I've finished watching all of great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky's films but one, the short documentary "Voyage in Time." Essentially, I'm done with his filmmography, and I view this as a nice little movie geek milestone, so I wanted to put down a few thoughts. As with most of the great directors, I had no idea what to expect when I first acquainted myself with his work. I knew Tarkovsky's films had a reputation for being challenging, difficult to sit through, full of obtuse symbolism and light on plot. Aside from that, I was a blank slate.
I think the joy of discovery plays a large part in why the first Tarkovsky film I saw is still my favorite. This was "Stalker," the 1979 science-fiction feature that follows the journey of three men, the Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky), the Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn), and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko) to a place in the wilderness known as the Zone. Nobody ever explains what the Zone is, exactly, but the authorities have forbidden anyone to go there because of dangerous phenomena that occur within the area. However, in the Zone is the Room, a place reputed to grant people's deepest wishes and desires.
I'll confess that I didn't understand "Stalker" the way the director probably intended me to. I couldn't decode all the religious and existentialist symbolism. The discussions that the characters had about the nature of their their relationship to God and the universe didn't penetrate my thick skull. However, the visuals got me. Andrei Tarkovsky is famous for his approach to cinema known as "sculpting in time," where one of his primary aims is to convey the passage of time, and the relation of one moment to the next. To this end, his filmmaking style is almost meditative, full of extremely long shots that can last for several minutes. "Stalker" is 163 minutes long and has only 142 shots, most of them clustered together and separated by much longer shots of four or five minutes apiece.
I was surprised to learn that the longest shots were only around five minutes because they feel much longer due to their form and content. The journey of the three characters is a lengthy slog, first through an empty gray landscape on a railroad handcar where the image practically becomes static, tightly framing the men on the handcar as they pump the levers, the background unchanging despite the speed at which they travel. You begin to experience the mental weight of the journey the longer the shot goes on, the feeling of endlessness and emotional tedium. And then, at the end of it, Tarkovsky abruptly cuts to a gorgeous view of a verdant green field, a visual blast of saturated color in a film that had been so monochromatic up to that point that I thought it was in black and white. It was like Dorothy opening the door to find Oz on the other side. No one needed to announce that the travelers had reached the Zone.
For a filmmaker with such a reputation for being heady and philosophical, Tarkovsky's work always manages to provoke strong emotions from me. There are several segments in "Stalker" that I found deeply unsettling, such as the descent of the travellers into a series of tunnels that they hope will lead them to the Room. The tunnels are dark and it's difficult to see more than a few feet ahead. Tarkovsky, in a single long shot, slowly takes us through those tunnels step by step, creating almost unbearable tension and suspense. There's nothing in the dark besides the three men and ambient nature sounds, but fear of the unknown is palpable nonetheless. And then there are the moments that truly seem to verge on experimental film, like the pan shots over stagnant water that may contain hidden symbols in the murky depths or in the reflections on the surface. It's difficult not to squint and stare and search for meaning in these images.
I get a rare feeling of accomplishment after finishing a Tarkovsky film, because it feels like I've been somewhere tangible and I've experienced something profound, even though I can't put it into words. Clearly Tarkovsky films are not for everyone, because they require so much patience and a willingness to accept the unconventional and ambiguous. His most accessible work is probably "Ivan's Childhood," the WWII drama that brought him acclaim in the 60s and was instrumental in allowing Tarkovsky the artistic freedom to pursue his more ambitious projects. I feel a little sad knowing I'll never be able to see one of his features for the first time again, but the nice thing about Tarkovsky is that I feel like I've only scratched the surface with his work. The more I read about him and his theories of film and his favorite themes, the more I want to go back and see if I can penetrate a little further into the mysteries of "Stalker" or "Solaris" or "The Mirror."
It may be a rough trip to get to the Zone, but I already know the way.