Monday, April 18, 2011

Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky (2008)

A film about the great Andrei Tarkovsky faces many challenges.  The man’s work was so unique, so specific to the individual receiving it, that any interpretation of the man would be accused of discriminating against, say, my interpretation.  I don’t want to have to say this but in the context of the documentary Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky I feel that I must: I am not religious.  I was raised Catholic but religion, superstition, science-fiction, and magic hold equal value for me.  All are man-made concepts.  With this perspective I have still loved Tarkovsky’s films.

I think it fair to claim that director Dmitry Trakovsky finds great spirituality in Tarkovsky’s work.  Many others have too, but in claiming that Tarkovsky was a spiritual filmmaker and by reason a deeply religious man does not compute with how I have viewed Tarkovsky’s films.  He was an artist in search of acceptance in an increasingly dispassionate world that persecutes its free thinkers.  Though his movies require one’s full attention and indeed surrender, his art is very simple.  I used to think he was a complex artist, but the longer I’ve been familiar with his work the more I’ve understood that Tarkovsky asked questions and required no answers.  Answers are subjective and lead not to interpretation.  Religion is subjective; it is specific to a point of view and is not available for scrutiny.  If my assumption of Trakovsky is correct, then fine—let him make his film as he wants, but he is doing a great disservice to Tarkovsky’s reputation in context to how many view religion today here in the United States.  It’s become an ugly thing.  People get away with inflicting a great deal of pain, often violence, against others by hiding behind religion.  These people exist on the fringes, we are told, and yet are never contradicted by religious leaders.  Tarkovsky created out of humanity.  His characters, some religious, others maybe unaware of the concept, are seeking beauty and truth in art and humanity.  Often they are blinded with anger or rage or self-pity, but truth exists in an abstract form.  Truth in Tarkovsky, seldom if ever specified, is always metaphysical, not tangible.  It is never in the form of a cross.  Now, I may be confusing religion with spirituality but for me they are the same.  I felt that this documentary was made for those who love Tarkovsky and who are religious.  The two are not mutually exclusive.

This was my overwhelming reaction to the documentary, and I think it’s a valid argument.  I, someone for whom religion is non-existent, have been moved to stillness by Tarkovsky.  Andrei Rublev is spellbinding, an epic about the role of the artist figure during inhuman times.  Stalker gave me something that I think is fair to compare to a religious experience since film is my religion.  I was entranced, and if Stalker had continued for the rest of my life I would have lived a great and full existence.  Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky never allows for an agnostic or atheistic rendering of the director, and though the film doesn’t assault with religion, an all-around more broadened view would give a greater sense of the importance of this great 20th Century artist.

The concept of the documentary is intriguing.  Director Dmitry Trakovsky tries to make sense of a quote from an artist with whom he is a kindred spirit: “Death does not exist.”  Trakovsky’s narration is a bit too academic.  It always feels as if the director is keeping his true reactions and emotions hidden, buried beneath creative metaphors.  It is college essay writing, but he hits on something very interesting in his introduction.  Trakovsky shows a couple of pictures of himself and his family from when they left Russia and came to the US.  Trakovsky was a cute kid, by the way, and this idea of searching for an artist with so much meaning in the researcher’s life is very relatable.  I myself am fascinated by the cinema of Pasolini, who actually comes up in this documentary.  His lifestyle and his way of cinema, a cinema akin to poetry, albeit a gritty, often ugly poetry, and his politics—as an Italian-American never having been to the birthplace of my parents, the notion of Pasolini is for me very romantic and palpable.  The concept of the film would seem to say less about Tarkovsky and more about Trakovsky, or at least Russia in the wake of Tarkovsky’s death.  And that would be a great documentary.  Instead, interview after interview is presented, some priceless, few others bewildering, and some of these accounts really stop the film.

