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Putting cinema on a par with the other arts
A UK region 2 DVD review of THE ANDREI TARKOVSKY COMPANION by Slarek
 

If you've never seen an Andrei Tarkovsky film, then I'd make that your first priority before tackling this 2-disc DVD set from Artificial Eye. Mind you, unless you've only just discovered that cinema is your thing then you damned well should have seen an Andrei Tarkovsky film, or better still every Andrei Tarkovsky film. A Herculean task this is not, for despite his deserved reputation of one of the masters of late 20th century cinema, he only made eleven films, including his film school work, and most of them are available on DVD.

My fascination with Tarkovsky's cinema began back in my own film school days with my first brain scrambling viewing of his 1972 Solaris, a work whose unsettling atmosphere and haunting imagery led me to London to hunt out his two subsequent films Mirror [Zerkalo] (1975) and Stalker (1979), before later starting work his back catalogue. So well known was my enthusiasm for these films at the time that in the midst of some temporal and structural experimentation on the graduation film I had landed the task of editing, I emerged one afternoon to find a sign saying "Tarkovsky and Son – editors" pinned to the editing room door by one of my waggish fellow students. Oh yeah, I wish.

Hypnotic, beautifully made and often visually striking, the films of Andrei Tarkovsky are thematically and structurally complex enough to invite the sort of detailed analysis that can send the unwary writer on a disappearing act up their own behind. He's the kind of director it would be easy to write pages about and tie yourself in analytical knots in the process, then find that everything you scribbled down has already been said by others.

Artificial Eye's Andrei Tarkovsky Companion contains three documentary films that are targeted at those already familiar with Tarkovky's cinema, and while they could also function as a useful introduction for the adventurous newcomer, I'd still recommend getting at least one film under your belt before diving in here. The films also assume some knowledge of both the director and his filmography, but that's hardly a problem in the information age. Key to the appreciation of the films here is that in 1982, after repeated interference with his work from unsympathetic Soviet authorities, Tarkovsky left the USSR for Italy, where he lived in exile almost until his death in a Paris hospital from lung cancer in 1986, a period that all three documentaries use as their kicking off point.

And so to the films themselves.

Moscow Ellergy / Moskovskaya elegiya

1982 saw two events that were significant to Soviet Russian cultural history: the death of Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev, and the permanent departure from soviet shores of its greatest living filmmaker. While the former was the subject of national mourning, the latter appears to have gone almost unnoticed.

Five years later, Russian Ark and The Sun director Aleksandr Sokurov, to whom Tarkovsky was both a friend and mentor, assembled this documentary tribute that focuses on his time in exile and visits some of the locations that were significant to the director in years before his departure. Sokurov blends newly shot material with archive footage and lengthy extracts from Tarkovsky's final film The Sacrifice, his documentary self-portrait, Tempo di viaggio [The Time of Travel], and footage shot by Chris Marker for his film One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich. Sokurov himself provides the voice-over, a mixture of the factual and the personal whose sometimes poetic economy is especially effective when dealing with Tarkovsky's lung cancer diagnosis.

The archive and film material is particularly interesting, not least the organised pomp of Beshniev's state funeral and intriguing extracts from Marlen Khutsiev's 1963 Ilyich Gates [Mne dvadtsat let], which shows a Russian youth scene that looks almost as if it's strayed into Moscow from an early Godard movie and features a rare acting role for the then young-looking Tarkovsky.

Although the only film on disc 1, this is not really one for the newcomers to Tarkovsky's work, who would be better off giving disc 2 a spin first. Moscow Elergy focuses on Tarkovsky the man rather than the films themselves and walks a non-linear and occasionally abstract path through the director's final years. Once you find your feet it proves an increasingly involving and poetic tribute, and while much of the more intriguing footage has been borrowed from the other two films in this set, its incorporation into Sokurov's vision inevitably changes how you view it. It ends on the poignant and significant image of a tree planted by Tarkovsky earlier in his life and leaves us to supply the metaphor.

A Day in the Life of Andrei Asenevich / Une journée d'Andrei Arsenevitch


An episode from the respected French series on cinema and filmmakers, Cinéma, de notre temps, and directed by the venerable Chris Marker, this is partly an examination of Tarkovsky's cinema and exploration of some of its recurring themes and partly a record of a day's shoot on his final film, The Sacrifice. The first half plays almost like an illustrated film lecture but a damned good one, with the numerous extracts backed by interesting and perceptive analysis delivered in (English language) spoken voiceover, focussing in particular on the use of opposing elements such as fire and water within the film.

The analysis continues during the on-location footage, which is engaging precisely because Marker, as he did with his 1985 study of Kurosawa at work, A.K., invites us to sit back and just watch Tarkovsky work. The effect is entrancing, his energy, enthusiasm and humour blasting an effective hole through the clichéd (and inaccurate) image of the stern-faced Soviet filmmaker, and going a long way to humanising a man who exists in many minds primarily as a film legend.

Marker expands beyond this brief with an engaging and relevant story about Stalin and the pianist Maria Yudina, and intimate footage of Tarkovsky in his hospital bed after his first cancer treatment, re-united with his son Andriosha and consulting with cinematographer Sven Nykvist and editor Michal Leszczylowski on the state of play on The Sacrifice edit.

