As an artist limited by his circumstance in the warring, emaciated USSR throughout the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, Andrei Tarkovsky did well to establish himself as one of cinema’s greatest masters. In some sense, his works represent grand acts of imagination against the pressures of reality. Faced by an increasingly philistine world enveloped in the struggles of aggressive international politics and the constant threat of nuclear war, he felt it his duty as an artist to help reintroduce the poetic essence as a vital part of humanity. He imbued his cinema with an element of poetry that stuns the viewer both visually and emotionally, and with his vision as an artist he invented—as legendary Swedish film maker Ingmar Bergman said—a new language. It is no surprise that Tarkovsky’s father was a much-loved Russian poet with nine collections of poetry. As evidenced in his film Stalker, where one of his father’s poems is recited near the threshold of The Room (a place where one’s innermost desire is alleged to be granted upon entering), Tarkovsky used his father’s poetry as a source of inspiration for his cinema. You could say that he found poetry to be one of the highest forms of art, and wanted to instill the essence of it in his films. But what is the essence of poetry? Some might say it’s intangible, or that it simply doesn’t exist. Others might say that the essence of poetry is its unique presentation of ideas. Tarkovsky would likely say, however, that it is the art form’s ability to inspire a state of rational and irrational bliss through language.
In his book, Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky talks about the importance of emotion and irrationality in the creative process. This is a well-known idea for most poets, but to apply it to cinema was something that had not been done often before Tarkovsky. In poetry, for instance, it is generally accepted that the writer will not know what the poem is “about” until it has been finished. The process of creating a poem is taken over by the natural succession of language in the context of itself, leading the artist into territory he may not have intended on visiting. You start with a word or a phrase that has a kind of gravity to it, and you build on top of it other words and phrases with a similar gravity. Of course there are technical aspects to it as well—and though a poem no longer requires rhyme and meter, there still must be some poetic techniques applied for it to be an effective piece of art. The key to effective art is achieving a balance between irrational, emotional urges of spontaneous creation and the more rational, thought-oriented sense of structure that must be imposed on the former. During the creation of a poem, however, most would agree that it leans more on the emotional side, and the intellectualization of it typically comes later. Tarkovsky believed in this irrational method of creation, but how could he incorporate such a thing in cinema where the actual making of the film must be a highly controlled process involving many people? This is where the definition of poetry must be stretched a little bit. Tarkovsky is often described as a very “poetic” director, and in his films it could be said that he follows the model of an irrational creative process in the visuals he presents. It’s not linguistic poetry, but visual poetry. For instance, in Stalker when the three characters emerge from the meat grinder, they find themselves in a spacious and eerie room filled with miniature sand dunes. The static camera angle viewing The Room from the far side is incredibly striking for the viewer, though it is unclear whether the dunes have a purpose beyond just being aesthetic objects. Do they symbolize something? Maybe they do; maybe they don’t. That’s up to the viewer to decide. If Tarkovsky followed the poetic model of creation, he likely envisioned that scene without any clear or deliberate association of meaning for the dunes. The point is that the emotional gravity of the scene was worth the film it took to shoot it, and that’s all Tarkovsky required as an artist. He could figure out what the dunes meant—if they meant anything at all—after the scene had been shot. Stalker is full of visual poetry like this that puts up a kind of resistance against intellectualization. In fact, even the most important concept of the film, The Zone, seems to resist. In Tarkovsky’s own assessment of it (from his book Sculpting in Time), he writes “People have often asked me what The Zone is, and what it symbolizes, and have put forward wild conjectures on the subject. I’m reduced to a state of fury and despair by such questions. The Zone doesn’t symbolize anything, any more than anything else does in my films: The Zone is a zone, it’s life…” The great embarrassment for a poet is to be overanalyzed—to have your work spoken of in terms of intention of ideas when there was none to begin with. True to his own poetic roots, Tarkovsky feels no need to impose a meaning on everything in his films. In fact, as an artist, it offends him when this is done. A cinematic poet like Tarkovsky knows that not everything is meant to be reduced to a collection of pieces for the purpose of analysis. Some things you just accept whole.
There is, however, an obvious conflict to address concerning the nature of the creative process and the finished product. How does a person conditioned to rationalize experience come to terms with a film like Stalker whose visuals are so charged with pure, irrational energy? Because even though rational thought may not be the most crucial element in the creation of a poem or a film like Stalker, the analysis that comes afterwards should not be entirely overlooked. Rationalizing experience and art is every bit as important as creating it; what would be the point of it if there were nothing gained afterwards? A fellow classmate’s initial response to Stalker reads: “Diving straight into the film, I had nothing but confusion and did not truly like this film. I thought that by watching Stalker, I would obtain an understanding of what exactly was going on. This, however, proved wrong.” This is a good example of a common reaction to Stalker by people who have little experience with the poetic essence that Tarkovsky instills in his art. While the plot itself should not be difficult to follow, what the film is actually about on a more intangible level may be accessed through the dialogue between the three main characters. And though Stalker, like many poems, has its center of gravity located in the emotional side of human experience, it is by no means impenetrable to thorough analysis.
