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Posts Tagged ‘Andrei Tarkovsky’

My good friend and occasional presence on the blog, Olinka, is keen to hang onto her Russian identity as far as possible, trying to speak the language and enjoy her culture whenever she can. Although Russian is one of my languages (just about), I haven’t seen that many films made in it, which she seemed vaguely disappointed by when I mentioned that Mirror was one of the few Soviet-era movies I’d watched.

Perhaps as a result, a few weeks later she dropped me a line telling me about a new website she’d found hosting a large number of Russian-language films for streaming. ‘You should watch сталкер,’ she said.

‘You what?’

‘They have сталкер on the site. We were talking about it the other week.’

‘I don’t even know how you’re pronouncing that. Stop talking in Cyrillic, please.’

‘Oh, all right. They have Stalker. You know, the Tarkovsky film.’

This was of some interest to me, because I have been aware for some time of the fact that the USSR produced a number of noteworthy science fiction films. SF is, as you will be aware if you come here regularly, one of my few genuine passions, and this did feel like a real gap in my experience. I’ve seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, of course, but then that’s not a particular achievement as it’s one of the very few Soviet SF films to have any kind of profile in the west. One of the others, as you may have gathered, is Stalker, likewise made by Tarkovsky a few years later (1979, to be exact). I remember the first time it was shown on British TV, nearly ten years later – in the middle of the night, pretty much, with a somewhat ambivalent write-up in the TV listings – ‘Either a cryptic SF parable or three men mucking about on some waste ground for two and a half hours, you decide,’ was about the gist of it.

Certainly, Stalker does not resemble the kind of SF film routinely being made in the west at the tail end of the 1970s. Freely adapted by the Strugatsky brothers from their own novel Roadside Picnic, the film is set at some point in the future, in an unspecified nation – probably not Russia, given one of the characters refers to it as a ‘small nation’. This kind of detail is not really important anyway. Soon we meet the protagonist, the stalker of the title (Alexander Kaidanovsky), who lives in fairly primitive circumstances, and not especially happily, with his wife (Alisa Friendlich) and child. He is about to embark on a dangerous and illegal undertaking, not for the first time, and she is not exactly happy. But he is insistent, for reasons which are not immediately apparent.

His clients are likewise left nameless: they are a writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and a scientist (Nikolai Grinko). The stalker is to lead them into the Zone, a quarantined area kept under military guard. Years earlier, a meteorite (or something else from deep space…) fell in this region, ever since which it has been sealed off and uninhabited. The story goes that somewhere in the Zone is a room containing some agency which grants the deepest desires of anyone entering it, and the stalker has been paid to take the writer and the scientist to this place…

The early sequences of Stalker are (perhaps intentionally) misleading – long, slow scenes of the stalker getting out of bed and quarrelling with his wife, before talking to the others. Tarkovsky reportedly said he wanted the opening of the film to be even slower and duller so that ‘people who walked into the wrong theatre’ had plenty of time to leave before the film properly got going (inasmuch as Stalker ever gets going, as it is traditionally understood). That said, these scenes are followed by the trio penetrating the security around the Zone, dodging armed guards and other security measures, and for a moment it almost seems like the film is going to be conventional.

But of course it isn’t. Entry into the Zone provides one moment of profound cinematic shock, as the toxic sepia of the opening scenes is replaced by beautiful, natural colour, and also marks the film adopting the mode it will maintain for most of the rest of its duration: the three men travelling through the Zone towards the room, looking at the landscape around them while discussing where they are and their reasons for being there.

As you can probably tell, this is another of those SF films which doesn’t really resemble SF for the vast majority of its length: particularly to a viewer who has come to primarily associate SF with films in the action-adventure idiom. There is not much action-adventure here, no laser guns, no spaceships, no robots or aliens – the alien influences of the Zone are left unseen, perceived only by the stalker. Until the closing moments of the film, I was half-expecting this to function wholly as a kind of psychological study of the stalker’s fractured mind, with the curious properties of the Zone a figment of his imagination. But it seems not: there is something strange at the heart of the Zone, the question being what this anomaly is.

