Posts Tagged ‘Andrei Tarkovsky’

A retrospective of the films of Andrei Tarkovsky has just opened across UK cinemas. Organised by the BFI, Curzon and Artificial Eye, the retrospective will see all seven of his films shown in their entirety. For this special screening at the Curzon Bloomsbury, the film was preceded by an interview with the architect Takero Shimazaki. Shimazaki was in charge of the redesign of the Curzon Bloomsbury and talked about Tarkovsky’s influence on his work and the relationship between architecture and film.

In all honesty, the talk was not quite as illuminating as hoped. While Shimazaki seemed like an interesting craftsman, the actual link between Tarkovsky’s films and architecture seemed to go amiss. There were vague allusions to ‘texture’ and ‘space’ which were ultimately meaningless, in that these terms could be applied to any arthouse auteur and any building. Shimazaki said that they were shown a Tarkovsky film at his university on their first day of term, but it was a struggle to define how Tarkovsky influenced his work in a tangible way. The phrase ‘dancing about architecture’ circled around my head as the words flowed.

This was my second viewing of Stalker and I was intrigued to see how seeing it on the big screen would affect my experience of it. In the event, there wasn’t much of a difference. I have always found Tarkovsky a film maker to admire and contemplate after the fact, rather than someone to immerse yourself in. Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev are fairly accessible and immersive, but the rest of his oeuvre is somewhat of a challenge. I am reminded of those tiny model artists who have to slow their heart rate down in order to concentrate properly. Tarkovsky’s films need a similar level of devotion in which the viewer must give in to the snail-like pacing.

Stalker is perhaps the most heralded of his films. Set in a bleak, decaying parallel world, a ‘Zone’ exists on the periphery of a Soviet city. This Zone is a mysterious, mythic place cut off from mainstream society and guarded by the fearful authorities. The story goes that if an intrepid explorer manages to breach the Zone and enter the ‘Room’, then their innermost desires will be fulfilled. These explorers are called Stalkers, one of whom is played by Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy. The Stalker is assigned to smuggle the Writer (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolay Grinko) across the treacherous obstacles that lead to the Zone.

Each man has their own ulterior motive for the journey, which slowly reveals itself throughout the film. Stalker leaves behind his wife and sick daughter, a victim of the fallout from the Zone (echoes of Chernobyl abound). There is a desperation in his eyes, a yearning for the Zone that cannot be sated by his family’s love. The Writer is similarly tormented, his fame and fortune negated by a nagging existentialism. The Professor, meanwhile, is a coy participant, his knapsack bulging with hidden questions.

The idea of innermost desires is an interesting one. Tarkovsky has ruminated on this idea in many of his films, most notably his Solaris adaptation. His protagonist finds himself on a space mission, entering into a Bermuda Triangle-like zone where people from their past come back to haunt them. Like the characters in Stalker, the crew of the ship are yearning for something unattainable, their most prized desires, this time in the form of loved ones that have passed onto the next realm. Fear and desire is a bedrock of screenwriting and storytelling in general, and Tarkovsky more than any film maker has sought to capture this yearning on screen.

Stalker is not an easy film to sit through. It moves at a mournful pace, and while there are moments of gallows humour, there is an overwhelming somberness to the film. The characters talk in long, rambling, sometimes poetic monologues, often preaching to the camera. The film begins in a sepia-drowned world, and explodes into colour once the trio enter the Zone. The colours however are bleached out, otherworldly, timeless. Stalker is a film that exists in itself. It may be demanding, unsettling, even dulling at times, but it has a singular atmosphere unlike any other film.

The camera is often held at mid-height, hovering strangely like a drone observing the action, waiting to pounce on the fragile characters. As we enter the Room, the extraordinary set design comes to the fore, a beguiling, exotic desert scape that makes the viewer think of the sands of time. Tarkovsky and his crew were fantastically adept at transferring interior thoughts and feelings to exterior settings.  The desolation of the Zone, with its wild, untamed nature and industrial wreckage perfectly mirroring the characters inner loss.

Stalker is not an inherently enjoyable film, but that’s not the point of it. We need artists like Tarkovsky to show alternative realities, to think about how and why we exist. Tarkovsky is one of the few film makers who really makes you think about the possibilities of life in a different way. I might not enjoy watching Stalker in the moment, but in the days, weeks and years after it becomes quite invaluable.

 

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

1. BADLANDS (DIR. TERRENCE MALICK. USA, 1973)

There are filmmakers, and then there is Terrence Malick. On the surface this is a fairly conventional road movie following two young lovers on a crime spree. But Malick subverts the story of murderer Charles Starkweather for his own purposes; this is a dreamy, timeless film that hints at abstract emotions that transcend mere happiness or sadness. With his beautifully photographed Hopperesque landscapes and mute characters, Malick gives us something otherworldly and genuinely odd.

