How Historical And Cultural Dynamics Shaped The Work Of Andrei Tarkovsky (Part 1 – Stalker)

Perhaps being from the west, Russian film fulfills that same function as cultural currency meaning we as a western audience are only shown what the country considers to be its finest and most cultured films yet this matters little in an argument for national cinemas as this is the image projected to us as an audience and only a true Russian will know whether all of their cultural back catalogue up to the present day is really as high concept as perceived here.
Fitting into this projection that consists of Tolstoy, Stravinsky, Dostoyevsky and many others is a director who defines what many would call the European Art House. (“He called the great Russian novel War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy his art school”) (Cousins, 2004, p.306). Yet Andrei Tarkovsky is a Russian Film-maker first and foremost.  Perhaps even occupying the hallowed podium of the Russian filmmaker, his work is appreciated by intellectuals, art-house directors and philosophers but also by film fans and cinemagoers.

This ties in well to the Russian principle that there is still a market for high culture that doesn’t talk down to its audience and Tarkovsky assumes a lot of his viewers.  Reflecting the cultural history of his country as well as defining it for the other directors and films, Tarkovsky could be considered the developer of a certain nationalistic style known today and considered by many to be thoroughly Russian.  This isn’t as simple as it may seem and the relationship between European Art House and Russian cinema will be discussed and analysed in due course as it is a point of discourse concerning Tarkovsky’s history and films.  However to define the Russian elements present, both visually and aurally in Tarkovsky’s work, an in depth look into one of his Soviet made films is essential in addressing the key elements that make him so anti-Hollywood and why this makes him so quintessentially Russian.

Stalker (1979).

“The Zone wants to be respected otherwise it will punish” – Stalker

The visuals and soundtrack to Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, typify both his style as an auteur and his desire for experimentation as well as his goal in creating high art.  Coming in at just under three hours in length, even the film’s structure seems determined to undermine the Hollywood hour and a half limit that dominates the Western medium.

The film itself concerns two men who seek out a “stalker”; a man who is trained to navigate a forbidden area of land known as The Zone, where there is said to be a room where anyone’s deepest desires and dreams can become a reality.  Visually, Tarkovsky is determined to take his time with every single shot and slow pans are mixed with subtle but gradual stedi-camera work to create a dreamlike scenario.  What makes this film different visually from Hollywood Science Fiction is its aim at ambiguity.  In a national cinema of somewhere like America, most genre films define their goals and show them as a solid visual with the connections ready made for the audience to watch and take note of.

Stalker refuses to have any action or scenario set in stone and the film turns to visual poetry to depict what’s happening to the characters.  This in itself is typical of Russian cinema with cinema’s most famous and highly regarded of visual poems being Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera.  Chion believes this ambiguity is also in the film’s soundtrack stating “In Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the sounds are very detached from one another: voices that sound close and distinct, sounds of drops of water, and so on.  In Alien, on the other hand, voices are emeshed with natural sounds within the sonic continuum of voices, music and noise” (Chion, 1990, p. 189)

As the men progress into The Zone, the dangers are presented through reaction and metaphor rather than special effects.  With The Zone protecting itself against intruders, it is only through the showing of the Stalker’s reaction to a slow motion shot of a gentle breeze moving through the grass that the viewer is aware of danger.  The sound in particular during this shot speaks of emphasis on beauty as well as narrative focus.  The presence of the breeze is magnified and takes over the scene, flooding the scenario with diegetic sound.  The sound questions what is really being seen and raises discourse on whether the Stalker is paranoid about the dangers of The Zone or whether there really is a powerful force at work trying to stop them from entering.

Upon entering the derelict building of The Zone, a writer makes the mistake of going into the room incorrectly and is shown eternity down a black and engulfing pipe before a bird of prey swoops down into shot and he is released.  Time has passed mentally for him for an age but he is shown to be physically fine.  This can act as a symbol for Russian Communism in itself and is a product clearly from a Soviet country making the film extremely nationalistic even with the director’s dismay at his country’s actions.  The minds of the people had been aged with stress and totalitarianism for making the mistake of giving in.  The writer enters the room and is forced to confront time itself.  The Stalker can perhaps be seen as the cautious rebel who knows the ways of the regime.  With his nut in a white handkerchief being thrown forward before allowing the party to continue, he is shown to respect The Zone and its power yet secretly fears it.  This could be seen as Tarkovsky’s view of his country with a fear and respect for it before his expelling from the Soviet Union for questioning and too much.  Nancy Condee called it “A visual tribute to the survival of the “Russian Idea” beyond the period of Stalinist aesthetics” (Condee, 1999, p. 32) hinting at the idea that it was definitely possible to make a proud Russian film without it necessarily having to be proud of The Soviet Union.

