Archive for Andrei Tarkovsky

No Picnic

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on August 21, 2015 by dcairns

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To my surprise, I find there’s a visual gag at the start of Tarkovsky’s STALKER. Well, not quite the start — we get several long-take explorations of what Fiona termed “texture porn” — every interior set seems to have been sprayed with crude oil, so surfaces glisten darkly, they display soaking and rumpling and seep goopus from cracks and creases. But then, unexpectedly, there’s a car wearing a hat.

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It’s a familiar sitcom gag, the object placed on a car roof which is then lost when the car departs. Tarkovsky may have gotten the idea — and I like this idea so I’m going to say DEFINITELY GOT —  the idea from Frank Tashlin’s THE GEISHA BOY, in which conjurer Jerry Lewis is parted from Harry, his rabbit, in just this fashion. Said scene is a lot funnier than Tarkovsky’s, due to Lewis’s repetition of the single word “Harry.” He must say it about forty times, trying different intonations, ending with a plaintive yet accusatory “Oh, Harry!”

So, there you go — Jerry Lewis is funnier than Tarkovsky. He can have that on his tombstone, and then, ten years later, when we get to see THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED, they can chisel it off.

Mind you, Tarkovsky does very well to have the hat facing forward, not like a hat that’s been casually placed on a surface. In profile, the hat displays its most characteristic aspect, so it’s instantly recognizable, which is good visual comedy. And it also makes it look like the car is wearing a hat.

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There are fewer laughs as the film goes on. A piebald specialist takes two irksome dilettantes, a novelist and a physicist, into “the Zone,” an uninhabited region touched by some strange alien force. A bit of text at the start claims this takes place in a “small country,” and is signed by a Dr. Wallace. Fine — so this is happening in SCOTLAND, as far as I’m concerned. I know a few places here as strange as the Zone. Have you ever walked through Dumbiedykes?

The steaming, oozing smudge and crumble of the opening scenes gives way to lush yet dank colour as we enter the Zone, because “Zone” is “Oz” spelt backwards, partly. Fields dotted with rusting tanks set the mood for a film set in a landscape once civilized but now reclaimed by nature — or something else. It’s all very proto-Chernobyl, as everyone must think when they see this. Another case of east European sc-fi managing an act of prophecy, even in disguise.

My friend Alex tells me the Strugatsky brothers’ source novel, Roadside Picnic, is so named because the various zones dotted over Earth in it are places where travelers have briefly stopped, then departed, leaving stray objects, signs of their presence. It all sounds a bit more whimsical that Tarkovsky could bring himself to be, and it doesn’t sound like a meditation on faith, which I take STALKER to represent. Maybe, rather than remaking SOLARIS, the ludic Mr. Soderbergh should have turned his attention to this one?

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To Look for America

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2015 by dcairns

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The story is told that, when filming the last scene of THE GRADUATE, the late Mike Nichols turned the camera on his actors, having briefly set the scene for them, started rolling, said “Action!” and then waited… and waited… and refused to say “Cut!”

His thinking was this: Ben and Elaine (Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross) have fled the church where Elaine was marrying some other guy, and run off together, alienating their respective families (his will probably come to terms with it, though they’ll be baffled; hers are unlikely to adjust). A romantic comedy happy ending has been achieved, but now what? Their lives are ahead of them, an onrushing highway of uncertainty. Nichols said to an interviewer, “It’s entirely possible that in another mile or so she’ll turn to him and say, @But I’ve got nothing to wear.'”

As screenwriter Buck Henry put it, Nichols kept the camera going, having given the actors NOTHING TO PLAY, in order to capture this feeling of uncertainty that creeps up on them. Film is running through the camera and Dustin and Katherine are wondering what the hell is going on. Let’s break it down.

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We did it! The happy ending. The initial rush of excitement running for the bus fades into a happy afterglow, the satisfaction of an immediate problem truly solved.

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The happiness fades. Being professionals, our stars don’t break the scene, they continue sitting there, but they have been given no direction as to what happens now so they’re just waiting for “Cut!” which they expect will be said in about a second from now. Yes. Any second… now? Now?

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Hmm. Apparently the director isn’t finished with us yet. Katherine smiles again, trying to get back into the mood of the events of a moment earlier. Dustin is beginning to think that something is very, very wrong.

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Katherine decides to just wait it out. Dustin tries smiling, either because apparently the scene isn’t over yet and the happy ending is going to take longer than he expected, or because he’s figured out that he’s the butt of a joke of some kind and should take it in good spirit. But WTF?

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Total introspection descends upon our leads. They feel like a pair of amoebas under a microscope. They have played the scene. They have smiled. They have not smiled. What else can they do? They’re only human. They withdraw inside their heads, close their eyes and pull up the drawbridges.

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A dim hope: Katherine wonders what Dustin is doing. Maybe he has a brilliant method actor type plan to get them out of this thing alive. She looks over to see what solutions are offered by the Hoffman face. But Dustin is staring vacantly into the middle distance (somewhere near the end of his nose). There are no answers here.

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The most heart-rending moment. Katherine turns a micro-degree away so she is now staring past Dustin, not at the scenery going by outside the bus, but at NOTHING. This is pretty much like the nightmares actors have where they’re on stage and have forgotten their lines, or their clothes, or both. What is the scene? What am I supposed to DO? I can’t just sit here and be ME.

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Utterly defeated, pinned like butterflies under the pitiless gaze of the glass eye, Katherine Ross and Dustin Hoffman face front, staring not into the eye of the Medusa (“Don’t look at the camera!”) but BEYOND, at the future. Their eyeline pierces the upcoming end credits and points to whatever will happen next, which is unknowable (although Buck Henry makes an ironic mock-pitch of THE GRADUATE: PART II in Robert Altman’s THE PLAYER).

I once saw Sir Ben Kingsley talk about his upcoming plans to direct, plans which alas have come to naught, at least so far. In preparation, he was reading Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting In Time, which is hardly a how-to guide, but it’s certainly not a bad thing to be reading. He pronounced his approval of the book, apart from one scene where old Andrei described filming an actress waiting (I think this was in MIRROR). To get the desired effect, Tark didn’t tell his actress whether the person she was waiting for was actually going to turn up in shot. Thus he was able to photograph the actual doubt in her face.

To Sir Ben, this was an outrageous abuse of an actor. While clearly far worse things have been done to actors in the name of authenticity, I think he may have a point. Letting your actors act is a sign of your trust in them.  Still, the funny thing about the above scene, which is certainly effective, is how the uncertainty of the actors works perfectly in character, as the audience projects onto those faces the emotions they assume the characters must be having.

“It’s all about projection,” as Spalding Gray put it.