Frequent visitors to this site will know that I value Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker above all other films. The reasons for this are really two-fold:
Firstly, I think that Tarkovsky’s films set the bar for a cinematic golden age known as the European art house movement. Tarkovsky was one of the first Soviet filmmakers to reach maturity having seen early works of European art house film and I think his films took those methods, combined them with approaches developed by Soviet filmmakers, and produced a series of works that have — in retrospect — come to define that particular sensibility. Stalker is special as it is not only devastatingly beautiful and enormously rich, it is also one of those rare films where everything seems to work both individually and collectively.
Secondly, Stalker is one of my critical compass points. It is not just that I tend to judge other films in terms of how well or poorly they compare to Stalker, it’s that my critical methods have been (consciously or unconsciously) been shaped by how well adapted they are to the task of writing about films like Stalker. Our culture teach us how to respond to the culture we consume and I have definitely found myself drifting closer and closer towards the task of writing about these kinds of beautiful but complex films.
I have actually written about the film before a couple of times before but I think I am most satisfied with this latest nihilistic take. FilmJuice have my review of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which has just been re-released on Blu-ray:
Tarkovsky may have been a genius but he was also the product of a very specific cultural moment. His films are littered with religious symbolism and articulate a profound yearning after spiritual truth but his stories inevitably seem to deposit their characters in states of complete existential crisis. The tension between the content of Tarkovsky’s stories and the style in which he chose to tell them speaks not only to the absence of religion in Soviet lives but also to the brutal materialism implied by Soviet Montage Theory. Indeed, if people can extract meaning from the juxtaposition of two completely unrelated images, how can we imbue this meaning with any form of value? If ‘meaning’ is just a product of the way human brains process information, what are we to make of our desire to find meaning in the chaos of our lives.
Tarkovsky’s Stalker is about man’s search for meaning and how all searches for meaning are doomed to failure. The world is a beautiful place, filled with bliss and horror but the meaning we place on these experiences are ours and ours alone.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s first film began life as a respectful adaptation of an autobiographical story about a child’s experiences working as a military scout during World War II. The story had already been translated into over twenty languages as well as critically acclaimed both at home and abroad but the studio’s first choice to direct the film had somehow managed to bungle the project resulting in nothing but thousands of feet of wasted film and a sizeable number of debts. After firing the director, the studio reached out to his classmate and offered him the project on the understanding that we would need to deliver a completed film as quickly and as cheaply as possible on the grounds that another man had already burned through the reserves of patience and good will that were usually accorded to novice filmmakers.
As with a number of Tarkovsky’s films, the production of Ivan’s Childhood resonates with many of the same issues as the film itself. For example, just as Tarkovsky had been denied a professional adolescence by the mistakes of his classmate, the film’s protagonist finds himself plucked from childhood and forced into premature adulthood where the world offers no protection from the consequences of his actions. Equally spooky is the way that the protagonist of Ivan’s Childhood is forced to run across minefields for the sake of those who follow just as Tarkovsky was forced to fight for the idea that directors should pursue their own artistic visions rather than contenting themselves with adapting the visions of others.
Setting aside the somewhat uncanny details of the production process, Ivan’s Childhood remains an impressive piece of filmmaking. Beautifully acted, astonishing to look at, and thematically rich, the film explores the interlocking boundaries between childhood and adulthood, dreams and reality, as well as between conscious and unconscious thought.
Before they are made flesh and born into this world, works of art exist as clouds of pure possibility. Every work is born of ideas and the creative process requires artists to make those ideas material through a combination of different elements including plot, character, style, and theme. While certain ideas bond more naturally with certain elements and certain combinations of elements prove more or less popular at certain times, it is the artist who sits at the creative mixing desk and shapes how their idea will move from possibility to actuality.
