March 17, 2014
Tarkovsky’s Forever Fond Farewell
by Wah-Ming Chang
In 2012, while browsing through Eslite, Taipei’s twenty-four-hour bookstore, I found a book that would help me understand how to sit through an Andrei Tarkovsky film. It is called Bright, Bright Day, a collection of Polaroids the filmmaker took between 1979 and 1984 and which served as visual documentation and inspiration for his penultimate film, Nostalghia.
It so happened that earlier that year I’d watched Nostalghia, and in utter perplexity. Its hero is Andrei Gorchakov, a melancholy poet visiting Italy to research the life of Pavel Sosnovsky, an eighteenth-century Russian composer in exile who would commit suicide upon returning home. Gorchakov soon meets Domenico, himself in a state of perpetual exile, having locked up his family for seven years to avoid the apocalypse and today wanders Rome and its environs with only a German shepherd as companion. After a nearly wordless interview, despite his paranoia and their language barrier Domenico entrusts Gorchakov with an important task.
Fog and water are constantly in Gorchakov’s way, yet they are gentle conduits to his memories, to a longing for the family he left behind. This is most apparent in the film’s final scenes when Gorchakov, restless and homesick, and having found comfort in the shared dislocation with Domenico, agrees to fulfill the task. He must walk across the length of a drained hot spring while holding a lit candle, making sure to touch first one end and then the other without the candle going out. It takes him three tries. When he succeeds, his memories of home are complete — and for Domenico, the world is now saved.
Despite the opacity of the film, I liked Tarkovsky well enough, though not with the intimacy and immediacy that Geoff Dyer feels, as for Stalker. But then Bright, Bright Day demystified Tarkovsky’s mistiness, and encouraged patience with Nostalghia. The film’s frames, shaped through Tarkovsky’s characteristically long, unpunctuated tracking shots, almost directly lifts from the gauzy frames of the Polaroids themselves: an iron bed, a mirrored dresser, a sooty pathway, a rolling hill, a house set in shadow and fog, silhouetted figures peering through the fog. These figures are his family, and they occupy, according to Boris Groys in the interview printed at the end of the book, “a kind of utopian space.”
In photographing them with such tenderness, Tarkovsky predicted his own exile from the Soviet Union: after Nostalghia, he would never return home again, and would die at the age of fifty-four in Paris. In Sculpting in Time, his book about filmmaking, he writes: “How could I have imagined as I was making Nostalghia that the stifling sense of longing that fills the screen space of that film was to become my lot for the rest of my life; that from now until the end of my days I would bear the painful malady within myself?”
His son, Andrei A. Tarkovsky, echoes him in an interview: “Russians are very bad immigrants. They will never get used to their new surroundings, as these will never become their spiritual home.”
A further gem from Tarkovsky Jr.’s same interview:
The scenes in Nostalghia that reference the main character’s Russian childhood memories were not shot on location?
No, my father had to actually rebuild our Russian country house near a village called Otricoli in Umbria. He wanted an exact replica — which, by the way, took the workers two months to build. He had a Polaroid of the original house, and it looks exactly the same.
Why was it so important to exactly duplicate the house according to the Polaroid? No audience member would ever complain if it wouldn’t have been perfect.
It’s because my father’s films drew from real memories. Nostalghia especially is about losing your home; that is, your home country, which is your spiritual home as well as your physical home. With that film he basically allowed his childhood home to resurface. He’d actually fly my grandmother to the set so she could see the house again. When she saw it, she started to cry, because it was exact.
Memories can be blurry.
That’s why he took Polaroids all the time.
In addition to Groys’s interview in Bright, Bright Day, the Polaroids are accompanied by essays by Tarkovsky and by his son, as well as verse by his father, the poet Arseny Tarkovsky. The epigraph, written by Arseny — whose poems also feature in Nostalghia — clarifies what I’ve been struggling to parse in the film:
The Bright Day
By the jasmine lies a stone,
Beneath the stone lies treasure.
On the path stands Father.
It is a bright, bright day.
The silver poplar’s flowering,
And the centifolia rose,
Beyond — grow curling ramblers,
And tender, milky grass.
Never again have I been
As happy as then.
Never again have I been
As happy as then.
There can be no returning,
Nor has it been given
To tell what perfect joy
Filled that garden heaven.
Exile here is explored generously, without judgment. An artist will assume her viewer already has a relationship to this state, and so takes her time reflecting on sectioned-off space, on the fellow exile, on the babel of language. Tarkovsky’s films must be experienced, then, with the same patience and generosity with which they were made. (Nostalghia will return to New York next year, but in the meantime it’s been released on Blu-ray. Meanwhile, Open Culture has links to all of Tarkovsky’s films for free.)
Though Gorchakov tells his translator that art is untranslatable, through patience does translation — a translation, not necessarily the — emerge. Lydia Davis breaks down a story in a similar way (she seems to stretch out time to do this, yet manages to be unfailingly economical in language), as does W. G. Sebald as he unravels the seam of history one thread at a time (he also stretches out time doing so, and what a time it is). And Eiko and Koma, dancers of death, decay, and miscommunication via four-hour installations, always somehow end their performances with a hint of hope and transformation.
And Polaroids help, of course. In the introduction for Instant Light: Tarkovsky Polaroids, the scriptwriter Tonino Guerra, who collaborated frequently with Tarkovsky, writes:
During a reconnaissance in Uzbekistan for a film that in the end we never made, [Michelangelo Antonioni] wanted to give three elderly Muslims a photograph he had taken of them. The eldest, after casting a brief glance at the image, gave it back to him, saying: “Why stop time?” We were left gaping in wonder, speechless at this extraordinary refusal.
Tarkovsky often reflected on the way that time flies and this is precisely what he wanted: to stop it, even with these quick Polaroid shots. The melancholy of seeing things for the last time is the highly mysterious and poetic essence that these images leave with us. It is as though Andrei wanted to transmit his own enjoyment quickly to others. And they feel like a fond farewell.
Wah-Ming Chang is the managing editor of Melville House.