As has been said so often that it has practically become a truism, SF films do not exist to predict the future, but more to comment on the present. Nevertheless, films do occasionally come along which feel almost eerie in their prescience: for instance, there’s Starship Troopers, which is one of the best commentaries of the aftermath of September 11th 2001 ever made, even though it was produced in 1996. And there’s a sense in which Stalker feels inextricably connected to the Chernobyl disaster, even though it preceded those events by six or seven years. The Zone of the film has the feeling of a post-industrial, post-apocalyptic waste, for all that its colours are more natural than those of the wider world. Detritus of modern society is everywhere – syringes are particularly prominent – although there are signs of nature reclaiming the area. It is perhaps worth mentioning that many people have suggested that Stalker was in fact filmed on a dumping ground for chemical waste, and that this was a contributing factor in Tarkovsky’s own premature death; worth mentioning, too, that guides who lead visitors into the real-life exclusion zone around the Chernobyl reactor refer to themselves as stalkers.

There is something profoundly bleak and dismal about the Zone in the film, although quite what it represents is left as ambiguous as much of the rest of Stalker. That the film is intended to be symbolic is established early on, with the switch from sepia to full colour and the fact that none of the characters are named. The writer is hoping the room will give him inspiration, while the scientist is hoping that understanding the room and the Zone will bring him acclaim and respect from his peers (or so he initially claims, anyway). Or, as some have suggested, the two characters represent the artistic and the scientific perspectives on life, neither of which proves fully compatible with the reality of the Zone. What, then of the stalker himself?

It seems to me that this is ultimately a film about spirituality and faith, which is a very audacious choice of theme for a Soviet film and may explain why Stalker is quite as oblique as it is. The others have to place their faith in the stalker, who himself seems to have an almost religious devotion to the room and what it represents: hope, perhaps, an escape from the material squalor of the world. Only those who have suffered can truly appreciate the room, he suggests, while those approaching it with impure motives will be punished. It’s not even as if this interpretation of the film is buried particularly deeply: one poster for the film features a moment where one of the characters affects to wear a crown of thorns.

In the end, though, for all that not very much happens compared to more conventional films, Stalker is so dense in terms of its dialogue, themes and philosophy that it’s entirely possible there are other interpretations with greater validity. It is not the kind of film you can watch once and then move on from – ‘remember, when you watch Stalker, Stalker also watches you,’ was Olinka’s final word on the film, indicating a Tarkovsky-ish talent for suggestive obliqueness. Possibly the clues are all there in the closing scenes of the film, which are strikingly different in style – one character makes a lengthy, casual speech to the camera, there is a sudden display of superhuman faculties from a relatively minor character described as a  ‘Zone mutant’. This is a film to be absorbed and reflected upon rather than watched in the conventional sense. Like the Zone, it resolutely keeps its secrets and demands a leap of faith from those who would approach it. Whether Stalker sufficiently rewards the experience of attempting to decipher it is probably up to the individual viewer, but it is a striking, unforgettable experience nevertheless.

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We have again reached that time of the year when the flow of interesting new releases seems to have slowed down somewhat, although we are still a few weeks away from the onset of proper blockbuster season: mid-budget genre movies seem to be the standard release at the moment. This is just a very long-winded way of saying that there wasn’t anything showing at the multiplex this weekend that caught my interest but that I hadn’t seen or didn’t have plans to see (I am aware this explanation itself is not notably short-winded; sorry).

Normally on these occasions I see what’s on at the two niche cinemas in the area, which can usually be relied upon for an interesting revival now and then. Well, it turned out that the Phoenix was showing The Wild Bunch, which I saw just the other month and didn’t really fancy seeing again so soon (it’s the Phoenix’s turn to be doing a classic western season). Meanwhile, the frequently-surprising Ultimate Picture Palace was launching their latest season with Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 film Mirror (Zerkalo in the original Russian; The Mirror when it’s in the USA, apparently).

In the UK, at least, Tarkovsky is best known for Solaris (all together now – ‘the Russian answer to 2001‘) and – to a lesser degree – Stalker (a film once described by one of our more low-brow TV listing magazines as ‘three men messing about on a building site for nearly three hours’). Mirror is a different kettle of fish. It may not be a kettle, however. And whatever is in it, they may not be fish. This is that sort of film.

I am always very curious to see what kind of turn-out these various revivals attract – Breakfast at Tiffany’s had a very healthy crowd last month, while a few years ago I went to a showing of Touch of Evil that was practically sold out – showings of Robocop and Plague of the Zombies around the same time were sadly under-populated, on the other hand. Given it was the first really nice weekend of the year, and that Mirror is a little-known foreign-language piece of experimental cinema, I was expecting there to be plenty of space inside the UPP – well, in the end I think there were somewhere around fifteen punters present, although as a whisper of ‘Oh, is it in Russian?’ went round the auditorium as the film began, I suspect some of the people there were friends of the volunteers who run the place.