Humans may be flawed and finite creatures but commerce assumes us to be more broken than we are. One side effect of this great conspiracy of under-estimation is that the marketplace tends to interpret our natural desire for different stories as a desire for different sets of mixes. Thus, mainstream realist literature encourages us to yearn for stories that can only be told with the character slider all the way up while Hollywood encourages us to watch films that require a focus on plot and a narrow explosive-laden visual style. Even art house film falls into this trap by emphasising a certain set of stylistic tics and then giving us more or less character and theme. There may be sound economic and historical reasons for this elemental fetishism but it does tend to encourage the assumption that trade-offs between the different elements represent some sort of zero-sum game. Why else remain wedded to such absurd superstitions as the belief that style can be severed from content or that thematically complex works cannot be stylish, exciting and full of humanity?
The truth is that the basic elements of artistic composition relate to each other in ways that are almost completely unpredictable. Some films – like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker – feature no characters, follow no plot, manifest no interest in the world and yet somehow manage to work on every conceivable level. Other works – like The Force Awakens –feature lots of plot, lots of character, a limitless budget for the provision of visual spectacle, a real desire to use mythological tropes to say something profound about human relationships, and yet somehow manage to be boring, empty, and utterly disposable. One film that demonstrates how emphasising certain elements can have unexpected consequences is the (recently re-mastered and re-issued) cult documentary Grey Gardens.
FilmJuice have my review of Joachim Trier’s third feature film Louder than Bombs. I must admit to being rather disappointed with this film as, on paper, it is pretty much exactly the type of film I tend to enjoy. The film revolves around the family of a successful war photographer played by the wonderful Isabelle Huppert. After years of bickering with her husband, the photographer agrees to retire only to wind up dying in what appears to be a car accident. Without the photographer’s cycle of anxious departure and grateful return to hold the family together, the husband falls out with his two sons until a retrospective of the photographer’s career brings them all together to forces them to confront old problems.
What I liked about this film was Trier’s willingness to break with conventional style, narrative, and character-development to suggest that while the photographer may have been a different person at home and in the field, the same is also true of those she left behind. In effect, the film suggests that rather than having a ‘true self’, people have (a) an internal conflict between the person they are and the person they want to be, and (b) a series of external conflicts between the personas they inhabit and the way that other people see them. In essence, this is a film about the chaotic groundlessness of the self and why every attempt to understand each other or define ourselves is doomed to failure.I tend to like art that deals with the concept of the self and I particularly appreciate it when works ride out against the Victorian novelistic idea that people have well-formed characters that exist as part of dramatically-satisfying narrative arcs.
What I didn’t like about this film is that while Trier seemed willing to ride out against these Victorian ideas, he seemed weirdly reluctant to give up a lot of the storytelling aesthetics and narrative techniques that accompany the Victorian novelist’s ideas about selfhood:
The problem is that while Trier uses a number of clever cinematic techniques to articulate his ideas about identity, the bulk of the film remains grounded in a very traditional approach to both storytelling and character. Thus, while the film builds towards moments of family reconciliation and acceptance of hidden truths about the mother, it also wants to suggest that the mother is fundamentally unknowable and that true reconciliation is a psychological impossibility. The result is a film that contains some lovely moments and a few nice touches but feels both unfinished and half-hearted.
The FilmJuice review was originally going to be a bit longer as reading a bit about Joachim Trier’s career brought to mind an interesting quirk in the way film critics write about the industry.
Usually, when people write about the careers of creative people they tend to emphasise the individual agency of their subjects. While these types of stories have their place, they tend to downplay the extent to which the film industry requires a steady stream of supplicants who will inevitably be broken and remade to fit into whichever professional niches happen to need filling. In truth, it really does not matter what brought the likes of Chris Pratt and Ryan Reynolds to the acting profession as Hollywood will always need charming men who are handsome and easy to work with.
Hollywood has a long history of making ‘inside baseball’ films that dwell on the harsh realities of the acting profession but American film tends to pull its punches when it comes to considering the people say behind the camera. For every Living in Oblivion there are a dozen films like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Sunset Boulevard. In fact, one of the most refreshing things about the French New Wave was that films like Le Mepris and Day for Night were happy to suggest that writers and directors are often just as disposable as actors.