2. PARIS, TEXAS (DIR. WIM WENDERS, USA/GERMANY, 1984)

A letter of both love and hate to America, German auteur Wenders perfects the road movie with his tale of Travis, a loner who seeks to reunite his estranged family and rediscover the American Dream. A clever distortion of both the American road movie and the Westerns of John Ford, Paris, Texas really soars as a piece of melodrama. Harry Dean Stanton’s movingly hangdog central performance holds the film together, while the final monologue is both heart breaking and cathartic.

3. ANDREI RUBLEV (DIR. ANDREI TARKOVSKY, RUSSIA, 1966)

Alongside Kubrick, Russian director Tarkovsky is perhaps the only filmmaker to really push cinema to its limits on a large scale. This epic film follows the tribulations of painter Andrei Rublev through a period of religious strife and violence. While some of Tarkovsky’s other works veered too much towards introspective worthiness, this film utilises the director’s inventive technical vision to his greatest heights. The opening balloon sequence and the pagans on the river count as two of the most extraordinary set pieces committed to film. Existentialism and technical vision collide with aplomb.

4. PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (DIR. PETER WEIR, AUSTRALIA, 1975)

Once voted the greatest Australian film of all time, this Peter Weir film is arguably one of the most curious and beguiling works in history. Based on the disappearance of several schoolgirls on a mountain in 1900, the film revels in it’s languid, strange atmosphere and sugar coated visuals. Bravely, Weir never seeks to solve the case- but in this case, it doesn’t matter. Weir challenges the audience to consider the idea that sometimes there are no easy answers, that not everything in this world can be categorised and put into boxes.

5. COME AND SEE (DIR. ELEM KLIMOV, SOVIET UNION, 1985)

Francois Truffaut once said that all war films end up glamourising war, despite their best intentions. Come and See is one of the few films which genuinely challenges this theory. Set in Nazi occupied Belarus during WW2, the film follows the young Flyora as he seeks to evade the army which has killed his family. While most war films tend to lend an air of nobility to the fighting (cough Saving Private Ryan cough), Come and See shows wartime as it really is; a nightmare-ish hell where confusion and inhumanity reign. The film is redeemed as a genuine piece of art by the frequent touches of poetry, both in the vivid imagery and striking sound design. The shot of Flyora lying shellshocked by a dead cow will stay with you forever.

6.  THE HOLY MOUNTAIN (DIR. ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY, MEXICO, 1973)

Once you’ve seen a Jodorowsky film, you’ll start to wonder how every other filmmaker is so bloody….mundane. Jodorowsky’s films touch on religion, sex and death, but it is the striking visuals and mind boggling set design which mark his work as cult gems. The baffling plot revolves around the ‘thief’ and his quest for immortality, leading to a series of wild adventures. If Dorothy had taken a tab of acid on her route down the Yellow Brick Road, this film would probably have been the result.

7. TRUST (DIR. HAL HARTLEY, USA, 1990)

Hal Hartley came to prominence in the late 80’s in US independent cinema, embarking on an inexplicably good run of films, like Scorsese/Coppola in the 70’s. His De Niro is Martin Donovan, a chiselled jawed, verbose actor who stars alongside the late, elfin-like Adrienne Shelly. The film follows Shelly as the brattish teenager who discovers she’s pregnant and homeless, and her chance meeting with Donovan, an older man undergoing his own existential crisis. Hal Hartley is extremely influenced by Godard and Bresson, even taking scenes wholesale, yet he is much warmer than Godard and funnier than Bresson. His films have often been compared to choreographed dance, where the characters waltz around each other in torment and lust, and in Trust we have his most defining film.

8. MAUVAIS SANG (DIR. LEOS CARAX, FRANCE, 1986)

Leos Carax is regarded as some kind of renegade in French cinema, with his films usually set around outsiders from society. Mauvais Sang, his second film revolves Alex (Denis Lavant), a prodigious lock picker who gets involved in a heist with Marc (Michel Piccoli) and his young lover Anna (Juliette Binoche). Tensions between the three of them grow as Alex begins to fall for Anna, and the film is essentially a romantic thriller. Denis Lavant is one of the most unusual actors around, his reptilian features and penchant for acrobatics and impromptu dance routines making him irresistible. Binoche has never been more radiant as Anna. Edited in a poetic, elliptical style, Mauvais Sang is a cult gem, full of vitality and life.

