A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.
Tarkovsky is one of those directors who’s cited (and copied) so often that it becomes easy to take for granted just how singular his work remains, but this collection may prompt even the most cynical of critics to reassess his output with fresh eyes.”
Thanks in large part to his ‘70s-era output – namely, Solaris (1972), Mirror (‘74), and Stalker (‘79) – Andrei Tarkovsky’s status as one of cinema’s indisputably great directors is well-secured. And while the borderline fanatical praise heaped on his oeuvre has its perks (Mirror’s immanent Criterion release will surely bring new devotees into the fold), it also poses a unique risk. Rather than carefully engaging – via theory – with Tarkovsky’s works, rapt critics, audiences, and filmmakers alike (Lars von Trier, of all people, called him a God) tend to view them through the prism of the Russian director’s messianic status.
Editor Sergey Toymentsev’s The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky, the latest of Edinburgh UP’s “ReFocus” series, successfully brings the director back to Earth – among the rest of us mere mortals – in order to “take a more level-headed approach to his career by balancing cinephilic enthusiasm with academic expertise” (3). Yes, almost everyone would agree he was a supremely talented artist responsible for some of the most gorgeous sequences committed to celluloid. But let’s dig a bit deeper than that, the anthology’s eclectic contributors suggest; enshrining his work as pseudo-holy relics can stymy new interpretations. And that would indeed be a shame, especially since his films’ thematic and stylistic intricacies practically demand ongoing critical engagement.
The entries’ organization into four parts follows, almost like one of the director’s narratives, a clear spatial movement. Just as the titular Stalker (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy) begins his journey outside the enigmatic “Zone,” ventures into its disorienting depths, and then returns to a subtly-altered homeland, The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky opens with extratextual considerations of the auteur’s formative years and early projects (“Backgrounds”), plunges into his seven features (“Film Method,” “Theoretical Approaches”), and extends to the wider context of contemporary Russian and European cinema (“Legacy”). The end result is a collection which offers views of both the forest and trees, without shortchanging either.
Opening chapter “Tarkovsky’s Childhood” is certainly the most biographical piece. Rather than rehashing the common interpretation that young Tarkovsky was irreparably damaged by his father’s abandonment, author Evgeniy Tsymbal posits that it may be “through the mother’s ‘bereavement’ and her emotional withdrawal that they [Andrei and his sister, Marina] might have been traumatized most of all” (23). With this thesis in mind, Mirror’s famous shot of the mother sitting on the fencepost – back turned toward the viewer, awaiting the father’s arrival – acquires an extra layer of poignancy. This first section’s (if not the book’s) standout chapter is the linguistically inclined “Trava-Travlya-Trata,” which examines how the titular, morphologically related terms – which recur obsessively in Tarkovsky’s diaries – exemplify the filmmaker’s lifelong obsession with grass (i.e. nature), persecution, and spending (be it money or life), respectively, and triangulate “around his primal fantasy of the house” (43).
Sections two and three blend into one another through their focus on the films proper. As with many academic anthologies, the entries are impressively researched (Lacan references aplenty) and lucidly written, but what distinguishes this particular collection – and what similar texts occasionally fail to pull off – are the ways in which the separate essays enter into a dialectical conversation with one another. Consider Sara Pankenier Weld’s characterization of the titular protagonist in Ivan’s Childhood (1962) as “a monstrously adult child conscripted to war by a desire to avenge what is irretrievably lost” (73) versus Anne Eakin Moss’ description of a boy whose “intensity of attention…resembles that of the Stoic philosopher. His past is gone and he looks forward to no future” (211). Or Slavoj Žižek’s comparison of changes to the Solaris novel’s ending to “commercial rewritings” by “the lowest Hollywood producer” (166) versus Moss’ assertion that they exhibit Tarkovsky’s “commitment to spiritual exercise” (213). That these diverse readings are all persuasively defended testifies to the films’ rich interpretive possibilities.
Part of gently removing Tarkovsky from his deity-like pedestal lies in acknowledging film’s collaborative nature. Julia Shpinitskaya’s “Approaching the Irreal,” which explicates Eduard Artemiev’s original score for Solaris and Owe Svensson’s sound mixing for The Sacrifice (1986), crucially acknowledges some of the many other talented artists behind the scenes. It’s easy to notice and admire the former’s electronic score, but the latter’s work on what would be Tarkovsky’s final film is no less impressive for its near imperceptibility; Svensson describes meticulously recording footsteps “‘at my own country cottage. …So all the footsteps were produced by me; that is, I physically walked in different pairs of shoes, even ladies’ shoes size 45’” (qtd. in 141). It’s worth noting that Svensson’s approach was a reaction to his disappointment with Nostalghia’s (1983) sounds, which “appeared to him ‘very poorly done’ because of their monotony” (140). Indeed, even the masters make mistakes.
Fittingly, the final chapters tackle Tarkovsky’s enduring influence on two directors not often mentioned in the same sentence: Andrei Zvyagintsev (more or less unanimously considered Tarkovsky’s heir apparent) and Lars von Trier. Both directors’ works check off the usual Tarkovskian boxes (an emphasis on nature, painstakingly-slow long takes, etc.), but their struggles to “escape” their inspiration’s gigantic shadow are the focus here. According to Lisa Ryoko Wakamiya, Zvyagintsev has evolved from borderline parodic imitator (The Banishment, 2007) to socially conscious tragedian (Leviathan, 2014; Loveless, 2017) (252). Toymentsev and Anton Dolin track a similar path in their piece on von Trier, who has moved beyond visual homage (The Element of Crime, 1984, which von Trier claims Tarkovsky saw and despised) in an effort to cynically subvert his forebear’s most cherished ideas (Antichrist, 2009, wherein nature’s palliative power turns demonic) (269).
Tarkovsky is one of those directors who’s cited (and copied) so often that it becomes easy to take for granted just how singular his work remains, but this collection may prompt even the most cynical of critics to reassess his output with fresh eyes. To appreciate the poeticism with which he captured the most banal of events: a group of men silently riding a rail cart, a glass falling off a table, reeds undulating beneath a stream.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.