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Reviews, essays, and translations

Entries in Tarkovsky (4)

Wednesday
Mar162016

Nostalghia

If you were to ask someone of nationalistic bent about the most untranslatable concepts in his mother tongue, he would invariably include a word or short phrase that denotes homesickness (or the much lovelier German analogue, Heimweh, 'home-woe,' of which nostalgia is said to be a calque). He would grudgingly admit that while homesickness is the closest English term, the two words actually lie very far apart. "You cannot really render it as aching for home," he might say, "it is more the yearning to breathe the air in the manner of its natives, air that exists nowhere else." The truth is that nostalgia has expanded its breadth of meaning: now it conveys as much a feeling of missing home as a glorification of the past in the sacrifice of the present and, often enough, of the future – a future that drifts ever further away from those golden years. I have had many instances in my life in which I felt wonderful events, times, and friends could never be repeated, and I was dreadfully right. They cannot and we cannot. What we have in their stead is the sensation of loss and the hope that redemption will allow us to enjoy those moments for eternity. And that is why the preservation of the human soul is the most vital function of culture. I do not for a minute believe that those who worship money and fossils and the materiality of this green globe can ever feel nostalgia: it is, with true love and true art, the deepest of sensations, and it is far beyond their ken as beasts of the moment. Nostalgia for the innocence of one's childhood, of love's labors lost, of the sweetness of things, of books, languages, sunsets, summer evenings of unstinting passion, the headiness of wine and the eternal mystery of our soul's whims – all this makes for an exquisite banquet of memories. It may also make, in the event of proper sidereal alignment, a first-rate Romantic poet. Which brings us to this remarkable film.

We begin with an Italian countryside, something not terribly evolved from what you might find in this animal-slaughtering favorite, a green and brown realm of plain rusticity. At the conspicuous center of our landscape stands a tree, Tarkovsky's eternal hope for the world; to the right and somewhat above the treetop, a power line in the shape of the greatest symbol we have ever known; in the background hills or mountains swimming amidst the mist. Slowly a small European car puffs its way left, the Italian sinistro, and stops before a garden leading up one of these misty hillocks, and a young, voluptuous redhead emerges, her hair in endless knots, first speaking Russian then Italian. As she climbs up the hill through a wondrous garden, the man mutters under his breath that he "can't go on." But he does. He follows her, onward and upward, to a chapel to gaze at a fresco by this famed artist. There our redhead, an Italian by the name of Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano), does not ask the chapel curator, likely a priest himself, why women flock to see the Madonna del Parto – that question is very obvious, and would belong in a lesser film. No, Eugenia well understands the despair of a woman who cannot bear children, or a mother whose daughter cannot bear a grandchild. What she wants to know is why they pray in the way they do, so fervently silent, then in a chant that culminates in a release of a bellyful of sparrows from the Madonna's statue. "Why are women more pious than men?" she asks, not incorrectly. The man pontificates a conservative view of women's role – to birth and raise children with patience and sacrifice – and as she walks away in half-feigned disgust, he adds: "You probably just want to be happy, but there is something in life more important than that." Eugenia stops and returns her eyes to all the mothers gathered, all praying to the one Mother, all beseeching that one of their daughters may bear children, a request punctuated by the opening of the belly. She does not look on transfixed, but simply curious. She is curious about her motherhood, about ritual, about all things that get lost in modernity's fire of independence and self-assertion. And suddenly she knows what word is more important in life than happiness.

