Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane
An excellent monograph on the great Russian director, it provides a very worthwhile overview of his work and serves also as a helpful companion to the films, which are being rereleased on DVD and Blu-ray by Curzon Artificial Eye following a short theatrical season.
The first chapter looks at Tarkovsky’s life and times and reflects on the environment in which he worked: the Soviet film industry. Tarkovsky’s aesthetic approach, the stylistic tics and recurring motifs in the films, his characteristic flourishes and ways of working, all this is the subject of chapter two. It seems that rather than theatre, painting was his art of departure: he saw cinema as primarily a visual rather than a dramatic medium. (Sean Martin mentions the Venetian Vittore Carpaccio as a significant influence.) To this, however, I would add that if his films are landscapes then they are intended to be inhabited and not merely viewed – as the levitating girl assumes the vantage point of a bird in the branch in Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow.
There are chapters devoted to each of Tarkovsky’s main films, from Ivan’s Childhood (1962) to The Sacrifice (1986), and typically these chapters contain accounts of the storyline and production history of each film before moving on to what is generally a quite free ranging discussion, touching on whatever seems germane. What else? One chapter looks at Tarkovsky’s work in media other than film (television, theatre, radio and his writings), while another looks at the films he worked on when a student. I note that he part-directed a film of Hemingway’s story ‘The Killers’ and it is interesting to speculate whether his aesthetic ‘that as little as possible has actually to be shown [on screen]‘ derives from Hemingway’s so-called ‘iceberg theory of composition’. It must do, mustn’t it?
Some comprehensive survey, then, of Andrei Tarkovsky achievement, you conclude, but Sean Martin is not only conscientious and scrupulous in his use of sources – he is nuanced and insightful when it comes to the work. An artist who set himself the task of capturing consciousness on the hoof, making tangible the fleeting qualia of phenomenal experience, Tarkovsky made things hard for himself and harder still for all directors who would follow in his footsteps. Man, he set the bar high. Even Bergman, one of the true greats, acknowledges that he is without peer. Take a look as well at the list of projects unrealised at his death, adaptations of Dostoyevsky and Thomas Mann featuring prominently, and you come to the conclusion that he was always dreaming, restless and ambitious and unsatisfied right up to the last. That is how you want it to be with your artist heroes: life a long, late adventure; death a cramped spilling of rash measures and miles. (I make due acknowledgement to Laura Riding’s ‘The Last Covenant’ for that last sentence.) Yet the seven major films are enough and anyway are all we have, and they can sustain myriad viewings.
Sean Martin’s book is an ideal starting point for learning about Tarkovsky beyond the films. It is as well a launch pad to explore further, his ‘Suggestions for Further Reading’ section including, for example, the Nostalgia website, an amazing resource which can be explored here
About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org