Ramblings from the Notepad: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Andrei Rublev

Over the years I’ve managed to summarize my philosophy on life down to one very simple and easy to follow principle. I’d like to share it with you. There being two kinds of people in this world: those who like Andrei Tarkovsky and those who don’t know shit about fuck. See, simple and easy to follow, just as I said. I’m not merely jesting either, I’m being earnest. Take Andrei Rublev, a film thatceases to proclaim a message as many other films, but rather offers what every filmmaker strives for: a look at why art exists, and its role in life for all beings. Andrei Rublev is a film that won’t speak to everybody, it won’t even speak to all artists, but to those it speaks to will become moved in ways unimaginable. The film captures not only the essence of the artist’s purpose, but also our purposes as individuals on this earth.

Going by what I said above, it’s easy to see that Andrei Tarkvosky is a filmmaker I value so much. Where, in his world, backgrounds are as rich and interesting as the action in his foregrounds. Tarkovsky’s desire to see the medium of cinema as a fully autonomous form of expression is akin to Soviet critic Viktor Shklovsky’s definition of cinema as a new cognitive tool that helps us see reality in a new light. By the same token, Tarkovsky provides a new context for poetic vision of reality. Tarkovsky understands poetry as a special cognitive process of thinking in images, but even more as an act of remembering various images from the past while in unison creating art unlike any other offered by formulated filmmakers.

In Stalker, Tarkovsky even tops himself from Solaris by making human need and suffering and, as a human construct, the fantastical imaginings of what is ‘out there’ as here, paramount and affecting. Fear, greed and ego, and a desire for some minor level of any sense of peace through whatever medium is available, is what Tarkovsky suggests and prods, but never outright answers; it comes as a great shock and relief at the end, when the boy Monkey shows an unusual ‘moment’ at the table.

Stalker, Tarkovsky’s eighth feature film as a director and last in the Soviet Union, is built around three absolutely fascinating characters; the Stalker, the Writer, and the Professor, each of whom is fleshed out in intricate and fabulous detail by Tarkovsky himself. While the three characters squabble with one another (the Writer sees the Professor’s science as soulless and consisting of dry facts, the Stalker at the end of the film sees both as empty), they all, to me, seem to be looking for roughly the same thing: their place in the world. Cliché, sure, but the way the film captures this search is anything but. The Stalker is, personally, perhaps the most fascinating, because his life is, in some way, inherently a paradox.

For the Stalker character, the Zone is a wholly intimate place, the one place where he can be happy, but he makes his living making it accessible to others, and even at one point attributes his happiness to the ability to share his sacred place with other people. Even so, you can see a pained expression on the Stalker’s face and can hear anguish in his voice every time he talks about the Zone. When he loses hope in the people he brings to the Zone, when he confronts the fact that they don’t need it and thus don’t need him, the deflationary effect portrayed on screen is utterly remarkable. And even though this involves, in part, a belief in the emptiness of the Writer, it echoes a concern of the Writer’s, how two weeks after he dies all of his readers will have found someone new to “gobble up,” so to speak, and he is merely a placeholder.

And sincerely speaking, the Writer is another altogether complex character in Stalker. He sees his own vision of being replaced, but he also believes that writing aspect in life is the only truly unselfish human action one has. The Writer has a story to tell to justify his own existence and purpose, but this reasoning is undermined by the fact that he too is not particularly needed (if his action is not for himself, and no one else needs it, then what purpose does it serve?) He’s also somewhat self-contradictory, as I believe he said at one point in Stalker that he writes to know himself (a “selfish” purpose). But even that is undermined, this time by his actions.

When the Writer has a chance to go into the room and discover his innermost desire (since, as he points out, you can’t know it beforehand), he refuses, he doesn’t take the risk. Earlier, he made an interesting comment in which he betrayed an elitist attitude towards humanity, and yet also worried that he himself was mediocre at best, and it seems like his decision not to enter the room was at least in part a worry that this fear would be confirmed. The Professor was interesting as well, but unfortunately I didn’t have much to say about him this time through.

Any time you write about an Andrei Tarkvosky film it is essential that you should try to talk more about cinematography. However, not only is it important to talk in great detail about Stalker’s cinematography, but also the editing, acting and even music. I actually watched Stalker trying to think of things to say about the first two and came up with absolutely nothing. Not because it’s bad or anything, but because it’s something that cannot be put into words or properly articulated and can only be viewed to fully comprehend. And for the acting, I have little to say other than that the three main actors all convincingly pulled off what I discussed above, especially the actor who played the titular Stalker.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s design for the Stalker is tantamount to being hyper stylized, but never too noticeable in the sense of it looking ‘fake’. There may be a moment or two where the Zone does look like a ‘zone’ from a not quite nuclear fallout, like the one room with sand dunes on the floor. At times it even brings to mind post-Chernobyl disaster Ukraine. But it’s also right out of the Soviet Union, with industry and decay of the period all in direct view. The hopelessness is conveyed not just through the humorlessness of the characters, but in the Zone itself, which looks like it’s been not constructed completely by the crew.