Looking at Joachim Trier’s career thus far, I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if he wound up directing Oscarbait at some point in the next ten years. Louder than Bombs contains some cleverness but not so much cleverness that it overwhelms the acting and the excellent cast suggests that Trier is already proving adept at attracting bankable talent. While I won’t labour the point, I think that the careers of ambitious directors like Trier should be spoken of not in terms of personal vision but in terms of their ability to do a job and fill a professional niche. Hollywood needs people who can direct actors and be a little bit clever just as it needs people who are used to working quickly and taking orders from executive producers.
The fashion these days is to treat creative collaboration in the way that medieval dynasties treated royal marriage: Take one thing you like, add another thing you like, and what you are supposed to get is something doubly-awesome. However, the truth is that some creative marriages result in nothing more than the artistic equivalent of Prince Charles: Grotesquely ugly and malformed creatures that have nothing to offer but the weight of their genetic pedigrees.
Though by no means as hideous as Charles Windsor, I have never been entirely convinced by Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of a novel by the great Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem. FilmJuice have my review of Solaris, which was released this week on Blu-ray.
Historically, my problem with the film has always been that while Tarkovsky seemed quite happy to strip out the novel’s engagement with the idea that it might be impossible to achieve meaningful communication with alien species, he struggled to find anything to replace it beyond some rather hand-wavy comments about guilt, memory and the power of obsession. This viewing of the film allowed me to move beyond that assessment and appreciate a lot of the things the film does right (it’s quite a lengthy review) but I think Solaris’ relative lack of success actually tells us quite a bit about Tarkovsky’s methods and what type of material works best with those methods:
Tarkovsky himself described the film as an artistic failure because it failed to escape the limits of genre in the same way as Tarkovsky’s later Stalker developed beyond the limits of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. While Stalker remains a beautiful and thoughtful work of science fiction, it is hard to disagree with Tarkovsky’s assessment.
The problem is that though Tarkovsky was undoubtedly a cinematic genius, his genius lay not in directly approaching specific ideas but in orbiting those ideas and inviting audiences to draw their own conclusions through the careful placement of imagery and references. On a purely practical level, ideas that audiences winkle out for themselves tend to have a lot more impact than ideas that are dumped in their laps. On a more theoretical level, requiring audiences to do some work for themselves means that every vision of Tarkovsky’s films is different and exquisitely personal to the person who first beheld it.
Despite being the only Tarkovsky film to win a Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Solaris feels like a minor Tarkovsky as the juxtaposition of ideas and images is forced to play second fiddle to the kind of dialogue-based exposition that is common in both written and filmed science fiction. The Tarkovsky films we create in our own heads will always be more satisfying than the Tarkovsky films that exist on the screen and Solaris is a less satisfying and engaging film because Tarkovsky gives his audience less space in which to construct their own interpretations.
Seven years on and this brief piece about Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker remains — year in and year out — this blog’s most frequently visited blog. However, despite the existence of an audience for my thoughts on Tarkovsky’s films and Stalker being my all time favourite movie, I have never taken it upon myself to write about Tarkovsky’s films in any depth. This is now about to change as Curzon Artificial Eye have started re-releasing many of Tarkovsky’s films on Blu-ray, which gives me precisely the excuse I needed to get my arse in gear.
FilmJuice have my review of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror, which was released on Blu-ray this week.
