Kishore Karanam archive  

Transcending Boundaries: Tarkovsky's Fusion of Style and Substance

June 10, 2023.


I've always been a big fan of movies from around the world, and recently I watched Jean-Luc Godard's "Vivre sa vie." After it ended, I found myself really thinking about it. I was kind of lost for words, not sure if I liked it or not. But after doing some research, I realized how much the movie was connected to the way people in France thought and lived back then. That made me see the movie in a whole new way, and it got me interested in how a filmmaker's culture can shape their work. After that, I decided to check out some of Andrei Tarkovsky's movies. A while back, I saw "Offret" (The Sacrifice) and thought it was really interesting, but it was so slow that I had a hard time getting through it. I'm usually into fast-paced dramas with great dialogue, like the ones written by Aaron Sorkin. I was a huge fan of his stuff back then, although I don't talk about it as much these days. But even though I struggled with "Offret," I kept hearing how amazing it was from some filmmakers I really respect. So, I gave it another shot, but I still couldn't get into it and ended up stopping after just a few minutes. I figured maybe it was just hard to capture the essence of the movie in translation.

After getting a new perspective on "Vivre sa vie," I felt ready to dive into Tarkovsky's world again. This time, I went for "Stalker" (1979), and wow, it blew me away. Honestly, I now think Tarkovsky is a genius, easily one of the best directors ever for me. You might be wondering what changed my mind so much. It's all about getting what art, especially Tarkovsky's kind of art, is really about.

So, "Stalker" is about this guide who takes two guys through this mysterious place called the Zone to find a room that can make any wish come true. Pretty cool concept, right? But here's the kicker: after spending more than two hours with them on this journey, they end up not going into the room and just head back home. It might sound like a letdown, but believe me, it's pure genius.

"Stalker" tells the story of a professor and a writer who are led by a guide, known as a stalker, through an overgrown, abandoned city. We don't get to know a lot about these characters, but as they make their way to the Zone, we pick up bits and pieces of who they are from the things they let slip.

There's this one part where the professor asks the writer about his work, and the writer just says, "nothing." As they keep talking, you kind of get lost in the conversation and it's easy to miss, but it seems like the writer might be hinting at Gustave Flaubert, the French novelist from the 1800s. Flaubert once wrote to his lover and a friend that he wanted to write a book about nothing. He wanted to write something that didn't depend on a story or characters, but was powerful just because of the way it was written—like the Earth hanging in space, surrounded by nothing. He thought the best books were the ones that didn't try to say too much, where the writing itself was the main thing.

Upon careful examination of Tarkovsky's filmography, it becomes evident that he wholeheartedly dedicated himself to the realization of this very notion, most notably in "Stalker," where he ultimately achieved his vision. Yet, one may wonder, how can a book or a film revolve around the concept of nothingness? And if style serves as the true essence of perception, why does the phrase "style over substance" even exist?

I believe this notion represents the future of art. From the perspective of pure art, one could almost establish the axiom that there is no such thing as a subject. Style itself is an absolute manner of perceiving things. ~ Andrei Tarkovsky

If we perceive style and substance as distinct entities, we must acknowledge that their purpose lies in complementing one another. According to Tarkovsky, a film loses its essence when it succumbs to the technical demands of the narrative. This is precisely why "Solaris," being a science fiction film, stands as his least favored among his own works. He urged the Strugatsky brothers to repeatedly revise the screenplay of "Stalker" until they eliminated any remnants of science fiction from its core. It is not merely the genre that Tarkovsky regards as external; he also questions the commercial nature of cinema. We may ponder what makes a film marketable, and while there are numerous elements we could incorporate to ensure its success, in doing so, are we not introducing external factors? Some argue that films should be crafted following the audience's demands. However, when faced with this prevalent argument within the industry, Tarkovsky expressed his frustration, emphasizing that he only concerns himself with two audiences in the entire world: Bresson and Bergman.

