Nostalghia: The Genesis of Truth
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Mention of Andrei Tarkovsky elicits reactions ranging from frustrated dismissal to awestruck praise. Such a range of responses comes as no surprise, for his films possess neither mainstream appeal nor wide accessibility. Tarkovsky’s body of work reflects a deeply spiritual, subjective, poetic, and personal worldview that may not necessarily engage the casual moviegoer. Popular tastes notwithstanding, there are more than a handful of serious critics who have lambasted the structural and thematic coherence (or lack thereof) of his films, among other things. Nevertheless, the late director emerges from the controversy as one of the most highly regarded cinematic artists of the last several decades. No less an authority than Ingmar Bergman hailed Tarkovsky as “the greatest, the one who invented a new language.” Much of this acclaim is predicated on the rich, mystical, and unforgettable imagery of his films. Indeed, the mise-en-scene of a Tarkovsky film is well described as visual poetry.
As a Russian, Tarkovsky was heir to the rich and influential film culture represented by such figures as Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Pudovkin and Vertov. Furthermore, Tarkovsky began working in the early 1960’s, an explosively creative era in world cinema, especially in Europe. Coming out of the Soviet tradition, following in the wake of Neo-realism, and contemporary to the French New Wave and the Bergman phenomenon, Tarkovsky arrived on the scene at a time of burgeoning creativity and superlative artistry. Under these circumstances, he acquired a remarkable reputation as an uncompromising, visionary director, and in some eyes, the most important Soviet director since Eisenstein.
Establishing Tarkovsky as an emissary of Russian cinema on a par with Eisenstein contains in itself some unique and daunting challenges. Tarkovsky’s opposition to Eisenstein’s theory of dialectic montage is well documented, and a number of his theoretical views on cinema (largely a-theoretical) are ignored or disputed, yet the power and poetic eloquence of his imagery are consistently admired. Tarkovsky possessed a deep affection for cinema as an emotional, rather than intellectual experience, and his sincerest desire was that cinema ascend to the level of music, painting and literature as a credible, commendable art. In fact, this view of cinema led to his apparently inevitable conflict with Eisensteinian dictum: Tarkovsky simply believed the intellectual approach to cinema crippled its potential as a true art form. Tarkovsky did not wholly discard Eisenstein (he even admired much about the filmmaker’s work), but he saw in Eisenstein’s theories a process antithetical to his organic concept of film construction. Tarkovsky’s refusal to employ conventional structures and traditional exposition in his films, as well as his open rejection of Soviet film as a foundation for his own work (with the notable exception of Dovzhenko), led to heavy criticism and regular “stonewalling” amongst the film authorities. His constant struggle with Mosfilm and Goskino higher-ups eventually led him to seek work abroad in hopes of greater artistic freedom.
Tarkovsky’s journey out of the Soviet Union led to a film that simultaneously diverges from and expands his oeuvre. The first film he made outside of the U.S.S.R., Nostalghia (1983) represents a distinctly new chapter in Tarkovsky’s life and work, for he would never return to his homeland to make another film. The director infused the picture with his own nostalgic, conflicted feelings, as he wrote in his diary in 1983: “Terrible thoughts. I’m frightened. I am lost! I cannot live in Russia, nor can I live here” (Time within Time 328). These emotions are embodied in the protagonist, Gorchakov, whose reveries and dreams about Russia and his family pervade the film. Although Nostalghia was shot entirely in Italy, with a primarily Italian crew, and co-scripted by the Italian Tonino Guerra (Antonioni’s longtime collaborator), it is unmistakably “Tarkovskian.” Nostalghia exemplifies the typical aspects of Tarkovsky’s mise-en-scene, and in some respects expands upon the foundations he laid for his cinematic vision in his writings and previous films. Numerically, Nostalghia stands as Tarkovsky’s sixth film, and chronologically, it was released only three years before his last film (The Sacrifice) and his death. Although it is somewhat of a departure from his earlier work, there is no mistaking the vision of Nostalghia as the work of any other director.
In Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky speaks thus of mise-en-scene: “The director . . . must work from the psychological state of the characters, through the inner dynamic mood of the situation, and bring it all back to the truth of the one, directly observed fact, and its unique texture” (74). This statement largely encompasses one of the primary goals of his cinema – to show the subjective reality, to go beyond visual codes, linear conventions and simplified dramatic situations. He proposes that the image is not a specific meaning, but “an entire world reflected as in a drop of water” (Sculpting 110). While such statements are incredibly elusive and lofty, Tarkovsky somehow achieves the desired effect with his dense, mysterious imagery. In Nostalghia, Gorchakov’s and Domenico’s yearnings are for more than home and family, they are for a worldly, humanistic spiritual ascension, a struggle for transcendence and harmony. Tarkovsky constructs the world of his film around the inner states of these men, evoking a preternaturally subjective reality through various devices including, but not limited to: puzzling spatial cues, point-of-view shots, mysterious lighting, subtly elaborate camera movements, and delicate variations of color/b&w. Nostalghia, as Louis Menashe states, is “the most subjective, in a double sense here, of his always subjective films” (60).
The most immediate and obvious attribute of a Tarkovsky film is its use of long takes. With each film, Tarkovsky further explores the possibilities of shot length and construction, and in Nostalghia the long takes play out in wondrous fashion. Although some would argue that in his later films the long take “was becoming an end in itself for Tarkovsky, rather than a means to an end” (Johnson and Petrie), the length almost always seems natural and integral to the emotional, subjective content of the scene. The entire 120-minutes of Nostalghia consists of a mere 115 shots, with many lasting several minutes. This culminates in the nearly nine-minute shot of Gorchakov trying to cross the drained St. Catherine’s pool with a lit candle. The ailing Gorchakov, who is clearly in pain, takes great care in his mission; only after three attempts does he make it all the way across the pool bed with the candle still aflame. Johnson and Petrie question whether the length is justified here (171), but one must consider that if Gorchakov succeeds in less time, and in only one or two tries, the impact of his suffering and the tension of his struggle would not come across with the same resonance. Anna Lawton describes it as “one of those rare shots where cinematic time equals real time. The shot tangibly conveys to the viewer the agony of the enterprise” (127). The extreme length in this case is a function of how long it takes the actor (Oleg Yankovsky) to walk across the pool three times while conveying naturally Gorchakov’s increasing sense of struggle. The length of Tarkovsky’s shots does not dictate the action and content, the action and content dictate the length of the shots. Contrary to Johnson’s and Petrie’s statement, Tarkovsky’s long takes are indeed a means to an end - the end resulting in the “unified, living structure inherent in the film” (Sculpting 114). It may well be that Tarkovsky’s increasing use of long takes was a product of his growing faith in his ability to construct a film with a minimal editing process, a further confirmation of his rejection of the ‘montage’ principles of his Soviet predecessors.
Tarkovsky’s aversion to Eisenstein’s theoretical foundations largely arose from his refusal to believe that editing was the main formative element of a film. Rather than being formed in the editing room, Tarkovsky claims that “the cinema image comes into being during the shooting, and exists within the frame” (Sculpting 114). He insists that “rhythm, and not editing . . . is the main formative element of cinema” (Sculpting 119). Furthermore, Tarkovsky contends that the rhythm of a film is not determined by the editing, but by the “time-pressure” of the individual sequences, which can be edited together on this basis. Time-pressure is described rather vaguely as the shot’s “intensity or sloppiness,” and Tarkovsky indicates that the scenes come together organically based on their inherent qualities (Sculpting 117). These ideas are reflected in his use of long, elaborate takes that rely heavily upon the actors’ abilities to sustain and modify the mood. The scene of Domenico’s impassioned speech and self-immolation exemplifies this concept of time-pressure. The intensity, which literally explodes into a burst of flames, reaches a peak as he cries out, and then settles back down, slumping into fiery death and stillness. The scene includes no fast cutting or montage, its power and rhythm emerge through the mise-en-scene, the time-pressure. As this scene’s time-pressure slackens, the film cuts to the candle-carrying scene, which languidly develops a very tense, mounting time-pressure of its own. This continuous take represents the concept of time-pressure taken to the brink. Many directors would have intercut the scene with close-ups of Gorchakov’s face or trembling hands, or any number of other shots to intensify the rhythm and feeling. However, Tarkovsky’s decision to let the scene play out organically, through its own realistic rhythms, produces a remarkably lucid image. In contrast, the dream/reverie sequences that occur throughout the film possess a distinctly different time-pressure. It is modified by the use of slow-motion, as well as the somber, melancholy aura of the actors and variations in color saturation. The resultant soft, heavy time-pressure produces a sense of time immemorial, of longing and depression - “nostalgia.”