Film as an art form has at its disposal many mediums of communication simultaneously. In Stalker, not only are the visuals so affecting for the viewer, but the dialogue of the film contains amazing potential for deep examination and, as much as any other piece of art that came before it, gives a person access to the tools they need to divine the purpose of their own existence. The use of dialogue in Stalker goes back to the two essential elements of the creative process—rational and irrational—except they are more directly related to poetry through the use of language. When Boris and Arkady Strugatsky (co-authors of the novel Roadside Picnic, which Stalker is loosely based on) wrote the script for Stalker, they must have approached it from two angles at once: feeling the need to stay true to the language and the poetic elements of the dialogue while also staying true to the ideas they wanted to get across. In this way, the ideas, which end up being the most important part of the film after multiple viewings, are not set aside as byproducts of the irrational creative process, but are seen as co-primal elements along with the poetic narrative they are trying to bring together through language. The finished product ends up pregnant with both meaning and aesthetic value. This is the poetic essence to Tarkovsky’s work that inspires two states of bliss for the audience: rational and irrational. The rational bliss is more commonly known as an epiphany—when a person very suddenly gains insight into the essential meaning of something that alters their perception of reality. The dialogue in Stalker—mediated by the slow-paced narrative and surrounded by an aura of conscious reverie—undoubtedly has the power to spark an epiphany in any receptive person. This type of rational bliss is a different facet of the poetic essence at work than the irrational bliss, which is brought on by what we don’t understand in the film, but are still drawn to. In contrast to the epiphany, the visual poetry of Stalker suspends rational thought and lets the viewer focus on the experience of the film itself. A good example of this is the scene when the three characters have stopped fighting with each other and sit down together on the threshold of The Room. Rain starts to fall into the shallow pool, and again, we look at the three archetypal characters together from a far, static angle. This scene inspires chills. But on the first, second or maybe even third viewing, the audience may still not have a rational explanation for the falling rain. This is not because it is unable to be explained, but because the power of this scene is rooted in the raw, irrational essence of poetry as opposed to something that is meant to be clear in its message.
In addition to these methods of creation and the states of bliss his films inspire, Tarkovksy employed a clear devotion to his art form that would be expected of a poet. As shown in the documentary film Directed by Andrei Tarkosvky, he had a great passion for the collaborative work of film making. Though poetry is most often a solitary craft, there are still parallels to be found in the technical aspects of creating a poem and creating a film. For instance, in Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, one sequence shows the process of designing a set for his last work, The Sacrifice. Tarkovsky has a hand in everything, but he is not dictatorial. He helps to accent the set with small items, says which colored couch he would prefer, and knows how to arrange the lighting. These details are like the technical elements of poems that a poet must pay close attention to, even if they are not fully conscious of how each small thing will affect the work as a whole. For example, when a poet puts a phrase together that, for some reason feels a little bit off, there may be a word that needs to be added or a word that needs to be removed to make the phrase feel right. This is likely the way Tarkovsky and his set-designers go about creating a set. They have a feeling in mind that they want to produce, and they need to put things together in a certain order to make it a reality. Unlike a poet, however, Tarkovsky has many people to cooperate with during the creation of his films. There are different personalities to deal with and perhaps different artistic visions that need to be reconciled with Tarkovsky’s. With so many things going on during the making of a professional film, Tarkovsky said in the documentary that it can be easy for a director to become more like an observer during the creation of a film, as opposed to an active participant. He made a point of being directly involved in everything that he could be, and this is one reason why each of his films are unmistakably his. He developed his own style of film making that is instantly recognizable by anyone familiar with his work.
One such trademark of his films is explained by one of his former collaborators, Eduard Artemyev, in an interview about Tarkovsky’s use of music. Artemyev was a young composer when he met Tarkovsky and was asked to score his 1972 film Solaris. He was never given specific directions for the score, but was actually granted a rather overwhelming amount of creative freedom. Tarkovsky trusted him to set a score for his films that would match his artistic vision and contribute to putting the essence of poetry in action. One thing Tarkovsky insisted upon, however, was for Artemyev to try and “orchestrate the sounds of nature” in his scoring of the films. In Stalker, evidence of this approach to the sound effects can be heard throughout. Dripping water—which is a common sound in the movie—is supplemented by a slight echoing, metallic effect. Not only does this give certain scenes in Stalker a more futuristic feeling (it is a science-fiction film, after all), but it also makes the viewer become more aware of water as a central theme to the film. Another example where Artemyev subtly complements the sound effects in Stalker is when the three characters are riding the trolley on their way into The Zone. There is a rhythmic industry to the sounds the trolley makes in that long shot that mesmerizes the viewer as they anticipate entering The Zone. The clacking of the wheels on the track creates a musical bridge between the bleak, sepia-toned world they are coming from and the lush, colorful zone they are entering. In addition to supplementing natural sounds, Stalker also makes use of more conventional music to enhance certain scenes. The dream sequence, where the Stalker, Writer, and Professor decide to take a rest by the bank of the river, makes excellent use of an ambient piece to accompany the reading of the poem “The Prayer of the Stalker.” While the poem is read by a disembodied female voice (also the voice of the Stalker’s wife), there are orchestrated bird and animal sounds in the background that were likely pre-recorded and then placed into the film. Once the poem has been finished, the music begins and helps set into motion the irrational state of bliss for the viewer that this scene is so famous for. In this way, the music used in Tarkovsky’s films help to actuate the poetic essence. It is a flawless example of Tarkovsky’s ideal aesthetic on full display.
