There are few activities in the history of the world that require more planning than the creation of a feature film
. The Genesis
of the world in its infinity of purpose is one (unless you consider that an accident
, in which case--stop reading, this doesn't concern you).
War and manned space exploration also qualify as planning-intensive activities. Likewise the design and construction of the Sistine Chapel, the pyramids, and the In-n-Out hamburger chain. The creation of a multi-billion dollar corporation like Microsoft? Perhaps, but we can't rule out dumb luck in that case.
If one measures complexity of endeavor in terms of how often Murphy's Law (what can go wrong will go wrong) is invoked, filmmaking is right up there with Apollo 13 and Gettysburg.
Except nobody dies. Usually.
If a camel is a horse designed by committee, then a movie is a dream disgorged by a mob. And that is why God created the Director. Filmmaking is the ultimate doctoral dissertation by the kid who got "works well with others" on his report card. No film, no matter how inconsequential, is ever undertaken lightly. There's always too much money involved.
About the 22nd or 23rd time I viewed Andrei Tarkovsky's final masterpiece, The Sacrifice--on a big screen in West Los Angeles, with a pristine print clattering through an expensive modern projector in an auditorium full of people who can only be termed Tarkovsky addicts and acolytes, sharing an excellent claret in plastic cups with three of my best friends, all professional filmmakers--I was particularly struck, this time around, by the director's security, his assurance, in himself and in his material.
I have, you see, grown myself--as an artist and a person--by my ten-year acquaintance with the works of Andrei Tarkovsky. My horizons have been expanded; my sense of what is possible in cinema has been sharpened, and I go about my business and my life in a different way because of this dead Russian, whom I never knew, and yet somehow I feel I know intimately, because he put his soul on the screen for all to compare.
Above all else, I have come to appreciate Tarkovsky as an artist whose every move is conceived and executed with the sort of grace particular only to men of genius. As James Joyce, another 20th Century genius put it in Ulysses, his undeniable masterpiece:
"A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery."
All of which is a long way around the barn to remark that I could not disagree more with my esteemed colleague
in noding, my new best friend in Little Rock
, mr. dannye
, he of the quick wit and well-deserved Ching!, that mighty penman, that heroic warrior for truth, that defender of the excellent node
, verily, a God
in these here parts.
I spent about a week considering how to respond to dannye's writeup on The Sacrifice, after I got over the fact that his top-of-the-node review of my favorite film was not a rave but a rant.
I discounted a point-by-point rebuttal. dannye's indictment of The Sacrifice is scathing and complete. What we'd have, therefore, at the end of this writeup is a mirror image of dannye's--which is useless to you, the only person I care about, since you haven't seen the movie and you should.
I decided, floggit, he didn't like the movie. Who cares? He's right about one thing--it's not rocket science, it's Art and
In Matters of Taste There Can Be No Dispute.
This I cannot set down more certainly: Tarkovsky is not everyone's cup of celluloid. His work--every last frame of every film he ever made--is unique and demanding, in a way that other film artists, like ALL of the above-mentioned, the Gilliams, the Lynches, the Buñuels, the Polanskis, can only dream of being.
In fact, Ingmar Bergman, an artist my Little Rock Friend does respect according to his Cries and Whispers writeup not long ago, thought Tarkovsky to be "the most important director of our time."
"Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream."
Something doesn't compute. I love all those other directors my LR friend mentioned; my LR friend loves Bergman; Bergman worships Tarkovsky enough to loan him his crew and his island to shoot the movie. Why can't we all just get along? Is it really just a matter of taste?
I don't think so. A dear dead plain-speaking friend who taught me a lot said it best:
Art Shows You Where Your Shit Is.
It took me a while to uncover what he really meant by that.
Art is not passive. It doesn't lie there waiting for you to come and genuflect before it, discreetly baring its pretty gams as you do. Art, the Real Deal, the stuff that lasts, is Vital and Alive and most important Protean, changeable, variable, multiformed. It takes, in the case of film and painting, What the Eye Sees (thank you dannye) and reflects and refracts What the Artist Thought and Felt back into the consciousness--or perhaps, better, the subconsciousness of the viewer. dannye sees shit, Bergman and I see God.
Tarkovsky thought this:
"Art is called to express the absolute freedom of man's spiritual potential. I think that art was always man's weapon against the material things which threatened to devour his spirit. It is no accident that in the course of nearly two thousand years of Christianity, art developed for a very long time in the context of religious ideas and goals. Its very existence kept alive in discordant humanity the idea of harmony.
"Art embodied an ideal; it was an example of perfect balance between moral and material principles, a demonstration of the fact that such a balance is not a myth existing only in the realm of ideology, but something that can be realised within the dimensions of the phenomenal world. Art expressed man's need of harmony and his readiness to do battle with himself, within his own personality, for the sake of achieving the equilibrium for which he longed.