9. L’ HUMANITE (DIR. BRUNO DUMONT, FRANCE, 1999)

Bruno Dumont is another French filmmaker influenced by Bresson’s stark humanism and obsession with faith. Yet, Dumont has his own style influenced by his time as an industrial corporate film maker; static images of desolate Northern France and vivid cinematography give the impression of thereness. Pharaon De Winter is the detective of a small rural town where a young girl has been found murdered. A childlike man, De Winter struggles to solve the case, and all the time the audience is questioning his role in the film.  L’ Humanite deals with sex and violence in a non-judgemental, matter of fact way, and the film veers between tenderness and brutality with ease. A sinister, disquieting film yet strangely invigorating in it’s realness.

10. GUMMO (DIR. HARMONY KORINE, USA, 1997)

One of a handful of films that could have potentially hinted at a new direction for cinema. There is nothing quite like enfant terrible Korine’s debut, save perhaps his idol Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small,which has a similarly scant plot and improvisational feel. Set in the fictional town of Xenia in small town America, the multi stranded film meanders through a series of vignettes of the distinctly dysfunctional inhabitants. Mixing pop culture as diverse as Roy Orbison and Sleep, naturalistic performances and moments of poetry, Gummo is a singular oddity that lingers in the mind long after the end credits. While some have labelled it exploitative, there is a sense of compassion and genuine affection running through the film from Korine.

Read Full Post »

If there’s anything I’ve learned about the inhabitants of Russia in this life, then it’s their fondness for vodka and fixation with mortality. This fixation has cut a cultural path through the centuries, from Nikolai Gogol’s darkly humorous novel Dead Souls  to Andrei Tarkovsky’s existential dramas Solaris and Stalker among others. Director Aleksei Fedorchenko continues with this theme in Silent Souls, a dreamlike take on death and the afterlife.

It is a simple narrative; Aist (Igor Sergeev) and Miron (Yuriy Tsurilo) work in a paper mill in a rundown rural town, inhabited by a people known as ‘Merjans’. Miron, the boss, confides in his friend that his wife Tanya (Yuliya Aug) has died suddenly and asks Aist to help him give her a proper farewell. For the Merjan people have a way of marking events differently than civilised society. The two middle aged men set off on a road trip in order to complete the task at hand.

Nothing much really happens in Silent Souls. The two men sit in silence in the car, Aist cradling his precious Buntings, a delicate set of birds that come to symbolise some kind of transition for them both.  Now and then, Miron tells Aist about his life together with Tanya, a Merjan ritual that the widower reveals all the personal details of his loved one after their death. A cleansing of sorts, but a vulgar one at that.

Silent Souls is a strange, languid oddity that works best if the audience let it wash over them. The elliptical editing, swinging between the present and the past, and the vivid, wintery visuals have a woozy, hypnotic effect on the viewer, lulling them into a trance. The long tracking shots from the car are reminiscent of Stalker’s infamous tunnel sequence, an oddly calming and cathartic experience. Andrei Karasyov’s pretty score veers between the dreamy and the sentimental, echoing the film’s mix of emotion and distance.

Read Full Post »

Inspired by a recent viewing of Peter Watkin’s biopic Edvard Munch, I will be looking briefly at a number of films about artists. There have been countless films concerning famous painters over the years, but I have narrowed my selection down to a few favourites, an eclectic bunch of films.  I will be focusing my attention on Andrei Rublev, Basquiat, Nightwatching, Love is the Devil, Caravaggio and Life Lessons from New York Stories.

ANDREI RUBLEV  (DIR. ANDREI TARKOVSKY, RUSSIA- 1966)

Andrei Rublev is perhaps the most ambitious film about an artist alongside Edvard Munch. For me Andrei Tarkovsky’s best film, combining dazzling visuals and unforgettable set pieces (the balloon escape, the pagans by the river), with philosophical and religious themes. Anatoli Solonitsyn plays the 15th century painter, struggling in a turbulent period of Russian history. This is painting as a religious experience, mirrored by Tarkovsky’s transcendental cinematic vision.

BASQUIAT (DIR. JULIAN SCHNABEL, USA, 1996)

Directed by Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), Basquiat stars Jeffrey Wright as the New York painter.  A penniless street artist, he is discovered by some fashionable art insiders and lauded as the next big thing. Basquiat shows the artist’s fertile imagination and creativity, while strongly evoking hip 1980’s New York. An all star cast including Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken add to the glamour.

