Tuesday, March 27, 2012

My Tarkovsky Year, Part Two: Slow And Steady Wins The Race, But What About Just Slow?

In my first post on Tarkovsky, I raved about his talent for taking simple yet mysterious images and imbuing them with a profound sense of meaning. In this post, I’m afraid I may have to backtrack a bit.

I blame myself more than I blame Tarkovsky, though. Several of his earlier works hit me so hard I expected nothing but perfection from him going forward. Yet perfection, as we all know, is an impossible ideal and a terrible thing to force onto someone else.

Still, I know I’m not alone when I look at the Russian filmmakers final two works, Nostalghia and The Sacrifice, and feel a sense of disappointment. In his new book, Zona, which I’m nearly halfway through by now, Geoff Dyer says: 
By the time of his final films...[Tarkovsky] is reliant both conceptually and incrementally on Tarkovskyan cliché. Bergman said that, towards the end, Tarkovsky ‘began making films that copied Tarkovsky.’ Wim Wenders felt exactly the same way about Nostalghia, that Tarkovsky was ‘using some of his typical narrative devices and shots as if they were between quotation marks.’ The guru became his own most devoted disciple (49).
I can’t put my finger on specifically what Dyer, Bergman, and Wenders are objecting to, but for me it’s Tarkovsky’s obsession with the long-take aesthetic--a technique which, I should add, I’m not opposed to. When used in the right way, it can be one of the most compelling tools in the filmmaker’s toolbox (4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days jumps to mind as an example). There are times, though, when that kind of approach just doesn’t work, and for me, The Sacrifice is a prime example.

If you haven't seen it, The Sacrifice is set on the eve of World War III and centers on a professor who makes a bargain with God: If God will stop World War III from happening, then he (the professor) will sacrifice everything he has--his possessions, his home, even his family.

Just looking at the movie's plot and themes, I don't have any complaints. The premise is compelling and the themes are consistent with what you'll find in the rest of Tarkovsky's work. My problem is with the painfully slow pacing. This approach worked well in Andrei Rublev, The Mirror, Stalker, and even Nostalghia, which I wasn't a big fan of. In The Sacrifice, though, the slow pace is a serious detriment, as the plot demands a sense of urgency. We should feel the story's momentum, as if we are hurtling toward something (this is certainly how the characters themselves feel). But instead of altering his style to fit the material, Tarkovsky does the opposite, forcing a premise that demands intensity into the same wistful style he's used all throughout his career.

Which raises an interesting question. How committed to a particular style should an artist be? Isn't a true master someone who can look at his/her own work and tell when a lighter or heavier touch is needed? Or is it possible that tireless devotion to mastering a particular style is really what it takes? More than likely, there's no single answer, but I think the question is worth thinking about. Let me know what you think in the comments.


  1. Hmm. I just watched all Tarkovsky's films for the first time last year, and I definitely know what you're talking about. His last two films are somehow lesser, their slowness somehow a little less rigorous, a little more boring. I think part of the problem is he's out of Russia, so nothing quite has that same Russian spirit as before; long, slow shots used to be bright, hard, and cold, but in his later films they become sluggish, misty, and fuzzy. However, where I really had the problem was with Nostalghia. This is probably partly because I had to watch it on VHS (I don't think there's any DVD), but that movie seriously bored me to tears. That movie seriously has no plot. There were a couple distinctive shots, but overall I'd have to say I flat-out didn't like it, which surprises me a great deal considering at this point I would consider Andrei Rublev the greatest film I've ever seen.

    On the other hand, I really liked The Sacrifice. I actually didn't find it especially boring (there's always a point in his films where I start shifting in my seat a bit), and thought the pacing mostly worked--I felt the urgency, anyway. Where I think you see Tarkovsky repeating himself is that The Sacrifice, while great, reuses a whole bunch of his own images and ideas that he had originated with other films. Things like white mark in hair, mute holy fool, strange pagan woman who exerts sexual power/temptation, music from Bach, close-ups of paintings, levitation, and more things I can't think of at the moment. This can be partly forgiven by the fact that it's his swan song, and was at least somewhat intended as his final statement. And I do think the shots of Alexander sneaking around the house are pretty remarkable, and different from what he'd done before. But there's undeniably a sense that he's said this before, that he's restating main themes, this time with just a little added focus on politics and the next generation, and that's a little bit disappointing.

  2. Thank you for your perspective, Stephen! The Sacrifice does have some very good moments, but for such a goal oriented story, I expected it to move even more nimbly than it does. Perhaps those were unrealistic expectations on my part.

    Also, I would that add while Nostalghia felt interminable in places, the movie's obsession with the past and with introspection made that slowness understandable, by comparison.

    And just to add--there is a DVD of Nostalghia out, because that's how I watched it. But I understand your frustration. I had to watch The Mirror and Stalker on VHS, and the experience was not what I'd hoped it would be, even though I enjoyed both of them.

  3. For me personally Nostalghia is the weakest film by Tarkovsky. Conversely Sacriffice consider extraordinary work, fully concentrated on formally perfect about what Tarkovsky filmed. It is almost scary how accurate atmosphere, characters and perfect mastery of film space. It's a film that would not repeat already stated, but completes all said so far ...

    1. Thanks for your comment, Petr. It seems like I may be in the minority when it comes to The Sacrifice--which is fine, as it encourages me to rethink my own position. I look forward to someday revisiting it and, perhaps, seeing it in a new way.