One of the main musical motif’s used in the film is by a composer called Edward Artemiev.  His short score for the film surmises all that the narrative is trying to drive the viewer to conclude to.  The mixture of electronica with traditional panpipes speaks of the natural juxtaposition of The Zone, whether it’s man made or brought into creation through divinity, whether it’s real or illusion.  It speaks of mystery and knowledge yet to be acquired and sums up the magic realism presented in the film itself.  The questioning nature of this piece of soundtrack sums up cinematic score for Russian film to the present day and its legacy can be found most powerfully in the cinematic scores of films by Aleksandr Sokurov who is one of the few to fit naturally into the role of Tarkovsky’s heir.

Another interesting aspect about the score is something that is present in most of Tarkovsky’s films.  His use of very specific pieces of classic music (especially baroque and late Beethoven) is a point that raises further questions about the European Art House ideals and where exactly Tarkovsky’s cinema lies nationalistically.  His accurate use of very specific pieces of music goes against Claudia Gorbman’s likening of film music to easy listening music where “They are both utilitarian; both are received in a larger non-musical context; neither is designed to be closely attended to (This latter feature does not obviate the possibility of their having “inherent” aesthetic worth. A Bach harpsichord sonata piped through loudspeakers to a pastry and espresso shop is functioning as easy-listening music, as is rock or country music on the car radio as one drives along the freeway” (Gorbman, 1987) perhaps suggesting Gorbman was more concerned with Western film more than anything else.

Stalker in particular uses two pieces of classic music.  The first is Ravel’s Bolero, which seems wonderfully militaristic in its use and the second is Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from his 9th symphony.  These two pieces at first seem quite “mainstream” for classical music choices and even by Tarkovsky’s standards they are.  It is however in where they are used that breaks down the notion that they are simplistic musical choices and are something inherently anti-Hollywood in execution.  In most, if not all of Tarkovsky’s films, the choice in music is vital to representing the meaning of the visuals.  In particular respect to religion, the music chosen often adds to the dawning of a new concept or the acceptance of something powerful like death or the loss of love.  Stalker is different in this sense from the film preceding it (The Mirror 1975) as its use of Beethoven and Ravel is not to heighten a visual message like most film scores in general do.  In many ways the use is ironic, especially lyrically in Ode to Joy played in the final scene of the film where the confident and striding notes seem the polar opposite to the scenarios our characters have just been put through.

Your magic binds us together,

What custom strictly parted,

All men become brothers,

Where your gentle wings rest.

Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

 In the film, the apparent magic of The Zone does the exact opposite of this.  The Zone tears the area apart, to the point where the military are willing to shoot at our three protagonists to stop them from even entering its boarders.  The Zone even breaks the three men while they’re there and they become far from brothers with greed taking over one, while morality grasps hold of the other as it emerges he has been sent to destroy The Zone with a bomb.  The Stalker is stuck in the middle of this, the same way Tarkovsky was, between pleasing the people and keeping the government happy.

The music is, however, played over the image of a little girl who has clearly gained some form of power from The Zone.  In many ways The Zone has won, fighting off both the attempt to blow it up by the scientist and the mass fame planned for it by the writer.  In many ways it is implying that the Stalker and his daughter are simply part of The Zone itself now and works well as a metaphor for both nuclear weapons (a theme explored in his later film, The Sacrifice 1986) and the Soviet Union.

When looking again at the visuals and even the colour palette of the film, there’s a sense of something monumental being attained to and how colour is used here would be something that Russian cinema would become a leading exponent of in experimentation.  Stalker switches between sepia print, black and white and colour film dependent on scenario.  Sepia in particular is used when the cold industrial world the characters are trying to escape from is shown, while The Zone is in shadowy but atmospheric colour.  Though Lindsay Anderson’s British film If (1968) had already attempted some experimentation with colour, his initial serendipity with the technique (an accident it most definitely was) is no compare to Tarkovsky’s precision use to speak to the viewer on emotion and freedom.  The lack of freedom in particular is most apparent in Tarkovsky’s Russian films and they’re so obviously made under increasing pressure from The Soviet Union that they can and only will be seen as Russian cinema whether they’re patriotic or more often the exact opposite.

