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Tarkovsky’s EYE Candy

Saturday night fever with my (equally nerdy and geeky) friends: from Amsterdam Central Station we take the ferry to visit a non-rectilinear polygon with spectacular large overhangs. Is it a boat? An iceberg? A huge sculpture of a seagull? Nope, it’s the film museum, called EYE and located on the other side of the equal-sounding lake, het IJ. Designed by Viennese architects association Delugan Meissl (famed for their work on the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart), the white and oddly shaped museum houses a museum, exhibitions, cinemas, a restaurant, and extensive (vintage) film-related collections. Next to its permanent display about the history of filmmaking, this autumn, EYE presents an exhibition and film programme on the oeuvre of a director who is not only among Russia’s most influential filmmakers but widely regarded as one of cinema’s godfathers: Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986). 

Originally published in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction.

The EYE-exhibition was focusing specifically on Tarkovsky’s quest for existential truth. Quotes about the filmmaker’s philosophy of life were illustrated by immersing the visitor in Tarkovsky’s imagery, such as the painterly beautiful Polaroids – I wanted to buy prints of them, so hang them in my home, to look at them and dream away. But as dreamy and timeless as the images might seem, the reality they represent was very much anchored in the nightmares of Soviet oppression. In the beautiful photograph of Tarkovsky’s birthplace, Zavraje (near Moscow), I saw the ‘wish room’ from Stalker. Not only because the colour palette was strikingly resembling, but also because Zavraje was strictly guarded under Soviet politics. Living there must have been felt like living in the wish room, in the eternal struggle between inner desire and imposed everydayness.

There were also some unique documents, like the letters in various languages, that showed how internationally oriented the  celebrated filmmaker and mystic must have been. All objects were organized around a particular movie with added explanations of Tarkovsky’s metaphysical reflections on humanity. His life became his art. He saw reality as a spiritual search for our ‘inner voice,’ which can only be heard through the magic and his films as  ‘hieroglyphics of absolute truth’.

In his work, Tarkovsky explored the difficulties of living in a warring Soviet Union, struggles of surviving under the constant threat of nuclear war, what it means to be a human and whether the physical body accounts for one’s soul (Bird, 2008). The expo showed how these thematic concerns among other spiritual and metaphysical themes found unique and poetic expression in the course of the seven feature films released by the Russian filmmaker (Le Fanu, 1987). Tarkovsky’s films are noted for the use of slow long cinematic takes, dream-like visual imagery and their preoccupation with nature and memory−features which have been of profound influence in the genre of science fiction movies as a whole.

The Russian filmmaker is well known for making a grounded and internalized type of science fiction that pokes at questions which are barely covered in conventional science fiction. Tarkovsky’s influence on science fiction movies is culturally pervasive. Cinema has always been metaphysical and Tarkovsky’s cinematic technique thrives in elements such as vision and time which are traditionally considered to be the province of metaphysics (Dunne, 2008). Notably, the filmmaker’s movies incorporate long single-camera takes and a lack of distinction between real time, action, memory and dream (Tarkovsky, 1987). These features provide the illusion that time and nature are like the wind. Moreover, these cinematic techniques indicate a wider aesthetic terrain that deals in transcendence and the spiritual. The filmmaker pinned his unique conceptualization and use of time to what he felt was the very essence of cinema.

The virtue of cinema is that it appropriates time, complete with that material reality to which it is indissolubly bound, and which surrounds us day by day and hour by hour…. The image becomes authentically cinematic when (amongst other things) not only does it live within time, but time also lives within it, even within each separate frame…

Nick James, 2019

Essentially, Tarkovsky’s cinematic technique characterized by long takes and soul-searching themes has influenced the work of contemporary filmmakers in science fiction such as Andrei Zvyagintsev, Lars von Trier, Terrence Malick and Claire Denis (Cihanyandi, 2016). 

After the exhibition, the EYE museum not only serves its visitors an exquisite dinner (with unparalleled views over the water), but also screens Tarkovsky’s movies, in full-lenght and digitally restored. I choose to watch Stalker,  a film made during a major nuclear threat and of which I only had seen fragments. Released in 1979, Stalker was the filmmaker’s second attempt at grappling with science-fiction subject matter (Bird, 2010). (His first attempt was the space adventure Solaris, released in 1972).  The film, adapted from a novel called Roadside Picnic, is a poetic and atypical story of a guide who takes an artist and a scientist through a forbidden area known as the ‘Zone’ in an attempt to find the ‘Wish Room’ which is said to bestow the wishes of anyone who enters (Le Fanu, 2017).

This world, is, in the worlds of Slavoj Zizek (1999) ‘an absolute Otherness incompatible with the rules and laws of our universe’ and ‘from an imagined Alien standpoint’ – two aspects that make this world utterly appealing to me. Perhaps other viewers would be sitting in their chairs wondering whether they would enter the room or not, but for me, being emerged in Tarkovsky’s world for hours and hours, I could only surrender to what the big screen was showing me. Some scenes seemed endless – Was the image frozen? Did the film get stuck? – and after a while I didn’t bother to keep track anymore. Once inside the forbidden area, the Zone itself seems to take over reality, time, nature, death and perception. 

