In this 4th Tarkovsky post I present more of my Messenger conversation with Hugo Moss and follow up with some observations that mark the problem of defining the film media … while furthering, of course, my tribute to Andrei Tarkovsky.
Hugo: I’ll just finish up by just taking issue with a smaller but important point – your claim that film was only beginning to mature in the 1960’s. Film was reaching extraordinary heights of maturity in visual storytelling by the late 1920’s, something interrupted by the arrival of sound. Although doubtless a technological advancement, sound caused a seismic shock in the way films were being made and stories told in that medium. Something very valuable was lost, almost overnight. You might take the view that by the 60’s film was recovering its maturity, but let’s not forget the extraordinary achievements on both sides of the Atlantic on the eve of sound’s invasion of commercial film. Silent film was this very sophisticated visual storytelling, they’d become so damned creative and subtle and beautiful and poetic.
Niranjan: Hugo I agree … I would even argue for 2 different mediums – one a visual medium, the other a multimedia in the vein of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk. I believe that silent films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, even Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc can’t be easily translated into sound cinema. I’d venture to say that it would be easier to make paintings of these silent films than to make sound films of them.
Hugo: Yes, it’s a tragedy that film didn’t just split into two currents in ’29/’30 and the silent film just cut right off … So wonderful what was going on, quite as elevated as the heights of painting, I would argue, and it just died, within a couple of years, except of course for Chaplin, famously, but as an industry/artform it ended abruptly!
Indeed, silent cinema was much closer to the traditional theatrical arts – think of abinaya in Bharatanatyam and even of mime in the Western theatre tradition … I think we are on the brink of a discussion about the differences between the representational modalities of mimeses and digesis as they were developed in the film medium … and perhaps we are also broaching another conversation on multi-media … but these are other stories … What I want to do here is to develop the conversation in terms of Andrei Tarkovsky’s view of cinema and to attenuate my own hyperbole regarding his place within what I have argued is the quintessential medium of the 20th century. Here is Tarkovsky’s carefully considered list of 10 best films that he made at the request of film critic Leonid Kozlov. Yes, Hugo my hero suffers from the same tendency to define and sweep clear contradictions … but bear with us momentarily … for the sake of developing the conversation about silent vs sound film. Here is the list of Tarkovsy’s 10 films –
- Diary of a Country Priest(Robert Bresson, 1951)
- Winter Light(Ingmar Bergman, 1963)
- Nazarin (Luis Buñuel, 1959)
- Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
- City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931)
- Ugetsu Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)
- Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
- Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)
- Mouchette (Robert Bresson, 1967)
- Woman of the Dunes(Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964)
Kozlov remembers, “He took my proposition very seriously and for a few minutes sat deep in thought with his head bent over a piece of paper … Then he began to write down a list of directors’ names — Buñuel, Mizoguchi, Bergman, Bresson, Kurosawa, Antonioni, Vigo. One more, Dreyer, followed after a pause. Next he made a list of films and put them carefully in a numbered order. The list, it seemed, was ready, but suddenly and unexpectedly Tarkovsky added another title – City Lights … With the exception of City Lights … it does not contain a single silent film or any from the 30s or 40s. The reason for this is simply that Tarkovsky saw the cinema’s first 50 years as a prelude to what he considered to be real film-making.” This list and Kozlov’s explanation of Tarkovsky’s rational for it, explains the sweeping action of Tarkovsky’s ‘broom’, and derivatively, my own!
Tarkovsky and I both seem to have presented silent cinema as a stage in the development of a more complex multimedia or Gesamtkunstwerk. You have taken exception to this view and, in retrospect, I stand with you … Tarkovsky’s own uncertainty (his list is clearly not a clean sweep) seems to be reflected in his last-minute inclusion of Chaplin’s City Lights in his top 10! And then there is this citation from the master, “If one absolutely needs to compare me to someone, it should be Dovzhenko. He was the first director for whom the problem of atmosphere was particularly important.” Indeed, Dovzhenko’s Earth was a touchstone for Tarkovsky and if I had to choose one (sweeping) characteristic with which to tag Trakovsky’s oeuvre I would pick ‘atmosphere’, which I believe is same the term I would use to characterize silent cinema! In this characterization, you have both my acknowledgment of the greatness of the films of the silent era and also of the problem of my assertion that film is a single medium, made in the course of my claiming that it is the singular medium of the 20th century.