The general notion of cinema as art today seems rather dubious despite the recent success of many independent productions, many of which are mistakenly labeled as original or artistic. Emanuel Levy points out that “the indie cinema boasts few practitioners whose films are truly avant-garde or whose works are as eagerly anticipated as the films of Bresson, Godard, Ozu, Tarkovsky, and Cassavetes a generation ago” (54). This is not to say that there is no dialogue about contemporary art film, but many of the works that pass for art now will by and large find themselves on the dusty shelves of infamy in just a few years. That the bar has been so lowered surely indicates a dearth of works substantial enough to uphold the standards formerly borne by the likes of Fellini, Bergman, and Kurosawa, to name a few. While the modern audience may well be more educated and conscious about cinematic form and style, the primacy of Hollywood product has surely taken its toll. Harlan Kennedy describes with some levity the typical filmgoer “whose brain has turned to baby food under the influence of so much ‘classical narrative cinema’,” the individual whose aesthetic faculties have been neutralized in breadth and depth to the point of feebleness (46). With this lowering of the bar comes a faded notion of artistic vision, and so we find ourselves (particularly in America) desperately embracing interesting, solid works such a L.A. Confidential and Pulp Fiction as masterpieces, while in truth, they are at best very good examples of post-modern moviemaking. Granted, one cannot absolutely separate filmmaking from finance and that concession has led cinema into the realm of commercial enterprise, where only tiny ‘niche markets’ provide refuge for films conceived and produced on creative rather than economic principles. Even these sparse islands of sanctuary have among their number the seeds of compromise, so one looks with skepticism upon those who refute the imminence of art cinema’s death. The current international scene presents a situation no less grim than it appears domestically. Yet if one looks back to the historical masterworks and then to the digital future, it is possible to believe that with reduced production costs a more creatively driven cinema could emerge, and the present celluloid garble could evolve into reels of magic. Without this hope it is perhaps irrelevant to hold any discussion of art cinema, because little could be gained by studying a dead-end expressive form. If there were no hope for the future we would not feel compelled to plunge so deeply into the films of the great auteurs.
The Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky believed with all his heart in the potential of cinema as art. A true champion of the cause, he stated definitively, “We’ve reached a time when we must declare open warfare on mediocrity, greyness and lack of expressiveness, and make creative inquiry a rule in cinema,” (Mitchell 54). Love it or hate it, take it or leave it, Tarkovsky’s cinematic contribution is the very definition of ‘art film’: uncompromising, visionary, and utterly devoid of commercial roots. Some feel his premature death bore great implications for cinema, that “Tarkovsky was quite possibly the last of the old European art movie directors,” and his body of work mirrors a deeply spiritual, subjective, and poetic worldview that permeates the films on an infinitesimal level (Kennedy 44). Still, a number of serious critics have lambasted the structural and thematic coherence of his films, and some quite plainly find his work ponderous and boring. Nostalghia, for example, might seem an utter waste of time to some viewers and Mirror could prove thoroughly perplexing to others (particularly, in both cases, to Westerners). Nevertheless, the late director emerges from critical circles as one of the most revered art directors of his era. His epic Andrei Rublev appeared on Sight & Sound’s 1982 list of the top 10 films of all time (15 actually, since there were ties), and in the 1992 Sight & Sound poll every one of his films figured in individual lists of directors from Solanas to Kieslowski, an honor unique to Tarkovsky (Graffy 18). His films won many international awards, and no less an authority than Ingmar Bergman hailed him as “the greatest, the one who invented a new language” (Dossier Positif 8).
Andrei Tarkovsky was heir to the rich and influential Soviet film culture represented by such major figures as Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Pudovkin, and Vertov. Although he tended to downplay the Soviet influence, he was clearly a product of his native film culture. Most significantly, Tarkovsky acknowledged the importance of Alexander Dovzhenko as a poet who explored the visual beauty of images through the long take, a technique readily apparent in Tarkovsky’s work. He was also well schooled in the traditions and ideas of other Soviets, but sought to distinguish himself as something more than just a scion of that filmmaking heritage (Johnson & Petrie 14). 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 found himself in the most distinguished of company. To say his was an auspicious beginning represents something of an understatement; his first feature film, Ivan’s Childhood (1962), won the top prizes at the Venice Film Festival and inspired Jean-Paul Sartre to write an essay in its defense. Notorious in some circles for his vehement opposition to Eisenstein’s film theories, Tarkovsky and his largely atheoretical views on cinema are commonly ignored or disputed, yet the strange power and eloquence of his imagery are almost universally acknowledged. He possessed a deep affection for cinema as an emotional, rather than intellectual experience, and his sincerest desire was that it ascend to the level of music, painting, and literature as a credible, perhaps even classical art in its own right. The famous director and theorist Sergei Eisenstein clearly stated the dialectic approach to be an “intellectual” conception, and that the filmmaker should “direct the whole thought process” (Eisenstein 62). These are the two points over which Tarkovsky most stringently argued. His diametric opposition to certain ideas of Eisenstein and Kuleshov, among others, simply arose from his belief that their theorizing betrayed and crippled cinema’s essence as a true expression of the human experience (which is neither formulaic nor didactic, but elusive and limitless). Furthermore, Tarkovsky refused to accept his Soviet predecessors’ dictum of editing as the “main formative element of a film,” instead stating that the “cinema image comes into being during shooting” and that editing merely organizes the “unified, living structure inherent in the film” (Sculpting 114). Tarkovsky did not wholly discard his Soviet predecessors, but saw in these foundations a process antithetical to his ‘organic’ concept of film construction. To be sure, he was aware of Eisenstein’s theories of spatial relations in the frame and between shots as well as those about sound, and a significant influence can be noted in this regard (Johnson & Petrie 14). Nevertheless, the purpose of this work is not to contextualize Tarkovsky within Soviet cinema, but to explore and describe his body of work within an admittedly focused, limited framework. Without denying Soviet or other influences, one might look upon Tarkovsky’s films as genuine works of art created by a unique individual. Indeed, Tarkovsky has proved one of the more iconoclastic film directors of modern times for many reasons, not the least of which is his rejection of the theories of dialectics and montage editing – ideas that represent the basis of a great deal of the work being done in film today.
Surprisingly, relatively little criticism has focused on the creative rift between Russia’s two greatest filmmakers. In all likelihood this avenue of inquiry would prove fruitless, for in cinematic terms, the rift is ideological and therefore in some sense irreconcilable. At the very least, reconciliation is unnecessary because the two schools of thought can coexist as peaceably as do ‘commercial’ and ‘art’ film. Suffice to say Tarkovsky strode down a different path than his creative forebears, to the point his films possess an absolutely unmistakable signature, something that can only be said of a precious few directors. Although he remains among the more obscure of the world’s filmmakers, there exists a small but impassioned following that seems to be growing. A resurgence of published material and the availability of several of his films on DVD indicate a continuing, if not growing interest.
Some outstanding criticism and analysis of Tarkovsky’s work has been published, but the opportunities for refreshing insights remain numerous. All of the authors cited in this work have made significant contributions, with Johnson/Petrie, Vlada Petric, Peter Green, and Maya Turovskaya all being indispensable. Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time probably represents the most crucial link to understanding his ‘world,’ because to experience Tarkovsky fully is to resign oneself to a subjective representation, a subjective cinema defined not by formal codes but by the intrinsic qualities of the films. Two things are essential in understanding this oeuvre at its most profound depth: a cultural and a personal background. Fortunately, the works cited provide both, and Johnson & Petrie went great distances in revising and improving any future approaches to Tarkovsky by setting straight many unclear or misrepresented issues.
Although the gaps are too numerous to cover here, the following are some areas for further examination. Tarkovsky’s use of sound has not received exhaustive treatment, although some fascinating exploration by the aforementioned authors, and particularly Andrea Truppin (in Sound Theory Sound Practice), opens the doors for more intensive study. The sonic texture of the films ranges from naturalistic and spare to otherworldly and bewildering, although Tarkovsky felt sound should not call attention to itself in a distracting manner (perhaps this explains the paucity of related criticism). The performances in all of Tarkovsky’s films are of the highest caliber, yet relatively scant attention has focused on this aspect of the films. He was clearly a superior director of actors, and his grasp of blocking served him extremely well (this will be addressed in the discussion of ‘Time and Space’), so an entire study might be devoted to this area. The psychological and spiritual implications of Tarkovsky’s work could fill volumes, as could his ongoing dialogue with classical art forms. Johnson and Petrie discuss this dialogue with art, but it’s so prevalent in Tarkovsky’s work that one might use their work merely as a starting point. At any rate, the range of possibilities when discussing Tarkovsky goes far beyond the scope of any single volume; considering the extant literature, it seems most appropriate to create focused studies of specific issues.
The following pages will embark on a logical progression from the work of previous authors, specifically in moving from foundational and intertextual criticism to the development of a conceptual framework and stylistic nomenclature applicable to the ‘Tarkovskian’ world. The phrase ‘Transcendental Organic Cinema’ derives essentially from the filmic world Tarkovsky discusses and portrays on screen, although the component terms have been previously applied by critics in reference to Tarkovsky, among others. ‘Transcendental Organic Cinema’ does not constitute a movement or a theoretical concept so much as it describes an artistic sensibility, one perhaps best represented by the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. In light of his immense cinematic stature, Julian Graffy states that in recent years the Russian press has questioned the viability of emulating the “Tarkovskian model” and implies that perhaps his films represent not a cinematic model as much as a source of “inspiration and joy” (18). Whether his contribution represents the potential starting point for a new tradition or a dead one, only time will tell, but the approach one takes to his work is as important as the light in which one views the most delicate of paintings. The emotional, sensory, and ‘oneiric’ (dreamlike) textures of his work invite the viewer to a similarly non-intellectual, spiritual contact; Tarkovsky’s world essentially defies the principles of a dogmatic theoretical analysis in favor of a boundary-free encounter between the audience, the film, and its creator. Therefore the ‘transcendental’ and the ‘organic’ become operative forces in the entrance to a subjective representation of the experience which belongs not only to Tarkovsky, but to us all.