I'd still recommend seeing at least one Tarkovsky film before coming to this documentary, but this is then a fine introduction to his body of work, and a sad tale of a great filmmaker whose life was cut short in a hospital located in neither his homeland nor his elected country of exile. For anyone passionate about Tarkovsky's cinema, this is a must-have. Oh by the way, Asenevitch is Tarkovsky's middle name.

Tempo di viaggio

Directed by Tarkovsky himself in collaboration with the writer Tonino Guerra for the Italian TV network RAI, Tempo di viaggio is essentially a self portrait of the director and scriptwriter as they scout locations for their upcoming feature (and Tarkovsky's first in exile), Nostalghia. Much of this is comprised of conversations that have doubtless been staged for the carefully composed camera (Tarkovsky speaks in Russian and Guerra in Italian) but are fascinating nonetheless. Tarkovsky effectively interviews himself through questions posed by younger film enthusiasts on the films and filmmakers that he admires, on his attitude to commercial and genre movies, his advice to young filmmakers ("not to separate their film from the life they live"), and his as-yet unrealised projects.

This is interweaved with genuine but still carefully shot documentary footage of the location hunt, with Guerra enthusing about architecture that Tarkovsky rejects because it is "too beautiful" for their story or because of the locations are tourist spots. Increasingly, it's the Italian landscape and countryside itself that hypnotises Tarkovsky and his camera, which is allowed to linger on the images for longer than would normally be necessary, seemingly to encourage us to see and hear them as he does, to appreciate their captivating simplicity, reflecting his admiration for the films of Bresson and Antonioni, where so much is suggested by seemingly little.

There is a strong sense here of a comfortable unification of art and life, the small details of which are shown to be as important as the most grandiose of architectural triumphs. The location hunt becomes a background detail as Guerra reads Tarkovsky his poetry and becomes agitated that they cannot view a white marble floor he has told him about, and the camera focusses on a street cleaner, a local family as they cook an al fresco meal, a girl playing with a balloon, or the steam that rises from the Romanesque pool close to where the two men are staying.

It may seem an odd comparison, but I was reminded at times of Wim Wenders' Lightning Over Water, with its similarly staged but revealing spontaneity, unhurried pace and fascination with seemingly inconsequential detail, something that some might find off-putting but for me helped give the film a kind of unforced cinematic poetry. A little self-indulgent perhaps, as any such project is bound to be, but this is as close to the real Andrei Tarkovsky as the camera was ever able to get, and that alone makes the film a rare and precious thing.

sound and vision

All three films have been transferred in the correct 4:3 ratio, with image quality varying somewhat even within the films themselves. Moscow Ellergy probably comes off worst, with even the newly shot footage some way short of pristine, although the mixture of extracts and archive footage is bound to produce variable results. The sequences borrowed from the other two films in this box set are noticeably inferior in quality to the originals – both have been stripped of colour and while extracts of One Day in the Life have clearly been grabbed from a low band video original, the condition of the segments from Tempo di viaggio is ropey enough – flicker, water marks, dust spots – to suggest either a slash print (used in pre-digital days for rough cut editing) or deliberate degrading of the image for effect.

A Day in the Life of Andrei Asenevich is in better shape but still not without its issues. Shot largely on video it's free of dusts spots and scratches, although a number of video damage blips are visible. Colour and contrast are generally good here, although there is a marked variance in quality in the included film extracts. A degree of fuzziness and motion blur has been added by the NTSC to PAL transfer.

Tempo di viaggio was shot on what looks like 16mm film, but it appears this transfer was taken from a tape master – the timecode blips are still visible at the very top of the screen. Grain is clearly evident throughout but particularly prominent in low light shots, where the analogue tape and subsequent digital transfer mutates it into a snowstorm of coloured dots. At its best this is countered by decent colour and contrast and a reasonable level of detail. Some unlit interiors are a little grubby, but this is par for the 16mm documentary course.

The sound on all three films is Dolby 2.0 mono, which is serviceably clear and with no obvious issues. There is a background hiss on Tempo di viaggio that is particularly noticeable when all other sound is dropped, although the mix also includes sections of complete silence where even the hiss vanishes for short periods. Sound recording is occasionally at the mercy of the locations, but dialogue is always audible and the optional English subtitles are very clear.

extra features

Filmographies for Aleksandr Sokurov, Chris Marker, Tonino Guerra and, if course, Andrei Tarkovsky.

summary

The chosen title of this two-disc set from Artificial Eye is most appropriate, as all three films will be considered essential companion pieces to the filmography of one of Russia's and indeed world cinema's most important and revered talents. All three have their very considerable merits, despite the borrowing of material by one from the other two. Where I can't help taking issue with Artificial Eye is in the pricing. £24.99 might just – and I do mean just – be justifiable if all three films were in excellent condition, but they are not, and include one NTSC to PAL transfer and one that has been mastered from tape rather than the original film print. Fans are going to want the set anyway, but I'd look hard for discounts or wait for the sales.

The Andrei Tarkovsky Companion

Moscow Ellergy
Soviet Union 1987
86 mins
director
Aleksandr Sokurov

One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich
France 2000
55 mins
director
Chris Marker

Tempo di Viaggio
Italy 1983
62 mins
directors
Andrei Tarkovsky
Tonino Guerra

DVD details
region 2
video
4:3 OAR
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
Russian / French / Italian / English
subtitles .
English
extras
Filmographies
distributor
Artificial Eye
release date
28 May 2007
review posted
5 June 2007

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