Though it should be simple to enjoy a film like Stalker for anybody interested in feeling and thinking, the slow pace of the narrative and the cinematic style on the whole may take some getting used to. In an interview with Vadim Yusov, a cinematographer who worked with Tarkovsky on his 1983 film Nostalghia, he said that Tarkovsky was interested partly in the reproduction of reality when it came to the cinematography. This holds true for most of his post-Ivan’s Childhood works. The use of long, unedited shots in the majority of Tarkovsky’s films take the viewer on a journey with the main characters, as opposed to leaving them as observers. From beginning to end in Stalker, the viewer can feel each step in the story as it unfolds because of the way it is shot. There are a few time-lapses, but nothing that is terribly disorienting. It begins in the morning when the Stalker gets out of bed, and ends soon after he goes back to sleep. According to Russian film expert Vida Johnson, Tarkovsky’s interest in the reproduction of reality by using long shots only increased over time. Wikipedia says that in Stalker, a 163 minute film, there are a total of 142 shots with the average length of the shots lasting over a minute. But in The Sacrifice, Tarkovsky’s last film, there are only 115 shots for a total of 149 minutes. This shows a clear progression towards the longer, more virtuosic style of cinematography that Tarkovsky sought to perfect throughout his career.
In the end though, it is not the technical details of his art that prove to be the most interesting. Tarkovsky was a master of his craft with a deeply personal connection to everything he created. He believed in making art that responded to a necessity of man—a kind of art that forces a person to the center of his being in a desperate attempt at rebirth while under the constant threat of dissolution. He lived during a time when the world threatened itself openly with its own destruction, and he responded to that threat the only way a solitary person can: he created art. He posed eternal questions of love, happiness, beauty, wisdom, etc., in his films that will continue to open people up in a way they have never been opened up before. If anything is made clear after absorbing Tarkovsky’s aesthetic philosophy and works, it is that when confronted with good art, our reductionist tendencies as rational, pragmatic people are made useless. Stalker is not a film to be reasoned with in order to find answers—it is a film to be experienced in order to find questions. The essence of poetry as Tarkovsky saw it was not only a thing to be experienced in the leavened moments of bliss induced by great art, but also a thing that comes to birth and rebirth inside oneself in daily life. It is when it is embodied in art, however, that one becomes so acutely aware of its inflammatory nature that they develop a vast, insatiable yearning for its constant activity. This is not unlike the Stalker’s own yearning for The Zone, which torments him to the point where he would sacrifice anything, even his life, for a chance to be with it again. In this sense, The Zone is accessible to each and every person capable of making art, for it is when making art that a person feels free of the dreaded and eternal human task of survival in a dispassionate world. To enter The Zone is an act of liberation, but to explore it—as in the film—is a dangerous thing. A successful journey through The Zone requires more than art. If one is not lead in the right direction and by the right forces at the right times, they may go mad from disorientation. In other words, there must be a balance of forces to inform one’s world view in order to make it through The Zone and find themselves suddenly on the threshold of The Room, where they are faced with the great question of desire. The essence of poetry is something that helps a person on the way to The Room, as when the Writer leads the way through the Meat Grinder, but it is not the only force at work. Tarkovsky understood the multiple ways of reaching forms of truth. Faith, Art, and Science may sometimes be at odds in his work and in our society, but in the end he realizes they must cooperate as even-handedly as possible in order to reach the sought-after happiness. The paradox is that this happiness as destination may not even be desirable by any party because happiness is not a destination; it is an endless state of exploration carried out by the three forms of understanding. In the end, though, Tarkovsky understood the world as an artist. He pursued his vocation with the conviction of one wholly consumed by the essence of poetry and proved to the world that to have real love for anything in this world is the most essential part of being human. He died as a martyr of his beloved cinema due to cancer likely caused by the radioactive site where Stalker was filmed. In Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky wrote “The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” If art has ever prepared a person for death, there was never one more deserving than him.