I can appreciate actress Domiziana Giordano, the Botticellian beauty from Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, even if her comments are vacuous and aimless.  She does recount something very interesting: he was a bit chauvinistic but being away from his family in Italy he adopted her as a daughter.  Better still is the interview with Andrei Andreevich Tarkovsky, the director’s son.  I was amazed that Trakovsky could locate the heir to this great director.  I sometimes forget that Tarkovsky existed in our time.  His work is so powerful it feels as if it came from an age before cinema.  Anyhow, Andrei, the son, was not allowed to leave the USSR when his parents decided to remain abroad.  The son reveals here that he was used by his government as a kind of bait to get the fugitive Tarkovsky back home.  The son defiantly says he will not return to Russia, and he now lives in Italy and France.  Though these accounts are great, 2/3 through the movie, Trakovsky himself comes to the realization that he has only been collecting inanimate testimonies.

Great documentaries document less and build impressions; it’s all the cinema can do.  Films give us a sense of life and cannot recreate it as the act of viewing a movie is a step removed from living.  Cinema is impressions; truth is aloof.  Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky fails in giving a real sense of who Tarkovsky was or what his contributions were to cinema or, in a greater context, to 20th Century art and of his place in the great lineage of Russia’s artistic history and how the director has and will shape it.  Trakovsky interviewed too many subjects and presents too much of them.  This is why the film feels more like Trakovsky documenting.  Father Michael McCormick, an Orthodox monk living in California, is one subject too many.  His segment shuts down the film.  He mumbles about how Tarkovsky shaped his life in the church, but he comes off more as a film buff than a spiritual man.  I can understand the interest in a documentary about Tarkovsky to interview a monk but McCormick simply does not relate anything meaningful and, for that matter, cannot form a cohesive thought.

The film does open up in its final segments.  After traveling to Sweden to interview the great actor Erland Josephson, Trakovsky returns to his homeland, something Tarkovsky was never able to do.  Trakovsky speaks first with a Russian filmmaker who claims that filmmaking conditions haven’t changed much.  Many of those who worked with Tarkovsky are still active in the profession, another reminder that Tarkovsky lived not too long ago.  These scenes in Russia give a sense of what the director was after in his opening narration.  It brings full circle his idea but it’s a little too late.  The film feels like a work in progress.  I commend the director for focusing on a unique subject.  An American kid who closely identifies with Tarkovsky is a rarity given our popular culture, but the first hour really needs to be reworked.  It may have helped to see more of Tarkovsky’s images.  I am not familiar with documentary filmmaking but I am aware that claiming fair use isn’t as easy as it sounds, so maybe clips weren’t at the ready to really give a sense of the man’s cinema.  To be sure there are many excerpts, but in even these we don’t get a sense of Tarkovsky’s cinema.

The bottom line is this: will Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky entice unfamiliar viewers to Tarkovsky’s films?  I don’t think so.  It may be that the film is aiming for those who are already familiar, but because Tarkovsky is so powerful and oddly enough so accessible (I really do believe this—his movies aren’t as daunting as many have described) I think more could be done to showcase the director.  Dmitry Trakovsky has a worthy subject and some great material shot all over Europe and with a more intuitive, artful approach he may yet find a terrific film.  “Death does not exist” might refer to the fact that artists truly never die because their work exists for as long as it is appreciated.  Revolutions pass and time vanishes, but the art produced throughout the centuries is still with us.  Andrei Rublev is, in part, about this very topic, and if Trakovsky’s goal of the documentary was to also prove this point then he had succeeded, but the concept and execution seem too simple.  It’s obvious, and it might be why the film doesn’t linger in my mind they way Tarkovsky’s films do.  Still, Trakovsky should again be commended for what he set out to achieve.

Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky (2008)
Director: Dmitry Trakovsky
Writer: Dmitry Trakovsky
Stars: Donatella Baglivo, Erland Josephson and Fabrizio Borin
In English, Italian and Russian
Runtime: 89 minutes

Visit the film's official website to find theatrical showings all over the globe, as well as learn more about director Dmitry Trakovsky and his work, and purchase a copy of the DVD:

The film is also available on Amazon:

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