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"It's impossible to return there ...",
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This review is from: Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema (Paperback)
The title of this review comes from the opening line of Tarkovsky's father's poem that influenced the film `Mirror': "It's impossible to return there / And impossible to narrate, / How overfilled with bliss / Was this heavenly garden." Tarkovsky's films, so often set in heavenly gardens to which is it impossible to return, are often also impossible to narrate. This poem is just one of the pieces of information in this book that go towards filling the picture of Tarkovsky and his films.
The book consists of a sixteen-page introduction followed by ten chapters, whose titles - "The System", "Space", "Screen", "Word & Image", "Story", "Imaginary", "Sensorium", "Time", "Shot", and "Atmosphere" - are grouped within the four cardinal elements of earth, fire, water, and air. This book requires some prior knowledge of Tarkovsky's films - preferably all seven major works.
In his introduction, Bird declares that, "It is Tarkovsky's sense of cinematic pitch, rather than any discursive `meaning' of his films that is my main focus in this book ... The cumulative result of these analyses, I hope, is a thorough account of Tarkovsky's approach to film-making that will illumine individual films while uncovering the basic elements of his creative project." Bird says that, "Tarkovsky's `mysticism' can only be assessed through his technique; his cinema of the elements requires consideration of the elements of his cinema": hence the potentially obscure titles of each chapter!
One criticism that one can make of this volume is the lack of biography. Can the creation of art be so distinct from the circumstances of its creator? There is just one paragraph on Tarkovsky's childhood. His film `The Steamroller & the Violin' was presented in 1960 when he was 28. What had he been up to prior to this?
But the main criticism of this work - and the reason why I have given it only three stars - is its language. If you have read this far in the review, then you will have started to sense a gist of the language adopted by Bird in his contemplation of Tarkovsky's art. Be warned! The book is full of sentences such as this: "In sum, the elements of cinema are inseparable from the unifying sense of pregnant time, of potentiality within time, which cinema intensifies in human experience." Or try this: "Within the turning of the narrative they cease to be merely commemorative and are imbued with a poignant but fragile curve of possibility..." An easy read, this book is not. `Diegetic' is a favourite word of this author. I still do not know what it means.
The longer I read a chapter, the more tense I became, largely because of the use of language. I read this book not long after Sean Martin's `Andrei Tarkovsky'. Despite being less of a book in terms of quality, at least Martin is ore satisfyingly accessible - and at half the price. Bird is clearly a learned man, but he fails to communicate clearly. This is a shame, for the blurb on the cover states that Bird "is thoroughly familiar with Russian sources unavailable to English readers". (Bird is Associate Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures at the University of Chicago.) That is not to say that the book is devoid of insights: it is probably full of them, but that the language employed to convey these insights can be abstruse.
But I enjoyed the conceit that Soderbergh's remake of `Solaris' is a remake of a film about failed remakes; and that in `Stalker' "the Zone is the quintessence of Tarkovsky's spaces ... where one goes to see one's innermost desires. It is, in short, the cinema." I also enjoyed Bird's metaphor for the use of language in Tarkovsky's films: "If this language is a medium of exchange, it is one that can never be cashed in, either by the characters or by the viewer." There is more that I learned from Bird that I was not consciously (but was subconsciously?) aware of from the films, such as the element of Gorchakov's sexual desire in `Nostalghia'.
Also on the plus side, there is wonderful choice of illustrations scattered throughout the text. For example, on page 67 Bird contrasts the ruin of the abbey at Galgano that appears in `Nostalghia' with Caspar David Friedrich's 1824 painting of `The Ruin at Eldena' and with a still from Rossellini's `Germany: Year Zero'.
The book ends with a brief chronology, references, filmography/credits, bibliography of index.