Emotional Hysteria: SACRIFICE

It’s difficult to fathom that Sacrifice would be Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film, because there’s a significant grace in his artistic conviction for delivering a very humane story about coming to terms with one’s own demise. The story is about Alexander, who’s celebrating his birthday with his estranged family in a house that feels somewhat like it’s on the desolate outskirts of a misplaced world known as purgatory. Most of the dialogue between Alexander and his family all seem to reminisce about the past, which is something that’s often examined when someone is close to death’s doors. However, in the midst of Alexander’s birthday celebration a declaration of nuclear war has begun with the eerie, screeching sounds of the overhead airplanes summoning up a looming apocalyptic threat that essentially induces a chaotic fever of anxiety and panic among the characters in the film. Adelaide, Alexander’s wife goes bonkers screaming that something must be done while Victor, the doctor injects a sedative to calm her nerves. Her emotional hysteria rattles Otto and Alexander’s nerves as both decide to have a drink. Typical male behavior, when most sane, emotional women sink into momentary insanity.

As the ordinary world, runs into full disarray, Tarkovsky uses desaturated colors, nearly black and white to convey a world of doomsday despair in Alexander’s dream sequence where in one frame he runs down a hallway as the water drips in a non-diegetic fashion. While in the next frame, Alexander is sitting next to a window looking out into the bare snowy land, then suddenly in another frame, he’s outside seeping his hands into earthy sludge while uncovering a piece of cloth. The ground shakes again with the lovely tracking shot of the ground, with leaves being blown and fragments of snow flake away. The dream sequence is a metaphor for Alexander’s weariness about life in terms of depression, technology and modern science changing the world, while his need for refinement of peace, solitude, and hope is a need for precedence. As Alexander ranted his unraveling about humanity to Little Man, while sitting under a tree, he says, “We have acquired a dreadful disharmony between our material and our spiritual development.” He’s losing control over his life, and what generally occurs next is the mixture of denial, bargaining, depression, anger, and eventually acceptance and at the core of it all, he turns to spirituality. Alexander prays and turns to God begging for everything to be restored back to normal and he’ll give up everything that binds him to life, his ultimate sacrifice. Tarkovsky skillfully and masterfully conveys God’s power in granting Alexander to live and as the film begins to conclude, he slowly severs himself from his family and life by basically being mute, hiding himself away, and lighting his house on fire. Consequently, life embodies this pattern of creation and destruction very similar to how artists express themselves in their work. The beauty of this cinematic marvel is Tarkovsky’s poetic knowledge that when something ends, something almost always accordingly new begins. An ending always has a start and vice versa. The cycle is never ending, with the destruction of the burning house and in the final frames of the film, Little Man is sitting at the base of the tree he helped plant with Alexander, signifying that something new will eventually grow.

As Alexander awesomely says, “We wait for something. We hope, we lose hope, we move closer to death. Finally, we die.” There’s a continuation of yearning for something and through the course of the story, Alexander reiterates that he’s been waiting around for something and that is whole life has been one long wait. Obviously, life is about living and finding meaning, and seemingly how we project are own perceptions of the here and now, while lingering for the inevitable occurrence event known as death, but it’s also about finding sacrifice. Perhaps, this is what Alexander was waiting for. His own peace within accepting sacrifice for his loved ones. Humans do, do crazy things in the foundation of love. Alas, there are varying thematic elements Tarkovsky has woven in his final splendor of a film all ranging from living, waiting, dying, questioning, loathing, creating, and destroying. He’s ultimately sculpted a universe demonstrating humanity’s ongoing battle and perhaps charade of existential behaviors, prompting the question about what it truly means to sacrifice.

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Embrace the Memories: NOSTALGHIA

According to Andrei Tarkovsky from his book, Sculpting in Time he says, “I am interested in man, for he contains a universe within himself; and in order to find expression for the idea, for the meaning of human life, there is no need to spread behind it, as it were a canvas crowded with happenings.” Tarkovsky examines life by portraying it as is, lingering in on moments that may or may not have material to them that progresses the story forward. It’s not your typical Hollywood format where a story is edited, polished, and reproduced with a happy ending that produces an enormous amount of money for mass audiences. Nostalghia is a story about the protagonist Gorchakov’s state of mind as he’s unable to find tranquility within himself and his reality around him, while yearning for his is old life of his homeland and family.

