“Finally, I would enjoin the reader–confiding in him utterly– to believe that the one thing mankind has ever created in a spirit of self-surrender is the artistic image. Perhaps the meaning of all human activity lies in artistic consciousness, in the pointless and selfless creative act?” — Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting In Time
Today, The Film Society of Lincoln Center opens a week-long retrospective of the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. I have been seeing quite a bit of interest in the series online the past few days, and it warms my heart to no end to see so many people, wrapped in the warmth of busy summer days in New York City, interested in seeing Tarkovsky’s work. It fills me with hope to see his name on Twitter and on blogs, written in magazines and newspapers. I don’t enjoy “ranking” artists or putting them into some sort of hierarchy; art is wonderful because it offers so many different and unique perspectives, a lens through which we can view the world in a new way. But having said that, in terms of images filmed by a movie camera and projected onto a screen, there has never been an image maker who delivers on the poetic promise of the cinema like Andrei Tarkovsky. His films will live forever, the great artist that allows cinema to be mentioned among the fine arts, the name that we cinephiles keep in our breast pockets to reveal when confronted with the degredation of the art of film. Anyone who believes, as I do, that film must be preserved, seen, discussed, curated and presented alongside painting, sculpture, music, dance and photography as a living, breathing artform will be heartened by the fact that Tarkovsky’s films exist in the world. They are our masterpieces, the most wonderous and beautifully made films in the form’s brief history.
That is high praise to be sure, and there are certainly other filmmakers who have made great and unbelievable films, but Tarkovsky’s stamp on the world is indelible; fighting contsantly against censorship and political threats, exiled late in his life, fighting cancer as he finished his final film, Tarkovsky’s experience of life was inseparable from his stories. It is no wonder he was interested in the life of the great Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev. Here was a character whose own faith and devotion to beauty and his craft in a violent, vulgar world lead to some of the most profound images in Russian history. So it was with Tarkovsky, whose death by lung cancer (considered by some to have been the result of radiation poisoning by the KGB, and others to be the result of having shot Stalker near a toxic chemical plant) at age 54 marked the end of his cinema, in a way. While a filmmaker like Robert Bresson lives on in the work of the dozens of artists who imitate his naturalism, Tarkovsky remains inimitable, a crystal voice that is as powerful today as it was during his lifetime, undiluted by the duplication and repitition of images and techniques. You simply do not see images like Tarkovsky’s in any other films, and that fact, that respect, allows the movies to retain their freshness and power over viewers today.
If you, like me, are interested in Tarkovsky’s work, I cannot recommend his book Sculpting In Time enough; it is the most important book ever written on the soul of the cinema, the synthesis of the artist’s aesthetic and professional concerns. It is essential for anyone who cares about film. As one of those people, I fear I live in a fantasy world sometimes, a place that values the things I care about enough that I would be allowed to spend my days and nights thinking about and immersing myself in the world of ideas, in images and sounds, in creating a bridge between history and my own life. Andrei Tarkovsky didn’t wait for permission and didn’t care about external value, he made that world for himself, and in a very short period of time, reimagined cinema.