Paul Schrader defines the Transcendent as “beyond normal sense experience, and that which it transcends is, by definition, the immanent” (5). Furthermore, he describes transcendental expression as that which “attempts to bring man as close to the ineffable, invisible and unknowable as words, images, and ideas can take him.” The quest for transcendence developed from the time of the ancient Greek philosophers to the 19th century writings of Coleridge, Emerson, and Thoreau. “Transcendental art” as a concept purports that art and religious endeavor move in similar circles, or in Clive Bell’s words, “Art and Religion are the two roads by which men escape from circumstance to ecstasy. Art and Religion are means to similar states of mind” (Schrader 7). Transcendentalism in art does not have a specific beginning, but as a conscious movement it is generally regarded as having its roots in the 19th century. The overarching notion of transcendentalism implies the human-scale world as a microcosm of the universe and intuition as a key force in experience (Hirsch, Kett, Trefil 136). These ideas dominate Tarkovsky’s personal and professional approach to life and film as he seeks to elucidate the universal through the subjective inner world.
Transcendental style in film is “a general representative filmic form which expresses the Transcendent” (Schrader 8-9). Schrader describes the transcendental style in terms of its penchant for maximizing the mystery of existence and its tendency to eschew conventional schemata and rationalism as the primary approaches to life (10-11). Although Schrader does not mention him in the book, these words reflect the essence of Tarkovsky’s cinematic vision and style, and certainly in a broader sense he could be considered a ‘transcendentalist’ in the tradition of the 19th century. Moreover, it’s noteworthy that one of the three filmmakers Schrader discusses, Robert Bresson, was Tarkovsky’s favorite director. Favorite cannot begin to convey accurately his feelings, for Tarkovsky held Bresson in the highest regard, repeatedly placing him above all others as a poet of the cinema. Although the similarities between Bresson and Tarkovsky are few, the path to transcendence clearly preoccupied both men.
One might wish to discuss transcendence in sectarian religious terms, but it is inappropriate and dangerous to impose a specific religious ideology on Tarkovsky. In an excerpt from Donatella Baglivo’s documentary “A Poet of the Cinema” (supplemental to the DVD of Andrei Rublev), Tarkovsky announces that he is “almost Agnostic,” and a thorough examination of his work and writings reveals a distinct absence of dogmatic religious belief. He tended more toward secular humanism, but was nevertheless a man of great faith and spirituality who believed in the divine and the possibility of spiritual transcendence. A certain degree of Christian iconography appears in Tarkovsky’s films, but one finds an equal presence of non-sectarian mysticism. In the broadest possible sense, the films are a multi-layered, contemplative exploration of experience “based on the director’s belief that the camera is capable of unearthing the hidden significance of the material world” (Petric 29).
Tarkovsky’s depiction of the world consistently provides mysterious, meditative, and even startling visions of reality – within, without, and beyond. Roger Ebert claims that his films are “as close as the cinema probably can come to providing transcendent experiences” (527). Tarkovsky freely crosses the boundaries of time, space, dream, consciousness, and physicality, and renders the very nature of reality indefinite and limitless. In his later films, one cannot effectively delineate these boundaries, and the astute viewer discovers a vehicle for approaching the “ineffable, invisible and unknowable” of which Schrader speaks (8). What makes Tarkovsky’s films more successful than most in this regard is the subtlety of his cinematic means. While many filmmakers rely on artificial, illusory special effects (process screens, animation, digital effects, etc.), obtrusive sound, and cliched symbolism to convey the Transcendent, Tarkovsky relies on the strength of his actors, the delicacy of sound and camera movements, and strangely alluring imagery. To be sure, certain films use such complex illusory effects wonderfully – Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey immediately comes to mind, especially since many have compared it to Tarkovsky’s Solaris. Kubrick brilliantly exploits the techniques of process screens, experimental photographic effects, and miniatures to imagine the grandeur of cosmic revelation. Tarkovsky acutely focuses his attention on the natural appearance of human-scale reality, even in his only true science-fiction film, Solaris (which actually contains a few necessary miniature and animation shots). He obviates the need for artificially-created alien otherworlds by meticulous application of pure, basic cinematic techniques that enable him to transcend, without abandoning, the mundane physical world. The revelatory characteristic of Tarkovsky’s films derives from the simultaneity of inward and outward journeys, the tendency for consciousness and universality to merge inexplicably. Solaris provides the most overt expression of this through the convergence of Chris Kelvin’s consciousness with the cosmic force of the planet Solaris.
Application of the term ‘organic’ to Tarkovsky’s world might seem painfully obvious, and it certainly is on a purely surface level. Vegetation, water, animals and earth pervade his films almost to the brink of absurdity, and Tarkovsky’s language in discussing cinema insists upon vitality and naturalistic genesis. His films however, are organic in layers that form a multiplex, a sort of structural, prismatic form at once repetitive and endlessly variable. The most basic layer exists in the visual and sonic imagery, where Tarkovsky explores and scrutinizes the nuances of the natural world through various combinations of zooms, pans, tracking, slow-motion, and natural sounds. He depicts these images curiously and meticulously but almost always naturalistically and without distortion. The next layer consists of the formal structure of the films - organic by virtue of fluid, long takes, sound bridges, and a rhythm based on the inherent qualities of the shot footage (rather than manipulative editing). On another layer, the films appear organic due to their subjectivity; the Tarkovskian perspective essentially mirrors a human experience. This quality emerges most in Mirror and Nostalghia, which represent his most deeply autobiographical, personal films. The fabric of the cinematic form represents an analog to the experiences drawn out from within. Finally, as a body of work, Tarkovsky’s seven feature films connect to each other in fundamentally synchronous ways; the creative heritage of each Tarkovsky film links them almost biologically as a family of entities. A progression in style and content can be traced through these pictures, yet with each Tarkovsky reconceived and bore a “child” as closely related to the next as any actual siblings. Despite the variety of subject matter, they are essentially more alike than different, each infused with their father’s obsessions and attributes, bearing an unmistakable ancestry of aesthetic and philosophical inquiry. Although one could seemingly make this argument for any director’s body of work, in truth it can only be applied to the genuine auteurs who conceive, bear, nurture and wean their projects without equivocation. Virtually every source available confirms Tarkovsky’s status as an auteur, so we can look upon his family of films as that organic multiplex of repetition and endless variation, the legacy that defines the very process and moment of creation as inherently organic.
The limitations of human thought and the medium of film make transcendental expression a sophisticated process. The human artist is manifest in the organic dimension, with only abstraction linking the artist to a broader horizon. Perhaps the most resonant theme to emerge from Tarkovsky’s work sprouts from the dynamic invoked by the human faced with the Cosmic, the finite faced with the infinite, the eternal question “Why are we here?” This reckoning materializes on screen as the transcendental organic cinema, with the very idea of creation at the core – man (organic) as a creation, cinema as man’s organic creation, and organic creation as a mode of transcending the apparent limits of existence. It reverberates in Tarkovsky’s final musing 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?”
Water and Ambiguous Metaphor
Tarkovsky strictly refuted the traditional notions of symbolism and metaphor in art on essentially the same basis that he opposed dialectics and montage editing - he detested the idea of controlling or formulating meaning for the audience. He quoted Vyacheslav Ivanov’s statement that a true symbol is “inexhaustible and unlimited in its meaning,” and believed that the film image should extend beyond the screen and actively involve rather than impose upon the audience (Sculpting 47, 118). Although Tarkovsky resisted interpretation of his films on a metaphoric level, he effectively admitted that they were not utterly free of symbolic content. More to the point, Tarkovsky perceived and rendered symbolism in complex, multilayered, and even inscrutable fashions, so much so that the audience finds the urge to explore meaning irresistible. Discussing the attention of the audience, Tarkovsky said, “If you extend the normal length of a shot, first you get bored; but if you extend it further still you become interested in it; and if you extend it even more a new quality, and new intensity of attention is born” (Collected Screenplays 6). Although this is somewhat rudimentary, it partially explains Tarkovsky’s ability to imbue the banal with transcendental power. Vlada Petric explains this quality more precisely, “The cognitive ambiguity of Tarkovsky’s shots is meant to shift the viewer’s attention from the representational to the transcendental meaning of the recorded event” (Petric 32-33).
While it is crucial to experience his films on emotional and sub-intellectual levels to appreciate them as a weighty parallel to human experience, it does not diminish their power to think about the films critically. Some authors have perhaps taken too much to heart Tarkovsky’s pleas against metaphoric interpretation, because a great deal of his imagery has remained untouched by analysis. This may be the result of a desire to respect the revered director’s wishes, but any work of such anagogic magnetism inexorably draws forth detailed, intense scrutiny. This scrutiny does not by default rob the work of its value, but instead can aid casual viewers in comprehending the intricacies and subtleties of artistic endeavor. The forthcoming analysis seeks not to uncover a method or technique, or to codify and categorize metaphoric content in a catalog of protocols. On the contrary, it ventures to extract the essential qualities of nonverbal, complex, mellifluous expression from a subconscious to a conscious level of understanding - in short, to help us understand the nature of masterful cinematic imagery.
Water’s omnipresence in Tarkovsky’s world evokes a mythic, preternatural character that is at once abundant and intangible for the viewer. As the most pervasive elemental image in Tarkovsky’s work, water reflects his obsession with mystery, movement, change and flux, and “subconscious echoes . . . some atavistic memory or some ancestral transmigration” (Mitchell 55). The breadth and ambiguity of water’s presentation in the films exemplifies his ability to infuse natural imagery with transcendental energy; by virtue of its insistent, protean character, water in Tarkovsky’s films compels the viewer to surrender to its hypnotically archetypal potential as the source of life. Jung described archetypal images as “Forms or images of a collective nature which occur practically all over the earth as constituents of myths and at the same time as autochthonous, individual products of unconscious origin” (88). Much of Tarkovsky’s recurrent imagery follows the path Jung described, with water being the most prevalent. Water does not directly symbolize anything, but illuminates our link to everything vital; it is not didactic or reductive, but infinite and expansive in its meaning. Perhaps the critics who bemoan this leitmotif do so out of weariness, unable to accept Tarkovsky’s use of water as a fundamental aspect of his world and tired by its ostensibly worn-out symbolic meaning. However, Tarkovsky primarily employs imagery on an intuitive level, so one must look beyond direct symbolism while searching for understanding. At times, water may simply serve as a logical prop or natural presence (rain, bodies of water, spilt or leaking water), and other times it may be an atmospheric presence, but no matter the situation, it retains a limitless, amorphous character. The fundamental object is the invocation of an organic sensation and the resulting texture that characterizes his films: the images brim with cycles of life and numinous energy just as they swim in flooded structures, rainy landscapes and inexplicable drips and streams. As for the possible meanings of the imagery, it is for the audience to engage the author’s text as a fluid experience conducive to a collaborative construction of significance, rather than a definitive set of interpretations.
