A book review by Tim Palmer.

Black Dog’s new compendium of essays on the great Russian filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky, belongs in a fairly recent category of film studies titles, intellectual coffee-table books or prestige books, which offer themselves as comprehensive, even definitive works.  These are literally and figuratively weighty tomes, labors of love, critical essays expensively packaged with lustrous production values throughout their range of film stills, contextual artworks, and cinematic images.  Like Taschen’s The Stanley Kubrick Archives (2005) and The Ingmar Bergman Archives (2008), and Phaidon’s Hitchcock at Work (2003), François Truffaut at Work (2005), and Orson Welles at Work (2008), the end products of such an approach are physically impressive as well as analytically productive.

Tarkovsky’s introduction, by the editor Nathan Dunne, who also contributes four of the book’s twenty-four essays (plus appendices), notes up front that objective assessment of the Russian auteur has long proved a challenge.  Despite the paucity of Tarkovsky’s output – just seven features and three shorts in a lifetime of work – like Robert Bresson, an arthouse peer and contemporary, the body of work is daunting in its “profound beauty, grandeur and allure…[which] today stands as one of the most significant in the history of the moving image” (6).  Dunne’s methodology, in response, is to group the set of critical treatments into four encompassing segments: “Russia and Religion” (situating Tarkovsky’s films in proximate moments of Soviet politics and culture), “Art and Nature” (stylistic discourses and their relationship with landscape and mise-en-scène), “Music and Modernity” (Tarkovsky as an auteur of sound design and interiority), and “Memory and Awakening” (which foregrounds collaborators’ memoirs, illustrating the evolution of Tarkovsky’s approach to cinema).  A collection of useful supplementary texts – ranging from Tarkovsky’s father’s poetry, to a rather spare filmography and index, to a timeline of contextual events – completes the volume.

Complementing the scope of Tarkovsky’s structure is the breadth of its contributors’ expertise, with an obvious slant given towards European and Russian scholars familiar with the particular contexts of Tarkovsky’s career and his often-troubled productions.  The methodologies, by consequence, vary from Jean-Paul Sartre’s eloquent defense of Ivan’s Childhood (1962) on the grounds of its defamiliarizing art cinema treatment of war; to Evgeny Tsymbal’s application of Tarkovsky’s famous “sculpting in time” principles to the design of Stalker (1979); to analyses of adaptation (literary and painterly) in essays by Mikhail Romadin (mainly on Solaris, 1972) and Dunne (on The Sacrifice, 1986).  The best of the essays here, and none is without interest, strike a good balance – always difficult with Tarkovsky – between the undoubtedly lofty ambition of the filmmaker’s theory and practice, and the applied, logistical cinematic minutiae that make his films so striking, undiluted by the passing of time.  On this note, a strong final piece (“What Would Tarkovsky Do?”) is supplied by, of all people, the Swiss director Marc Foster, who pays practical homage to Tarkovsky’s impact on his career by citing his achievements in the areas of magisterial long takes (Tarkovsky as the anti-Eisenstein sequence shot devotee), opaque but paradoxically mesmerizing protagonists, and the spirituality of form in what are often, it bears repeating, counterintuitive and perversely uncommunicative films.  Foster concludes by noting that he probably can never answer his own question, or fathom completely this director’s textual decision making, but nonetheless, when it comes to exploring Tarkovsky’s unique artistic process, “I know I shall continue to ask” (405).  It’s a nice summary for a landmark volume on a perpetually elusive filmmaker whose films never seem to recede from the canon.

Tim Palmer is Associate Professor of Film Studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.  His most recent essay, “Paris, City of Shadows: French Crime Cinema Before the New Wave,” was published in the August 2008 issue of New Review of Film and Television Studies.


Book Details

Tarkovsky, Nathan Dunne, ed., (2008)
London: Black Dog Publishing, 464pp., ISBN-13: 978-1-906155-04-9 (hbk), $49.95

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