"Given that art expresses the ideal and man's aspiration towards the infinite, it cannot be harnessed to consumerist aims without being violated in its very nature...The ideal is concerned with things that do not exist in our own world as we know it, but it reminds us what ought to exist on the spiritual plane.
"The work of art is a form given to this ideal which in the future must belong to mankind, but for the moment has to be for the few, and in the first instance for the genius who made it possible for human awareness, with all its limitations, to be in contact with the ideal incarnate in his art. In that sense art is by nature aristocratic, it differentiates between two levels of potential, thus ensuring progress from the lower to the higher as the personality moves towards spiritual perfection.
"Of course I am not suggesting any kind of class connotation when I use the word 'aristocratic', rather the contrary: since the soul seeks for moral justification and for the meaning of existence, and moves towards perfection in the course of that search, everyone is in the same position and all are equally entitled to be numbered among the spiritual elect. The essential division is between those who want to avail themselves of this possibility and those who ignore it." (emphasis is riverrun's)
"But again and again art invites people to re-evaluate themselves and their lives in the light of the ideal to which it gives form.
"Art affirms all that is best in man--hope, faith, love, beauty, prayer...What he dreams of and what he hopes for...When someone who doesn't know how to swim is thrown into the water, instinct tells his body what movements will save him. The artist, too, is driven by a kind of instinct, and his work furthers man's search for what is eternal, transcendent, divine--often in spite of the sinfulness of the poet himself.
"What is art? Is it good or evil? From God or from the devil? From man's strength or from his weakness? Could it be a pledge of fellowship, an image of social harmony? Might that be its function? Like a declaration of love: the consciousness of our dependence on each other. A confession. An unconscious act that none the less reflects the true meaning of life--love and sacrifice."
--Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1998
That, mr. e
, is Tarkovsky's
. That's the "telling it all" part you refer to in your writeup. During the making of The Sacrifice
he was not raving around in a pain-relieving drug-induced stupor, mis-casting actors and making mistakes. He was at the top of his game. Cool, clear and uncompromising as usual, an artist who "works well with others," a Director of unparalleled excellence. This is evident in the "making-of" documentary
included in the DVD
version of the film, which was shot by his editor
Which brings me back to Murphy's Law. In my favorite scene in ALL cinema, the one dannye describes so pathetically at the end of his writeup, the hero does indeed burn down his house and get taken away in an ambulance as the "bad actors" attempt to understand what is happening.
The scene is six-and-a-half minutes long, magnificently choreographed (I state this as a professional filmmaker, and my three filmmaker friends who were with me in West L.A. couldn't agree with me more.), and--most important--the scene is uncut. There is only one camera and one camera angle. (See dannye's writeup to learn all there is to learn about camera angles. If you feel somewhat undernourished after doing so, get a copy of Sculpting in Time and read what Tarkovsky thinks.)
The camera jammed during the filming of that scene.
There were no other angles, no way for an editor to "fix" the problem. The house had burned down and had to be reconstructed. The camera belonged to the great Swedish cinematographer Sven Nykvist, the absolute master of light and shadow, the man who shot most of Bergman's films including The Virgin Spring, Through a Glass Darkly, The Silence, Fanny and Alexander and the above-mentioned Cries and Whispers. He also was director of photography on The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Roman Polanski's The Tenant, Star 80, Agnes of God, Chaplin and Sleepless in Seattle.
Nykvist was disconsolate. But Tarkovsky, being Tarkvosky, accepted his fate, rebuilt the set, and reshot the scene as it appears in the film.
"The Sacrifice is the most important film I have ever photographed ."--Sven Nykvist.
I am prepared to get a copy of the film I think is the most important ever made to any noder who feels like tackling a write-up after s/he views it, in order that this node-for-the-ages accord Andrei Tarkovsky the respect he deserves. There is one--and only one--proviso:
See it well-rested with someone you love.
For more from Sven Nykvist on Tarkovsky and The Sacrifice check out the excellent Tarkovsky website http://www.ucalgary.ca/~tstronds/nostalghia.com/TheDiaries/Nykvist-Memoir.html
On Hollywood and filmmaking:
Below the Line
sex drugs and divorce
a little life, interrupted
- Hecho en Mejico
- Sam's Song
- Hemingway and Fortuna
- Hummingbird on the Left
- The Long and Drunken Afternoon
- Safe in the Lap of the Gods
- Quetzal Birds in Love
- Angela in Paradise
- And the machine ran backwards
a secondhand coffin
how to act
Right. Me and Herman Melville
Scylla and Charybdis Approximately
snowflakes and nylon
I could've kissed Orson Welles
the broken dreams of Orson Welles
the last time I saw Orson Welles
The Other Side of the Wind
Below the Line
Final Cut Pro
king of the queens
Kubrick polishes a turd
movies from space
Persistence of Vision
Apocalypse Now Redux
The Jazz Singer
We Were Soldiers