Ivan’s Childhood (1962)
As Tarkovsky’s first, shortest, and least sophisticated film, Ivan’s Childhood appropriately enough contains his most basic water imagery. The presence of water is very specific and limited, and does not take on the complex aura it achieves in the later films. However, as an analog to war’s life-draining capacity, the relative sparseness of water (as a giver of life) seems appropriate. The isolation from the vital force of water underscores the death and desolation of WWII Russia. The strongest positive associations are made in Ivan’s dreams of his mother and sister, and the more negative ones are embodied in the form of water as a swamp/lake that separates the enemy lines. We hear dripping sounds, and Ivan dreams of his mother at the well where he curiously reaches into the water for a ‘star’ he can see at the bottom. As he awakens in horror to his mother’s death at German hands, water inexplicably splashes over a full bucket to the earth. The association of his mother and water as life-givers doubles as the loss of water parallels her loss of life. Ivan’s dream of he and his sister on the wagon places them in a deluge of rain, which perhaps suggests purification (vis-à-vis the sister’s innocence) but may also imply nature’s bold indifference to fragile life.
The final scene at the beach could be interpreted as Ivan’s reunion with mother and sister in Heaven, as Galtsev’s vision of afterlife hope, or simply as Tarkovsky’s rendition of Ivan’s final moments of life (or an amalgam of all three, maybe). Nevertheless, the sea evokes a sense of wonder and vitality as it glimmers and washes onto the shore at the feet of the children. Again, the sister and mother are integral to these life-affirming presentations of water. The tree itself exemplifies Tarkovksy’s penchant for ambiguous but fascinating metaphor. It seems to signify hope and death simultaneously; the apparently dead tree strangely appears on a beach where it would be unlikely to grow in the first place (hope?). The euphoric run of Ivan and his sister along the beach concludes as the camera (perhaps from Ivan’s point-of-view) plunges into the blackness of the tree. The clash of possible meanings creates a deeply unsettling emotional dynamic and a truly indelible final image. The tree cannot be decoded as a symbol, yet it clearly embodies a set of powerful human feelings and aspirations complicated by the unknown.
The swamp/lake which Ivan deftly crosses to reach enemy lines and fulfill his reconnaissance missions represents a more ambivalent, darker manifestation of water imagery. Here the water takes on an adversarial quality, pressing Ivan to the limits of human endurance in his attempts to cross its chilly, murky expanse. The swampy void is the no-man’s region between peace and death, the primeval locale of stasis and uncertainty that must be traversed in order to act as a warrior in the name of peace. But Ivan’s affinity for the primordial, stagnant area gives an inkling of his reversion to vengeful impulses grounded in primal desire. He faces this nemesis and embraces it as a test of his will and conviction, as a necessarily insurmountable foe in his painfully desperate quest for retribution against the Germans. Ivan’s Childhood produces raw, emotional visions of water that plunge directly into the human pathos, opening the floodgates for Tarkovsky’s more elaborate and mystical renderings in the later films.
Andrei Rublev (1966)
A naturalistic rendition of water in the form of rivers, creeks, lakes, rain, and snow typifies Andrei Rublev. Rain in particular dominates, a form commonly associated with purification, release, and natural cycles. Significantly, three scenes portray rain at its most resonant pitch: the jester defiantly stepping out into the downpour, Rublev’s exit from the Grand Prince’s cathedral into the rain, and the final shot of the horses. In the first of these scenes, the three monks (Rublev, Kirill, and Danil) seek shelter from the rain in a barn where a rambunctious jester entertains commoners. The jester strikes a chord of indignation in the monk Kirill because he embodies the earthy, secular impiety the monks are expected to reject. The jester’s refusal to pander to the monks and their pious facade comes across definitively as he steps out into nature’s storm shirtless, embracing the rain as an elemental bath (this naturalism recurs in “The Holiday” episode, where the Pagans freely swim nude and then attempt to escape the brutal Christians by diving into the river). Kirill takes the Jester’s defiance as a challenge, and causes him to be brutalized and imprisoned for his secular human character. In the next key scene Rublev, working on the Grand Prince’s cathedral, responds in outrage to the blinding of the masons. Appalled by the cruelty of man’s despotism in both state and Church, he envisions a moment of serene purity under a tree in a rainstorm. Tarkovsky pans from Rublev under the tree to the leaves blowing freely in the rainy wind, presenting the glorious beauty of an organism utterly resigned to nature’s whim. This moment of reflection suggests Rublev’s growing disaffection for man’s tendency to eschew the sanctity and holism of nature, and he responds by walking out of the cathedral to sit in the rain – mirroring the Jester’s earlier actions. At this point Part I ends, insinuating Rublev’s ideological shift from ascetic Christianity to the more natural and humanistic embrace of earthly existence.
The completion of this rain cycle occurs in the final sequence: a sound bridge of a thunderstorm and running water spans three color shots - from a close-up image of the eyes of Rublev’s Jesus, to a medium shot of water running down the wall that dissolves into the final long shot of horses on a small green peninsula amidst a sunny shower of rain. While words do no justice to the glory of this image, it is clear that Tarkovsky seeks here to somehow reconcile man, God, and nature, with the vital link being rain. Rublev’s transcendental recreation of Jesus parallels Nature/God’s creation in the form of horses, linked by surrender to the irresistible presence of water. Just as Rublev has resigned himself to nature, his unconscious creation reflects the unquestioning grace and acceptance of the wild horses.
One of the most interesting moments in all of Tarkovsky’s work comes during the death of Rublev’s assistant, Foma. As he struggles forth in slow motion, dying from an arrow wound, Foma stumbles into a pool of water, splashing droplets onto the camera lens. The water moves toward the lens so slowly and lingers long enough on the lens to make apparent Tarkovsky’s intentional inclusion of this take. The implications are numerous, but it’s difficult to deny the self-reflexivity of this moment; the camera consciously becomes a presence in the filmic world by virtue of the water striking and washing across the lens in slow motion. This effect draws the viewer directly into the world, but also makes a statement about the artistic conscience in the creation of ‘truthful’ moments such as death. Tarkovsky includes what might be considered a technical flaw as a vivid hallmark of the spontaneity and unpredictability of artistic creation. Aesthetically, the water on the lens provides the spectator with a tactile ocular sensation, the effect almost simulating a tear in one’s eye.
Water’s role in Solaris escalates to more philosophical heights, yet it remains rather limited in quantity. In fact, this may be Tarkovsky’s ‘dryest’ film. Since the majority of the action takes place on the space station, the general lack of a watery presence isn’t surprising. Nevertheless, water plays a crucial role in the thematic and philosophical structure of the film, and marks a notable evolution in Tarkovsky’s attention to the substance. Most significantly, it represents an archetype of humanity’s bond with Earth, life and consciousness. The actual planet Solaris consists of a vast oceanic entity possessed of a massive awareness. Although the water of Solaris seems alien and bizarre, it nevertheless constitutes a fantastic incarnation of the transcendental organic properties of water. Solaris makes literal the connections between water and consciousness that Tarkovsky heretofore only suggested and which in the later films he thoroughly exploits.
The opening scene fixates on some aquatic plants undulating in the current as Chris Kelvin ponders the scene introspectively. The beginning contains more water than the rest of the film combined, establishing through archetype Kelvin’s inextricable ties with Earth and home. Kelvin realizes his subsequent trip to Solaris will take him far away from the only ecosystem of which he has been a part. He stands rigid in the downpour of rain as Tarkovsky slowly zooms in on a cup of tea overflowing with rainwater. Here is a further suggestion of Kelvin’s primordial affair with water – the copious flow of rain into this drink serves as a reminder of his biological reliance on the substance so abundant on Earth but virtually absent from space.
In the film’s closing scene the undulating water plants appear again, but this time with more defined and weighty connotations. The problems of consciousness and existence posed on Solaris lead the viewer to question the significance of these images. The water surrounding the house now seems to have acquired a conscious existence. The aquatic plants now appear as a form of “life that doesn’t ask questions,” and are perhaps the more exalted and noble for it. All the trials of conscience on Solaris have caused Kelvin to reevaluate the nature of human existence and to challenge the value of our outward explorations. He states his revelation most aptly to Snouth, “One loves what one can lose. Until now, mankind and earth were beyond love’s reach.” As Chris approaches the house, the pond now mysteriously frozen, he looks in through the window with “a face of appalling compassion” upon his father, who is strangely oblivious to an unaccountable stream of water falling on his shoulders (Hyman 57). Chris exchanges looks with his father as he (perhaps) realizes the artificiality of his ‘return home,’ a realization most likely sparked by the mystery water. This flow of water has no logical explanation and the father’s indifference to it is baffling; it probably represents a dreamlike artifact of Chris’s consciousness, where water symbolizes earthly life and family, and has therefore materialized via the telekinetic power of Solaris. Furthermore, the father’s response makes it obvious that he’s yet another of Solaris’ manifestations, indifferent to the water because he’s not yet possessed of an understanding of human existence (water is essentially meaningless to him). As Chris brokenly resigns himself and kneels before his ‘father,’ with the camera rising up and away to reveal the house on an island of Solaris, we see that Chris has been trapped by his conscience. He cannot relinquish the irretrievable past and so he allows his consciousness to converge with that of Solaris.
By this point, Tarkovsky’s obsession with water had emerged as a signature of his cinematic style. In Mirror, a deeply autobiographical film, water becomes an archetype for memory, desire, and the subconscious, a damp projection of the aqueous inner world of the mind and body. The memories and dreams are sonically and visually saturated in contrast with the relative dryness of the ‘present’ time. The narrator’s mother consistently appears in rainy or wet sequences, taking further the life-giving associations made in Ivan’s Childhood and Solaris (in the dream scene where Chris’s mother washes his arm in a basin). Johnson and Petrie note that water, by association with the mother and not the wife, possesses a specifically maternal characteristic in Mirror (Five Filmmakers 26). The narrator’s obviously strained relationship with his mother elicits a longing for the past that can be retrieved only in memory and dream, a plane characterized by aqueous imagery. Tarkovsky’s most effective linkage of mother, son, and water comes in the dream/memory sequence leading up to the narrator’s infirmity at the hospital. The camera tracks over the lake water, closely following the young narrator fervently swimming nude toward his mother, who is washing clothes at the shore. The purity and innocence of the moment cannot be relived, and so the narrator suffers over his slavery to memory and the need for reconciliation.