The most fundamental reason for Tarkovsky’s opposition to Eisenstein’s formative principles is his feeling that the method derived from “cold intellectualizing,” and that the formulaic approach is despotic toward the audience. He rejects the collision/synthesis formula because it doesn’t “allow the film to continue beyond the edges of the screen: they do not allow the audience to bring personal experience to bear on what is in front of them on film” (Sculpting 118). The explicit “spelling-out” of meaning strikes Tarkovsky as facile and ham-fisted. His essential conflict with Eisenstein’s theory evolved because he worked in emotional, metaphysical spheres, while Eisenstein relied on theory, codes, and conventions. Tarkovsky’s ideas on cinema are distinctly a-theoretical in the sense that they are broad, fluid and overlapping. His awareness of this, however, is acute: “Clearly I could be accused of being inconsistent. However, it is for the artist both to devise principles and to break them. . . . artistic texture is always richer than anything that can be fitted into a theoretical schema” (Sculpting 216). Detractors often dismiss his views as Romantic and archaic, but his point about the limitations of dialectic montage seems well founded.
Tarkovsky’s films abound with a number of tracking shots and complex camera movements. Nostalghia, in particular, includes some of his more subtle and effective arrangements. A haunting demonstration can be observed in Domenico’s arrival at St. Catherine’s pool. As he walks past Eugenia, softly telling himself to ignore his mockers, the camera begins to glide along a few steps behind him. Domenico’s voice then comes from off-screen as the camera tracks slowly, fluidly, peering through the rising steam of the ancient pool. The camera’s presence becomes conspicuous as an almost spirit-like vehicle through which the viewer enters the scene. Tarkovsky provides the audience with a subjective viewpoint in which Domenico appears to lead us along as he talks not only to himself, but to the audience, as well. The fluid, subtle use of tracking shots, slow zooms, pans and other camera movements gives this film an otherworldly feel, as if the viewer were attending to a dream. Tarkovsky’s mission of creating a subjective viewpoint is partially realized through his camera movements. Unlike Bergman, who largely uses static camera setups, Tarkovsky rarely fixes the camera for more than a short time. One of his more hypnotic techniques is his use of almost imperceptible camera movements. The scene in the flooded church demonstrates this: the camera moves in achingly slow as Gorchakov tells the disturbing joke of the man who lives in the slimy pond. Likewise, the candle-carrying scene begins in long shot, but gradually closes in until the final framing is a close-up of Gorchakov’s hand setting the candle on the ledge. These scenes convey a progression toward some kind of agonizing truth, a snail’s crawl toward the intangible.
Symbolism and metaphor inevitably arise in any discussion of Tarkovsky, who vehemently argued against symbolic interpretations of his films. In a few rare instances, he admitted a symbolic/metaphoric content in certain images, yet these admissions are tempered by his quote of Ivanov, “A symbol is only a true symbol when it is inexhaustible and unlimited in its meaning . . . something that cannot be set forth, that does not correspond to words” (Sculpting 47). The final shot of Nostalghia, which Tarkovsky concedes “has an element of metaphor”, proves an excellent example of his strikingly complex and meaningful imagery that is at once metaphorical and “inexhaustible and unlimited.” Gorchakov, apparently having just died, appears in a black-and-white shot placing him amidst the Russian landscape of his dreams/memories. He lies with the dog next to a small pond reflecting strange arches. As the camera pulls back slowly, the frame reveals the Russian landscape now contained within the Italian cathedral of Gorchakov’s earlier vision, and a light snow begins to fall. On one level, the scene implies some degree of resolution: Gorchakov has died in Italy and thus his home and his final resting place have fused into one image - Russia within Italy, with the snow perhaps evoking the light, chill strains of death. On the other hand, the image could represent a psychological break - the eternal imprisonment of a soul forever separated from his homeland. The dichotomy of the image, the ambiguity of the circumstances (has he actually died?), and the spiritual/philosophical questions (were his yearnings merely for home, or for something more, a metaphysical reckoning?) make this an image of sufficient complexity to avert the “vulgar symbolism” that Tarkovsky so disliked (Sculpting 216).