NIGHTWATCHING (DIR. PETER GREENAWAY, HOLLAND/FRANCE/GERMANY/POLAND/CANADA/UK, 2007)

This is essentially a Dutch film about an iconic Dutch painter. Peter Greenaway, a British exile working in Holland, is a huge admirer of Rembrandt’s work. Martin Freeman plays the title character with both dry humour and a hint of resignation. The film is one of Greenaway’s most moving, but what is most impressive is the way that the mise-en-scene and cinematography conspire to ape Rembrandt’s own paintings. The striking use of light and sparse sets almost seem at one with the subject.

LOVE IS THE DEVIL (DIR. JOHN MAYBURY, UK, 1998)

Derek Jacobi turns in an excellent performance as Francis Bacon in this bleak biopic. The film focuses on his relationship with George Dyer (Daniel Craig), a gangster-like younger man who steals (literally) into his life. Their volatile love affair entwines with Bacon’s ugly/beautiful paintings, filled with distorted bodies. Director Maybury signals how Bacon’s masochistic impulses in life filtered into his artwork.

CARAVAGGIO (DIR. DEREK JARMAN, UK, 1986)

The tumultuous life of the Italian painter is brought to screen by Derek Jarman. Actually, Nigel Terry’s portrayal of the artist is fairly tame when you consider the stories of him as a hellraiser. Sure, there are infidelities, assaults and even murder, but Jarman portrays this almost as a natural progression for Caravaggio. The film looks beautiful and stark, similar to Nightwatching. A striking depiction of a life lived on the edge.

LIFE LESSONS  (DIR. MARTIN SCORSESE, USA, 1989)

New York Stories is a little seen trilogy of mini films directed by the finest New York directors of the 70’s. Woody Allen’s comedy is a joy, but Francis Ford Coppola’s segment (co-written by a pre-pubescent Sofia Coppola) is a fluffy, misguided kids film. My favourite is Martin Scorsese’s Life Stories, starring Nick Nolte as a middle aged professional painter. This is the only non-biopic in this piece, but I thought it was worth including because of it’s depiction of the actual practice. Tormented by impatient dealers and temperamental lovers, Nolte’s character throws himself into violent bursts of painting. Scorsese’s camera lingers over the vigorous brushstrokes as the Rolling Stones’ boom out of the record player.

Read Full Post »

Sergei Parajanov occupies a strange place in public perception; lauded to the high heavens by critics and cinephiles as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, yet seemingly unknown to 99% of the population. Perhaps it is his Armenian background, not exactly a hotbed of household figures. Or maybe it’s because of the censorship and imprisonment that hindered his career? Fortunately Parajanov seems to be gaining some more exposure in recent years; there has been an upswell in interest in lost filmic gems, signaled by Scorsese’s film restorations.

Parajanov certainly deserves his reputation, despite any qualms I might have with some of his work. His films have a visual style almost completely unique to any other; how many filmmakers could you say that about? The Colour of Pomegranates is his most famous film. It is an unconventional biopic of the Armenian poet Sayat Nova. Instead of telling a traditional story of Nova’s life, traipsing through his ups and downs, Parajanov uses an elliptic editing style, making use of static tableaux shots and poetic flights of fancy.

In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a distinctive story to grasp onto. We begin seeing through a child’s point of view, flashes of colourful daily life in a rustic town. It is reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s Mirror and the recent The Tree of Life, dwelling on moments of beauty and revelling in Nova’s childlike wonder. Parajanov has little interest in telling a classical story, but creating a piece of work that reflects Nova’s own poetry.

There is little dialogue, and the acting is fairly muted. Having seen a few of Parajanov’s films now, I would say that the performances are less about expressing themselves as human beings, more vessels for Parajanov’s overall vision. Parajanov was influenced by “Armenian illuminated miniatures”, which explains why each frame feels more like a intricate painting than a cinematic image. Costumes and mise en scene are lovingly handcrafted by Parajanov, creating some of the most beautiful frames in cinema.

I have to confess, although Pomegranates is visually stunning, I prefer the swashbuckling, roaming cinematography of Shadow of Forgotten Ancestors, an earlier film. The Kalatozov ( The Cranes Are Flying) style camera work coupled with the mise en scene in that film created some extraordinary sequences. Still, Pomegranates is one of the most distinctive and visually inventive films ever produced; young filmmakers would do well to get educated by it.

Read Full Post »

Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, one of cinemas greatest masters was born on 04.04.1932.

Sadly the he passed away in 1986, but his films live on as some of the most extraordinary ever created.

As Ingmar Bergman said: “Tarkovsky for me is the greatest [director], the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.”

As a tribute to the poetic genius of Tarkovsky’s work I have compiled a few images from his films here, the beauty of these still images only hint at the greatness of his films.

IVAN’S CHILDHOOD (1962):

ANDRE RUBLEV (1966):

MIRROR (1975):

STALKER (1979):

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: