this film: basically, this is a documentary for which you need to know a significant amount of background information in order to have any idea what is going on, or why we should feel any emotional connection to the material. This background information, I should add, is incredibly interesting, yet it goes maddeningly unmentioned.
Having left his wife and children back in Russia, Tarkovsky was living in exile in Italy after falling out of favour with the Soviets. Also he was dying. He was location scouting for a film entitled Nostalgia, his final masterpiece, which is never even mentioned here (although there is a glancing shot of the title page of the script which you can sort of read upside down for a couple of seconds). I mean, he was struggling with the nightmare of displacement, of loneliness, of existential dread, and we have to guess at why!
If you know this stuff before you press “play”, this film carries a significant amount of emotional heft. However, if you press “play” as a regular old viewer of film, you will be left wondering why anyone has ever used this as anything other than an example of how not to make documentaries.