The Italian for that word, fede, is not known to her companion, the poet Andrei Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovsky), so she translates it for him as vera (вера). She does not, however, convey the information with any solemnity, but with a snicker, and for good reason: fede means both faith and a wedding band, and Eugenia's mind is definitely much more focused on the latter. They converse in Italian (his insistence) even though it seems evident Eugenia's Russian would be more useful; then we consider that Italian may be the one trump card she holds over Gorchakov's Russian wife in Moscow. Indeed, her red hair, her role as his guide to the 'overworld,' and her painful sexual intrigue all denote temptation of the sinister kind and could have led – again, in a far lesser film – to carnal exploration. Yet somehow we know that this will never occur. In one vignette the camera – and, in turn, we and Gorchakov – notice Eugenia's pneumatic curves for what seems like the first time. His sudden compliment that she is so beautiful simply filters a hormonal reaction, and there is often something about very pure and sacrosanct places that shunts minds onto different tracks. Her expression for a few seconds thereafter communicates every ounce of her desire, the entire timeline of her pleasure at the compliment, her arousal, her disappointment when his eyes still do not meet hers, her arousal again, and finally her resignation that even if he did mean it, his comment was probably not enough for them to sleep together. Gorchakov, a melancholy and fatigued creature, has earned this disappointment: he has come to Italy to comprehend why Pavel Sosnovsky, a late eighteenth-century Russian composer, forsook the hills of Rome and a blossoming career to return to Russia and his status as a serf. Some say Sosnovsky loved a Russian serf girl, but some always say that. Others merely aver that he missed his homeland and would rather die enslaved in his native element than live on in exile – one of the most common interpretations of voluntary exile in modern thought. Ostensibly a well-known poet, Gorchakov exhibits more interest in the sadness of the locales he visits – chapels, churches, villages, and finally, these baths – than in any scholarly pursuits. He has not come to discover Sosnovsky's motives, he has come to find his own. His silly joke in Russian to a little Italian girl who could not possibly understand him is one of Nostalghia's iconic passages, in no small part owing to the resonance it receives in its closing shots. Yet at the time it smacks of cavalierness and frivolity, not nearly as sad as later events reveal it to be. Which can also be said about the third tragic figure in our triptych, the eccentric mathematician Domenico (a marvelous Erland Josephson).

It is probably best not to divulge too much about Domenico's backstory, which explains why apart from his outstanding mind and his German shepherd he is very much alone in the world. I stand corrected, there is a third companion: his fede, which is so strong as to augment at once his mathematical reasoning and his emotional pitch. The world simply does not add up. One drop of olive oil (in another much-discussed scene) and another drop of olive oil do not equal two drops, but one bigger drop. What we can say is that as we have three characters, so too do we have three dreams. First, there is Sosnovsky's, recounted in a letter (in Italian) as to why he needs to return to his birthplace. Sosnovsky was supposed to write an opera for his lord, and there were statues in the park where the opera was to be performed. As he approached the park he became one of the statues, and instinctively he knew that if he moved he would be severely punished. Thus, for a moment or a little longer, he actually turned to stone, powerless, and then realized that this was no dream at all, but his own bitter life. And he also realized that he could not forsake Russia, and the thought of not seeing its birches or languishing in the scents of his childhood grew intolerable. Then there is Eugenia's dream, narrated to her Russian guest during a long monologue of frustration when it becomes clear that her desires will not be reciprocated. I need not describe it in detail; suffice it to say that it involves a worm in her hair that escapes under her wardrobe – the context suggests that she has already provided her dream with sufficient analysis. And then there is Gorchakov's dream, the dream he endures after he tells that little girl that little joke about rescuing someone from a pond. And what does he see in his dream? He sees himself as himself; he sees himself as Domenico; he sees churches and streets that were never his but somehow should have been; and he weighs the criteria on which we, consciously and unconsciously, base our notion of what is home. Many claim that for a poet home is his language, the world in which the gilded filaments of his conscience and intelligence fuse into the most sublime and elevated of human expression. So what does this have to do with birthplace or childhood? Haven't countless poets composed countless odes thousands of miles away from their natal fields? They most certainly have. But maybe it is better to ask whether those odes would have been written if those poets and fields had never parted.      

Tuesday
Mar162010

Solaris (Солярис)

Night is the best time here; night somehow reminds me of earth.

The final, grandiose scene in this film will be derived from its opening in a way that is admittedly less surprising than thrilling. We begin on a lush country estate as a man in his forties, somewhat heavy-set, handsome, and with a peremptory stare, walks around a large and fecund pond. What he first espies beneath that pond compared to what lies there towards the end may have ignited a few film studies papers, but we need not belabor such secondary detail. He is a microbe within a universe moving through a wonderland where he is barely noticed; his steps are silent because an echo implies impact. He approaches a house, his father's, only to find his mother and a stranger glued to the television. 