The story has a moody resonance with profound sadness which is basically what nostalgia is and Tarkovsky translates his own personal awareness of this into the story. There’s a sense of emptiness and longing weaved into the story’s timeline, where we see short black and white flashbacks that appear to be of Gorchakov’s family. Another notion that goes along with Nostalghia is the intrinsic feeling of spirituality, where Gorchakov endures the formidable task of pacing back and forth in an empty pool with a lit candle. He tries to keep the flame alive, which very much represents a metaphor for life.

There’s also an interesting contrast between the Gorchakov character, who is a poet, and the mad man, Domenico, whom he befriends while in Italy. The beauty to both of these characters, is how the mad man and the poet are very much the same person, because in a way to be an artist is to be kind of maddening. There is also a clever line from Domenico that enforces the very idea of the two being one, when he’s pouring a bottle olive oil he says, “One drop plus one drop makes a bigger drop, not two.”

The final scene of the film also has a metaphorical element, where Gorchakov is in an abandoned cathedral and his nostalgia of his loved ones are among him, which shows how is state of mind is converging his reality with his long last past that of which he yearns to be part of again. It’s cinematically breath taking scene that also leaves an open-ended philosophical interpretation which is refreshing to contemplate how it makes a person feel and again question what it means to be human.

In the Zone: STALKER

Tarkovsky’s film, Stalker is an elusive, beautifully cryptic story that smells as if it foretold the disaster of Chernobyl that occurred in 1986. Which was several years after the film was completed. Creepy? Yes. There’s an eerie resonance that echoes throughout the narrative of the film, where a man known as the stalker acts as a tour guide taking a writer and professor on a carefully, nearly calculated journey into the place that is known as the Zone.

The Zone is an abandoned land of corroded buildings, farms, trees, fields, and seemingly feels like it’s an alternative reality that provides curiosity seekers a chance to find some form of salvation. There’s a zealotry effect at play given that this mysterious room located in the zone has some magical wish-granting power for those who seek it, but its also heavily patrolled by armed guards.

As eerie as the story unfolds, the mise en scène provides an even creepier exposition of obscure dunes, damp tunnels, a lurking black dog, a gorgeous tracking shot that roams through a stream of scattered junk, toxic chemicals spewing through the air, and a decrepit room that looks like its going to cave in on itself. The opening scene has a dank, rustic sepia texture making it feel like a dismal world which ironically is of a room, where the stalker awakens for his morning ritual before he makes his long trek through the zone, to end up in another room. Tarkovsky uses color to distinguish worlds, between the sepia tone for the dismal reality and color for the world of the zone.

Along with the strange moments of Stalker, there are also humorous scenes, where stalker is chauffeuring his travel mates in a jeep, peeping around corner walls, and in a way dilly-dallying they’re way from the armed guards, hoping they don’t get caught while trying to enter the zone. The movement of the actors, and positioning of the camera makes for a comical sequence. There’s also a notable scene, where the three finally reach the room and after a dramatic monologue of each of their intentions and conclusions about the room, a phone randomly rings in the midst of a somber conversation. This breaks the tension but also makes the audience question the purpose behind such an interruption.

Whatever the case it works. Much of the journey has a fascinating essence because the audience doesn’t quite know what’s going to happen, and in a way they’re along the voyage with the stalker. Tarkovsky does an incredible job knowing what to focus on as the camera lingers along the noiseless, meadow landscapes making you wonder what trap is going to land the crew into trouble. There’s an air of mystery about the Zone, making you wonder what is it about this hallowed land that makes these characters yearn for a deeper sense of knowledge or their personal curiosities into the unknown. Perhaps, it was the excess fumes of the toxic chemicals from the supposed meteorite that created the Zone. Perhaps, it’s the voyage is purely about hope and combating the worn down surrounding of their actual livelihoods.

Cinematic Inspiration: THE MIRROR

I think Alan Watts said it best that,“When we think of a moment of time, when we think what we mean by the word “now”; we think of the shortest possible instant that is here and gone.” Similarly, I feel Tarkovsky uses a conjecture of Watts’s thought on time in his stunningly, poetically, visual film The Mirror. Essentially, it’s like watching a montage of someone’s life that’s being manipulated by pushing the narrative backwards and forwards through the movement of the film.

Also the use of slow motion is utilized in various scenes such as when the wind breezes through the buckwheat fields which conveys a feeling of strangeness. There are elegant panning shots that move intentionally slow, permitting you to linger on these moments as if Tarkovsky himself wants you to see and feel what’s going on in Alexei (the main protagonist’s) mind. Much of Alexei’s memories of his childhood coincide with historical elements that courses through three time periods from the 1930s up into the 1960s. Memories include various shots of his mother, and his childhood of living in his grandfather’s house.

