Book Review The Cinema Of Tarkovsky: Labyrinths Of Space And Time
As part of a larger series of books entitled ‘KINO: The Russian Cinema Series’ commissioned by independent publishing house I.B.Tauris, The Cinema Of Tarkovsky: Labyrinths Of Space And Time takes an intensive look at the work of one of the master filmmaker’s of world cinema.
Perhaps the most important and influential Russian filmmaker since early Soviet cinema pioneers such as Evgenii Bauer and Sergei Eisenstein, Andrei Tarkovsky has left quite a remarkable legacy within the realm of world cinema. Before his untimely death in 1986, Tarkovsky had only made seven full-length feature films (excluding his forty-five minute movie The Steamroller And The Violin from 1961, or the documentary Voyage In Time from 1983), but each one is regarded as a masterpiece.
First there was Ivan’s Childhood (1962), a taut, Second World War drama about a young orphan boy who works as a spy for the Russians on the eastern front. Following was the gargantuan medieval epic Andrei Rublev (1966), partly about the icon-painter of the same name, partly about the general turmoil of 15th century Russia. A lengthy stalemate ensued over the film’s running time with Mosfilm, the studio where Tarkovsky worked for much of his career. It was finally released in 1969.
Tarkovsky then made Solaris (1972), a science fiction film based on the 1961 novel by Stanislaw Lem. Lazily regarded as Russia’s response to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the story involves a space mission to a mysterious planet that has the ability to materialise the thoughts of those who study it. Its international success paved the way for Mirror (1975), perhaps Tarkovsky’s most challenging and personal film; a stream-of-conscious autobiography that meditates both on the director’s childhood and Russian history. This irked Mosfilm, as they wanted to capitalise on the new-found exposure and commercial success brought on by Solaris, giving Mirror a limited release. This complaint was remedied somewhat with Tarkovsky’s fifth film, Stalker (1979), another science fiction work, loosely based on the novel Roadside Picnic (1972) by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. It concerns two men being escorted through a post-apocalyptic ‘Zone’ by a man with psychic abilities, taking them to a room where innermost desires are fulfilled.
Tarkovsky travelled to Italy to film his next project, Nostalgia (1983), prompting tensions with the Soviet authorities. Unhappy by their treatment, he officially defected from the Soviet Union in 1984, opting to complete what would be his final film, The Sacrifice (1986), in Sweden. The film is about a man who promises to sacrifice all that he holds dear if it would mean preventing an imminent nuclear war. His wish is granted, but now must fulfil his promise. Diagnosed with lung cancer during production, Tarkovsky died shortly after the film was released.
The Cinema Of Tarkovsky: Labyrinths Of Space And Time attempts to offer a new theoretical framework by reassessing Tarkovsky’s notion of ‘sculpting in time’.
While all of Tarkovsky’s films sound different on paper, they are intrinsically bound by the director’s notion of cinema having the ability to sculpt time. This is perhaps personified best in Tarkovsky’s own writings on art and cinema, compiled for the book Sculpting In Time, originally published just before his death in 1986. It also offered in-depth commentary and self-evaluation on each of his films. Several books have since been written on Tarkovsky’s work by others, each trying to decipher the mysteries of his films and often boiling them down as examples of visual poetry and spiritual explorations.
However, The Cinema Of Tarkovsky: Labyrinths Of Space And Time attempts to offer a new theoretical framework by reassessing Tarkovsky’s notion of ‘sculpting in time’. This approach has the potential to be tedious, as the whole concept has since become somewhat of an academic cliché when reading Tarkovsky’s films. Having said that, Skakov succeeds in bringing a fresh perspective to the discussion by arguing that in order to sculpt time, one needs “space” in which to do it. In the introductory chapter, he posits that the marrying of these concepts is vital: “Time is an event which takes place.” Tarkovsky has been quoted as saying (from a diary entry, used in this book) that “the most extraordinary discoveries await us in the sphere of time.” Skakov argues that with this, “Tarkovsky appeared to ignore the apparent fact that extraordinary discoveries await us also in the sphere of space.”
