Aug 8, 2006

andrei rublev

I have a love hate relationship with director Andrei Tarkovsky. My first introduction to his work was the movie Stalker. The name would make you think it was a slasher movie instead of the art-house movie it actually is. I was a sophomore in college and the university played a great weekly selection of movies that you couldn't run down to the video store to rent.

It was 2 hours, 43 minutes long, alternatively black & white, sepia, and color, extremely hard to understand, and clearly philosophical in its themes. Perfect arty shit for a young, trying to be hip, grew up in suburbia, college guy like myself. I didn't have a clue what it was about and I absolutely loved it.

My next experience was with Solaris at an art-house theatre in the Haight Ashbury district in San Fran. I didn't have a clue what it was about and I absolutely loved it. Ironically the tools who ran the theatre got the order of the reels mixed up. Not that anyone could tell. Until the theatre gave up trying to thread the movie correctly and refunded our money about an hour into the show, we were none the wiser.

I recently watched Solaris again. This time in the correct sequence. This should have resulted in a better experience. Alas, I am probably a more cynical viewer now. And since I'm way past my college days the philosophical ideas seemed overly played out and tired. In fact I thought the remake with Clooney was actually better. Maybe Tarkovsky is for the college-aged viewer.

That was until I forced myself to watch the epic Andrei Rublev. There's a lot not to like about Rublev. When I say epic I'm referring to the length - 3 hours and 25 minutes long. Has there ever been a Russian who couldn't use an editor? Good lord. I remedied this somewhat by playing a good portion of the DVD on 2X speed. It's all subtitled so it doesn't make a huge amount of difference. And what is it with Tarkovsky's fetish with water. From the 10 minute long shots of streams to the constant pouring rain, water is everywhere in every movie of his I've seen. I'm sure it has some subtle meaning but to me it means get this guy an editor. Then there are the filmed acts of animal cruelty that perhaps do have effect on the viewer he is looking for but could have been accomplished in a more clever manner. The writing is also so so. The philosophical monologues and dialogues aren't particularly snappy. And did I mention how long it is?

But taken as a whole it is a moving piece of film making. Rublev by the way is a famous Russian painter. It's not biographical in any sense. Rublev is a protagonist to help tell Tarkovsky's story of existentialist angst. In fact Rublev is in no sense a protagonist. He's an observer. He doesn't interact or create action in the story. He rather observes the hedonistic, cruel, barbaric world around him and slowly loses his desire to paint or believe in a god. Classic existentialist theme. In fact you can consider this movie to be a moving picture version of Sartre's Nausea. Thematically and structurally it is the same with one small difference.

Whereas Nausea is a true existentialist work, Tarkovsky has taken Sartre's ideas and recast them into a Dostoevskian Christian existentialism. Instead of finding humanistic worth in and of itself amongst the banality of the word, he finds God and thus a motivation to go on. Tarkovsky has blended the two writers perfectly. And playing counter to Sartre's jazz record as the catalyst for rebirth, Tarkovsky uses the building of a giant bell for the local prince. It's a particularly moving part of the movie and it's effect on the viewer is perfect after the relentless misery that precedes it.

I don't think it is any coincidence that Tarkovsky uses Rublev, an artist who has the same first name, as primary character. I think Tarkovsky is telling us something about himself and his own motivations. In fact in the special section there is a wonderful interview with the director with this quote:
"The artist exists because the world is not perfect."

2 comments:

docrpm said...

i loved both Stalker and Solaris, for the same inexplicable reasons you cited, but found Rublev insufferably boring. for me, the biggest challenge with Rublev was white subtitles on a black-and-white film; i couldn't read half of them. oh yeah, and the fact that it was boring hurt a bit. ;-)

tarkovsky remains one of my favorite directors, even if i don't always understand his motives or philosophy. it's always an interesting ride.

Chookster said...

I can see how someone would think it was boring. Just like I can see someone thinking that Nausea was boring. Those aren't pieces of work that have action. They just have an invocation of emotions. It almost didn't work for me until the end. The bell scene made it all happen.