A big screen Andrei Tarkovsky retrospective offers perfect setting for viewing the master's cinema
The Tarkovsky retrospective at the recently concluded Bangalore International Film Festival (BIFFES) provided the perfect opportunity to enjoy his seven features at their fair value — in a calibrated environment designed to appreciate them.
In Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, the titular guide leads a writer and a professor into a quarantined Zone, which houses a miraculous room said to fulfill our innermost desires. But the sentient landscape induces hallucinations of such strong spiritual significance that at the end of their precarious journey, the three decide not to enter the Room on “It's not the destination, it's the journey” grounds. All spent and defeated, they settle down on the floor just outside the Room. The immersive power of the long, static shots make us feel like we're in the Zone with them.
Tarkovsky uses lighting to transition from one world to another. The cold greys make way for warm greens as he differentiates objective reality from the Stalker's subjective perception of it. However, a sudden, short burst of rain, like a stage curtain, creates the gulf between the characters and the viewers. When the rain stops, the Professor throws some rocks into the pool of still water, causing ripples that crash into each other as they expand. The prescience of the Zone, the texture of inanimate objects, and the patterns created by crashing ripples all become palpable when you watch the film on the big screen.
Watching his work anew opens up a whole new world of mental associations and paradoxical unions, where past and present, dreams and memories, faith and superstition come together in a stream of consciousness. On top of it all is a holy union of poetic language and cinematic imagery that can be found in the white-trunked birch trees amid the war-torn landscape in Ivan's Childhood, the milk spilling into a river stream in Andrei Rublev, the sinuous corridors in the space station in Solaris, the embers from a burning barn in Mirror, the light from the windows in Nostalghia, and the lone barren tree in an empty field in The Sacrifice. To watch Tarkovsky's films on the big screen is to watch this union before God — to evoke awe and wonder at cinema as an object and subject of contemplation. Jean-Luc Godard once equated watching cinema to a near divine encounter, saying, "When you go to the cinema, you raise your head. When you watch television, you lower it." To watch Tarkovsky's films on the big screen is to evoke awe and wonder at cinema as an object and subject of contemplation.
The Tarkovsky retrospective at the recently concluded Bangalore International Film Festival (BIFFES) provided the perfect opportunity to enjoy his seven features at their fair value — in a calibrated environment designed to appreciate them. Add to that the social experience of watching these films with fellow fans, who had come down all the way from Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kochi. They felt like whole different films from what many of us had previously seen from the comforts of our living rooms on TVs or laptops.
Each film resembled a reverie, a waking dream which may defy reason as Tarkovsky compels us to rediscover our atrophied imagination, and find meaning in unnatural mysteries — be it of the Solaris ocean or the Stalker's Zone. His derealised representation of reality often sees personal memories, dreams and fantasies spill over from the character's inner world (the dream in Ivan's Childhood, the memory in The Mirror, or the ending of Stalker).
The earth and air transform into tangible agents of regeneration and redemption, spiritual or otherwise. A child drags his muddy feet on the clean floor in The Mirror. The patches of earth stand out against the white snow in Andrei Rublev. Water is an omnipresent element, as seen in the flooded rooms in the Zone to Mary washing her hair in a dream sequence in The Mirror, or as heard in the sound of rain or drops of water and the accompanying echoes across his filmography. Often, water is juxtaposed with fire. In Nostalghia, a scene cuts from a man setting himself on fire to the protagonist who believes the fate of humanity rests upon him successfully transporting a lit candle from one end of a drained pool to another without extinguishing the flickering flame. Like a pebble thrown into a puddle, the big screen lets you bear witness to each thought, emotion, or action that creates a ripple effect into the collective fabric of consciousness, radiating out in concentric circles to the shore and back.
For the first time, you truly understand the poetry and the rhythms in an assembled sequence of long shots. Tarkovsky's shots are often governed by a subjective perception of time and space. In Stalker, you often find yourself in a different room mid-conversation, or a character disappears from the right side of the frame only to appear again on the left. By doing this, he not only makes us adjust our own point of view, but adds to the disorienting enigma that is the Zone.
Tarkovsky's camera often maintains a long, intense focus on landscapes in the most gorgeous compositions to make the viewer enjoy the meditative beauty of nature. But the slow pacing, the long takes, and the loose narrative structure may make his films inaccessible to some of the modern binge-watching audiences. In a Salon article, John Semley thus suggests a rethinking of the negative configuration of boredom. He notes the boredom of Stalker — or any Tarkovsky film for that matter — has "a different flavour." "The film’s long takes, its protracted stretches of characters stamping around a field, exchanging parables and barbed witticisms, pausing to nap, its ostensible monotony do not really exist in service of something else. Instead, Tarkovsky wants the viewer to encounter boredom in itself, as an experience, a condition and a state of mind. Because it is from boredom and inattention, that greatness springs."
Moreover, the impact of these archetypal elements are reduced in their transition to the small screen, so much so that the use of long takes and soothing panoramas end up having a sleep-inducing, instead of awe-inspiring, effect. It is easier to immerse yourself in Tarkovsky's work in a darkened hall, where you will feel less tempted to take out the smartphone in your pocket — and all that exists is cinema and you.