Saturday, November 22, 2008

GREAT FILMS: STALKER (1979) - Tarkovsky

For this review of Stalker I took bits and pieces from different things including critics' writing, interviews, Tarkovsky's own words (from Sculpting in Time and interviews), even a line from David Bowie, and I strung all of it together in a collage, quoting and misquoting, changing things, and keeping them the same. Two sentences by one critic followed by one sentence from another, followed by Tarkovsky's own words attributed to the previous critic, etc. Believe nothing except that this post represents a small part of how I feel about Tarkovsky and Stalker. Originally I wanted to include more things -- bits from Pushkin, Dostoevsky, dialogue from Stalker -- in hopes that I could craft a more poetic representation of the film, but I ended up liking this first draft, so I'm not going to mess with it. I decided to take this approach specifically with Tarkovsky because his films are very hard to write about and also because I dislike how film is written about (in general). I hope this post is worth reading for those who have yet to see Stalker (or even a single Tarkovsky film) and also for those who might already be very familiar with the film. I'll probably try this again in the future with other films because I like the result, and I enjoyed putting it together.


PREFACE:

How was the end of Andrei Rublev able to reveal something in the paintings of an old Russian artist that brought tears to my eyes? What was it about the film that was able to cast these paintings in a completely new light? What was it about Stalker, my first Tarkovsky, that stuck in my mind weeks and weeks after I had fallen asleep trying to watch it? When this haunting finally drove me to watch it again, why was the experience so powerful even though my brain didn't quite understand it? Why was I convinced during my first viewing of The Sacrifice that I had seen a particular sequence previously in one of my dreams?

Tarkovsky gives one the impression that he is able to control nature. There is a moment in Mirror when a gust of wind shoots through a field at just the right moment... Magical.

These are the reasons Tarkovsky is my favorite director. His films are rich, transformative, and endless; I could watch them forever. There's nothing more I can say.

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STALKER (1979), directed by Andrei Tarkovsky


near jasmine is a stone; beneath the stone is a hidden treasure...



Every shot in Tarkovsky's oeuvre, and perhaps most starkly apparent in Stalker, while capturing the story, is much more than just a visualization of text lifted from the script. The slow, spellbinding use of the camera gives a sense of the inner music that such images possess, allowing the viewer to see and hear something of which appears inconceivable, emerging from the 'still life of the subjects' to re-create a sensation of divine resonance. Remember, if the images in the film are not of the highest quality, the film has no power, no meaning, no spiritual significance. Stalker is set in a secular world of post apocalyptic misery, a premonition of Chernobyl and Soviet disintegration. The hyperclarity of the images is such that they might have been etched into the screen, and the script not only went through thirteen rewrites but was actually filmed twice between 1976 and 1979.

I’ve seen all seven of Tarkovsky’s features, some of them several times, but I’ve never felt anywhere close to exhausting them. I haven’t seen Andrei Rublev (1966) for many years, and The Mirror (1974) struck me as almost completely opaque the first time I saw it. I also have to confess that most of Stalker (1979), now my favorite, infuriated me when I first saw it in 2001 or 2002. With the possible exception of My Name Is Ivan (aka Ivan’s Childhood, 1962), Tarkovsky’s first feature, all of his movies qualify to some degree as head scratchers. This is because they work at the deepest levels of our being and not in our intellect. His films cannot be analyzed without destroying them.

It seems as though we've forgotten how to relate emotionally to art--we treat it like editors, when everything's really very simple. Children have that simplicity and they understand Tarkovsky's films very well. I haven't met a single serious critic who stands knee-high to children when it comes to accepting my films as they are.

If we emerge from Tarkovsky’s films somewhat puzzled, this is only the first of the special gifts they have to offer, for ultimately they aren’t so much mysteries to be solved as experiences to be interpreted, learned from, and assimilated. His cinema is allusive. It is replete with reference to itself, both within and between films, and to various masterpieces of European art. His cinema is also elusive, since the import of even direct quotations often eludes comprehension, as if they were seen out of the corner of the eye, while yet central in the frame. "It would probably be great not to make films," Tarkovsky once said, "but instead to simply describe them to blind people."

Chris Marker compares what he calls the archetypal camera angle of Hollywood (slightly low, framing people against the sky) with the archetypal camera angle of Tarkovsky (slightly high, framing people against the ground) and then lets all the metaphysical implications of this difference sink in. It is probably true that the methods by which cinema affects audiences can be used far more easily and rapidly for their moral decomposition, for the destruction of their spiritual defenses, than the means of the old, more traditional art forms. The artistic image cannot be one-sided: in order justly to be called truthful, it has to unite within itself dialectically contradictory phenomena. Personal bias must always be hidden: making a display of it may give a film immediate topical relevance, but its meaning will be confined to that passing usefulness. If it is to last, art has to draw deep on its own essence; only in this way will it fulfill that unique potential for affecting people which is surely its determining virtue and which has nothing to do with propaganda, journalism, philosophy or any other branch of knowledge or social organisation.

tarkovsky stalker
Tarkovsky had always had very precise ideas about the Zone in Stalker. It took him a long time to find the right place. Instead of Uzbekistan, where it was first planned to be shot, they found abandoned, and long forgotten areas of former power plants in Estonia. Tarkovsky was drawn to this place by some photographs, and thought the place would make the perfect Zone, due to a certain "nihilistic attraction." After shooting the film, members of the crew sent protest letters to the local government against the destruction of the environment.

"We were shooting near Tallinn in the area around the small river Piliteh with a half-functioning hydroelectric station," says Vladimir Sharun. "Up the river was a chemical plant and it poured out poisonous liquids downstream. There is even this shot in Stalker: snow falling in the summer and white foam floating down the river. In fact it was some horrible poison. Many women in our crew got allergic reactions on their faces. Tarkovsky died from cancer of the right bronchial tube. And Tolya Solonitsyn too. That it was all connected to the location shooting for Stalker became clear to me when Larissa Tarkovskaya died from the same illness in Paris... Should I believe that I've been stricken too? Does my face show some kind of glow? A great star shot from the sky, flaming like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and springs. People in great numbers died from the water because it had been poisoned."

Tarkovsky has perfected his film language as an instrument capable of grappling with the most complicated issues of morality and theology. What makes his films so paradoxical is the fact that, among their concrete reality, lies an anticipation of the future, one that attempts to merge the viewer with the scene so that they may experience a re-awakening. For Tarkovsky, then, sculpting the Stalker was the result of an evolving personal signature, and one that meant cinema would never look upon a simple meadow in the same way again.

"I do not know whether there is Truth or not. But I instinctively feel that I cannot be without It. And I know that if It is, then It is everything for me: reason, and good, and strength, and life, and happiness. Perhaps It is not; but I love It - love is more than everything that exists. I already count It as existing, and I love It - though perhaps non-existent - with all my soul and all my thinking and dreaming. I renounce everything for It - even my questions and my doubts."

--Russian Philosopher Pavel Florensky (1882-1943), who died in a Stalinist labor camp

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