So. Andrei Tarkovsky. Mirror. Voted one of the ten greatest films ever made in a poll of directors, yet largely unknown to western audiences. How can I begin to impart to you the nature of this remarkable film? Well: an adolescent boy receives hypnotherapy for his speech impediment. A country doctor takes a wrong turn on the way home. A shed burns down. An emigre bullfighter now living in Russia loses his temper. There is a potential slip-up at the print works, but it turns out to be a false alarm. Someone kills a chicken. There are fun and games at the firing range where the boys are training during the Great Patriotic War. Other things happen too.

You know, writing down a synopsis for a film is very much a kind of left-brain activity, a question of cause and effect and logical, material connections between things. Mirror is probably one of the worst films possible to try and summarise in this way, as it is really a right-brain movie, almost a kind of waking dream that attempts to draw the viewer into a kind of complicit trance with it. In the past I have written about how difficult it is to remember any details of experiences you don’t actually understand – the occasion was another impenetrable art-house foreign film, The Assassin, which didn’t so much put the audience into a trance as send some of them to sleep – but it’s not quite the case in this instance, for it’s clear what the film is about: recollections of growing up in the USSR in the middle part of the 20th century. It seems like a safe bet that some elements of this film are at least partly autobiographical, given that various members of the Tarkovsky clan turn up in different roles: the director’s father Arseny provides the voice of the narrator, his wife Larisa plays the main character’s neighbour, and his daughter Olga also has a small role. (While we’re getting all genealogical, we should also note that father and son actors Oleg and Filipp Yankovsky also appear.)

The twist that makes the film that little bit more unusual, and potentially baffling, is that while it concerns itself with two generations of the same family – the main character, Ignat, and his father, Alexei – multiple key roles are played by the same actors: so both Ignat and Alexei are portrayed by Ignat Daniltsev, while both of their mothers are played in their youth by Margarita Terekhova. This is in no way elucidated or exposited, only becoming apparent through the accumulation of tiny details and the fact the same people are addressed by different names in different scenes (the film’s events naturally unfold out of strict chronological order). If you were not in the know or expecting something like this, it might pass you by entirely and just leave you more bemused (as it did me).

On the other hand, it does suggest a reason for the title of the film, which is otherwise not obvious (well, a mirror does appear at a number of moments). The mirror of the title is the way in which Alexei’s life reflects and echoes that of Ignat, and the similarities are emphasised by the casting decisions. As I say, I didn’t actually figure this out while watching the film, which probably did have an impact on my appreciation of it, but that is not to say that I found this film to be a baffling or frustrating experience. Nor was I particularly aware of the very long takes peppering the film (the reason for its appearance in the current UPP season entitled ‘Long Shots’, including films with famously long single takes such as – here’s a coincidence – Touch of Evil). Perhaps I was in that zen state of simply enjoying the film as a piece of art, with some beautifully composed shots and sequences, and some very striking pieces of sound design. I’m not sure this film is transcendentally beautiful in quite the same way as some others I could name, but there is clearly an artistic sensibility at work.

In the end I’m a bit at a loss to really give a coherent opinion about Mirror, given that it seems very likely that there are whole swathes and levels of meaning and significance to this film which I completely missed the first time around. It is a challenging watch; you really have to go with the film and let it sweep you along in its dreamlike way. Fortunately it is well-enough made that surrendering to it is quite easy to do.

 

 

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‘…I only wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images. This is why the book was entitled “Solaris” and not “Love in Outer Space“.’ – Stanislaw Lem

As someone growing up interested in SF and SF cinema, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, released in 1972, was one of the films I inevitably became aware of at a relatively young age. It is a film with a somewhat forbidding reputation – lengthy, subtitled, oblique, cerebral. It is a cliche to say that Solaris is the Soviet equivalent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but there is some truth to that – but while 2001 is distinguished enough to have earned itself at least one prime-time showing on a major BBC network, the same was never going to happen with a nearly-three-hour-long Russian philosophical SF film. While I was growing up, Solaris was always banished to the outer darkness of small-hours screening on the minority channels – middle of the night stuff.

If you’d asked me if I’d ever seen Solaris, until recently I would have said no, definitely not. And yet, having finally watched it, I’m not sure that’s the case. I certainly hadn’t watched the whole thing, but there were definitely moments I recalled. Could it be that this is one of those movies I recorded but never got around to actually watching all the way through? (This certainly happened to Frequency and Dark City, to name but two.) You need to have a certain intellectual fortitude to launch yourself into Solaris for the first time, to say nothing of three hours’ uninterrupted access to the household TV.