There is also a period of time where Alexei is in some military school, and his troublesome behavior illustrates his lack of interest for rifle training. The narrative also pushes into the present, where Alexei is in a continuous argument with his wife, Natalia who also happens to look just like Alexei’s mother in previous scenes. In numerous pre war scenes, Alexei’s mother Maria or Masha is featured quite a bit such as when she’s seen in the country side sitting on a fence enjoying a cigarette, or when she scurries her way into her work at a printing shop convinced she’s made an error in one of her articles. There’s also the notable dream sequence, where Masha/Maria is washing her hair as water also seeps from the walls, as pieces of the ceiling fall to ground, is strongly poetic from a mental standpoint. Alexei trying to tell the audience that his relationship with his mother disturbing, weak, and not built on a strong foundation perhaps in the realm of communication.

Very much like a film camera, the mirror in all it’s obvious power reflects an image back that makes it’s existence known and then evaporates very much like a moment in time. Tarkovsky brilliantly uses this medium to convey how time can be used to reflect fractions of a moment and how it leaves an overwhelming impression on the audience. He enforces a sensational look into who a person is, what a person feels, and often thinks about very much what it means to be human. The Mirror is a riveting, inexplicable, art film that can’t fully be described in words, but instead leaves an intrinsic feeling that washes over you similarly to how time imprints on a person’s life.

Mind in a Blender: My Thoughts on SOLARIS

Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, Solaris appears to be a standard science fiction story, that seeps into a deep and lengthy mediation of our own perceptions of time, identity, and grief. It’s a story about space, without really showing us space. Oddly, enough the film gives off a claustrophobic vibe with the minimal usage of sound and painfully slow tracking shots that transports the audience as if they were actually on the lonely space station with the delirious scientists. The only space visuals revealed are of the ocean that makes up the planet Solaris as well as video footage of it’s clouds from a former space cadet. The story is a psychological mind bender where the protagonist Kris Kelvin is sent up to investigate the strange behavior of the remaining crew on the lonely space station as it explores the planet Solaris.

Tarkovsky uses long tracking shots that linger over various set designs such as the cups of tea and fruit on the table outside the house while it rains, (before Kris heads off to Solaris) to emphasize the importance of slowing down time. It’s as if he wants his audience to take a breathier from the meticulous ongoing vibrations of everyday life. Explore nature. Breathe. Think. Mediate. He demands the patience of his audience. Tarkovsky is a minimalist when it comes to cinematography, but he is also aware of the heightened need for compelling sound design. In the opening sequence, he uses the glorious noises of nature such as the sound water trickling, birds tweeting, and the absence of city congestion. Tarkovsky, which similarly to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, also uses these elements of nature and the use of slow panning, again to convey the depth and the importance of time. For instance, he presents the haunting image of the underwater reeds undulating beneath the surface like some inexplicable force that leaves a tantalizing feeling of intrigue. Also in the levitation scene, where Kris and Hari embrace each other in a genuine understanding of love and respect, the camera slowly pans creating a very human moment between the two.

There’s no montage, no glorious soundtrack, or stylistic lighting, which typically keeps the audience’s attention going through the course of a film. On the contrary, Tarkovsky explores the emotional depth of what it’s like to be trapped in grief. A never ending nightmare of recycled pain, one must endure until some form of resolution is discovered. Kris Kelvin becomes the product of what is known as a tortured soul. He grieves the tragic loss of his wife’s suicide, and is unable to come to terms with it until he arrives at the space station where the Solaris world creeps into his subconscious as he sleeps. When he awakens a manifestation of his wife sits before him, hardly knowing who she is. Hari, Kris’s wife becomes a projection who literally dies a few times only to remerge to which Kris falls in love with her all over again. In a way, she’s a healing mechanism that allows Kris to face his grief and let go of the past. As a result he is able to feel somewhat like a human being again. Kris and Hari’s narrative has a somewhat similar theme to that of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Orpheus loses Eurydice forever because he looks back at her before they leave the cave, which is chillingly similar to Kris’s inability to look forward as he’s always submerged into his past and the grief he carries internally.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, oozes with confusion and somber fascination into the mysteries of the human mind and the explorations of a strange world, which consequently creates the deep introspection of one’s soul by replicating the various manifestations one holds within. And it begs the question, if the scientists are studying Solaris or is Solaris studying the scientists? Either way, it’s a scary journey to fathom the unknowns of the human mind and the universe we inhabit.