Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Virtue's Reward: Some Viewers Find Tarkovsky's Films Boring, but Those Who Persist Are, by Definition, Better People

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Virtue's Reward: Some Viewers Find Tarkovsky's Films Boring, but Those Who Persist Are, by Definition, Better People

Article excerpt

Andrei Tarkovsky is, give or take Billy Wilder and Terrence Malick, my favourite film director. However, when watching his films, I want to get up and walk out of the cinema more often than with almost any other film-maker, give or take Michael Mann and Michael Bay. Certainly, I think about escaping into the life and movement of the world outside more than with any other director whose work I love.

And I do love Tarkovsky's films, all of them. I was recently asked to participate in a symposium on his work at Tate Modern, and when it came time to think of a topic for my talk, I decided to address this dominant aspect of his films. First, because it is the thing that many people hate about them. They find them painfully slow, overprecious, pretentious and just plain boring. Second, because I've come to think that "Tarkovsky's Boredom" (the title of my talk) is where his message lies.

That the work has anything as old-fashioned as a message is beyond doubt. In the documentary Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, the maestro says straight out, "The purpose of art is to help man improve himself spiritually." It's very easy to dismiss this as a typically vague, pseudo-profound statement of the sort to which Russians are given. However, I think he meant exactly what he said, and meant it on this level--that every single frame of his films should, in and of itself, help man to improve himself spiritually.

In order to make this kind of film, the director has himself to be spiritually as pure as possible. In another documentary, Tempo diviaggio (Voyage in Time), about the making of Nostalgia, Tarkovsky makes the most extraordinary statement I've ever heard a film-maker come out with. He is on a sun-hazy balcony belonging to Tonino Guerra, scriptwriter of Nostalgia. Guerra is relaying some questions that have been sent in as letters. One comes from a film student, and is bland enough: "What advice would you give to young directors?" To which Tarkovsky, haggardly thin, says that too many directors "take their work as a special position, given to them by destiny, and simply exploit their profession. That is, they live in one way but make movies about something else. And I'd like to tell directors, especially young ones, that they should be morally responsible for what they do while making their films."

Contrast this to the attitude of most wannabe directors, who see popular success as their ticket to Fellini-world. Tarkovsky's is a very extreme position to take: that what happens off-screen will be part of the ultimate meaning of a film. The proof of his assertion, however, working backwards, is that Tarkovsky's own films are more spiritually progressive than any movies ever produced by Hollywood. (This is an argue-late-into-the-night point.) And one of the ways they achieve this is, to put it plainly, by being at times agonisingly slow: by being boring.

"Boredom" may be the wrong word, but I chose it because it is how many viewers experience a Tarkovsky film. For myself, I find certain sequences not tedious, but totally angst-ridden: just the way I find Kafka's Trial or Beckett's Waiting for Godot My desire is to escape from what is going on, or for what is going on to stop. …

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