May 10, 2010

Andrei explained

Chris Marker films aren’t easy to see here -- maybe anywhere, but especially here. I own Criterion’s excellent La Jetee/Sans Soleil DVD and I saw The Last Bolshevik on faded VHS via Videon in Auckland a few years back. Other than that, you can find two of his essays on film-makers as DVD extras: One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich on the Artificial Eye two-disc set The Andrei Tarkovsky Companion and his Kurosawa film A.K. on a Ran special edition. No video stores in New Zealand would have any more than that and nearly all would have less -- or none. The New Zealand Film Festival lists just three Marker films -- the less well-regarded Level Five, plus Arsenevich and The Last Bolshevik -- in its programme over its entire history, which goes back to the 1960s. Unless their online archiving is faulty, they have never run La Jetee (accurately, “one of the strangest movies ever conceived, and also one of the most beautiful and sad” in this career appraisal) but film societies have run it (right here in Christchurch, 1972). No sign of Sans Soleil in the festival either. In the art world, Auckland’s Gus Fisher Gallery had Owls at Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men a couple of years ago. And that might be the extent of it.

So you savour what you can.
One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich is Marker’s Tarkovsky film (J Hoberman: “The most sustained and heartfelt tribute one filmmaker has paid another”). Marker’s footage was shot in 1985 and 1986 but the film seems to have been completed and released only in 1999, as a French TV special, hence its length (55 minutes). The English narration is by Alexandra Stewart, whose crisp voice Marker fans will instantly recognise from the English language version of Sans Soleil. But no matter who reads it, the Marker voice -- in a literary sense, not a literal one -- is recognisable too: erudite, humane, curious, critical of hypocrisy and power.

This documentary might still be the best -- the most accessible, the most concise -- primer or briefing available for anyone heading into that Tarkovsky universe. Marker clearly knew Tarkovsky well, both as artist and human being -- assuming there’s a difference. Some of his footage is of Tarkovsky on location in Sweden for
The Sacrifice, choreographing that intricate and dazzling late sequence in which the house burns down, the man runs off, the ambulance comes, all in one long complex take -- this footage of Tarkovsky directing is invaluable. Seven months later in Paris, Marker filmed Tarkovksy on his death bed (he died of cancer at 54 in 1986) in fly-on-the-wall scenes that never feel maudlin or exploitative.
But I like this intimate stuff less than I like Marker’s observations of the work. Marker is open to the importance of the inexplicable, both inside the films -- of three levitation scenes in three films, only one is “explained” (by a space station’s zero gravity) -- and outside them. The latter is Twilight Zone territory: during a séance, the spirit of Boris Pasternak is said to have told Tarkovsky he would direct seven films -- just seven, but they would be good ones, and of course he did; there is the mystery of a boy and a tree being the first image in the first film (Ivan’s Childhood) and the last image in the last film (The Sacrifice). Across seven films made over 25 years in Russia, Sweden and Italy, and set in different eras, Marker looks for and finds cohesion: those levitation scenes, recurring shots of paintings, recurring dogs and horses, endless rain, with that rain often one of the four elements that Marker sees as always woven into the films -- rain and fire at once in a famous scene in The Mirror, all four elements together in the epic tracking shot we saw Tarkovsky and cinematographer Sven Lindqvist set up for The Sacrifice. There is an emphasis on the muddy earth, the human shot from slightly above in nature not from below against the sky, which means that Marker is explaining the material stuff Tarkovsky put on film as much as he is decoding the enigmatic plots or translating the metaphysics -- again, assuming there’s a difference (enigmatic? I’m sure I understood The Mirror less the second time I saw it than I did the first). And this observation in the Marker voice-over, after a bit about Kurosawa and a shot of some grey rain from Stalker, which could make you think about why Von Trier dedicated Antichrist -- with its brutal considerations or maybe criticisms of Christianity’s nature/women/sex problems -- to Andrei Tarkovksy:
Like the Japanese, a physical relationship to nature. There’s nothing more earthy, more carnal than the work of this reputed mystical film-maker. Maybe because Russian mysticism is not that of Catholics, terrified by nature and the body. Among the Orthodox, nature is respected. The creator is revered through His creation.