The Contribution of Andrej Tarkovskij to Contemporary Film Theory

Lily Alexander, University of Toronto

When we think of Russian directors' contributions to film theory, we maybe tempted to think first of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Vertov, and Kuleshov, who started and finished their careers inside the USSR, perhaps directing relatively few Soviet films, but lecturing and publishing much on theory. Whereas when we think of émigré directors, we usually view them as workaday practitioners, who concentrated on actual movie-making rather than analysis (Buchowetzki, Granovsky, Konchalovsky, Lampin, Litvak, Mamoulian, Milestone, Ratoff, Starevich, Strizhevsky, Tourjansky, Volkoff ). But there is at least one striking exception, a director who left the USSR, directed films abroad and died there, who DOES have much to tell us about film theory -- Andrej Arsen'evich Tarkovskij.

In the late 1990s I submitted a paper proposal for the MLA conference on the films of Tarkovsky. The proposal was approved by the peer review, but one of the reviewers commented, “But Tarkovskij does not have his film theory!” What seemed to be questionable to this colleague a few years ago becomes increasingly clear to the majority of film theorists now: not only does Tarkovskij have his distinctive filmtheory, but his increasing influence on the recent development of film theory becomes obvious to anyone involved in film studies.

As someone who has been teaching film theory, visual theory and visual semiotics for the last five years, I would like to focus in my presentation on the issues that excite and interest students most. Fresh, controversial, and original ideas of Tarkovskij on visual text, film art, culture, religion, and communication are clearly perceived by the students as a revelation. It may be difficult sometimes to persuade students to do close readings of prominent film theorists, but it is not the case with Tarkovskij: students cannot get enough of his ideas.

The contribution of Tarkovskij to film theory consists of three components: a) his own theoretical writings manifested in two books and numerous interviews; b) his practice, which is so original and powerful that it stimulates and pushes forward film theory forcing scholars to find concepts and notions adequate to the director’s unique cinematic language and forms of communication with an audience; and c) most recently when several leading film theorists, such as Delueze and his school on both sides of the Atlantic, re-emphasized the ideas previously expressed by Tarkovskij in his theory and practice. Tarkovskij as a theorist is an unavoidable topic in film, studies today.

Among the concepts and issues that are being recently debated and bare the influence of Tarkovskij’s thoughts are the following: the conception of Time-Space, and chronotope (Bakhtin, Delueze); the conception of reality as/and dreams, and a wider understanding of realism; a possibility of combining radical realism with poetry and the representation of the transcendental (Schrader) or sublime (Pence); the relationship between cinema and religion/spirituality; symbolic inversions, paradox, the upside-down logic and the ritual fools of culture; conception of a hero and heroic; symbolic and metaphoric languages of cinema; re-developments of genres and styles, in particular, the historical, SF, the philosophical, the lyrical, the surreal, the monodrama; the understanding of “pure cinema” in comparison with Hitchcock (the author of the concept); cine-narratology; dramatic resolution and catharsis; inner speech, stream of consciousness and psychological cinema; optative — the reality of imagination; dissidence of cinema and film’s impact on history, politics and ideology of its time; and most importantly by the director’s own admission, the role of cinema in constructing forms of individual and collective identity. These are only few of the concepts and issues that are being currently reconsidered and discussed, essentially within the context of Tarkovskij’s ideas and practices. The director’s conceptions of film art are also very interesting to explore within the contexts of other prominent filmmakers, who have influenced his work in some way, whether through a polemical debate or a profound impact on Tarkovsky: Eisenstein, Kurosawa, Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman, German, Kubrick, Spielberg, and Sokurov (as his heir, in Tarkovsky’s own words).