Anyway – finally, Solaris. As is fairly common with allegorical SF movies, Solaris is set in a world which in some ways closely resembles our own even though it is clearly meant to be decades in the future. For many years a manned space station has orbited the alien world of Solaris. Solaris is covered by an immense ocean, which scientists have concluded may in fact be a single alien life-form, possibly a sentient one. However, reports from the station have become disturbingly nonsensical , and the future of the mission is in doubt. Psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is to be dispatched to Solaris to make a determination as to how to proceed – carry on as before, withdraw the mission, or attempt to get a response from the planet by bombarding it with heavy radiation.

But something strange seems to happen to people who visit Solaris – Kelvin encounters a former member of the mission, who seems a haunted man, speaking of seeing grotesque figures on the surface of the planet, representing people still on Earth. Nevertheless, Kelvin leaves his terrestrial existence behind and makes the journey to the station orbiting the alien world.

Only a handful of scientists remain there, and Kelvin is a little shocked to learn that one of them, a former acquaintance, has recently committed suicide. The others are acting weirdly, too. And there are others present, too, half-glimpsed individuals whose being on the station is inexplicable. And then Kelvin has a visitation of his own – a woman who seems to be his dead wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), appearing just as he remembers her. Appalled, he ejects her from the station, only for her to reappear, just as before.

The truth becomes clear. The ‘guests’, as the mission personnel refer to them, emanate from Solaris in some unfathomable manner. The sentient ocean has the power to read the memories of the human observers and create replicas of the people therein – hence some of the oddities of their existence, and their near-immortality. But are they genuinely conscious entities or just shades created by the planet? Do they offer a hope of real communication with Solaris, or are they just a distraction? For Kelvin, consumed with guilt over the real Hari’s death, it definitely seems to be the latter…

Well, I hadn’t seen the Russian version of Solaris until quite recently, but I did have the pleasure of going to see the American version of the story, where I was the only person who hung in there until the end of the screening. Looking back at my review of Soderbergh’s Solaris, I am slightly embarrassed by my attempts to sound knowledgeable about Tarkovsky’s film, which of course I’d never seen at that point, not least because – well, despite my suggestion otherwise, one thing both versions of Solaris do have in common is their focus on the central relationship between Kelvin and Hari: both films are on some level love stories, but are they love stories between a man and a woman or a man and something completely alien?

This was what impelled Stanislaw Lem, author of the original novel, to make his somewhat astringent comments on the film versions – though apparently he hadn’t seen Soderbergh’s film at that point. Lem’s complaint was that the movies focused on the relationships at the expense of the novel’s philosophical and scientific ideas. Lem is one of the great, perhaps somewhat underrated SF writers, whose work I regret not being introduced to earlier in my life, but in this instance I’m not sure his objection is a reasonable one. The issue of contact with a truly alien form of life, and the question of how we might communicate with it, is a profound one, and some very fine films have been attempted on the subject – Arrival is an example, and arguably also 2001. But how do you put this on the screen in an intelligible form? Cinema is in a sense a superficial art form in a way that a book is not. Lem complained that the films reduce Solaris to little more than a mirror, reflecting the human characters, rather than it being something utterly beyond the realm of prior human existence. But how would you represent that cinematically, except by an almost totally abstract series of images? (I’m suddenly reminded of the original ending to Phase IV, a film not totally unlike Solaris in some ways.) When faced with something totally new and unknown, we inevitably project our own ideas onto it – I think the film-makers’ approach is certainly justified.

And it’s not as if the theme of the movie is particularly glib or simplistic – Solaris deals with topics such as memory, guilt, and the nature of what it means to be an individual human being – and if this is not the absolute essence of all real science fiction, then no such essence exists. This is still a challenging, thought-provoking movie, both in its themes and in its execution. There are clearly things going on here that are not immediately apparent – I don’t doubt that this is a film which gives up more and more layers of meaning with repeated viewing – there must surely be some significance to the shots of vegetation on the surface of a lake which virtually book-end the film, and some connection between them and the mesmerising images of the world-ocean of Solaris which punctuate the story. What, also, is the significance of a long sequence depicting a car ride through a futuristic city (in reality Tokyo), which concludes with a jump cut from a crowded urban landscape to a peaceful countryside scene? Is there some oblique meaning to this, or is it just the director drifting off on a tangent?

It’s difficult to be sure, but then perhaps this is part of what makes Solaris such a considerable film in every way. It is not an easy watch, I suspect, even if your Russian is much better than mine, but it is clearly a highly intelligent, highly influential film, with its own distinct identity. One to mull over and come back to again and again, I suspect.

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