Tarkovsky places fire amidst rain as a recurrent image in Mirror, something he does in none of the other films. It rains in the memory/dream of the blazing fire behind the narrator’s childhood home and in the ‘present’ time scene where Ignat starts a brush fire in the alley. Additionally, a stove fire burns in the hallucinatory dream of the narrator’s flailing mother and the rainy collapse of the ceiling. This juxtaposition of fire and water is striking because it embodies elemental opposition, one force fleeting and destructive (fire) the other timeless and invigorating (water). The roles are reversed in the hallucinatory dream, however, with the stove fire representing sustenance and the water destruction. This exemplifies the cyclical attribute of Tarkovsky’s natural imagery, for the elemental forces are in constant flux and synergy and working outside the level of cognition. Hence the subconscious realm of dream, memory, and desire is marked by the archetypal imagery of water and fire. In Mirror, fire appears in numerous tableaux and with more frequency and subtlety than in any of the other films. In Nostalghia and The Sacrifice, Tarkovsky returns to fire imagery with much more pronounced and singular effects.
Beginning with Stalker, Tarkovsky’s films are almost completely inundated with moisture of all kinds. As Johnson and Petrie note in the introduction to their book, one might find it easy to parody Tarkovsky for this arcane mania, and perhaps that is why many of his devotees shy away from exploring the implications of his watery vision. A number of critics feel that Stalker represents the peak of Tarkovsky’s work before it took a significant turn downward. While that is a debatable assertion, it’s nevertheless interesting to note the following ‘peak’ parallel: in terms of water’s prevalence Stalker represents the apex, the point of saturation in Tarkovksy’s body of work, with the next film (Nostalghia) reflecting the period of overflow and total immersion (Johnson and Petrie note that it is “probably the most waterlogged” of his films) (A Visual Fugue 169). These two films render the most complex and mystifying of all Tarkovsky’s water imagery, at times perhaps even reaching beyond the limits of human gleaning. Andrea Truppin thoughtfully notes that the profusion of water sounds in Stalker gives “a sense of some transcendent, unlocatable space,” and “hints at the existence of unseen worlds” (Altman 246). Through sheer abundance and curious inscrutability, Tarkovsky bestows upon water a mesmerizing quality that, on an abstract level, affords it status as one of the film’s characters. In fact, one might go further and say that water represents the spiritual essence of life in this film – stagnant, fluid, drifting, floating, and torrential by turns, but always permeating, exceeding, and outlasting the tissue of organisms and civilization.
Stalker contains numerous tracking shots across water covering discarded, ruined artifacts of human civilization. Many critics have used these shots to characterize the film as a lamentation over the spiritual decay and materialism of society. While this interpretation certainly reflects Tarkovsky’s personal concerns about society, it should not be construed as the complete thematic content of the film. Indeed, when he summarized the crucial message of Stalker, Tarkovsky spoke not of materialism and decay, but of how “human love is the miracle capable of withstanding any dry theorisation (sic) about the hopelessness of the world” (Collected Screenplays 379). Hence, one might also look upon the water covering the ruins as a sign of love and spiritual energy, the one thing that can transcend and overcome the material and provide hope for regeneration. The objects of human creation can be horrible, but they are transient and unable to endure as the watery essence that engulfs them. A rock falls into a silvery circle of well water as a voice-over poem equates hardness with death and suppleness with vitality. Swallowing the rock, the water ebbs and splashes in slow motion as the poem continues, and we are left with a compelling vision of life’s most enduring and basic constituent. At the same time, Stalker cautiously moves around the edge of the well, fearful of meeting the rock’s fate; the water’s dual qualities as life-giver and destroyer emerge through poetry and fear.
The slimy tunnel (‘the meat grinder’) through which the three men have to pass draws a parallel to the human birth canal. The strange mixture of fascination, fear, and pressure combined with the physical appearance of the moist, organic tunnel leads one to this comparison. What the men face on the other side undeniably represents a spiritual moment of truth; as the men stand at the brink of ‘the Room’ where wishes become reality, they face a confrontation with their true inner natures. Whatever they really want deep inside is what they will get, so the men shudder to take that chance lest they wind up like Porcupine, who went into the room to bring his brother back to life but got a lot of money instead. This could be seen as a chance for spiritual ‘rebirth’, an opportunity not only to change oneself but the whole world. The men stare into ‘the Room’ - as mysterious, incredible, and terrifying as birth to a baby – and they are unable to enter. The flooded surface of ‘the Room’ begins to shimmer and dance as rain inexplicably falls from the ceiling, and when it stops Professor hurls a few rocks into the now-glassy water. Perhaps he does this out of some muted, detached wish for a glimpse of understanding, or perhaps he does it just to see the water dance in the light. Regardless, Tarkovsky’s fascination with the water is essentially a preoccupation with the spiritual and transcendent. After Stalker, water can no longer merely be water, it is the substance that flows through us all into the earth, sky, and back again; it is the only physical part of us that endures and links us to all life.
The first film he made outside of the U.S.S.R., Nostalghia 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. Domenico, the religious ‘madman’, is a prophet of the director’s spiritual inclinations, a desperate voice of shattering discontent. Therefore, knowing Tarkovsky’s penchant for linking memory, desire, family, and spirituality with aqueous imagery, it is clear why this film is so dominated by mist, ponds, pools and rain. Only Mirror rivals Nostalghia in the specificity and directness with which it reflects Tarkovsky’s inner world, and its level of spiritual crisis and longing are unparalleled (except for The Sacrifice, perhaps), so this is necessarily the ‘wettest’ of his films. It is as if the tears of his soul and the mists and rains of memory soak the screen.
One of the more cryptic and indelible images of the film comes in a most unexpectedly simplistic form: a trio of bottles pelted by rain falling in Domenico’s home. 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 camera zooms in just long enough to inspire contemplation. Are these bottles a reflection of man as a spiritual vessel - drop by drop our soul fills over time? Is this a murky image of 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)? Rhythmically, sonically, and visually the image is striking without symbolic attachments, yet it echoes in the mind as a call for meaning. It ultimately doesn’t matter that we find a singular meaning, because 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).
The scene in the flooded cathedral contains some extraordinary images, beginning with the revelation of a white stone angel underneath a flowing current. The beauty of the image intellectually conflicts with the dilapidation of the structure; the cathedral strangely enough appears more sacred and beautiful as a watery ruin. Although the neglect of the cathedral seems to signify spiritual decay, perhaps Tarkovsky is equally disenchanted with the artificiality of such structures and interested in the states of erosion brought on by water. As Gorchakov speaks to a small Italian girl, reflections of sunlight dance off the water, creating a shimmering light around the child. Although this effect could be completely natural, stylistically it lends a rarefied, angelic aura to the girl, drawing upon Tarkovsky’s faith in the potential of children and again extracting the magical qualities of water.
St. Catherine’s pool, the natural hot springs, represents the most overt association of water with spirituality. The air thick and cloudy with steam, swimmers speak of the past with memories ancient and pressing lingering in the mist. Gliding along behind Domenico, the camera peers into the mist like an ethereal presence as he ponders his obscure mission to carry the burning candle across the pool. As strange and childish as the mission seems, it is also simple, elegant, and hampered by the narrow-mindedness of others. The regular visitors always stop Domenico because they fear he wants to drown himself, although he’s merely trying to complete what he feels is an act of faith. Domenico passes his mission on to Gorchakov, who first scoffs and then takes it up only to find he’s too late – the pool’s been drained. The hesitation coincides with the draining of the pool’s vital force, and the depletion of this form of spiritual energy parallels the emergence of a fiery victory in Domenico’s self-immolation. Fire prevails destructively as Domenico burns to death and Alexander in The Sacrifice burns his house to the ground; fire represents a desperate purifying agent closely linked with spiritual resolve. The connotations of fire are more intense and explicit in the last two films and reflect a transitive, explosive energy in contrast to water’s indifferent, unconscious fluidity. These qualities of fire perhaps reflect Tarkovsky’s increasingly desperate and unstable disposition toward the increasingly materialist world.
The ‘interior rain’ at Domenico’s crumbling home can be easily attributed to holes in the roof, but in the context of Tarkovsky’s body of work one must reappraise that assumption. Rain unnaturally falls inside buildings in Solaris, Mirror, and Stalker, but these instances are seemingly accounted for by characteristics of dream or the supernatural. In Nostalghia, we have only vague reasons to believe this scene is unreal, but because of the previous connotations of interior rain it is obliquely implied that another sphere of reality overlaps the ostensibly ‘real’ action onscreen. Rain falling inside buildings is certainly unnatural, and it can be construed logically as a sign of water’s inevitable triumph or metaphysically as an insignia of the supernatural or dream worlds. In this scene, the ‘reality’ can be called into question, so the interior rain simultaneously takes on logical and mystical qualities. In other words, a transcendence of realities is achieved at least partly through the ambiguity of this interior rain.
The Sacrifice (1986)
This film is so interesting because in some ways it is Tarkovsky’s simplest and in others it is the most ambiguous. The imagery of The Sacrifice is austere, subdued, and melancholy. Water doesn’t dominate as it does in Stalker and Nostalghia, and it is presented naturalistically and straightforward for the most part. The message of The Sacrifice is open and clear, but the reality of the events could be construed as utterly ambivalent. Furthermore, Tarkovsky spends more time on character and drama and less on meditative imagery, so the film is generally less dense with metaphoric possibilities.
Water is most closely linked with faith, renewal, and dream in this film. Both Peter Green and Johnson/Petrie have suggested that the central portion of The Sacrifice may indeed represent a dream, either of Little Man’s, Alexander’s, or even a mix of both. Alexander’s house is almost engulfed in water (the sea in the background and the muddy, puddle-scattered earth), so one might venture that this in itself suggests a dream world. Alexander’s extended dream/vision of the nuclear disaster is accompanied by sounds of running water and it portrays a landscape clustered with snow. This renews the association of snow and death visited in Andrei Rublev when the snow falls in the cathedral of the massacred town of Vladimir, and in Nostalghia when a light snow drifts across the final image following Gorchakov’s death. Snow is a fluid, vital substance that has been fixed, frozen, made static, so it accordingly reflects death’s cold, stultifying impact.