Therein lays the crux of the thesis outlined in this book: Skakov posits that through the praxis of cinema, time and space converge to form its own “out of joint” temporality. Tarkovsky achieved this through adopting an elongated and unhurried style of filmmaking; long takes that do not interrupt the natural flow of time, thus shunning more figurative devices such as the Montage technique pioneered by fellow Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. The long takes of Tarkovsky’s films are devised to highlight the passage of time, taking precedence over all other cinematic requirements. This in turn has developed a ponderous and lingering style of cinema, allowing the viewer plenty of time to contemplate the scene, as well as their own lives whilst watching the beauty slowly unfold.
After presenting the main ideas of this study in the Introduction, Skakov then embarks on a familiar film-by-film analysis format, applying his thesis to each of Tarkovsky’s features. Skakov also argues that through Tarkovsky’s frequent use of other visual devices, such as dreams and memories, further spatial-time constructs are also created. The dreams of Ivan’s Childhood, the recollections of Nostalgia, the apocalyptic visions from The Sacrifice and the episodic assembly of Andrei Rublev are spatial-time entities in themselves, galvanising discontinuity within the principle narrative arc. Tarkovsky’s films see their protagonists’ journey inwards as well as outwards; perhaps more so.
Naturally, as is the case with most studies on a particular filmmaker, overzealous conjecture risks rearing its head, and Tarkovsky’s cryptic visuals have encountered more than their fair share of this kind of treatment. For example, the five minute sequence involving a minor character driving silently through a complex motorway network in a futuristic cityscape (in reality, Tokyo circa early 1970s) from Solaris has been interpreted as a substitute for the protagonist’s subsequent and altogether unseen galactic journey to the space station orbiting the eponymous planet. However, Tarkovsky once allegedly quipped that the sequence was simply a means of giving “the idiots time to leave the theatre.” It makes one wonder as to how many of Tarkovsky’s creative decisions were based on this somewhat condescending and elitist principle. Skakov remains careful throughout, sticking very much to the self-set guidelines established at the start. He, for instance, regards this particularly famous – and often considered ‘boring’ – scene as “an opportunity to experience mechanical movement through space” and “explores the limits of cinematic contemplation”, which, incidentally, is complimentary to the mindset of the character involved – a former, psychologically burnt-out astronaut.
While not the main focus of the text, Skakov also offers the occasional insight into the background and making of the films, but these entries are minimal and are only present to support the wider subject. Most interesting, perhaps, are the backgrounds to Mirror and Stalker. Skakov traces the fragmented structure of Mirror back to a novel Tarkovsky published in 1970 comprising of numerous sections, each based on different childhood memories. With regards to Stalker, he notes the Christian mythology from which the film took great influence (Tarkovsky himself was deeply religious), as well as the fact that much of Stalker had to be re-shot after a film processing error left most of the original footage unusable.
The book is expertly written, but the intensely metaphysical subject matter may prove a challenge for some. Nevertheless, Skakov remains succinct and intelligent, and although it risks slipping into academic hyperbole, at times, his writing is continually engaging. Of course, this kind of text is not for everyone; a certain level of familiarity with the films discussed is mandatory. This book is not especially concerned with the influence of either Tarkovsky or his films with cinema at large or his/their role in Russian heritage and national identity, nor does it shed much light on the man’s personal life and times. Those looking for a biographical or historical study will need to look elsewhere. What you will get, however, is a strong and well argued collection of film-by-film analysis united by an overarching concept.
The Cinema Of Tarkovsky: Labyrinths Of Space And Time is not an ‘easy’ book, but it’s most certainly a very interesting one. Author Nariman Skakov takes well worn concepts about the filmmaker’s work and gives them a new sense of vitality and vigour. Not recommended for the Tarkovsky novice, but essential for the student and connoisseur.
Release date: 18th December 2011 / Author: Nariman Skakov / Publisher: I.B. Tauris
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