stalker

One of the finest pieces of film criticism I know was originally produced for the French television series Cineastes de Notre Temps. Unlike most Cineastes installments, it was made well after its subject, Andrei Tarkovsky, had passed away; like many, it was the work of a filmmaker renowned in his own right, the great French traveller, essayist, and poet Chris Marker.

Marker wasn’t a critic by trade. Perhaps it took an outsider to resolve the questions that haunted criticism then and continue to haunt it now: how can we possibly describe a film so that others might see it before their eyes, with all its mystery and ambiguity intact? What’s more, can we be expected to dissect a film without first pinning it down, restricting its range of potential meaning, and ultimately killing it?

One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich gives Tarkovsky the space his films demand and rarely receive. There’s no attempt made at interpretation, unpacking, analyzing. Like all of Marker’s films, One Day is steeped in the need to understand – in this case, to understand a famously elusive filmmaker and the works he left behind. But for Marker, understanding a film was like understanding a person: an attempt less at tracing patterns of meaning than at establishing a certain degree of intimacy, familiarity, and affection. It’s no wonder his favorite film was Vertigo: a mystery without an answer, a series of patterns with no discernible guiding order, a world in which, if you’re not careful, you could get lost forever.

One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich was made in 2000, 14 years after Tarkovsky’s death. There’s archival footage of the filmmaker in his last year of life, seen first on the set of The Sacrifice, then in a Paris hospital bed. Most of the film, though, consists of clips from Tarkovsky’s seven films: yanked from their original context, they’re even more alien, even more beguiling, even more impervious to interpretation: the titular hero of Stalker, eyes closed, turning his lined face to a ghostly source of light, the wife/mother in Mirror rising from her lover’s chest, The Sacrifice’s slowed-down apocalypse, Andrei Rublev’s icon paintings, Solaris’s levitating lovers and mysterious islands.

It’s only in his edits that Marker seems willing to impose any order at all on Tarkovsky’s films, juxtaposing similar scenes, highlighting recurring images, noting the filmmaker’s obsession with the elements or his fondness for horses and dogs. At his boldest, Marker goes so far as to re-contextualize the clips altogether, letting Tarkovsky’s filmed past intrude on and converse with his last few months of life. The completion of an especially long, difficult, and high-stakes take in The Sacrifice recalls Rublev’s final bell-casting; a shot of Tarkovsky on his hospital bed is spliced into the Stalker’s tearful monologue about his generation’s loss of faith. In the narration, Marker is like a musician keeping time: eloquent, graceful, never drawing our minds or hearts from the clips themselves, but gesturing towards them, into them, as if to say, look at that!

This being a Marker film, we’re never talking just about Tarkovsky: along the way we catch snippets of Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov, hear a delightful story about Stalin and the devout pianist who defied him, learn a brief history of religious iconography, and meet the ghost of another Boris (Pasternak). Marker’s allusions might sometimes verge on free-association, but they’re never arbitrary: Tarkovsky didn’t work in a vacuum, and neither should his critics. His films are mysterious for the same reason so many great works of art are mysterious – because they suggest the presence of something unfamiliar and outside their own narrow borders; because they graze the edges of a territory they’re unwilling or unable to name. What Tarkovsky does with a painting or a brief spoken text, Marker does with a cryptic anecdote, often resolving certain sides of Tarkovsky into clarity while obscuring others all the more. A low-angle shot of John Wayne in The Searchers, paired with a high-angle one of Stalker’s band of pilgrims, yields one of Marker’s loveliest observations: “the naive American contemplates the sky; the Russian, or at least that Russian [Tarkovsky], settles in the sky, and contemplates the earth.”

One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich might not convince us that we’ve “gotten” Tarkovsky (what could?). But it does what the best criticism should do: it convinces us to return to its subject’s work with renewed curiosity, reminds us that Tarkovsky’s house is worth living in. Most critics feel the need to tell; Marker shows, and shows with such inviting, even imploring gestures that we can’t help but sit up and take notice. The rest is up to us. Marker’s observation on filmmakers applies to critics as well: “Some deliver sermons. The greats leave us with our freedom.”