The opening credits consist of a detail (the offering to baby Jesus) from Leonardo’s unfinished Adoration of the Magi and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion as the score. As the music fades it is replaced by the sound of seagulls and waves, and the camera pans up along a tree in the painting. Then the sound bridges to the opening shot of Alexander planting the dead tree on the shore of the sea, and the multiple associations become clear. Both the music and the painting represent transcendental art, which Tarkovsky connects with the sea and Alexander’s simple act of faith. The fact that Tarkovsky chose an unfinished Leonardo further accentuates the significance of the act of creation over the finished product, just as Alexander’s acts of faith carry more meaning than the images themselves. The presence of the sea perfectly compliments the metaphoric linkage of creation, man, and the divine; the sea is the source and sustaining force of life itself, the substance that represents the unknowable, the omnipresent, the Transcendent. The seemingly futile act of watering the dead tree symbolizes the larger task of revivifying society’s wilted faith in a spiritual existence. Tarkovsky entwines acts of faith and art as twin vines forever growing toward the empyrean beyond.
The Dream/Natural World Duality
Dreams are as indispensable as reality in Tarkovsky’s world, just as they are in human experience. In life we endlessly cycle between dream and conscious states, so Tarkovsky, as a “realist poet in images,” relentlessly explores this duality of the dream and natural worlds (Montagu 92). In order to simplify the discussion, the ‘dream world’ will encompass any of the various inner experiences: reveries, visions, fantasies, or memories. ‘Natural world’ will refer to events that are actually occurring in the present time frame and can be experienced by all present characters as the action unfolds. The only important distinction lies between the characters’ inward and outward dispositions - the world within and the world without. Tarkovsky overridingly tends to portray subjective, inner realities within the greater environment of what is commonly called the ‘real world.’ For Tarkovsky the inner environment is at least as ‘real’ as the outer one, and in recreating this duality on screen his inner world is the guiding force. At the simplest level, the dream and natural worlds are in conflict, while at the most critical level they begin to merge and overlap disturbingly. The ways in which Tarkovsky depicts the dream world are fascinating, yet his later capacity for blurring the boundaries of the dream and natural worlds undoubtedly represents one of his greatest achievements as a filmmaker.
A variety of qualities contribute to the ‘oneiric air’ of Tarkovsky’s films, most notably the “kinesthetic orchestration that is experienced on a sensory-motor level, mostly because of insistent, continuous camera movement through space” (Petric 28). He almost constantly has the camera tracking laterally, dollying in or out, craning, or zooming, but these movements are uniformly fluid and subtle so that they do not draw attention away from the image itself. Of course, the astute viewer notices these movements primarily because of their artful execution. Bergman noted Tarkovsky’s endless tracking and said, “When film is not a document, it is dream. That is why Tarkovsky is the greatest of them all. He moves with such naturalness in the room of dreams” (173, 73). The sense of movement permeates his films through both dream and reality, tugging the viewer along as a participant in the world that lies beyond the mere screen image. Often this motion is almost imperceptible, so much so that we can go from long shot to close up without even noticing the movement of the camera. This creates a sense of surprise or magic, conjuring a sub-intellectual sensation of wonder. The feelings of participation and surprise actually lend the film a feeling of realism, but that term applies equally to the dream and natural environments. Tarkovksky’s uniqueness as a filmmaker exists in his ability to render the dream and natural worlds equally palpable.
A number of other qualities contribute to the oneiric sense, including Tarkovsky’s selective use of slow motion, which Petric insists he uses not for superficial attraction, but as an instrumentation of Pudovkin’s “Close-up of time” (30). The slowed motion in various scenes may derive from the characters’ psychological or emotional fixations, or from Tarkovsky’s poetic license by which he seeks to observe more closely the movement of people and objects over time. Either way, the deceleration creates an unnatural sensation that, depending on the circumstances, can be disturbing, enthralling, or heart-rending. The visual and aural presence of water as an oneiric signpost has already been covered, and the simple weirdness of some situations indicates a variable actuality. The variations in color saturation or lighting density and the spatial/temporal disruptions all contribute to the judgment of scenes as natural or dreamlike. Nevertheless, it isn’t always clear based on the aforementioned characteristics whether a scene is ‘real’ or not, and this status can sometimes only be determined in retrospect, if at all.
The only clue that the first scene of this film is a dream might be when Ivan seems to fly through the air. It’s only when he awakens to the death scream of his mother that the viewer fully realizes this was a dream. It is only appropriate that the opening scene of Tarkovsky’s first feature would be a dream sequence. The dream world of Ivan’s Childhood distinguishes itself from the natural world more readily than in the later films, where Tarkovsky would so frequently and adeptly employ a mobile camera, slow motion, and the other major devices associated with his oneiric atmosphere. This film establishes a triple association that reverberates throughout Tarkovsky’s work: water, the maternal, and the dream world.
Ivan’s second dream demonstrates Tarkovsky’s ability, even at an early stage, to glide smoothly from the conscious to the dream plane. As Ivan falls asleep, the camera tracks from a fire to some logs and then to water dripping onto Ivan’s hand, and the camera pans up to reveal that Ivan is now mysteriously at the bottom of a well. A cut then shows Ivan standing at the top of the well with his mother. The seamless flow of images suggests a literal move from one location to another, without any oil dissolves or special effects to convey the transition from waking to dream state. We know it’s a dream because we see Ivan sleeping and then see him successively in two logically incompatible places, but the transition itself is indiscernible.
Ivan experiences what might be called a violent fantasy in the outpost, where he imagines stalking and killing German soldiers. His flashlight races around the room and he perceives voices of the dead who left their mark on the wall, “Avenge our deaths.” Tarkovsky wheels the camera around at odd angles and the disembodied voices appear fleetingly incarnate around the room. Ivan celebrates an imaginary victory over the Germans and then breaks down into tears. Though aesthetically crude, this scene vividly projects Ivan’s tormented psyche and his soul tarnished by vengeful desire. Since his dreams offer no reckoning or resolution, his inner state directly manifests itself in a hallucinatory fantasy in which he struggles for reconciliation through revenge. The dream world of Ivan’s Childhood comes through with sparkling clarity because the motivations and themes are equally clear. This clarity melts into a subjectively warped looking glass in Tarkovsky’s subsequent films.
Although this film does not contain a great number of actual excursions into the dream world, it is nonetheless suffused with Tarkovsky’s ‘oneiric air.’ This is largely achieved by an abundance of crane and aerial shots and an otherworldly score. Additionally, the ostensible authenticity of the production design, characters, and cultural atmosphere lends credence to a mostly fictionalized account of a legendary Russian artist. Tarkovsky not only poetically envisions this world for us, he entices us to retreat into a collective memory of days long gone. Some element of fantasy always accompanies a mental trip back into history; we dream of worlds we’ll never know particularly when our present is rooted in them.
During “The Bell” sequence, Tarkovsky orchestrates a number of crane shots that move up and away, up and across, and even down into the casting pit. The sense of movement in these shots exceeds the dimensions of natural human motion and gives a feeling of freedom in perspective perhaps only achieved in dream or fantasy (or film, for that matter). One might even say that these grand shots imbue the film with a divine presence, especially when the bell rings and the camera moves back, up, and away from Boriska (the bell caster) to a lofty God’s-eye view of the bell tower and all the people joyously moving about.
There are at least three notable dreamlike sequences that can probably be attributed to Rublev: the Christ-figure on the snowy landscape, Rublev’s encounter with Theophanes’ ghost, and Rublev’s vision of himself on a rainy plain under a tree. The Christ-figure seems to be a vision, although it could be either Rublev’s or Theophanes’ (or it could merely be Tarkovsky’s illustration of Rublev’s diatribe about Jesus, Man, and God). Rublev’s encounter with the ghost of Theophanes could either be a hallucinatory vision or an actual encounter with a spirit. The shots of Rublev under a tree in the rain seem to be one of his visions or memories. None of these individual instances provides any clue as to their ‘reality,’ but all are clearly dreamlike in their presentation or in the strangeness of the situations. All of these scenes represent some encounter with the Transcendent, reflecting the monk Rublev’s need to reconcile the divine with the human. Even this early in Tarkovsky’s work, one realizes that the dream world is the plane on which his characters most avidly seek the resolution promised by spirituality. Tarkovsky’s style had evolved significantly by Andrei Rublev so that his dualistic world grew more inscrutable and more uniformly oneiric.
There are very few actual dream scenes in Solaris, yet it remains one of the most interesting of Tarkovsky’s films to discuss in terms of the dream/natural world duality. The only actual dream sequence comes during Chris Kelvin’s near- nervous breakdown. The only other dreamlike scene occurs when Hari stares at the Brueghel print on the wall of the Station library. The relative paucity of dream scenes doesn’t mean that Solaris has no distinctly oneiric air, but it is so in quite a different manner. The planet Solaris essentially materializes and externalizes the dream worlds of the Station’s scientists. Hari represents a manifestation of Chris’s memories and dreams; she is an externalization of Chris’s inner world, his tortured memory of a wife he lost to suicide. The other scientists have similar ‘guests,’ although theirs are totally mysterious. These ‘guests’ are exact physical replicas but they are mentally and emotionally incomplete, so their presence is all the more unnerving. The Station perpetually looms in the shadow of inheriting further unwanted manifestations of the scientists’ dream worlds, so the oneiric air is frightening, provocative, and suspenseful.
As a psychologist, Chris seems particularly distraught by this bizarre atmosphere, which is stressful enough merely by its artificiality, tightness, and sterility. The scientists are faced with a thoroughly unnatural environment, and as a result they long for Earth and the lives they left so far behind. Although the planet Solaris never exercises any menacing power, the men are terrified and paranoid because what they are afraid of is themselves. On Solaris, the dream and natural worlds converge in a threateningly unnatural fashion; the planet represents a universal consciousness that reflects back the living embodiment of a human’s fractured, secluded islands of memory, dream, and desire. There are no boundaries, the duality becomes unified, and the scientists are thus in a sense deprived of the solace of a removed dream world. Chris’ sole dream thus becomes feverish and painful as he remembers his home and family, taunted by the irretrievable past that may now become ‘vacantly’ present.