Many of the beautiful images of Nostalghia, however, are far more cryptic than the final shot. One of the most mystifying and indelible images of the film emerges from the scene in Domenico’s house: a trio of bottles pelted by interior rain. Most of the drops hit the ground and sides of the bottles, but some fall inside, where they are collected little by little from the thousands of drops streaming through the shafts of sunlight. The shot is held just long enough to inspire contemplation. Any number of possible explanations might apply to this surprising image, and thus, the Tarkovskian leitmotif of omnipresent water takes shape in yet another ambiguous form. Are these bottles a reflection of man as a spiritual vessel? Is it a symbol referent to man’s inextricable link to water – man as a water vessel/being? Are the bottles an embodiment of Domenico’s philosophical/spiritual “1 + 1 = 1” principle (one drop + one drop equals a bigger drop, not two)? Or is it all of these and more? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because the image goes beyond a specific meaning - as Tarkovsky says in reference to Da Vinci’s ‘A Young Lady With a Juniper’, “We shall derive deep pleasure from the realization that we cannot exhaust it, or see to the end of it” (Sculpting 109). Furthermore, Tarkovsky felt that a truly artistic film should not impose definitive meaning upon the audience, but, rather, engage the viewers on an emotional and sub-intellectual level that invites multiple, varied subjective interpretations. Of course, it would be naïve to readily accept Tarkovsky’s notion that his films are free of symbolism, but it is nevertheless advisable to avoid any simplified interpretations of Nostalghia’s imagery.
Controlling the presence of color in film was of utmost concern to Andrei Tarkovsky. In Sculpting in Time, he states: “You have to try to neutralize color, to modify its impact on the audience.” He complains that color interferes with the image itself and imposes its own hollow expressiveness; mechanically reproduced color “lacks the touch of the artist’s hand” (138). The most obvious incarnation of this concern comes in the form of alternating black-and-white and color sequences. Not only does this method limit the presence of color and balance its impact, it provides cues to differing subjective realities (i.e. dream or vision sequences, alternative perceptions). Nostalghia arguably involves Tarkovsky’s most sophisticated use of color to date. Most of the dream sequences are in black-and-white, with many containing varied degrees of sepia tones. While the first and last shots are in basic black-and-white, within the film’s structure the gradations of color applied to the dream/vision/reverie sequences fluctuate to the extent that the borders of reality become obscured. Gorchakov’s first dream in the hotel is almost seamlessly fused into the reality, not only through expressive lighting, but also through the muted color transitioning smoothly into the black-and-white sequence. Throughout the film, Gorchakov continues to have visions/dreams that are increasingly marked by an ambiguous use of sepia tones, suggesting that the boundaries between his inner and outer worlds are dissolving. This ambiguity reaches a high point with the memories/visions of the release of Domenico’s family (after 7 years’ confinement in the house), which waver between black-and-white, color, and sepia tones. The boundaries separating inner and outer world are shattered when Domenico envisions his son, in full color, asking, “Dad, is this the end of the world?” This scene is particularly poignant; the emotion is underscored by the vividness of the color.
In nearly every scene the color seems to have been modified or ascribed a certain character. The misty post-credits shot presents a bleak landscape of muted and subdued greens. Gorchakov’s contemplation of the miniature landscape blending into the real landscape is shot in black-and-white with sepia tones, implying some metaphysical connection. Throughout the film, the saturation of colors varies across the whole spectrum, from black-and-white to rich color. In gliding through the spectrum of color, Tarkovsky seems to transcend the expanses of subjective reality, and in doing so makes the inner worlds of his characters every bit as “real” as the outer, physical world.