Our wanderer is Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), a psychologist who will be participating in a Soviet space mission to a place referred to as Solaris – another planet or realm, the matter is not easily resolved. His last day on earth, so to speak, is spent predominantly with his father (Nikolai Grinko), a tall, dismissive man who may remind the American viewer of this actor. That same day, planned as a pre-departure of quiet reflection on a peaceful estate, Kelvin's father also invites Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), a former military pilot. Apart from indulging the father's lifelong habit of belittling his son's importance ("It's too dangerous to send people like you into space," he tells Kelvin, "space is too fragile"), the purpose of the invitation is to watch a video of Burton's testimony before the space authorities for whom Kelvin will also make an evaluation. Burton testifies that in the course of his mission on a search party near Solaris – officially an "oceanic planet" – he fell into the thick fog that has begun many tales of mystery. After that fog had lifted, if it was fog at all, he espied something treading the waves, something he dubs "repulsive": a thirteen-foot-high naked baby boy coated with the slime that one might associate with birth. Whatever one may say of Burton, he is certainly not confident; he is also far too sensitive about his own personal opinions to make a good soldier. His ideas are rejected and roundly mocked, and Burton, now bald after the incident a few years ago, can only quip that whenever the "Burton Report" is mentioned only laughter can be heard.

Almost all reviewers of Solaris who know the original novel emphasize that Lem's book did not contain this prelude on earth, and for very good reason: Lem was far more interested in the vicissitudes of the human brain than the human soul. For all its monsters, meteors, and machinery, the vast majority of science fiction has always parlayed simple, melodramatic plots into allegedly original work – but this is a conversation for another day. Some science fiction tales do tackle legitimate philosophical and spiritual problems, often in the form of space travel with ultimately the following question in mind: if we can reach the heavens, does it mean there is nothing beyond them? The argument is not only one of sense and perception, but of ethical implications because, as Burton points out as any spiritual person would, "knowledge is only valid when it's based on morality." But Kelvin wants nothing of this and we soon learn why. Ten years before his upcoming space mission, Kelvin's wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) committed suicide for the most banal of romantic tragedies – unrequited love. Whether this extinguished any faith Kelvin might have had in the immortality of the soul cannot be determined from the opening scene, nor from Burton's subsequent teleconference from a car in a modern metropolis where he confesses that Fechner, the object of the search party, had a son identical in all but size to the creature treading the water. This concept is reinforced upon Kelvin's arrival as he is greeted by one of the three remaining persons in the space station monitoring Solaris, the cyberneticist Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet).

A correction, only two remain – alive, at least. The surviving passengers are Snaut and the astrobiologist Dr. Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn). A third scientist, Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sarkisian), a physiologist and former colleague of Kelvin's, has already committed suicide by the time the psychologist enters the station. Gibarian is considerate enough to leave Kelvin a video detailing his slow descent into a miasma completely divorced from any hints at insanity. This circumstance allows us to ponder Snaut's strange words (Snaut is also responsible for this review's opening quote) to Kelvin upon the latter's arrival: "If you ever see something other than me or Sartorius here, just remember that you are no longer on earth." Kelvin nears a window and gazes upon Solaris in one of the breathtaking glimpses at the ocean planet, and then spots something moving behind him. Sartorius, clearly the guts and glory behind this operation, warns him of the shocking nature of what he may see in the station, visions at once real and completely synthetic – and we come to the secret of Solaris that is hardly a secret at all. In response to the radiation with which it was bombarded, or maybe not entirely in response, the ocean enters the consciousness of all those aboard the station and triggers materializations of their conscience. The subject matter can only be derived during sleeping, although a later development in the plot shows that an encephalogram during waking hours can be just as decisive. We see Sartorius with a pygmy or dwarf that he tries at one point to impute to Snaut; and while we do not quite know what plagued Gibarian before his death, he had the rather awful impression that he was the only one affected. It is for that reason, one supposes, that one morning Kelvin wakes up and finds Hari staring at him alive and well. The first part ends on this note – more specifically, it ends with Hari asking Kelvin, "why won't you look at me?" – and here our revelations should end as well. 

What is a man of science to think of such a manifestation? A great deal, as it turns out. Before leaving earth, Kelvin nonchalantly pitches a large number of his university papers and keepsakes into a bonfire, to the horror of his onlooking parents (here we also first see a photograph of Hari and some of their correspondence). Much later, Kelvin dreams of a scene not unlike the icy landscapes of some of the Dutch Masters of yore in which another bonfire is lit, if only to warm his tired bones. The transformation of Kelvin, a staunch non-believer, into someone who accepts the unimaginable is one of the greatest metamorphoses cinema has ever offered. Instead of the anger and disdain that usually accompany claims to the existence of such phenomena, Kelvin does not disbelieve as much as fear (witness what he does to Hari's first "materialization"). He fears his own role in her death, the evidence of a sort of heaven – Hari and the rest of the so-called "guests" cannot and perhaps do not exist outside of Solaris's force field – and the bewildering realization that conscience may well be the metronome for all of eternity. So when Hari asks Kelvin in front of a mirror (a shot used repeatedly in the film's promotion) whether he knows himself, he replies "Of course, like all humans." And if that were indeed the case, then far fewer of us would ever go to sleep.                