In Solaris the dream world is externalized in another way: through film. Memories, which can in turn become dreams (and vice-versa), are preserved on the films of Chris’ childhood, the Solaris Foundation’s inquiries with Berton, and Gibarian’s final moments. Furthermore, when Tarkovsky presents these diegetic films they literally become the film Solaris for a short time, filling the frame completely (whether this was a matter of technical efficiency is irrelevant; the effect is the same). The characters watch these films that become the whole movie for us too, and we are presented with an immutable record of a past that is also the past for the film’s characters. Hence, Solaris is in a sense a two-tiered representation of inner worlds. As Chris watches Gibarian’s pre-suicide film, he mistakes a knock on the door from the film for a real knock and quickly looks over in paranoia. The sense of fear and desperation from Gibarian’s film thus transfers into Kelvin’s mind. Chris Kelvin’s childhood films are a materialization of his memories, but they then become Hari’s memories or dreams; as she ponders the Brueghel print and imagines the sounds and feelings of Earth, Hari can only approximate earthly life vis-à-vis images of Chris’ childhood films (just as the viewer can only approximate Tarkovsky’s world through images). Perhaps here Tarkovsky insinuates what Bergman said about how “film is dream”; maybe film represents a means somewhere between primitiveness and omnipotent consciousness, a way to externalize our internal worlds. If we can recreate human experience, what is next?
A similarly interesting examination of film as an expression of the inner world comes at the outset of Mirror. Ignat, the narrator’s son, watches a television program about the cure of a stuttering boy and the program temporarily becomes Mirror (as in Solaris). An interesting detail of this scene is that on the wall behind the stuttering boy one can make out the shadow of a boom microphone. Tarkovsky clearly demonstrates the distinctive levels of craftsmanship in the art of filmmaking in this scene. The poorly made documentary stands in contrast to the technically brilliant surrounding film text, thus undermining the formal aesthetic quality of the documentary and causing the viewer to focus on the action, the actual curing of the boy. This film-within-the-film is all the more sincere because it is amateurish; because the curing film is made by healers rather than artists, it has a simpler purpose. This opening is a pronouncement of unbound expression, as the boy speaks loud and clear he is able to release everything heretofore trapped inside. Tarkovsky’s film parallels the opening, as he poetically sets free the images of his dream world, “Childhood memories which for years had given me no peace suddenly vanished . . . at last I stopped dreaming about the house” (Sculpting 128). The aesthetic contrast of the amateur opening with the rest of the film lays forth Tarkovsky’s mission as an artist – to realistically recreate through poetic, emotional imagery the intangible inner world, the world of dreams.
Mirror undoubtedly represents Tarkovsky’s most complex treatment of the dream/natural world duality (The Sacrifice perhaps being the most ambiguous). The filmic world here represents a total immersion in the duality as it consists of a series of dreams within memories within dreams – and ultimately they are all part of a bigger ‘dream,’ the film itself. In fact, it may be impossible to distinguish the memories, dreams, and documentary footage as they all merge in a continuous flow of images. The status of the documentary footage draws attention back to the idea of film as dream; do the documentary clips represent memories of the film’s characters or are they non-diegetic inserts that Tarkovsky uses to broaden the implications of his personal cinematic chronicle? As the Spaniard waxes romantic about the great bullfighter, the documentary images would seem to represent his memories or perhaps the visions of the listeners. In a sense, documentary footage is emblematic of collective social memories or dreams, so knowing Tarkovsky’s inherently organic approach to film one would assume that the documentary footage is diegetic, and therefore must come from the dream world of the characters.
The scene in which the terrified mother scrambles to find a possible mistake in the print of her newspaper constitutes another interesting example of how the viewer must question the status of the action. Although this is clearly set in the past and is therefore a dream or memory, it’s unclear from whose dream world this scene emerges. The safe assumption is that this represents the mother’s memory of a politically terrifying time, but the majority of the film seems to be drawn from the narrator’s dream world. Perhaps this is the narrator’s inner reconstruction of an event related by his mother, but the uncertainty leads one to a more provocative possibility – that Mirror does not represent a singular dream world, that dream worlds overlap and migrate amongst individuals (particularly family members). This possibility is implied in a number of other ways, most obviously in the doubling of mother/wife and father/son (both sets of characters, at the same age levels, are played by the same actors). The idea of metaphysical transfer reverberates when Ignat feels a jolt of static electricity and says, “It’s like it all happened once. But I’ve never been here before,” and in the mystical appearance and disappearance of the ladies before Ignat in his father’s home (Ignat doesn’t seem to know them, but they are apparently close to his father because they reappear at his hospital bedside at the end). In another scene, the offscreen narrator calls to his wife, and when she looks toward the camera Tarkovsky reverse-cuts to a close up of the narrator’s father, suggesting him as the source of the call. These leaps of narrative logic define Mirror as a thoroughly oneiric film, compelling the viewer to accept the film itself as one large dream.
The idea of Mirror as Tarkovsky’s cinematic project to create an extended dream is further substantiated by the audience’s inability to accurately pin down any specific time frame with which to identify. There certainly exists a time frame that represents the present in reference to the dreams and memories of the past, but there are no discrete characteristics that allow us to define the ‘present’ scenes as lying outside the dream world. Although many of the dream sequences are filmed in black-and-white, Tarkovsky reverses our expectations when he presents an ostensibly ‘present’ scene in black-and-white (when the narrator and his wife discuss Ignat’s living situation as he burns some brush in the alley). Furthermore, one cannot definitively codify any of the sequences because Tarkovsky does not rigidly define any sequence as dream, memory, vision, fantasy, or present reality by uniform cinematic means. As Johnson and Petrie insist, “what gives the film its true oneiric power is its eventual disintegration of all such self-sufficient categories” (A Visual Fugue 135). One could easily interpret the film as a continuous dream, as a relatively short “present” time frame interlaced with the narrator’s dream world (and/or others’ dream worlds), or as the narrator’s foray into his dream world as he lies on the hospital bed in the penultimate scene. Many critics feel the sigh and release of the bird at the end of this scene signals the narrator’s death, in which case it would certainly make sense that the entire previous film represents his inner world leading up to his final moments, with the final scene reflecting his deathbed resolution (A Visual Fugue 129). However, there is no single definitive interpretation because Tarkovsky does not abide by the conventions of classical narrative cinema, and in Mirror the dream/natural world duality becomes ultimately inscrutable. The linearity and order we impose upon life have no specific place in this film, for he is not trying to describe or define, he is attempting to create “an entire world reflected as in a drop of water” (Sculpting 110).
One of Tarkovsky’s most popular films, Stalker probably represents the point at which the director had fully realized his stylistic preoccupations. Interestingly enough, only one scene in the film could be considered a dream, or at least a mixture of dream and reality, and one could easily argue its status. The film nevertheless possesses a haunting, thoroughly mysterious atmosphere, and is more significantly oneiric because it doesn’t overtly deal with actual dreams. The metaphysics of the Zone provide a sufficiently dreamlike atmosphere in that the laws of nature and logic do not prevail, much as in the dream world. The duality of the dream and natural worlds is hence made manifest in the Zone, with the film as a “hallucinatory anticipation of a world that ‘represents the reality of the artist’s inner life’” (Petric 28). More than anything, Tarkovsky’s treatment of time and space in Stalker generates the uniquely oneiric air of the film, but this will be discussed in the next major section.
As in the other films, Tarkovsky employs a wide chromatic variation, fluid camera movements and specific lighting effects to develop an abnormal perspective. The simple bizarreness of the events is at times sufficient to make one question the reality, but even the strange events are presented with subtlety and reserve. The fact that the film remains almost black-and-white (sepia tone) until the men enter the Zone (in full color) suggests an endless sea of possibilities. The return from the Zone drains away the color except in scenes centering on Stalker’s daughter, Monkey. This clearly associates her with the Zone, which through its strange power apparently caused her to be a crippled ‘mutant’ capable of telekinesis. Tarkovsky fastidiously controls the color in his films, but one can only speculate as to why various scenes contain specific amounts of saturation (although one would expect emotional response to be the guiding principle). The vivid color sequences of the Zone suggest hope and vitality, but the color is also in some sense intrusive. The Zone, specifically the Room, offers a chance for a new beginning, but that opportunity carries with it a dangerous potential. The effect of the color underscores this dichotomous quality as it suggests both renewal and mysterious foreboding. As we observe Monkey rest her yellow-shawl wrapped head on the table, moving the glasses with telekinetic power, the cacophonous sounds of a train and a distorted rendition of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy creep in, leaving us with the uneasy question, “What is hope?” Love is surely the source of hope, but with that hope comes the pain and anguish of constant vigilance. The inner world is the origin of love, and hence hope, but we are often afraid to face that which might also have its origins in our dream world. The men on the threshold of the Room face this dilemma, and for them hope fails. Perhaps it’s through Monkey, a ‘victim’ of the Zone, that hope can prevail, as she transcends the physical reality we have until now known.
Tarkovsky’s penultimate film is perhaps his most beautiful and deftly executed, despite its atmosphere of unrelieved gloom. This sense of dreariness and gloom, however, reflects the ‘nostalgia’ Tarkovsky felt at the time. He had been away from home for a long time, and found that “the camera was obeying first and foremost my inner state during filming.” Tarkovsky explained upon completion that he had quite possibly created “a matrix of the individual soul, to convey unique human experience” (Sculpting 204). The overwhelming melancholy of the film is a testament to the success of Tarkovsky’s project of depicting onscreen the subjective inner world. Nostalghia, as Louis Menashe states, “is the most subjective, in a double sense here, of his always subjective films” (60). Gorchakov, the main character, represents Tarkovsky’s alter ego haunted by memories, dreams, and visions of his family, home, and spiritual yearnings. Gorchakov’s dream world resonates with slow motion, black-and-white visions of his family and home in the Russian countryside (the home is a replica of Tarkovsky’s). The film begins and ends in visions from the dream world, and it is saturated with an oneiric air by virtue of a profusion of actual dream scenes as well as a constant sense of impending overlap of the dream and natural worlds. This feeling of proximate convergence derives from the overabundance of water, the steady, unrelenting movement of the camera, subtly unnatural lighting, and particularly through a skillful control of color.
As has been noted, the modulation of chromatic saturation provides cues to differing subjective realities such as dream or vision sequences or other alternative perceptions. The natural world scenes are primarily in full color and the majority of the journeys into the dream world 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 world 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 natural waking state not only through expressive lighting, but also through the smooth transition of muted color into the black-and-white sequence. Throughout the film, Gorchakov continues to have visions or 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 crescendo with the visions of the release of Domenico’s family (after 7 years’ confinement in the house), which waver between black-and-white and sepia tones. The boundaries separating the dream and natural world disintegrate when Domenico envisions his son in full color, asking, “Dad, is this the end of the world?” The terrible poignancy of this shot resonates through its striking chromaticity. Gorchakov’s contemplation of the miniature landscape blending into the real landscape appears in sepia, implying some shift in perspective, although it does not appear to be a dream. It’s almost as if Gorchakov has had a revelation about the scale of time and space, that a whole countryside can as easily fit on the floor of a room as it can sprawl over an expanse of hundreds of square kilometers. Throughout the film, the saturation of colors varies across the whole spectrum, from black-and-white to rich color. In gliding through the chromatic spectrum, Tarkovsky transcends 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.