First released in 1975, Mirror was an intensely personal undertaking that was squeezed in between the robustly metaphysical science fictional epics of Solaris and Stalker. However, while the film’s autobiographical subject matter may promise improved accessibility, Mirror is arguably the most demanding of all Tarkovsky’s films:
Like many of Tarkovsky’s films, Mirror is fiendishly difficult to parse. For those not familiar with his style, the only comparison that springs to mind is to imagine a version of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but without the science-fictional conceits and without the memories all revolving around one character’s love for another. Watching Mirror is very much like sitting in on the final memories that flash before the mind’s eye of a dying man. The memories may not fit into any particular order or cohere into relatable stories but you can see how these memories might make a life and how their beauty would cause them to get lodged in the mind of a dying man. Mirror is not an easy film to watch and the reactions it tries to get from its audience are a million miles from the hollow excitement and sentiment that clog the screens of our local cinemas. This is not a film for everyone but those who accept its challenge will be forever changed for just as our culture trains us to understand our culture, alien cultures encourage us to view our culture with all new eyes.
Long before there was the internet and film magazines, there were trailers squeezed onto the VHS tapes I rented as a child. In those days, trailers were my only connection to the broader cinematic world and while they inspired me to seek out certain films, they could also convince me to avoid certain films at all costs.
The funny thing is that many of those emotional reactions remained with me well into adulthood. In fact, with the possibly exception of Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly, Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners may well have been the first film I refused to see out of spite because I was annoyed by the amount of hype that surrounded its initial release. It may have taken thirty years but the spell is finally broken and I have reviewed Absolute Beginners for FilmJuice!
Set in the late 1950s, the film follows a group of teenagers caught in a maelstrom of economic and cultural renewal: On the one hand, the poverty of the post-war years combined with the shoots of economic recovery allowed for the creation of cultural spaces where the young were allowed to find their voices, have their say, and generally call the shots. On the other hand, this emerging youth culture appeals not only to the uncool kids who desperately want to be a part of it, but also to wealthy older people who want to exploit that desire as well as the teenage creativity that feeds it. In other words, the film’s protagonists have been presented with a choice between remaining true to their working-class roots and selling out in order to make their fortunes. Based on a trilogy of gritty novels by Colin McInnes, Absolute Beginners uses razor sharp visuals and 1980s pop music to capture what it feels like to be young, gifted, and burdened with opportunity:
Set in the late 1950s, the film waxes nostalgic about the cultural renewal of the late-1950s only to channel these feelings of nostalgia into a biting commentary on the forces of cultural and economic reaction that had been unleashed by the rapidly-maturing Thatcher government. Shot mostly on studio lots and concerned mostly with the past, the film voices its feelings of malaise by painstakingly recreating 1950s Soho only to litter it with anachronistic touches like neon socks, punk rock fashion shows, and the music of performers like David Bowie, Sade, Ray Davies, and the Style Council. At the time, critics hated the film’s unsettling combination of nostalgia and modernity but time and distance allow us to see a film that is beautiful, stylish, and made with more political insight that almost any other British film of the 1980s.
The film opens with a succession of long-take explorations of 1950s Soho. Our guide is Colin (Eddie O’Connell) a working class lad who is eking out a living as a street photographer while trying to secure the affections of the ambitious fashion designer Crepe Suzette (Patsy Kensit). These long takes are arguably the best things about the film as Temple recreates a vision of 1950s Soho that is vibrant, transgressive, multi-cultural and positively over-flowing with life. This is a place where races mingle with sexualities as crime, passion, and violence spill out onto rain-slicked streets. As Colin puts it, knives are sometimes drawn… but only among friends.
Absolute Beginners is a beautifully shot film that manages to smuggle a highly-sophisticated critique of 1950s British capitalism out under the auspices of a crowd-pleasing musical. The only flaw in the plan was that the film was sold not only as a musical but as a musical featuring (then) popular musicians performing their own material. Given the glamour that surrounded the British music industry in the early 1980s, it is easy to see why the producers might have decided to sell the film on the strength of its musical elements… the only problem was that none of the tunes turned out to be in any way memorable. This perhaps explained why the film tanked at the box office and failed to win over many critics.
Strip out the shitty music and what you have is fantastic Julien Temple film about Thatcherism and the collapse of British punk. This is a film in desperate need of a serious critical reappraisal.