Essentially, the filmmaker utilizes the ‘zone’ to express philosophical chaos; a theme that has transcended time and influenced most of contemporary science fiction movies being produced. In this space ‘in between’, similar to what Homi Bhabha calls ‘Unhomeliness’, the characters are nomadic subjects, constantly in the making, in transformation, in metamorphosis. The idea behind the chaos is a liquid natural realm which is mutable; where the order of things is disrupted and overturned such that nature, humanity, dreams, time and consciousness are blended into a fluid mix of contiguous elements (Le Fanu, 1987). This is evident in the film from the use of sepia to depict the urban areas outside the Zone thereby giving an old rustic feeling and the gradual transition to color after the three men get to the Zone (Bloom, 2019). The use of color depicts rich tones which magnify the grip of nature and the surrounding landscape, increase the audience’s awareness of present events and give a sense of the characters being engulfed by the environment (Johnson & Petrie, 1994). 

‘Anyone who wishes to watch my films like a mirror will see themselves’ is one of Tarkovsky’s statements I read at the museum exhibition. Following the line of thought of the director, when one of his films was ready and released, it is no longer the director’s, then there is only the conversation between art and the viewer, so the film cannot have a fixed meaning. Thus, it is not surprising that his films have (after)lives of their own. Therefore, it was not only wonderful, overwhelming and sublime to see Stalker from start to finish, locked up in a cinema, without distractions, it was also a ‘feast of recognition’, as if the film were a collage of all kinds of much later released media, films and games and even the ‘ruin porn’ of Chernobyl, that I watched, played and analyzed in recent years.

‘The ultimate Tarkovskian spiritual experience takes place when a subject is lying stretched out on the earth’s surface, half submerged in stale water; Tarkovsky’s heroes do not pray on their knees, with their heads turned upwards, towards heaven; instead they listen intensely to the silent palpitation of the humid earth…’ wrote Slavoj Žižek. This unique utilization of nature, the elements and landscapes has influenced the production of contemporary science fiction movies in the sense that most of these films attempt to create post-holocaust landscapes characterized by relentless darkness and rain-soaked urban landscapes that elicit a feeling of the passing of time. Tarkovsky’s cine-ecology is moist and soggy, often decayed and covered in fog, to show the chaos of nature. This delve into chaos is another one of Andrei Tarkovsky’s legacies and evident in recent philosophical science fiction films such as Annihilation and Arrival (Pevere, 2018). 

‘If you search for meaning, you miss everything that happens,’ was another Tarkovsky quote that got stuck in my head. After watching the exhibition and the movie, I concluded that for me, the strongest foundation of Tarkovsky’s influence in science fiction films is the use of time to depict dreams and other metaphysical themes in a fashion as concrete as reality. But what I missed dearly – especially in the scene before they enter the Wish Room – was the music. There were some sounds, like the sounds of water that seems to symbolize purity and flux, but even those merely provided a disconnect between the audial and visual experiences. As a synesthete, I had trouble turning off the music in my head that was evoked by the colours on screen and hard to ignore because of the total absence of film music. Therefore, at home, I improvised a flute melody, based on my perception of the seemingly endless last scene in the Zone, thus adding another layer to the many afterlives of Tarkovsky’s masterpiece.

References

Bird, R. (2008).  ‘Andrei Tarkovsky and Contemporary Art: Medium and Mediation’, in Tate Papers, no.10, Retrieved from: https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/10/andrei-tarkovsky-and-contemporary-art-medium-and-mediation

Bird, R. (2010). Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema. Reprinted. London: Reaktion Books. 

Bloom, S. (2019). A Dive into the Enigmatic Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky. Velvet Eyes. Retrieved from: https://velveteyes.net/movie-stills/stalker/   

Cihanyandi, A. (2016). The Cinematic Influence of Andrei Tarkovsky. Culture Trip. Retrieved from:  https://theculturetrip.com/europe/russia/articles/the-cinematic-influence-of-andrei-tarkovsky/

Dunne, N. (2008). Tarkovsky. London: Black Dog Publishing 

James, N. (2019). The Tarkovsky Legacy. BFI. Retrieved from: https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/features/deep-focus/tarkovsky-legacy   

Johnson, V. & Petrie, G. (1994). The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 

Le Fanu, M. (1987). The Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky. British Film Institute.

Le Fanu, M. (2017). Stalker: Meaning and Making. The Criterion Collection. Retrieved from: https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/4739-stalker-meaning-and-making  

Pevere, G. (2018). Tarkovsky’s Stalker: “Full of all the promised wonder of cinema.” Hollywood Suite. Retrieved from: https://hollywoodsuite.ca/connect/stalker/

Tarkovsky, A. (1987). Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 

Žižek, Slavoj (1999). The Thing from Inner Space. Retrieved from: https://www.lacan.com/zizekthing.htm 

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