Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Walter Benjamin and Andrei Tarkovsky -- Questions and Background

On one of those mornings --waking out of sleep about 3 or 4 --  when all you can do is get something good to read, a hot drink, and stay in bed,  I decided to revisit Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”  

Although Benjamin is long dead, one gets his presence distinctly, as with any strong author.  Doesn’t this raise the question of whether – through art reproduction, printing or other means – souls CAN AND DO INDEED communicate via mechanical means?  Benjamin notes the significant loss of the “aura” of a work of art in mechanical reproduction (which only architecture maintains).  Yet he cherished his books, especially the rare early editions.  The tension between word art and image art looms.

What is Benjamin’s spiritual orientation?  His remarkable phenomenological insights stagger us as we slog through the essay sentence by sentence – it would take several months for a group of artists to digest the ramifications – but he omits something of intrinsic importance in his treatise -- the phenomenology of the human being.  Perhaps he treated this in other works.  I am just dipping into Benjamin for the first time.
He seems to be operating under the assumption that "aura" must be experienced within the limits of physical time and space. [Of course upcoming readings from Steiner will expand these limits.]

So let’s look at one of Benjamin's main points about photography and cinema – the elementary gestalt -- holistic human space and time located vision of the human viewer of a theatrical production (or real life incident) – is obliterated or otherwise altered by re-orienting everything through the camera lens only.   In film we get a selective plus mirrored version of real human experience (multi-mirrored by crew and equipment).   Benjamin was commenting on cinema as of the mid 1930s. 

Andrei Tarkovsky approached cinema a generation later.  His oeuvre shows sweepingly distinct progressions in each film.  He shares this journey in Sculpting in Time. He intended to claim cinema as a spiritually-alive art – the opposite of a commercial commodity, which –with a few notable exceptions-- it had become by the 1970s and 1980s while he created his seven main films.  

A question Art Section East might live with for the next few months:

Can cinema, say a certain kind of film – let’s take Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev – fulfill Steiner’s description of spiritual activation of the soul?

Stephen Hawkes provides perspective.  He references "Technology and Art," where Steiner indicated the  art object will not be there for direct effect, "as used to be the case with art in the past, but will be there for the soul to encounter, so that the experience resulting from the encounter will be a work of art.  This of course involves a metamorphosis."

Stephen Hawkes goes on:  "It is this type of metamorphosis that I mean by 'rehabilitation/'  It involves an intersection and inner transformation of all manifested forms:  of nature, of objects of art, technology, and culture, and the participants with those objects, who themselves have become objectified or remain stranded between subjectivity and objectivity in an abject state.  The artist, who seeks to consciously engage matter with spirit, lifts up what remains in darkness and brings it to the light."

from "The Rehabilitation of the Humiliated Object"

For background on this question in relation particularly to Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev,  Vlada Petric shows how Tarkovsky facilitated the “rehabilitation” of the film viewer in his or her own spiritual time and space experience.  This interview is available on line.  I transcribed it from the documentary material appended to the Criterion Collection version of Andrei Rublev. 

Excerpts from Donatella Baglivo’s 1984 documentary Andrei Rublev, Poet of the Cinema, with Tarkovsky interview excerpts and also comments from Columbia U film scholar Vlada Petric.  

Introduction by Vlada Petric:   As one realizes after viewing Andrei Rublev, the film departs from the traditional practice of storytelling in cinema because its narrative refrains from following the protagonist consistently.  Instead, his presence either visual or auditory is used to link the various episodes that are related to one another on the metaphorical level. Consequently, the narrative structure of this film is fragmented and episodic.  While many scenes deviate from the main plot, often involving Rublev as a witness and occasionally excluding him altogether, yet all these diversions and ellipses are associatively and symbolically related to the central theme of the film, providing a deep insight into the character’s psyche.  The seven episodes in the film each marked by a written inter-title, like the chapters in a book, combine to form an epic portrayal of the great medieval Russian painter of frescoes and icons.  In his book entitled Sculpting in Time: Reflections on Cinema, discussing structure Tarkovsky states that the function of a director is “to pick out and join together the bits of sequential facts, focusing on what lies between them while revealing what kind of chain holds them together  [italics mine RM].”  
Interrelated on this principle, the seemingly disjointed episodes of Andrei Rublev can be viewed as collections of narrative bits joined together by poetic associations of various images and events in such a way that their progression provides space for metaphoric meaning, which emerges between [vocal emphasis] sequences and juxtaposed shots.  For example, while the protagonist is not seen in the introduction to the film, the action in the sequence relates to the central character on a symbolic level, functioning indeed as a metaphor from a distance or metaphor par distance that is inviting the viewer to establish the sequences’ internal link with the rest of the narrative and to do it later [vocal emphasis] in the process of thinking about the just-viewed film.  What emerges from this retroactive let’s say process, is the idea of exploration, courage in searching for the unknown, learning to face life as it is, including failure to achieve the ultimate goal at once: all the motifs intrinsic to Andrei Rublev’s philosophical preoccupations and his creative vision.  

As is explained in the close analysis of this sequence, one of its visually most impressive shots is repeated later in the film with an obvious metaphoric implication that characterizes many other sequences:  [Description of images in film clips being shown are bolded:] Andrei [Rublev] by the side of the stream drinks water from his hand as images stream by in the water.  Andrei Tarkovsky’s voice [in Russian – English subtitles] says: The pressure Rublev is subject to is not an exception.  An artist never works under ideal conditions.  Family follows the Christ carrying the cross up the snowy hill.  If they existed [Mary’s face is the focus] his work wouldn’t exist, for the artist doesn’t live in a vacuum.  Mary Magdalene joins Mother and goes up the hill.  Some sort of pressure must exist.  The artist exists because the world is not perfect.  Art would be useless if the world were perfect Christ figure is relieved of cross for a while  as man wouldn’t look for harmony but would simply live in it.  Art is designed out of an ill designed world.  cross being hauled up the snowy hill by ropes This is the issue in Rublev.  Christ claws his way up mountain as Mother, Mary and John look at him and their individual faces react independently.  AT:  the search for harmonic relationships among men, between art and life, between time and history, that’s what my film is all about.  Inscription being nailed onto the cross.

