Praying Through Cinema – Understanding Andrei Tarkovsky

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a new streaming platform that I am a part of, but more on that at the end. Somewhere in Moscow, a precocious violinist becomes enamored with a steamroller. The driver finds respite in the young boy’s
musical talent. A brief friendship develops, until external circumstances force them back unto their own paths. After all, they both have to do what they must.
And yet, they can dream. This is the steamroller and the violin,
the 1961 graduation film of Andrei Tarkovsky. Besides giving us a unique look into Soviet culture, it also paved the way for his first feature film
Ivan’s Childhood; a story about an orphan who,
during the Second World War, serves in the army as a scout where he befriends
three Soviet officers. We already see some recurring elements here; like the contrast between moments of blissful beauty and harsh realities, the motif of mirrors and reflections,
and the portrayal of dreams and memories. For Tarkovsky, Ivan’s Childhood was a test to see whether or not he had it in him to be a film director. This wasn’t because he questioned
his technical capabilities, but because he wondered if cinema was the
right vehicle to achieve his aspirations. He believed that, before getting into the
particulars of any artistic endeavor, one first has to define the purpose of art
in general. Why does it even exist? Who is it for? Take music, for instance. It is connected to reality less than anything else, or if connected at all, it’s done mechanically, not by way of ideas, just by a sheer sound,
devoid of any associations. And yet, music, as if by some kind of miracle,
gets through to our heart. What is it that resonates in us in response to noise brought to harmony, making it the source of the greatest delight? Which stuns us and brings us together? What is its purpose? And most importantly,
who needs it? There’s an intangible quality to being human; a potential for deep emotional experiences
which cannot be grasped through logic or reason, which cannot even be truly described in words,
but which can be felt intuitively, intimately. It is in this both obvious as well as elusive
aspect of the human condition, that Tarkovsky saw something transcendental; something that can only be captured through art. “It appears as a revelation,”
– he wrote in his book Sculpting in Time – “as a momentary, passionate wish to grasp intuitively
and at a stroke all the laws of this world – its beauty and ugliness, its compassion
and cruelty, its infinity and its limitations.” In this sense, art comes much closer to being
a spiritual experience. And its creation, an act of faith. Like a prayer. This we see in Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky’s film about one of the greatest medieval Russian painters, in which the main character’s spirituality is directly connected to his creative passion, and where the loss of one also means
the loss of the other. We have to use our time on earth to improve
ourselves spiritually. This means that art must serve this purpose. Tarkovsky used his artistic medium in a similar way, he wasn’t just making films, he was
exploring our world in search for understanding, for a meaning to our existence. In a way, he was praying through cinema. He answered the timeless and insatiable longing to connect to the world, to have a reflection, or rather; an affirmation of our innermost being. Science? Nonsense. In this situation, mediocrity and genius are equally useless. We have no interest in conquering any cosmos. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. We don’t need other worlds. We need a mirror. If we had a mirror reflecting our deepest self, what would it reveal? It was clear to Tarkovsky that we wouldn’t see our experiences as a linear sequence of events, captured objectively and logically into
what could be a plot. Instead, we would see a complex web of thoughts, memories and emotions. We would see a being that experiences the world subjectively, gives shape to it subjectively. That moves through the present and observes each new moment with a consciousness made up of infinite impressions, distortions
and associations. Solaris was a particularly interesting exercise
in this regard as it tells the story of a man sent to a distant space station to study
a mysterious, seemingly sentient ocean which can peer into people’s minds
and manifest what’s inside. Who was it? She died 10 years ago. What you saw was the materialization of your
conception of her. It probed our minds and extracted something like islands of memory. Tarkovsky however, considers Solaris to be
one of his lesser films as he felt too restricted by working
within a specific genre. It might be why for his next project, he didn’t use any science-fiction elements to create an external representation of our inner being. Instead, he placed the camera directly inside, filmed as if we are directly witnessing a
man’s interior landscape, and created The Mirror. When I recall my childhood and my mother, somehow she always has your face. It perfectly showcases the unique quality of cinema, how it is capable of sculpting time according to our subjective experience of the world, and of our lives. Tarkovsky’s other films, like Nostalgia, which is about a Russian poet travelling to Italy where he
becomes nostalgic about his homeland, also use these techniques to capture how we in
one moment might be observing something immediate in front of us, and be transported to a distant
memory in the next. It shows both the hectic movement of our minds, constantly wandering, recollecting, imagining, and its moments of stillness, of concentrated focus, of listening to sounds slowly turn into rhythm. In this sense, cinema articulates the relation
between time and the individual, how our minds merge the past and present into
one plane of existence in which time is simultaneously compressed, stretched and rearranged. It reflects how we are indeed islands of memory. Time is said to be irreversible. And this is true enough in the sense that ‘you can’t bring back the past’, as they say. But what exactly is this ‘past? Is it what has passed? And what does ‘passed’ mean for a person when
for each of us the past is the bearer of all that is constant in the reality of the present,
of each current moment? In a certain sense the past is far more real, or at any rate
more stable, more resilient than the present. The present slips and vanishes like sand
between fingers, acquiring material weight only in its recollection. The role of the director also becomes apparent here, for how does one effectively capture what
cannot be directly observed? How to organize that which defies time as
a linear concept? How to construct that which seems to break the rules of our material reality? In their effort to create a meaningful reflection of who we are, of our histories, and of our dreams, directors must navigate the infinitely complex nature
