Tarkovsky Monument 4

tarkovsky listIn 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 –

  1. Diary of a Country Priest(Robert Bresson, 1951)
  2. Winter Light(Ingmar Bergman, 1963)
  3. Nazarin (Luis Buñuel, 1959)
  4. Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
  5. City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931)
  6. Ugetsu Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)
  7. Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
  8. Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)
  9. Mouchette (Robert Bresson, 1967)
  10. 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.

Image: http://www.openculture.com/2014/08/andrei-tarkovsky-creates-a-list-of-his-10-favorite-films-1972.html


Tarkovsky Monument 2

8a4215_334fe35ed7ca446cbfe5a511d2668b7dImage: 4 Ya Magu Govorit’, copyright by Niranjan Rajah. Preparatory image for photographic work developed from original stills from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo.

I sent my dear friend (and esteemed colleague ) Hugo Moss a link to the last post in Messenger and his most acute response has prompted this second post.

Hugo: … it’s a lovely piece … heartfelt and so moving – and we will certainly forgive you your enthusiasm-driven sweeping statement. If I were to make a criticism it is that you don’t actually make the case for the statement, since all the things you declare as the things you love about Tarkovsky don’t in themselves add up to “most important artist of the 20 century in any medium”. That’s not to say I don’t accept your opinion, but you don’t allow me the chance to agree with you …

Niranjan: Oh I see what you mean. In a way that is idea … to not try to prove the unprovable …  it is after all hyperbole … but partly, I did not develop the arguments that are alluded to due to haste and brevity … time and space … or lack there of!

Hugo: Yes but you state you’re going to justify it …

Niranjan: Ah yes … I see that is indeed an overstatement … I will go back and remove that claim … what I should say is just that I will contextualize it. But now that you have asked me … I will elaborate on my justification a little and make another post of it!

The main tenet of my belief or criteria for my claim is that film is the  20th Century medium. The other mediums – painting, sculpture, literature, theatre and the like are old and therefore had necessarily become decadent by the end of the 19th Century (by decadent I mean fully matured and ripened, redolent in idiom as well as intrinsic syntax and grammars). Film was new-born at the dawn of the 20th Century and youthful at mid-century, and  just beginning to mature in the 1960s. Any artist not practicing his art in the film medium misses, in my estimation, and by default, the right to be considered the greatest artist of this time. And Andrei, according to Bergman, himself a serious contender for the title, is the greatest in the film medium!

The second criteria stems from my belief about the nature of art. Art is – the search for universal truths or the TRUTH, so to speak. In deployment of the aesthetic in the service of this inquiry, Andrei excels. I suggest that in this endeavor, he has no betters and only few peers in any medium.

The third criteria stems from my belief about the purpose of art … While art is a search for the aforementioned TRUTH, it must pursue this search in a manner that provides succor for the human condition … This I believe Andrei’s works provide for those who take the time and effort to penetrate their ethos and who, in turn, let it permeate them. Indeed this is what his films offer the viewer … even if they offer nothing else.

These three points were latent in the previous post … implied but not developed …  your friendly challenge seems to have brought them into sharper focus for me. Now you have the possibility of agreeing … at least with my criteria for a justification of my sweeping claim!


Tarkovsky Monument

tarkovsky moumentA monument to Andrei Tarkovsky was opened on the 29th July 2017 in Suzdal, where his own monumental contribution to Russia cinema, Andrei Rublev, was shot in 1965 … well over half a century ago. Andrei Tarkovsky was in my view the most important artist of the 20 century in any medium. Yes, that is a sweeping statement! … but I have just watched his films in the cinema – Solaris 3 times and Stalker twice in the course of the last week, and feel this claim is justified. I shall do my best to contextualize my hyperbole … and if I fail to convince you … perhaps, you might at the very least, understand where I am coming from (my perspective or paradigm)!

In a deathbed conversation with Krzysztof Zanussi, he said to his friend and esteemed colleague,  “If I happen to die, please whenever you talk about me, remind people I want to be remembered as a sinner, as somebody who committed many sins …. “ Andrei Tarkovsky was Christian and I believe he was expressing, in this request, his subscription to the doctrine of original sin, which although different in orientation and nuance, is in essence similar to the Islamic fitrah (original purity) or the Buddhist dhukka  (universal suffering). In all his work Tarkovsky struggled to express this sacred, understanding of the human condition in historical and psychological terms.

In his hands, film, the quintessential 20th Century representational medium, becomes both a medicine and a sacrament – an interface for healing and a window on salvation. He set this ameliorative and soteriological vehicle into motion in what Ingmar Bergman, no less, has described as “a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream”.  Tarkovsky is the exemplary post-traditionalist, utterly contemporary in his engagement with social history and psychology … timeless in his grasp of the sacred. He articulated this timelessness in his films, his 7 technically and aesthetically masterful ‘sculptures of time‘!

Image : http://wellnews.us/articles/the-firstever