From the earliest stages of his career, Tarkovsky was noted for his keen eye. Sven Nykvist, the master cinematographer who shot The Sacrifice, claims that he recognized Tarkovsky’s greatness immediately upon seeing Ivan’s Childhood, and noted Tarkovsky’s extremely meticulous attention to composition: “I was a little irritated because he was always looking through the camera. . . and I was not used to it” (Johnson & Petrie 96, 41). Tarkovsky’s penchant for constantly fine-tuning the arrangement of his compositions, even to the extent of moving small rocks around (Leszczylowski), resulted in some incredibly delicate and beautiful images. The black-and-white credits shot of Nostalghia frames a lushly vegetated downhill slope by a river, ending in a still-frame that indicates a disciplined awareness of compositional strategy. Tarkovsky places the human figures in a uniquely three-dimensional triangular composition that is both offset and balanced by the telephone pole and white horse in the background. The frame echoes a melancholy love for the land, its aura, and its people.
Another remarkable composition is the virtual blending of the miniature landscape on the floor into the real landscape seen in the distance at Domenico’s house. Many of the other shots in Domenico’s engage in a similarly unusual bending of spatial reality. As Gorchakov enters the building, the camera slowly pans around to find him looking into a mirror, and as he glances over to his side the camera slowly pans left and reveals Gorchakov, magically displaced, looking back at the spot he was standing seconds ago. During their conversation, Gorchakov and Domenico are shown almost exclusively in medium closeups, so that as they move around the dark room it becomes difficult to maintain a sense of spatial relationships, and the viewer is forced to consider the subjectivity of this “reality” as it is experienced by the characters.
The long shots of Domenico’s cavernous house reveal a dilapidated structure; the ground is flooded with rainwater pouring in from holes in the roof, the whole building gradually being overcome by the elements. The bleakness of these compositions hatches from the disruptive patterns of light and dark and the chaotic conflict between space and function. The sense of a discarded, collapsed world, reminiscent of Stalker, is revisited in Nostalghia in the scenes at Domenico’s house, St Catherine’s spa, and the flooded church. However, in Stalker, the wrecked post-industrial landscape seems to reflect destruction more than decay, ecological/physical disaster more than spiritual/metaphysical degradation. Domenico’s disintegrating house both reflects his disinterest in the material and underscores the decay of the human spiritual condition.
Peter Green says the following: “The painterly quality of the pictures is striking in all his films, but in Nostalghia Tarkovsky goes beyond the creation of mere fascinating visual images. . . . he underlines the discussion of belief . . . in the best tradition of still life painting, carefully selecting and arranging objects in various stages of decay” (53). The presentation of discarded still life objects (bottles, books, lamps, tires, and rubble) at Domenico’s and the drained St. Catherine’s pool not only recalls Stalker, but causes one on a semi-conscious level to register the material aspect of our existence. These mundane objects are not in themselves interesting or beautiful, yet Tarkovsky ingrains them into the composition as artifacts of human society, or as Green says, “a metonymical representation of the transience of life” (53).
The subtle and delicate use of expressive lighting in Nostalghia is its most distinguishing visual characteristic when set against earlier Tarkovsky films. He uses lighting creatively in Ivan’s Childhood and Mirror, but not to the level of success and aesthetic balance of Nostalghia. Johnson and Petrie consider this to be new territory for Tarkovsky, as well, and they note that the “subtlety of the lighting effects . . . is not simply a source of legitimate aesthetic pleasure . . . but part of the thematic and psychological structure of the whole film” (171). Whereas in Ivan’s Childhood and Mirror the expressive lighting appears obtrusive, the effects in Nostalghia are so deftly executed that they become an organic part of the image. Perhaps the most remarkable example can be seen when Gorchakov enters and walks around his hotel room. The room is very dark, with the gloomy spill from the windows as the only natural source of light. When he lies on the bed, he is faintly lit, apparently by exterior light from the window. The light on him fades, the camera very slowly begins to zoom in, and he disappears into the black shadow pool engulfing the bed. Then, another unmotivated lighting change occurs in the bathroom, and the dog from his memories/dreams enters from the bathroom, lies next to the bed, and knocks over a glass. Gorchakov’s hand can faintly be seen petting the dog as the camera continues to zoom. At this point, the viewer does not know if the dog is real or part of a dream, but as the frame moves to close-up, the light goes up again to reveal Gorchakov’s face, and a transition occurs. The next shot is black-and-white in slow motion, and we see Gorchakov’s wife. Now it is clearly a dream, but the point at which it crosses over is ambiguous. Tarkovsky’s use of unmotivated light here helps to blur the distinction between dream and reality. The dog can’t be real, but the sound of the fallen glass and the petting suggest it is real. In the dream sequence that follows, we see the lighting achieve a strange effect in which his wife appears to glow and float in the darkness of the same hotel room, and then fade into darkness as he awakens. As Johnson and Petrie note, “the unmotivated changes of level in the lighting . . . serve to question the ‘reality’ of these scenes, working directly on our subconscious” (171).