of our being, explore its vastness in both time and space, and find a way to make it not only comprehensible, but also relatable, recognizable. After all, a mirror is only as effective as it revealing. Tarkovsky believed that to succeed in
this seemingly impossible task, directors must work with striking imagery, with that which signifies the distinctively human. Take for example how Tarkovsky shows despair through a woman who watches a burning house, while sitting on a well. Or how he shows our connection to home through a man going to a hotel bathroom and reaching for the light on the wrong side of the wall. To create images such as these, images that capture deeper emotional truths,
directors best trust their own heart, follow their own instinct; and hope that if something resonated with them on a personal level, if something left an impression, however intangible, unexplainable, it will do the same for others. It is the reason why so many of Tarkovsky’s films
are directly based on his own experiences, and include elements that are deeply personal to him. The Mirror is probably best known
for almost being autobiographical, but his other films too are filled with moments inspired by childhood memories, artistic introspection,
the poems of his father; all the things that invoked some kind of emotion
in Tarkovsky; a feeling he is now trying to translate
and communicate to us. Do you remember when I felt sick
and went to room 38 to rest? This room astonished me
since the window wasn’t facing the street. It was a very strange, mysterious place, like
a hospital, maybe. A place where one could only feel very bad. I thought we should make
a scene here, in this room, about our character, in the moment of crisis. In a way, the director becomes like a composer, driven by emotional intuition, and using an
internal compass to organize sound into music, into a symphony that transcends
the boundaries of noise, that becomes something more, something that resonates and moves deeper
than words can explain: a true mirror to the lyrical sensitivity in our hearts, the poetic essence of who we are. Now summer is gone
And might never have been. In the sunshine it’s warm.
But there has to be more. It all came to pass,
All fell into my hands Like a five-petalled leaf,
But there has to be more. Nothing evil was lost,
Nothing good was in vain, All ablaze with clear light
But there has to be more. Life gathered me up
Safe under its wing, My luck always held,
But there has to be more. Not a leaf was burnt up
Not a twig ever snapped… Clean as glass is the day,
But there has to be more. Lastly, there is one final challenge to be
overcome here. For when art is used to reach some higher poetic truth, or hidden beauty, one has to believe such a thing exists in the first place. And, as Tarkovsky shows in so many of his films, this can be difficult in a world that seems
to actively discourage people to look past the immediate material reality. In Andrei Rublev, we see a world
defined by suffering and war, where the only pleasure is found in hedonistic pursuits. In The Sacrifice, our modern society and our technological progress have stripped the world of its spirituality. We have acquired a dreadful disharmony, an imbalance if you will, between our material and our spiritual development. Stalker too warns against a society that progresses materially but disconnects spiritually. Or more specifically; a society that seeks to conquer the infinite with the finite. The story is centered around a mysterious zone that is said to grant wishes, and the Stalker who guides people
into this forbidden place. For him, the zone is a place of worship, a
symbol of a higher power for those in despair. It’s the only place they can come to if
there’s no hope left for them. You’re just God’s fool. You have no idea
what’s going on here. But when seen in purely material terms, the zone also becomes a symbol of mankind trying to harness a power it isn’t equipped to handle, of a society that has become too grandiose to believe, to hope, in something greater than itself, that disregards all that which is experienced irrationally, poetically. In this world, an artist like Andrei Rublev
is unable to create. In this world, a believer like the Stalker
is rendered purposeless. My happiness, my freedom, my self-respect, it’s all here! In this world, where the material eclipses the spiritual, we are heading towards certain doom. But just as we see the spiritual, and therefore,
the drive to express oneself artistically, being tested and defeated,
so too do we see it re-ignited again. Not because of a miracle, or an act of God,
but more so because of others, because of their spirit, their works of art, which gave new life to a painter’s creative passion, and restored his grey world, into one full of color. Which gave a Stalker a new source for the miraculous. And which turned a violent ending
into an innocent new beginning. And with this, we are once again back
to the purpose of art, and the question of why people go to the cinema,
sit in a darkened room for two hours, and, as Tarkovsky put it;
watch the play of shadows on a sheet? He believed that the reason a person normally watches
films is for time lost or spent or not yet had. For cinema, like no other art, has the power to widen, enhance and concentrate a person’s experience, to make it longer,
significantly longer. It let us assimilate ourselves to the world, and to others. It inspires us to be humble, compassionate, forgiving. It gives us understanding. It gives us peace. Ultimately, he concluded, “The allotted function of art is not, as is
often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable
of turning to good. We live. We have our ups and downs. We hope. We wait for something. Finally, we die, and are born again. But we remember nothing. And everything begins again, from scratch. May everything come true. May they believe. And may they laugh at their passions. But, above all, let them believe in themselves. Let them become as helpless as children. For weakness is a great thing. Because what has hardened will never win. This has been a passion project of mine for
quite some time. I really wanted to convey Tarkovsky’s art
in the way he envisioned it; not a something to be intellectually dissected, but as something to be felt. I knew the result would be slower, more experimental than some of my other videos, which always comes with some hesitations. It is because of projects like these that I’m proud to present Nebula, a brand new collaborative project between me and many other creators that places creativity at the very center, and where your support means you’re directly supporting us. You can follow all your favorite creators,
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