Monday, February 20, 2012

My Tarkovsky Year, Part One: Moving Images

About thirty minutes into Andrei Tarkovsky's third full-length film, Solaris (1972), we're treated to a sequence that doesn't seem all that important. We're traveling along a busy highway, passing from lane to lane, rocketing through semi-lit tunnels, all for about six to ten minutes. It's a moment that, when I first saw it only a few weeks ago, tested my patience and the strength of my imagination. What does this have to do with anything? I wondered.

As head-scratching as this sequence might be, though, it is important. If nothing else, it prods us to think about the differences between this gray, concrete world and the lush, green countryside of the previous scene. And that gets us thinking about the nature of reality and the difference between something made by man and something made by a higher intelligence, like God or the planet Solaris.

As I've worked my way through Tarkovsky's films this year--each one for the first time, and in chronological order--this is what I've learned: every moment is essential to the whole. Nothing is random or for beauty's sake alone.

But that doesn't mean Tarkovsky's films are like puzzles we have to figure out--I'm not saying that. They mean something, yes, but their magic has more to do with the way these beautiful and dreamlike images can hit you. They have a subtle, unforced emotional power that transcends the slow, sometimes tedious pace of the movies themselves.

I first had this thought during the opening moments of Ivan's Childhood (1962), where we see the young Ivan (Nikolai Burlyayev) wading through a tree-infested swamp the German army has occupied. Behind him, in the background, a flare soars into the sky, arcs, falls, then sizzles out in the muddy water.

Where are we? we wonder. What kind of hell is this, and what's a child doing here? Tarkovsky explores these questions over the movie's short runtime, then sums up his ideas with a simple yet stunning coda: After Ivan has disappeared back across enemy lines, we're taken away from this war-torn setting to a scenic beach, where a group of children are playing hide-and-seek, with Ivan among them. But why we are here?

The answer becomes clear when Ivan, who is chasing a girl along the beach, suddenly overtakes her, speeding across the wet sand as if something were now chasing him. In a POV shot, we see a tree just ahead--home base--and Ivan's arm reaching out for it, but the screen cuts to black just before he reaches it. Seeing this for the first time, I was left with a feeling of sadness and even terror. With these very simple images, Tarkovsky shows us the horror of war--that it robs children of their childhoods, forcing them to grow up too quickly before stealing their lives completely. This is the kind of incredible emotional power that Tarkovsky's images can have.

Other moments are still with me as well. Rublev's encounter with the pagans in Andrei Rublev (1966) unsettled me in the way a strange and disturbing dream might, as did certain scenes from The Mirror (1975), which felt as much like a ghost story as a collection of vivid memories. Even Solaris, which I consider my least favorite Tarkovsky film so far (I still need to see Voyage in Time, Nostalgia, and The Sacrifice) still contained images that hit me on an emotional level.

But these are only the images and impressions that have stood out to me so far. I'll be exploring other moments as the year continues. In the meantime, what moments from this great director's works have hit you the hardest? Was it a single image? A larger sequence? I'd love to here about it in the comments below.

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