But I do have some more significant things to say about the music, maybe. There was one theme that appeared a couple times during scenes in the Zone that was sort of half-ominous in a way I thought didn’t suit the film all that well, because it’s not really an ominous or suspenseful film to me. It was used again near the end in the scene where the Stalker and his wife are walking (with Monkey on the Stalker’s shoulders), and I realized that the dominant mood of the piece was in fact wistful, a mood that beautifully fits with the film’s themes of self-searching, of seeking something always just out of one’s reach. Also, while I really don’t know what to make of the ending yet, the use of the “Hymn to Joy” in the final scene of Stalker that talked so much about happiness and hope has to be meaningful.

And alas, we arrive at Andrei Rublev. Andrei Rublev is the sort of film I eat right up. However, it is a hardy full course dinner that requires ample time for digestion. I won’t pretend to have gotten even one third of it, though. Only my second time through this expansively enchanting experience, but I can tell that it will reward rewatching immensely. I’m fascinated by the character of art and of the relationship between art and religion. The only way I can really make sense of religion nowadays is through a Ludwig Wittgenstein lens: religion as aesthetic, and Andrei Rublev explores that beautifully. I really can’t say more about this now, but I’ve got a framework to use when I next watch it, and so I’ll definitely have better comments then.

Released in 1966, Andrei Rublev is flat out beautiful, mystical, and profound. But the truly inspiring aesthetics are matched with complete technical wizardry, which is a trademark feature of Andrei Tarkovsky. I often think about it but I simply don’t know how some of the shots were created. One I do understand, and stand in awe of, is a continuous single camera shot, just before the church door is breached by Tatar invaders, which involves action in several different locations at multiple elevations as well as the correct timing of hundreds of extras and horses. It makes the first scene of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil look like a schlocky high school film project.

Of course, creating and lastly releasing such a visceral work like Andrei Rublev didn’t come easy for a visionary like Tarkovsky. Prior to the release of the film, Tarkovsky discussed interest in filming on the life of the Russian icon, even though very little is actually known about his life. Tarkovsky began filming in 1964, and a lengthy 205 minute cut was screened for a private audience in Moscow in 1966. The critical response, however, was mixed, and sizable cuts were eventually made to the film’s running time, before a shorter 186 minute version screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 1969. The Breszhnev-era censors first trimmed fifteen minutes from it, then censors and marketers trimmed more. The shortest known version of the film is said to clock in at around 145 minutes, with an hour of the film cut.

Some random things I noticed and liked in Andrei Rublev: When the Tatar leader was asking the prince’s brother about Christian symbols and found them amusing because they didn’t make sense (how can she be a virgin if she has a son?) This ties into the Wittgenstein religion-as-aesthetic idea I proposed earlier (he had several comments where he noted the absurdity of turning religion into a philosophical system). The person who accuses the prince’s brother of being a Judas and selling Russia is another key moment, suggesting Russia as a sort of Christ (or perhaps Christ as the spirit of Russia), and also embodies the way religion and culture permeate our very ways of categorizing the world.

To regard Andrei Rublev as one singular film would do some injustice to the brilliantly unorthodox nature of its narrative, in that it’s a collection of eight mini storylines or miseries, all of which can be viewed as individual pieces, and three of which could easily pass as masterpieces in their own right. My personal favorite is the third one; Rublev’s dialogue with Theophanes the Greek over the self-destructive nature of humanity is, to me at least, one of the most moving moments on film. This is possibly due to Theophanes voicing an opinion I personally arrived at some time before initially watching Andrei Rublev and one I unfortunately happen to agree with.

The line, “Live between divine forgiveness and your own torment” struck me as incredibly powerful and I’ll be keeping it firmly in mind the next time I watch the film. I don’t quite know the role it plays yet but I’m eager to find out. Finally, while I know his name wasn’t made up for the film, as he was a historical figure, Theophanes the Greek’s name is remarkably appropriate. I looked it up and ‘theophany’ is the appearance of a deity to a human being, and specifically in the Jewish and Christian tradition it’s the sensible sign by which the presence of God is revealed. That really underscores the relationship of religion to art explored in the film; art as theophany?

One statement that cannot be disputed is that Andrei Rublev really is a magnificent piece of filmmaking. The black-and-white photography captures the exquisite delicateness of nature with almost heartbreaking intricacy; even the raindrops of a midday shower are imbued with the gentle elegance of the Heaven from which they ostensibly fell. Tarkovsky finds simple beauty in the quiver of a tree branch in the breeze, the leisurely flow of a river, herds of livestock fleeing from an aerial balloon.

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