I am only interested in the views of two people: one is called Bresson and one is called Bergman. ~ Andrei Tarkovsky

In Chapter 6 of his book "Sculpting in Time," which he cleverly calls "The Author in Search of an Audience," Tarkovsky gets into the deep connection between artists and the people who experience their work. He believes that no matter how unusual or complex an artist's vision is, there will always be an audience for it, even if it's just a handful of people. It's not about being famous or selling out; it's about something much deeper that brings artists and their audience together.

But this brings up an interesting point: Do people even know what they want until someone shows it to them? Sure, it's fun to watch big blockbuster movies, but nowadays, it feels like the movie industry is just trying to sell what they think everyone wants to see. It makes you wonder if people really know what they like, or if they need something like the "Zone" from "Stalker"—a place where they can really dig deep and figure out what they're into.

Let's be practical about this. It's no secret that watching a Tarkovsky movie is a big commitment, and I can vouch for that from my own experience of struggling with his films. Not only are they long, but the individual shots are way longer than what we're used to. For example, there's a part in "Stalker" where the guide takes the two guys from their city to the city where the mysterious Zone is. They get on this rail car, and the whole trip takes three and a half minutes, with no talking, just the three of them sitting there as the car moves along. If you're feeling negative, you might think it's boring. But that's exactly where Tarkovsky's way of doing things shines through and you start to see what it's all about.

If the regular length of a shot is increased, one becomes bored, but if you keep on making it longer, it piques your interest, and if you make it even longer, a new quality emerges, a special intensity of attention. ~ Andrei Tarkovsky

Tarkovsky has this idea that if you stretch out a shot way longer than usual, it first makes you feel bored. But if you keep it going, something interesting happens – you start to get really into it, and then, if it goes on even longer, it turns into something completely different. Watching "Stalker" means you have to really pay attention. It's not just about what's on the surface; it's about digging deeper. In today's world full of distractions, that means taking a bit of a leap. Tarkovsky, kind of like the guide in "Stalker," wants to take us on a journey to find our own truths.

He uses the Zone as a metaphor for the search for truth, with a big "T." For Tarkovsky, truth isn't just sitting there; it's about how you express it. It's all about finding meaning over time, which could take a whole lot of thinking. He asks us if we can handle the way cinema plays with time, making decades feel like seconds, or stretching a minute into what feels like an hour. In his movies, time, space, and action all come together in a way that doesn't need any fancy tricks to make us feel the passage of time. We see it and feel it through what happens in the movie, not through quick cuts or jumps.

Every scene is filled with this blend of time, space, and action, moving the story along without breaking the flow of time. Time isn't just a background thing; it's a main character that's thick and heavy. We're not just watching time pass; we're living in it, feeling every moment. Tarkovsky's goal is to show us something we haven't seen before, breaking down the usual barriers of art. In his world, the way he makes his movies is the message – he doesn't rely on the usual ways of making films. He's all about trying new things, looking at scenes in ways most directors wouldn't dare, and challenging what we expect from a movie.

Stalker is a tragedy, but tragedy is not hopeless. Tragedy cleanses man. I believe that only through spiritual crisis healing begins. In this film I wanted to make a complete statement: namely that human love alone is — miraculously — proof against the blunt assertion that there is no hope for the world. This is our common, and incontrovertibly positive possession — that essentially human thing that cannot be dissolved or broken down, that forms like a crystal in the soul of each of us which is all a person can count upon his existence. ~ Andrei Tarkovsky

In the world of Andrei Tarkovsky's movies, truth is something you can feel but can't quite grab hold of, and it's all wrapped up in the mystery of the Zone. When you watch his films, you're taken on a trip through time and space, where every scene is carefully drawn out to pull you into the story in a way that's totally unique. Tarkovsky doesn't play by the usual rules of storytelling; he breaks out of the box to take us somewhere where the line between the way he tells the story and the story itself just melts away.

In his hands, filmmaking becomes something completely different. He's not worried about what's usually done in movies; he's all about the strength of his own creative ideas. Each shot he takes peels back the curtain on a world we've never seen before, showing us the raw beauty of cinema at its most basic level. Tarkovsky's bold search for truth, and the way he blends the look of his films with their deeper meaning, puts him right up there with the best of the best in movie-making. He's left a lasting impression on how we think about films and what they can be.