Wednesday, February 22, 2012

An Open Letter to Andrei Tarkovsky

I am not here to bury Tarkovsky but to praise The Criterion Collection.  Not only do they pick some of the best movies ever made to preserve and distribute—many of them forgotten, but they give us the tools we need to understand some of the more obscure, dense films.  In other words, the films that most of us wouldn’t see because they make no friggin’ sense.

Yes, Tarkovsky, I’m talking about you.

Okay, yes, I understand.  You wanted to communicate themes that the Soviet regime you lived under wouldn’t allow you to discuss, like an exploration of religion (in Stalker) and accepting those society calls inhuman (Solaris),  but you don’t make it easy for anyone.  First of all, your stories are so complex with detail that it is difficult to tell what is significant and insignificant to the main story.   Perhaps you wanted people to watch the films more than once.   Well, yeah,  I was forced to watch Solaris more than once.  Not because I enjoyed it, but because I needed to understand what the basic plot of the film was about.  I didn’t feel like I could dismiss it without understanding this much.

And I wouldn’t mind watching it more than once if there was any character I could appreciate or identify with.  But almost every single character acts in strange ways or a confusing manner.  Every time I think I know why they are acting this way, they do another action that I just don’t get.  I admit, you do throw us a bone with minor female characters.  In Solaris, it is Hari, our protagonist’s wife, or so it seems.   In Stalker it is also the protagonist’s wife, who is not given a name and only speaks briefly at the beginning of the film and more extendedly at the end.   These are great characters and I understand their motivations and struggles—but the men with which you populate your films are ethically ugly and mysterious.  Why should I want to watch these films again?

And then there is the confusing filmmaking.  Why do you switch from color to black and white to color again?  I thought I understood it, and then I realized that it’s just random.  Did you run out of color film?  And the long sections where nothing happens.  We are looking through the windshield of a car for five minutes.  Why?  What does that add to the film?  What is in that scene that couldn’t have been communicated in a dozen better ways?  In Stalker the whole middle section of the film is wandering over a bleak landscape, following an invisible path.  How dull and unnecessarily long!

Okay, I get it.  You’re a genius, and you want everyone to know how much of a genius you are by making obscure, dense films that no one understands the first time out.  Or the second.  You make the kind of films that critics love to analyze and understand.  I know.  I’m that kind of critic myself.  But, honestly, I prefer my intellectual puzzles to be infused with beauty and humanity. 

To be honest, I don’t like the term “pretentious” when applied to art.  That seems to be the go-to word when a critic doesn’t understand what a filmmaker is doing.  I am tempted to use the word for your films.  I think I get what you are doing.  Stalker is about the complexities and sacrifices of religion, even to the cost of family.  Solaris is about how science can isolate us from ourselves and dehumanize those closest to us.  Great messages.  But if it weren’t for Criterion, I wouldn’t have cared enough to find them out.

And so I want to give a big thank you to Criterion Collection.  They give commentaries and documentaries, and background information about the films and directors.  They give critical essays.  All of which helps us poor film buffs understand a film better and to get a handle on what a film is trying to say.  Tarkovsky, I know you are saying something.  But I need someone else to come along and help me understand your mode of communication. 

And so it is my hope and dream that the Criterion Collection gives us Stalker as well.  I know there is much more I could understand about that film and I think they will bring me the experts to help us.  Perhaps an audio commentary?  That would be awesome.  And to put more of yhour films back on Netflix Instant?  I'd appreciate it. 

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