Tarkovsky Monument 4

In this 4th Tarkovsky post I present more extracts from my Messenger conversation with Hugo Moss and follow up with some observations that mark the problem of defining the film media,  while also furthering my tribute to Andrei Tarkovsky.

Hugo: I’ll just finish up by just taking issue with a smaller but important point – your claim that film was only beginning to mature in the 1960’s. Film was reaching extraordinary heights of maturity in visual storytelling by the late 1920’s, something interrupted by the arrival of sound. Although doubtless a technological advancement, sound caused a seismic shock in the way films were being made and stories told in that medium. Something very valuable was lost, almost overnight. You might take the view that by the 60’s film was recovering its maturity, but let’s not forget the extraordinary achievements on both sides of the Atlantic on the eve of sound’s invasion of commercial film. Silent film was this very sophisticated visual storytelling, they’d become so damned creative and subtle and beautiful and poetic.

Niranjan: Hugo I agree … I would even argue for 2 different mediums – one a visual medium, the other a multimedia in the vein of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk. I believe that silent films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, even Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc can’t be easily translated into sound cinema. I’d venture to say that it would be easier to make paintings of these silent films than to make sound films of them.

Hugo: Yes, it’s a tragedy that film didn’t just split into two currents in ’29/’30 and the silent film just cut right off … So wonderful what was going on, quite as elevated as the heights of painting, I would argue, and it just died, within a couple of years, except of course for Chaplin, famously, but as an industry/artform it ended abruptly!

Indeed, silent cinema was much closer to the traditional theatrical arts – think of abinaya in Bharatanatyam and even of mime in the Western theatre tradition … I think we are on the brink of a discussion about the representational modalities of mimeses and digesis, as they were developed in the film medium … and perhaps we are  also broaching another conversation, one one the nature of multi-media … but these are other stories … What I want to do here is to continue the conversation in terms of Andrei Tarkovsky’s view of cinema and to mark his place, with less hyperbole, within this quintessential medium of the  20th century.  

Here is Tarkovsky’s own list of the 10 best films that he made at the request of film critic Leonid Kozlov in 1972 …. Yes, Hugo, like me, my hero suffers from the tendency to define and sweep clear contradictions … but bear with us momentarily … for the sake of developing some ideas about silent vs sound film. Here is the list –

  1. Diary of a Country Priest(Robert Bresson, 1951)
  2. Winter Light(Ingmar Bergman, 1963)
  3. Nazarin (Luis Buñuel, 1959)
  4. Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
  5. City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931)
  6. Ugetsu Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)
  7. Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
  8. Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)
  9. Mouchette (Robert Bresson, 1967)
  10. Woman of the Dunes(Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964)

Kozlov remembers, “He took my proposition very seriously and for a few minutes sat deep in thought with his head bent over a piece of paper … Then he began to write down a list of directors’ names — Buñuel, Mizoguchi, Bergman, Bresson, Kurosawa, Antonioni, Vigo. One more, Dreyer, followed after a pause. Next he made a list of films and put them carefully in a numbered order. The list, it seemed, was ready, but suddenly and unexpectedly Tarkovsky added another title – City Lights … With the exception of City Lights … it does not contain a single silent film or any from the 30s or 40s. The reason for this is simply that Tarkovsky saw the cinema’s first 50 years as a prelude to what he considered to be real film-making.” This list and Kozlov’s explanation of Tarkovsky’s rational for it, explains the sweeping action of Tarkovsky’s ‘broom’, and also that of my own!

Tarkovsky and I both seem to have treated silent cinema as a mere stage in the development of a more complex sound cinema – a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, or in more contemporary terms, a kind of multimedia. You have taken exception to this view and, in retrospect, I agree with you … Tarkovsky’s own uncertainty (clearly not a clean sweep) seems to be reflected in his last-minute inclusion of Chaplin’s City Lights! And then there is his statement statement in a 1969 interview, “If one absolutely needs to compare me to someone (in Soviet cinema), it should be Dovzhenko. He was the first director for whom the problem of atmosphere was particularly important.” Indeed, if I had to choose one (sweeping) characteristic with which to tag Trakovsky’s oeuvre I would pick ‘atmosphere’!

You have my acknowledgment that it is an error to consider silent cinema as a developmental stage and also that it is an error in my initial claim that film is ‘the’ quintessential medium of the 20th century. It seems there were two distinct celluloid mediums!

(slightly edited version of a post made originally made on AUGUST 13 2017)

Image: https://www.rbth.com/literature/2014/11/26/andrei_tarkovsky_biography_wrestles_with_the_filmmakers_remarkable_41717.html