An Essay on Andrei Tarkovsky
– Art knows. He said, with emphasis, steadying his hand from spilling the black coffee. The effect is expressed as shock, as catharsis. From the very moment when Eve ate the apple from the tree of knowledge, mankind was doomed to strive endlessly after the truth.
He lay on the hospital bed. In the cramped, dirty hospital. A thin blue blanket covered his thin skin covered his jutting bones, like a thin-stretched tent. The cancer had him, and it did not have him. Andrei Tarkovsky. Russian filmmaker. In exile.
I’d travelled to Paris to see him – he’d told me he was dying.
He’d fled his home country long ago. They wouldn’t let him film there not in the way he really wanted to, needed to.
He dozed off. So I sat by him and thought about his films. I drank my own black coffee and thought.
His movies had been a mystery to me. They were almost silent, perfectly capable of image sustained alone. Stalker especially. What sounds he’d have were of mud and fire, and rain in wells, and bombs and an old organ and metal on metal clanking, steam and muttered Russian poetry. What was I to make of that? Was I too to doze of?
I recall a time I’d stolen into a third-rate theatre in Petersburg to watch Andre Rublev his great film the Sovs had marked ‘third-rate’ because of its perfect religion. The Communists had recoiled like a bull and stamped the movie into the dirt. And that meant the film got no money and could only play in the cheapest of theatres and I was in one to watch it with the frayed screen the unclean projector the dim light the burnt popcorn the stained carpet the gummy torn seats sticky with spat plugs of tobacco and the clung dirt and lung-matter of cigarettes.
Maybe three people were with me? I don’t remember.
But the fat muzhchina who’d slumped into the seat next to me (why the one next to me??) had fallen asleep right at the part with the boy making the brass Church bell (at risk of his own life), the best part of the picture.
Should I have also slept?
– Faith, faith, faith. Ephebe, perish utterly. Muttered Andrei, half alive and clinging.
I think he was poisoned by the Sov’s because he’d made films abroad and they couldn’t stamp that out – they hated that their best wasn’t them, not really. Not in the way that Totalitarianism wanted.
Totalitarianism wanted to finish once and for all the neutrality of cinema. All films for the Party. All for the Big Lie that everyone told.
But Andrei had made a movie called Nostalghia in Italy and in it a man walked a candle from one end of a ruined, Roman, waterless bath to the other and it was one take (one shot) and it took twelve minutes because the candle kept snuffing, and he had to keep starting over at the beginning but finally he got to the end. He got frustrated but he kept going. There was a spot of white in his black hair.
– With man’s help the Creator comes to know himself. Said Andrei, sipping his coffee which pained him. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death. To plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.
– Of course, Andrei, that’s very good. I said sadly, not really listening but thinking about the movies.
Ah the movies! The movies! Could our frenzied minds but still and sit! How much we might learn! Were we not so pushed to tap our fingers, flick our eyes, stamp our feet and distract, distract ourselves from our own pulse. What purchase there might be for us on our weary climbs.
The Sacrifice: The nuclear war is nigh. The family man makes a bargain to God; I will sacrifice, and You will delay the apocalypse. He burns his house down. The bombs do not fall.
Stalker: The three men steal into the forbidden Zone, a place where tanks rust mid-fire, and water flows everywhere, and a wrong step means…
Ivan’s Childhood: The Russian Boy goes behind the German lines, again, and again, and again – he remembers a well where his mother reflected.
The Mirror: The house burns a-flame under rain. The poet is dying of disease on the bed. He holds a sparrow in his hand, yet to release.
Andrei Rublev: The boy’s bell is cast. Its ring is loud and clear and true. Andrei embraces him. Andrei paints we see his paintings in bright color and harmony.
– The thought is brief. The image, absolute. Said Andrei Tarkovsky, as he dies on the hospital bed.
The World goes with him. I drank the rest of my coffee and rented The Mirror on the way home and I watched it with a friend and it kept us awake.
Cheers to your Sunday morning…
Andrei, Tarkovsky and Kitty Hunter-Blair. Sculpting in Time. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. Print.