Beauty As An Ideal – Kant’s paradigm and its role in European Art House Cinema’s Cultural and Historic Dynamics.

It has already been stated that Tarkovsky had much in common with the general movement of European Art House cinema.  The natural reaction to this is to look into the filmmaker’s influences and see a list of the big names to come out of the scene including Bergman, Bunel and Dreyer.  But before looking at the differences a European setting would have on his film and even reaffirming the similarities with his Russian films, an ideal must be presented that appears to be the crux of both cinemas that transcends nationality and its cultural back catalogue.

The main separation between the 2nd cinema and the 1st is its inherent desire to be seen as Art.  Though the general cultural zeitgeist will be huge compared to that of America (with Europe apparently holding the general monopoly on high art whether it be music, painting or literature) it seems European directors are just as concerned with the beautiful as the entertaining.

The sublime moves, the beautiful charms” states Kant in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime.  Directors will of course remain idiosyncratic yet Kant’s approach to the feelings aroused through the beautiful, whether they be man made or natural, seem to be an unwritten code in the art house at least visually.  Tarkovsky’s films fit this ideology too but in the likes of Stalker and Nostalghia there’s something else present.

Hideousness and beauty are contained within each other.  This prodigious paradox, in all its absurdity, leavens life itself, and in art makes that wholeness in which harmony and tension are unified,” states Tarkovsky in his discussion on filmmaking.  This chimes more with Nietzsche than Kant yet it’s in this subtle difference that Tarkovsky edges away from Europe and creates his own nationalistic voice, whether by visual or audible means.  The Apolline and Dionysiac duality of Nietzsche’s theory seems more in line with Tarkovsksy and perhaps speaks volumes of his studying of philosophy when younger as well as the influence from his poet father.  It’s also clear that another difference grew in Tarkovsky’s work that even survived the transition to Europe.  The Art House make films to be seen as art.  As well as doing this, Tarkovsky makes films about art meaning every nuance, every choice of music and every line of dialogue is there to raise discourse as well fuel our inner desire for the Kantian sublime.

The beautiful illusion of the dream worlds, in creation of which every man is a consummate artists, is the precondition of all visual art, and indeed, as we shall see, of an important amount of poetry.” (Nietzsche, 1872, p.15) Nietzsche is speaking of influence of the outside world, or in assignment terms, the cultural and historic dynamics.  The contradiction between the Apolline and Dionysiac has numerous parallels with Tarkovsky, even in his quotes stated previously.  Whether it’s the supreme pleasure of our inner Dionysiac that makes his films so enjoyable is debatable yet there’s definitely a living contradiction to be found in his work which speaks of both the tragedy of Apolline and the unjust of Dionysian.  Tarkovsky even occupies both of the roles Nietzsche describes as “Achilles and Homer” where “one has the experience, the sensation, the other describes it” (Nietzsche, 1873 p.127).  Tarkovsky is a director who has lived much of what he’s describing or pertaining to in his films which makes him fit more in line with the classic directors of the Art House like Jean Renoir.  This also makes him standout from the more general Art House who appear to have lived in a mass bubble for large chunks of time and have had full creative freedom in their art after the end of the Second World War (Jean Cocteau).

Before moving on to Tarkovsky’s work in Europe a final quote from him which sums up his common interest’s in Art House ideals is a good way to close this potentially very long philosophical diversion.  This, again from his own writing on film, sums up not just the national ideals of the general Art House (whether it be French, German, Swedish or Danish) but also a clear view of the cinema outside of the circle of creativity and eternal search for beauty (and even hints at Adorno’s view of mass culture of “the rationality of domination”(Adorno, 1969, p.121)).

I think one of the saddest aspects of our time is the total destruction in people’s awareness of all that goes with a conscious sense of the beautiful.  Modern mass culture, aimed at the consumer, the civilization of prosthetics, is crippling people’s souls, setting up barriers between man and the crucial questions of his existence, his conscious of himself as a spiritual being”.

Part 2.

Adam Scovell

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