Perhaps the most remarkable example of the oneiric sense developing through expressive lighting is 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 the 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 of his dream world 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 indefinite. 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 physically present. 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” (A Visual Fugue 171).
For Tarkovsky, the only truth in this world was the subjective truth of the inner world; with this film he moves even farther into the subjective logic, reality, and truth of the dream world. The reason he moves so far into subjective representation in Nostalghia is because this 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). His last two films are probably his most heavily criticized, and the root of all this criticism seems to lie in his obsession with the poetic subjective exploration of the dream/natural world duality. At this point, Tarkovsky was so fully conversant with the language of film as dream that perhaps M.M. Khudtsev’s words were to some extent correct, “ ‘I have an impression that Tarkovsky doesn’t really care how he is received, even by the most sophisticated viewer’” (Marshall 95).
The most interesting and vexing attribute of The Sacrifice is the ambivalence surrounding the status of the entire central action. Peter Green states, “The supposition that this whole central episode is but a dream is supported by a number of circumstances” (“Apocalypse & Sacrifice” 118). These circumstances include the irrationality of the events, the recurrence of sleep references, and the draining of color from the frame. Johnson and Petrie claim that “as the color drains from the image, dream and reality fuse and become almost inseparable. . . . the guidelines that help us separate one world from the other no longer exist” (A Visual Fugue 194). If the outbreak of war really occurred, then which of Alexander’s actions (his vow to God or his sleeping with the ‘Witch’) caused reality to reset itself to a state of peace? It’s possible that Alexander actually made the vow to destroy his home, give up his family, and never speak again, and then only dreamed the part about Otto and Maria the ‘Witch.’ Since his sexual encounter with Maria at her home directly moves into the dream from which he awakens at his home, it makes sense that Alexander dreamed this episode. The only hint that the episode with Maria actually happened comes at the end, after Alexander has burned the house to fulfill his vow to God, and Maria seems to be the only one who accepts Alexander without horror. Of course, this could simply mean that she is more sympathetic than the others, but it is provocative nonetheless. It is also possible that all the major events occurred and the only dream sequences are Alexander’s visions of apocalypse (which are certainly from the dream world).
By his actions, Alexander is clearly convinced that all the events occurred, so either he made good on his vow to God or the whole thing was a dream and he is mad. To believe that the global warfare element is the beginning of a dream, and thus that Alexander is mad, does not make for a very convincing, fulfilling, or worthwhile story - it is just depressing and horribly tragic. At the same time, it’s hard to accept the reality of all the major events because of Tarkovsky’s dreamlike atmosphere. As the people inside hear the jets thunder overhead, Alexander stands amidst a boggy, misty, blanched landscape looking at the miniature house in slow motion. Neither the miniature house nor the swampy landscape was present before this scene, so it would be logical to say that this signals the beginning of a dream. Tarkovsky refused to give an answer, so there is no way to definitively know one way or the other. Perhaps “we have to believe and not believe simultaneously . . . interpretation is no longer a question of either A or B, but both A and B” (A Visual Fugue 178). The events happened, but they happened as in a dream known only to Alexander; the holocaust was averted by a holy covenant, but in its secret divinity it can exist only in the post-logical, intangible world of dream. To accept the film in this fashion means we have to sidestep narrative logic and accept the film as a strange parable of faith. If the only important substance of the film is the message then this ambiguity serves it well, for it causes the viewer to constantly reevaluate the implications of faith and love in the modern world.
Time and Space
In the February 8, 1976 entry of Time Within Time: The Diaries, Tarkovsky writes, “I am convinced that Time is reversible. At any rate it does not go in a straight line” (122). Although this may be a whimsical statement, it also represents the kind of radical thinking that can neither be disproved nor discredited as a basis for artistic inquiry. Tarkovsky was more concerned with the actuality of time than most filmmakers and it shows in his sophisticated, sometimes labyrinthine treatment of temporal issues. One cannot discuss the temporal nature of ‘transcendental organic cinema’ without the complementary spatial aspect, for time and space are reciprocally defined. Time is meaningless without space, just as space only has meaning in the course of time. Furthermore, Tarkovsky does not merely fragment and skew time and space, he alters our perception of them to serve the emotional, psychological, philosophical, and spiritual content of the film. The discontinuity and malleability of the space-time continuum in Tarkovsky’s world derive not from an experimental urge, but from Tarkovsky’s interest in moving beyond the formulaic representations into a more subjectively truthful rendering of what is at any rate an abstract, relative concept.
The perpetually moving camera achieves a variety of effects, but Petric cunningly asserts that “Tarkovsky’s camera movement reflects – in cinematic terms – the rhythmic pulsation concealed beneath the outside appearance of reality, provoking a strong emotional response, as well as contemplation” (29). Taken in reference to the space-time continuum, this means that Tarkovsky strips away the conventional in favor of the inherent, allowing the spatial and temporal qualities to rhythmically emerge rather restricting them through superficial, static observation. Static camera setups cannot radiate a sense of motion and change other than within the frame, but when the frame itself (the camera) changes simultaneously with the action, a kinetic synergy develops. This kinetic synergy between the frame of reference and the ambient environment replicates (for the viewer) the physical sensation of being present in the filmic world; in life we constantly undergo variable states of flux and motion, whether merely breathing, pulsing, and focusing our eyes or jumping and whirling. The perpetual movement of the camera thus represents another organic property of Tarkovsky’s films, with the variable speed and vectors of motion indicating the analogous fluctuations of human experience in the space-time continuum. Tarkovsky enjoins the viewer to contemplate the meaning of his world through a mutable, curious viewpoint partially engendered by the outward and self-contained motion of the camera. This same variability in camera movement also serves rather esoteric purposes, such as undermining the ostensible ‘reality’ of a scene, insinuating an ethereal presence, or conveying an indescribable sensation of the Transcendent.
Camera movement isn’t the sole means of Tarkovsky’s subjective representation of time and space, but there are a few instances in which it alone completely recasts the intensity of meaning in a scene. In one of the final moments on the Solaris space station, Chris Kelvin sits philosophizing with Snouth and the camera begins to move slowly in on his head. Tarkovsky does not stop at a close up of Kelvin’s face, but instead wanders to the side and zooms until the frame fills with a close up of the inside of his ear, holding the shot for several moments. As the enormous cavern of his ear resonates with the instruments of thought (words), the endless complexity and power of the inner universe echoes in our own minds; the planet Solaris makes abundantly clear the enormous potential contained within Kelvin, the possibility of an entire world engendered by a thought.
Another of Tarkovsky’s uncanny mobile shots occurs as the three men venture forth into the Zone, an area whose temporal and spatial characteristics defy human understanding. A rusted heap of a car lies in the tall grass, and as the camera tracks toward it we can see the grass moving and hear footsteps, as if the camera were some indistinct entity moving toward the car. These motions and sounds could be attributed to the wind and the three men walking toward the frame, but as the camera moves into the car, a bunch of grass is thrust aside without clear narrative explanation (a bird caws but isn’t seen). The sounds and motions hence become utterly ambiguous, and one cannot properly attribute them to the men or the unknown entity embodied by the camera. As the camera peers through the window to frame the men walking past, it has assumed the point of view of the car. Writer looks back fearfully before moving into the field and Tarkovsky recommences zooming to follow the men trekking across a grassy sea strewn with decimated tanks. The suggestion of the movement is eerie and frightening, but utterly ambivalent in narrative terms. By virtue of its motion, the camera takes on the quality of some force or entity, perhaps representing the Zone, which in itself seems to be an intangible god of space and time.
Two sequences in particular from Andrei Rublev demonstrate Tarkovsky’s ability to construct time and space with scrupulous camera movements. When the monks take shelter in the barn with the jester and other commoners, from the middle of the room the camera painstakingly turns through 360 degrees, successively revealing the inhabitants. This shot creates a sense of cinematic equanimity amongst all the people, monks to children, and supplies a point of view between all the individuals sharing the space of the barn (the ascetic monk, Kirill, is noticeably absent when the camera completes its circle – he has gone to condemn the jester). We are thus afforded a wondrously unified sense of the social atmosphere between characters in a limited portion of the space-time continuum. This shot also garners attention because as it moves carefully and selectively along, we are interested both by what it leaves behind and what has yet to be revealed. This process goes further in a sequence where Rublev and Foma are in the woods closely examining and touching the earth. The camera zooms in very close and pans along the topography of the earth, making obscure the majority of the spatial environment. As the camera continues to move left of Rublev and Foma it magically reveals Theophanes, seemingly from out of nowhere. The screen time of this movement consists of a matter of seconds, but the overall sensation - caused by suddenly inserting Theophanes into the environment - is that the spatial and temporal dimensions have been stretched and folded. A completely inexplicable aerial shot follows, gliding across a watery reflection of the cloud-filled sky and then across a forest. The limits of space and time are thus effortlessly traversed and causality eschewed in favor of poetry.
Tarkovsky uses mirrors and reflections repeatedly to undermine our orientation in the space-time dimensions. One of the techniques entails falsely presenting a mirror reflection as the actual object and then presenting the true object in an opposing location. This reversal occurs on the Solaris station after Chris fires the ‘first’ Hari off in a rocket. We see Chris entering his room, but when the camera pans 180 degrees, we realize he is actually coming from the other side of the room, that what we first saw was a mirror reflection. The particularly unsettling aspect of such shots is that the temporal dimension remains synchronous while the spatial dimension is disrupted. This disparity serves to question the surface appearance of reality; just as Hari is only an ‘empty duplicate’ of Chris’ memories, the image we believe to be Chris is but a phantom. One of the most audacious moments in Solaris comes when Kelvin begins wandering the halls of the station deliriously in his underwear: Chris stands in medium shot facing the camera, and then a slow dissolve shows him turned around in the exact same spot with the same background. It is as though he changes positions without moving – space and time are collapsed for the span between front and back orientation. In this moment, Kelvin’s distress cuts him off from his perception of spatial and temporal continuity, hence Tarkovsky’s bizarre transition.
