This is Andrei Tarkovsky’s description of the filming process. We don’t have many Tarkovskys and this is a sad situation. I cannot bring myself to watch ‘popular’ films for they are, as a rule, complete rubbish. I think the top two film-makers of all time are Kubrick and Tarkovsky. There’s no choosing between the two. Both really define the word genius.
We can say that Tarkovsky worked under much more difficult circumstances being in the Soviet Union. Ingmar Bergman said Tarkovsky was without a doubt the greatest director of all time. Not only was this man sublimely talented, but he was also a deep thinker and had a great moral sense. Tarkovsky was steeped in Eastern religion which he considered far superior to any Western belief system.
‘The East was closer to the truth than the West; but Western civilisation devoured the East with its materialist demands on life…
…(People in) the West are forever shouting: This is me! Look at me! Listen to me suffering, loving! How unhappy I am! How happy!
I! Mine! Me!
In the Eastern tradition they never utter a word about themselves.’
This is true, what Tarkovsky says and it is a sickening spectacle. Just take a look at any newspaper or TV show. Me! Me! Me! Along with this even in the private realm it is almost impossible in regular conversation to find someone who can speak about anything other than themselves.
William Burroughs once said that he tried once a month to go for one week without ever using the word ‘I.’ An impossible feat for most fools.
Tarkovsky was disgusted too with the greed he saw in the world:
‘Personal relationships are all too often based on the urge to grab as much as possible from the next person as we jealously protect our own interests. The paradox of such a situation is that the more we humiliate our fellow-men, the less satisfied we feel and the greater our isolation becomes.’
‘We live in a world,’ Tarkovsky says, ‘governed by ideas other people have evolved, and we either have to conform to the standards of these ideas or else alienate ourselves from them and contradict them — a position which becomes more and more hopeless.’
Tarkovsky was born in a town on the Volga river in 1932. He graduated from the Soviet State Film School producing his first movie then, The Steamroller and the Violin. He directed five films in the Soviet Union and later travelled to Italy and Sweden where he considered defecting, but gave up the idea because of his wife and child who were still in the Soviet Union.
He seemed to care nothing for the standard idea, widespread today, that a director should give people what they want. It is show business, and so numbers of people are everything, money everything. Since most people can only understand clichés and worn out, simplistic narratives those are the films we get. And they are bad, terrible even. But this is what the mob likes. He described film-making as sculpting in time.
Tarkovsky didn’t care what people liked, but made the films that he wanted to, films that explore metaphysical and spiritual themes. Most people won’t like his work because you’re called on to think, and this is anathema to most. His dialogue is second to none and his films are marked by astonishing imagery and haunting soundtracks.
In my view Stalker is his best film.
Tarkovsky always considered himself a poet rather than just a cinematographer. And all poets have a bit of the prophet in them. He believed that true artists seek to destabilize societies for the sake of getting closer to the ideal, absolute truth.
‘What I have to do is tell people the truth about our common existence as it appears to me in the light of my experience and understanding. That truth hardly promises to be easy or pleasant.’
This is probably why his work turns off many people. I doubt most can understand him and those that do won’t usually like the message. What most people seek in films and books is not truth, but a re-telling of themes they are familiar with and that reinforce their limited world-view. When have you last seen a popular film that ends badly? It’s inconceivable. People want to leave the cinema feeling good. Tarkovsky didn’t bother himself about this.
Tarkovsky said that eighty per cent of movie-goers have gotten it into their heads that directors exist only to entertain them. And he said most directors give them what they want because they are dependent on the money from ticket sales. A grim situation, he said.
‘If you try to please audiences, uncritically accepting their tastes, it can only mean that you have no respect for them: that you simply want to collect their money.’
He describes most young film students as prepared to do whatever pays best, something he refers to as a complete tragedy and that true creativity can only come once one starts to bend or even break the rules. Popular films he described as nothing more than ‘commercial trash.’ He says that nothing can be achieved in art unless you dump received ideas.
Tarkovsky loved long takes, and here I think he’s pulled off what is arguably the greatest single shot in all cinematic history:
Tarkovsky was dead against the idea of changing things to satisfy audiences. He said an artist must stick to his vision even though before he starts work he understands that what he will do will have no mass appeal, and he quotes the Russian writer Pushkin on this point:
‘You are a king. Live alone. Take a free road
And follow where your free mind leads you,
Bring to perfection the fruits of well-loved thoughts
Ask no reward for noble deeds accomplished.
Rewards are within you. Your supreme judge is yourself.
None will ever judge your work more sternly.
Discriminating artist, does it please you?’
That’s the best advice I’ve seen for any artist.
Tarkovsky died too young. He was only 54. He’s buried in Paris. On his gravestone are these words:
‘To the man who saw the Angel.’
photo credit: Wikipedia Commons