Friday
Jun132008

The Sacrifice

Apart from being the beloved country of this recently deceased director whose heyday coincided with Europe’s postwar rebirth, Sweden is undoubtedly one of the least plausible locations you might imagine involved in a cataclysm of the type only possible the last sixty-odd years.  Bergman’s untouchability has been questioned the last two decades or so, but such impertinence is common to every wave of clammy-handed critics who seek to deify their contemporaries and cast out the old masters.  When you consider that the ghosts of Milton, Bach, and Melville all labored at one point or another in obscurity in favor of talentless hacks whose names are long forgotten, Bergman’s waning authority is not surprising.  Soon enough, however, he will be restored to power because he is a genius of this newest art of ours, the moving picture.  And this film, shot with some of Bergman’s habitual actors and crew and on the Swedish island he so adored, is a monumental tribute to Bergman by the greatest cinematic artist the world has ever seen.

We begin the film in Gotland, land of God or good, an island away from the Swedish mainland, a small sanctuary amidst the torrents of chaos, war, and materialism.  There Alexander (Erland Josephson), a family patriarch and man of no faith, lives with his family, including his English wife Adelaide and their mute six-year-old son.  Alexander’s days are quiet ones, very distant from the storm of his younger years in which he was an actor, psychologist, and something of a philosopher.  The postman comes with a telegram that allows Alexander to digress into the usual existential poppycock about the fate of man (no one is supposed to be impressed with the casual mention of profound topics except perhaps Alexander himself).  Civilization, he muses, has no real meaning, and it is fruitless even to discuss that some higher power has given us the privilege of life.  It is in this context, at a family dinner to which the postman is invited, that the unthinkable occurs: a short, earthquake-like scene is followed by an emergency announcement from the television. This is the worst kind of announcement; the announcement no one ever, ever hopes to hear or consider; the announcement that for a while during the height of the Cold War seemed less of a fantasy than at any other time; the announcement that makes Alexander do something he has never done or wanted to do.  And at the end of this strange session which he seals with a promise, Alexander wakes up, cold and wretched.  But the world he sees does not reflect his misery in the way he thought it might.

There are myriad interpretations as to why Alexander makes such a choice, why his house erupts in flames (in one of the greatest scenes in all of cinema), and why his son, in the end, finally speaks.  Perhaps the most satisfying approach would be to ask oneself what Bergman and Tarkovsky have in common.  Both are Northern Europeans, aesthetes of the finest caliber, untraditional if devout in their spirituality, and committed to demolishing the falsehoods of trend, movement, and theory that throughout the course of human history have tried and failed to reduce us to amœbæ.  Man is first and foremost a spiritual being, a soul caged in a brittle box.  What else he makes of himself is often dictated by vanity, hedonism, or cruel circumstance.  The aging Alexander, who has always been vain and hedonistic, cannot fathom for the longest time why anyone should care about what we can’t see, or those billions of people we cannot meet, or the ecumenical and moral responsibility we have to preserve ourselves in the face of extinction and lesser plagues.  Hopeless man does not even deserve my pity, he assures himself.  Then he grasps at a thread – a large, branched thread that he plants on his birthday – tries to follow its path against the almighty sun, and comes across something else.  His beginning is his end, so to speak.  Or something greater than both.

Sunday
Mar302008

Tarkovsky, "Вот и лето прошло"

This poet will forever be known, first and foremost, as the father of perhaps the greatest director of modern cinema.  This poem ("And so summer has passed") is recited by the title character in one of his son's films, a masterpiece with few peers.  You can find the original here.

And so summer has passed,
Fictive bittersweet squall,
The sun’s shadow is warm,
But this cannot be all.

All that could came at last,
A soft five-fingered fall
Of a leaf in my hands,
But this cannot be all.

No heaven or morass 
Failed to pain or enthrall,
Warm light shined without end,
But this cannot be all.

By life’s wing I trespassed,
Safe and strong was my wall,
Fortune beamed on my days,
But this cannot be all.

No leaves fumed by hot gas,
No twigs broken and small,
Clean clear sky was like glass,
But this cannot be all.