Johnson and Petrie substantially claim that it is Stalker, by “picking up and extending to its logical limit the use of space as time . . . that provides Tarkovsky’s most original and provocative handling of time.” They also incisively note that “time exists only to the extent that it is coterminous with the space traversed by the characters” (A Visual Fugue 237). A good example of Stalker’s unique treatment of time and space occurs in the scene in which Stalker and Writer believe they have lost Professor. The camera tracks alongside Writer as he slowly passes an almost maddeningly repetitive background; Writer walks past a gushing, roaring waterfall and creaky hanging lamp three times before he turns quizzically. The pacing and continuity of the shot leads one to believe this pattern will go on endlessly, but the cycle stops when the men realize that they’ve lost track of Professor. Andrea Truppin points out that the rushing sound of the waterfalls isn’t revealed until they enter the frame, a clear violation of the laws of acoustics, which are of course grounded in time and space (Sound Theory Sound Practice 241). Despite this gross illogic, Stalker insists that Professor is forever lost and they must go on. Yet when they emerge from the tunnel they find themselves back at the spot where they began as Professor sits calmly having lunch. Tarkovsky portrays time and space as circular here, with both the repetitiveness of the scenery and the reunion with Professor suggesting that temporal and spatial reality can bend according to the inner forces of humanity; the Zone in effect warns and reroutes them back to Professor.
Stalker contains one of Tarkovsky’s most celebrated sequences, in which the three men rest among dry patches in a boggy area of the Zone. The hallucinatory imagery begins with a short take of a black dog loping across the swampy ground toward the men. This dog persists throughout the film and seems to wander the Zone effortlessly, unlike the Stalker, whose meek trepidation invariably creates an aura of danger. A series of disjointed images of the men and landscape follows, ranging between black-and-white and color. The camera angles and movements suggest no logical spatial or temporal relationships, and the sequence seems to drift in and out of dream. The culmination mingles a spellbinding voice-over poem with a tight tracking shot; hovering from Stalker’s face across the water and assorted submerged objects, the camera reveals some startling composite images. The camera moves with such grace that although it has probably only covered a few feet, it seems as though we have crossed the span of a civilization. As the movement slows it reveals Stalker’s hand, rediscovering him in a ‘new version’ of the location from which he hasn’t moved. Circular imagery prevails, and the sequence ends on a shot of the black dog, crouched on an embankment and overlooking the scene like a sentinel. The dog’s comfort in the Zone clearly represents its uncorrupted rapport with the unmitigated reality of nature, and thus with space and time.
With each film Tarkovsky stretches the possibilities of shot duration and construction, and in Nostalghia and The Sacrifice the long takes play out in gripping fashion. Although Johnson and Petrie suggest that in his later films the long take “was becoming an end in itself for Tarkovsky, rather than a means to an end,” the length almost always seems natural and integral to the emotional, subjective content of the scene (A Visual Fugue 179-180). Both Nostalghia (126 minutes) and The Sacrifice (149 minutes) consist of approximately 115 shots, for an average shot length of over a minute, and with many lasting several minutes. This culminates in the two longest takes of Tarkovsky’s work: the opening post-credits shot (9 minutes 26 seconds) of The Sacrifice and the nearly nine-minute shot of Gorchakov trying to cross the drained St. Catherine’s pool with a lit candle. Each of these shots serves a different purpose, but they share one characteristic: the characters move to the left of the screen and the paths of the tracking camera and the characters converge. The movement seems to be toward a common endpoint of space and time; as they move closer to the temporal end of the shot, the characters also move closer to the physical location of the camera. The effect is far more extreme in Nostalghia, but that reflects an essential difference between the purposes of these scenes. In The Sacrifice, we are just being introduced to Alexander, so he only moves from a background to a mid-ground position. However, in Nostalghia Gorchakov is moving toward a strange climax, so at the end of the shot we find his hand in the extreme foreground, at the brink of the space-time continuum of the screen.
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 (A Visual Fugue 171), but one must consider that if Gorchakov succeeds in significantly less time, and in only one or two tries, the impact of his suffering and the tension of his struggle would probably 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. 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). The opening shot of The Sacrifice serves more as exposition of Alexander’s character. The temporal and spatial unity of time is preserved here, reflecting the relative stability of Alexander and his way of life at this point. As the film progresses, this unity will be torn asunder and the nature of space and time will become as thoroughly mysterious as the ‘reality’ of the film’s dreamlike events. The unity of time and space returns with Alexander’s burning of the house in a shot that lasts over six minutes. The continuity of the film from here on out not only reflects the ostensible ‘reality’ of the events, but underscores the purity of conviction behind the actions.
Tarkovsky blocks his actors in such a way as to take full advantage of the possibilities of the spatial and temporal dimensions of the cinematic world. One way in which he does this is to present characters within the same shot at incompatible locations. Some of the most sophisticated examples are in Nostalghia. As Gorchakov enters Domenico’s home, walking past the frame, 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. 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. Gorchakov first exceeds the camera’s spatial and temporal orientation by physically moving beyond the frame, but when the camera catches up he escapes its view metaphysically. As he looks over to his left, he sees himself in the immediate future standing only feet away. Tarkovsky again collapses time and space as a reflection of the character’s distracted inner state, and when the camera retrieves Gorchakov he is looking back presumably at his self of the near past. The mysterious revelation of the painting gives us a delayed sense of Gorchakov’s perception, another bending of the space-time continuum. In this scene, space and time ebb and flow according to the gloomy inner state of the characters
Tarkovsky also creates a tremendous depth in his frames by blocking characters freely about the camera. In Nostalghia, at the beginning in the chapel, Eugenia starts in long shot as she speaks with the sacristan, who starts off camera. As they move closer Eugenia ends up off camera, with the sacristan now in the extreme foreground and talking toward her unknown space. She moves around the camera and back into the frame, walking off into the distance, and Tarkovsky pulls the camera back, now placing the sacristan in the mid-ground and Eugenia retreating into the background. The blocking builds a tremendous spatial depth in the chapel, complementing the possibility of intimate contact with detached alienation – a recurrent theme in religious settings in Tarkovsky’s films. Tarkovsky creates a similar space in Stalker as the men stand outside the Room, moving the characters from foreground to background during the course of time of a continuous shot. A more dramatic instance occurs in one of the opening post-credits scenes. The camera slowly dollies in through the half-open doors of the Stalker’s bedroom, fitting through a seemingly too-small space. After Tarkovsky reveals the Stalker lying awake with his sleeping daughter and wife, the camera retreats to show Stalker quietly getting up to leave. In a continuous long shot, Stalker moves carefully about the room and exits frame right in the mid-ground, then reappears in the foreground in close up pushing the doors closed. This surprising movement subverts the viewer’s perception of screen space and foretells the Stalker’s creeping, oblique relationship with the time and space of the Zone.
One of Tarkovsky’s most effective and elegant blocking sequences occurs in The Sacrifice just before Alexander burns the house to the ground. As he climbs down the ladder from his room, he moves through the house in an eerie repetition of his movements from the scene in which he leaves to go see Maria the ‘Witch.’ Alexander moves from left to right in the background, and as the camera pans to follow him it reveals Adelaide (his wife) and Victor in close up in the foreground, discussing Victor’s move to Australia. The spatial relationships are then reversed as the camera moves back from right to left, placing Adelaide and Victor in the background and revealing Alexander in close up in the foreground hiding from them. Tarkovsky thus develops a great sense of emotional and psychological distance between the characters; Alexander is alienated from Adelaide and Victor not only because of their ostensible affair, but because of his impending action of destroying the house and vowing silence. Alexander’s action will not be understood because it is an act of higher redemption, the carrying out of a sacred promise only he and his God can understand, and so he moves on another plane of reason and being. Tarkosky’s sought to transcend outward logic and appearance in lieu of society’s inherent dogmatism. In The Sacrifice he does not ask us to make sense of logical events but to sense the weight of our existence as individuals in a social complex. As Peter Green eloquently memorialized Tarkovsky, “Perhaps more than any other, he perceived the potential of film for charting the modern space-time dimension we inhabit” (“A.T. (1932-1986)” 109).
The convictions Andrei 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. In his life, the search for subjective truth in film made him a pariah or a genius to some, and virtually unknown to most. Unfortunately, the peak of his career coincided with the age of the short attention span and cynicism. Few filmmakers even begin to take on the issues Tarkovsky accepted as central to life. While major studios were out to create the formula for the next Jaws or Star Wars, Tarkovsky was seeking the elixir of cinematic transcendence.
The idea of Tarkovsky’s work as ‘transcendental organic cinema’ may sound bold or pompous, but even if one dislikes his films the content, conscience, and form behind them surely linger in the subconscious as a whisper of this phrase. His representation of human experience as a microcosmos – the sphere of dream and unbound space/time – led cinema into a realm of cultural significance rarely braved by film directors. Tarkovsky’s belief that cinema could help us transcend the banality of the material world shaped his entire career, leading him to make films essentially as acts of faith. This was a faith in the inherent capacity of the human organism to transcend the physical and the infinite through artistic creation. As to the question, “Why are we here?”, it is obvious in Tarkovsky’s case that the answer was “To make films.”
The questions raised by Tarkovsky’s work certainly amount to more than the answers given, both in number and significance, but that may be the very purpose of expression. Studies of Tarkovsky’s use of sound, his directing of actors, his philosophical/psychogical/
spiritual preoccupations, or his dialogue with classical art could yield valuable insight not only into this director, but into the nature of cinema as art. Certainly, an individual more well-grounded in Soviet cinema and history might choose to contextualize and historicize Tarkovsky as a modern bastion of Russian culture. Taking into account the fact that he did not work in a vacuum, this study explores the ‘transcendental organic cinema’ as Tarkovsky’s artistic approach to a discipline that is primarily exploited as a form of low-brow entertainment. The world certainly needs low-brow entertainment, but just as much it needs high-brow expressions – perhaps all the more urgently because they are in short supply. Whether man can truly transcend himself through cinematic art is both a question and challenge Tarkovsky and his creative forebears and contemporaries pose for us.
Tarkovsky was an artist’s artist, yet he was a humanist above all. He sought to reach people on an inner spiritual level, but he also understood the futility of changing the world, “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 was perhaps too idealistic, and he was as troubled as the characters of his films, “He was riddled by guilt because he had left and neglected his oldest son Arsenii, thus repeating the history of his own fatherless childhood” (Alexander 23). His self-proclaimed martyr status was blown out of proportion (certainly fueled by others), 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 as a filmmaker.