Similar use of lighting occurs in the scene at Domenico’s house. Gorchakov, after having “seen himself” standing several feet away, turns to look at a picture that is inscrutably dark. As he walks off, the camera moves in on the picture and the light goes up to slowly reveal a painting of a sinister baby with lifeless, cherry-like eyes. Other unusual lighting changes occur within this scene, undermining the reality and increasing the awareness of a subjective viewpoint. In very general terms, Nostalghia at times employs low-key light schemes and subtle shifts in level that induce the viewer to contemplate the inner mental and emotional states of the characters. While this is clearly in line with Tarkovsky’s approach to mise-en-scene, it is also a departure from the primarily realistic lighting schemes of his earlier films. For Tarkovsky, the only truth in this world was a subjective truth; with this film he moves even farther into the subjective logic, reality, and truth he so fervently sought. Perhaps the reason he was moving so close to the subjective reality in Nostalghia is because it was his reality at the time. Maya Turovskaya, speaking of A Time to Travel (the documentary Tarkovsky made in Italy just prior to Nostalghia), noted the following: “When Tarkovsky saw the first rushes, he was moved to tears of astonishment both at the quality of the material, and at the precision, (unexpected even by him) with which the dusky images reflected his own twilight inner state” (122). Apparently, Tarkovsky had discovered something new; perhaps he had developed a subjective cinematic expression true to his own inner world.
Andrei Tarkovsky was a serious and humanistic individual, and his lofty concerns demanded great conviction. Nostalghia mirrors his most deeply felt artistic and personal convictions, and for that reason, it has been criticized variously as “flawed, hazy, and overloaded.” The convictions Tarkovsky lived and worked by at times seem frighteningly morbid in their disposition toward the modern world. Roger Ebert quotes his speech from the Telluride Film Festival: “The cinema, she is a whore. First she charge a nickel, now she charge five dollars. Until she learn to give it away free, she will always be a whore” (527). The intransigence of Tarkovsky’s ethical/artistic ideals was truly remarkable, for it placed him in a position of constant conflict with the material world. His search for subjective truth in film made him a pariah in his homeland, a genius in the West; the West did not promise him anything except a longing for Russia.
He truly was an artist’s artist, yet he was a humanist above all. He sought to reach individuals on a spiritual level, but he also understood the futility of changing the world in mass, “before trying to alter the world, man needs to alter himself. . . . I, however, see the only meaning of human existence in the effort to overcome yourself, to become different from what you were at birth” (Interview, The Economist 88). Tarkovsky’ lament over the state of the human soul parallels his concern about cinema’s material corruption. His infamous self-proclaimed martyr status may have been blown out of proportion, yet one has to accept that he did indeed sacrifice an easier life in favor of higher principles – he walked the razor’s edge - and maybe this will become his greatest legacy. Yet, one has to wonder after connecting on meaningful levels with Tarkovsky’s films, if the work was reward in itself for a life well spent. As he muses in the final thought of Sculpting in Time: Perhaps the meaning of all human activity lies in artistic consciousness, in the pointless and selfless creative act? Perhaps our capacity to create is evidence that we ourselves were created in the image and likeness of God?