[Now Tarkovsky in person speaks without the film background]  AT:  Another important theme is man’s experience.  In this film my message is that it’s impossible to pass on experience to others or learn from others.  We must live our own experience, we cannot inherit it. People often say:  Use your father’s experience!  Too easy.  Each of us must get our own.  But once we’ve got it, we no longer have the time to use it and the new generations rightly refuse to listen to it.  They want to live it, but then they also die.  This is the law of life, its real meaning.  We cannot impose our experience on other people or force them to feel suggested emotions.  Only through personal experience we understand life.  Rublev the monk lived a complex life.  He studied with Master Radonevsky at the Holy Trinity, but he lived at variance with his teaching.  He got to see the world through his master’s eyes.  Only at the end of his life he lived his own way.

Petric:  Tarkovey didn’t want Andrei Rublev to be an epic film in the classical sense. Lacking a central hero protagonist, it is the film’s spatial and thematic breadth that functions on an epic level, evoking history through a synthesis of myth, legend and folklore.  The visual sense of epic flow as we know falls in numerous panoramic shots of Russian landscape photographed in various seasons and combined with the mises en scenes depicted in medieval frescoes.

Tarkovsky’s method of joining together the various narrative lines is intended to achieve a cinematic entity in which all elements affect each other. Starting from the premise that beauty is in the balance of the parts, Tarkovsky is most of all preoccupied with the emotional impact the moving images exert on the viewer, with the secondary concern for their potential interpretation.  He calls it a paradox as he explains that the more perfect the work, the more clearly does one feel the absence of any associations generated by it.  A complex film, he continues, structured in a way like his Andrei Rublev, generates an infinite number of associations, which ultimately mean the same thing.

With such an uncompromising creative attitude and highly aesthetic concerns, Tarkovsky’ concept of cinema is antithetical to the commercial production code, or especially the Hollywood entertainment practice that doesn’t care for art.  Unwilling to make any concessions in that respect, he uses cinema as a means of exploring central questions, such as:  What is art?  What is the meaning of human existence, how to communicate feelings, and ideas.  (go to brookside scene with AT sitting in notch of tree).

Donatella Baglivo:  Andrei, what is art?

Andrei Tarkovsky:  Before defining art or any concept, we must answer a far broader question:  what is the meaning of man’s life on Earth?  Maybe we are here to enhance ourselves spiritually.  If our life tends to this spiritual enrichment, then art is a way to get there.  This of course is in accordance with my definition of life.  Art should help man in this process.  Some say that art helps man to know the world like any other intellectual activity.  I don’t believe in this possibility of knowing; I am almost an agnostic. Knowledge distracts us from our main purpose in life.  The more we know, the less we know; getting deeper our horizon becomes narrower.  Art enriches man’s own spiritual capabilities, and he can then rise above himself to use what we call ‘free will.” 

Vlada Petric:  Tarkovsky believes that what matters in life and art is the very process of creative involvement: the ultimate aesthetic value of a film and its concrete direct social function. Rublev also states it clearly at the end of the film when he consoles the weeping Boriska, assuring him that the most important thing is that Boriska succeeded in making people happy.  Of course, it is Tarkovsky’s own philosophy and attitude toward life, his message to young people.

Donatella Baglivo:  (to AT) What would you like to tell young people?

AT:  Learn to love solitude, to be more alone with your selves. The problem with young people is their carrying out noisy and aggressive actions not to feel lonely.  And this is a sad thing. The individual must learn to be on his own as a child, for this doesn’t mean to be alone; it means not to get bored with oneself, which is a very dangerous symptom, almost a disease.  Hey, beauty, come here! (to a horse ) How beautiful! Fabulous animal! – Excerpt from Andrei Rublev:  a horse enjoying rolling over in the sand by the river with voice saying: How nice is the sound of a horse passing by.

AT continues:  Cinema is an unhappy art as it depends on money (film image from Solaris: drive through Tokyo expressway: tunnels and bridges) Not only because a film is very expensive, but then it is also marketed, like cigarettes, etc.  A film is good if it sells well.  But if cinema is an art, such an approach is absurd: it would mean that art is good only if it sells well.  Knowing this very well, I don’t complain.  I can’t demand special terms for my films since these terms don’t exist.  The film for the larger audience cannot be poetical.  Some films have been seen by millions of people, but this happened at the dawn of silent cinema when each new film attracted people’s curiosity.  Now it’s difficult to surprise the spectator and good films are not seen by the masses.

Petric:  Tarkovsky died as a relatively young man without abandoning the hope that cinema as an art form will eventually reach a brighter day.  Montage of images from Andrei Rublev

posted by Rosemary McMullen


  1. Art reproductions appear prominently in Tarkovsky's films. He is especially fond of Bruegel and Leonardo. He uses poetry -- Pushkin and his own father Arsiny Tarkovsky. Classical music -- JS Bach primarily -- beautifully rendered with modern settings. He considered it necessary to anchor the new art of cinema in the solid art of the past.

    Rosemary McMullen

  2. Thanks you very much for some of the comments and the transcription of the DVD extra (Petrie). I started transcribing it and then got your transcription, saving me several hours of work. Many thanks. Keep going. Lovely. -Indranil