My Year with Andrei

Tarkovsky w/Camera
My mate Andrei

On reading plenty of end of year reviews of books, films, games and TV I realised that this year, more than any other as an adult, I’ve just not had any time for any of that. There are several reasons for this, none of them particularly bad, one is very good (he’s 5 months old and sleeping soundly upstairs). But it doesn’t stop the feeling that I’ve missed out. You’ve lost out on experiences and things that other people have had. I’d promised myself that I’d do much more writing too, all I managed was a solitary horror story during the summer and a brief piece of freelance for a website.

So, what did I watch instead? Well, at the start of the year, inspired by Mark Cousins’ ‘The Story of Film: An Odyssey’ (watch it!) I went about watching Come and See. A film so shuddering, so affecting, that I spent the rest of the year convincing people to see it. There is no flicker of doubt in my mind that it is a defining film about war. Other films from around the world, from Black Rain (the Japanese one!) to Schindler’s List, from Nuit et Brouillard to Full Metal Jacket all pale in my mind. The broad assault on the senses is so all consuming that it overshadowed anything else that I watched.

come-and-see
Watch it. It will haunt you.

Well, almost.

I’d decided, along with a friend, that I needed to cover the missing spots in my knowledge (read his excellent end of year list here!). Major works of film that we’d missed out on or avoided so far.  After Cousins and the experience of Come and See I was finally inspired by reading this, fairly random, list article. Tarkovsky was the only director whose work I’d never seen any of. A DVD box of the seven films he’d made was a mere £30 (it now costs £150 inexplicably). Even if all his are available online for free I did want the best available package.

So, this year I watched the seven films of Andrei Tarkovsky. It is true, he hasn’t made a bad film. He’s made a boring one. Solaris. But even that is so fundamentally brilliant and thoughtful in construction that you have to engage with it on an intellectual level. The ideas, the sheer magnitude of thought outweighs its pace. I liked them all. I felt better, smarter, enhanced for watching them. There is something special about the cinema of Tarkovsky, something so different. He’ll never get a populist revival, the pace of his work is at odds with modern life, his stories are merely skeletons, foundations of bone on which the beauty of everything else hangs.

Bleak. If I've learnt one thing over the year it's that Russians are tough people who live in a tough place.
Bleak. If I’ve learnt one thing over the year it’s that Russians are tough people who live in a tough place.

Ivan’s Childhood is the first, stark and short story about the life of a child during the war. It suffered slightly by me watching it just after Come and See but only in the brutishness of depiction. Tarkovsky’s film is closer in spirit to Roberto Rosselini’s profoundly depressing hour long film Germany: Year Zero. Hauntingly beautiful black and white photography captures sequences of happy dreams, of floating and laughing and of the grim, unrelentingly tense situations people find themselves in.

The casting of the bell is the manifestation of art and labour writ large.
The casting of the bell is the manifestation of art and labour writ large.

Andrei Rublev is next. An epic, and slow, journey through the life of an icon painter living through a drought of inspiration in medieval Russia. Episodic and mysterious; this is supreme cinema of emotion and triumph over difficulty. Perhaps, and I know this sounds ridiculous, one of the greatest works of art of the century. Here’s part of its description in 1001 Movies to See Before you Die – “Tarkovsky’s masterpiece fresco is not made out of ideas. It is made out of light and darkness, of noise and silence, of human faces and rough material. It is a telluric move and magical stay suspended above the void. Dark, sensual and deeply moving, the film is a mystery, in the best sense of the word.”

Water over reeds. Make the meaning yourself.
Water over reeds. Make the meaning yourself.

Solaris is my least favoured of Tarkovsky’s films. Perhaps because the central conceit, which is largely ignored, interests me even more than Tarkovsky’s desire to explore the vagaries of the man’s emotional life when coping with grief and desire. A sentient alien planet which communicates with us by manifesting our memories as a reality? That is cool. Moping about your dead wife for 3 hours takes the edge off the cool. Loads of beautiful shots of leaves and reeds under water. Beneath the surface lies substance…

mirror1
I’m pretty convinced that most of Russia looks a bit like this, with less fire.

Mirror is a spellbinding confusion. A dream made celluloid. I won’t pretend I understand it but allowing yourself to relax into the imagery and travel the path of the fractured narrative is to lend your mind to memory, regret, hope and fear.

It'd be remiss not to include this shot. I won't explain it. The film doesn't bother.
It’d be remiss not to include this shot. I won’t explain it. The film doesn’t bother.

Stalker is a broken masterpiece. Or rather it is a masterpiece of the broken, of the physical and mental trauma of the characters. Along with Andrei Rublev it is my favourite. Here the story is stripped down, dialogue is ethereal, images threaten without clear reason. The journey of the three characters is the unravelling of three aspects of human life. In this way it oddly reminds me of Jaws. The journey out there, to the unknown, to quest for understanding. To vie with something beyond your understanding. In this case it isn’t a supernaturally powerful fish but a concept of desire, a room which grants wishes.  To watch Stalker is to watch a master make a true work of genius. You’ll experience it differently, everyone does.

Peace at last.
Peace at last.

Nostalgia, made under difficult circumstances, is the film that the critics love least. But it doesn’t deserve to be abandoned. It is a film about loss and the wrenching feeling of moving away and moving on, searching for meaning. If nothing else the final shot is breathtakingly brilliant, a culmination of a life reconciling and finding a kind of peace.

sacrifice
The final shot.

The Sacrifice is a tremendously grief ridden film. A collusion with many of Bergman’s crew and made just prior to Tarkovsky’s death it deals with death through the notion that in sacrifice, one man can avert disaster. It’s a fitting final film but a sad one too. Watching this you are watching someone confront their own mortality and transfer it to the screen. The emotions can’t be separated from the knowledge that Tarkovsky died soon after. The final page of his journal contained the entry, “But now I have no strength left – that is the problem.”

My year with Andrei. My year of watching one of the greats. As a footnote, the first time I ever heard of Tarkovsky was in the much missed Neon film magazine. In one of Graham Linehan’s superb ‘Filmgoers Companion’ pieces where he melds arthouse crowds with football firms. The Tarkovsky firm are the most dangerous, the patient bastards… (read it here)

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