Zona — Geoff Dyer (2012)
Sculpting in Time — Andrei Tarkovsky (1986)
As we approach the middle of the second decade of this millenium(and the second century in the history of film) it is abundantly clear to this writer that cinema has not witnessed an artist of the equivalent calibre to the maker of Andrei Rublev and Stalker. Andrei Tarkovsky, who died of lung cancer in 1986, opened vast swathes of celluloid terrain, and inaugurated stupendous cinematic possibilities within his small corpus of seven films which, up to 2013, have still not been sufficiently built upon by the directors that have come in his wake. Sure; Tarkovsky has his imitators. One could proffer the names of auteurs such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Aleksandr Sokurov, Andrey Zvyagintsev and even Lars von Trier, who has Tarkovskyan visual motifs in his films Antichrist and Melancholia; but, to this viewer, these four directors are not really major players on an even playing-field with the master-creator of Mirror.
So what marks Tarkovsky out? Like the protagonist of his sixth film Nostalghia, this director was literally touched with a distinguishing seraphic-white mark which allowed him to achieve visionary feats of absolution unseen in the cinema, before or since. Two books; a recent one by Geoff Dyer, and the other written by Tarkovsky himself, may well prove useful in elucidating this mystery.
Geoff Dyer’s latest book Zona is an attempt at a postmodernist tour-de-force analysing Tarkovsky’s fifth film Stalker. One has to admire the courage of this writer’s convictions. Tarkovsky’s masterpiece has clearly left an indelible mark on this man and his recent book approaches a spiritual autobiography or a life-impacted confessional (or both!) To meditate upon one of Tarkovsky’s films and to describe it frame-by-frame is a novelty in film criticism and Dyer displays here an almost monkish devotion as well as a novelist’s verve with language here. Yet, this is where admiration starts to overstay her welcome.
Zona has been reviewed a countless number of times in the past year and a half and, most of the time, hyperbolic superlatives have granted it a “masterpiece” status. For the first fifty pages the unassuming reader could be forgiven for heartily agreeing to all of these accolades. Nevertheless, Dyer’s self-referential digressions and egotistical footnotes border absurdly on the narcissistic and, increasingly, start to grate about a third of the way through. Is this a book about Tarkovsky’s Stalker or a book about the author and his obsessions? Is it really that important, in the grand scheme of things, that the Hari character in the Soderbergh remake of Solaris reminds Dyer so much of his wife? Clearly he is never less than entertaining with his crackling wit and his acerbic turn-of-phrase, but should art be mere entertainment anyway?
In Tarkovsky’s definition (in Sculpting in Time) art is a spiritual “search for the ideal”. And this is what ultimately divides Dyer and Tarkovsky, both as men and artists. The former is clearly a superb semantic technician, with a penchant for subjective reveries; whereas the latter is an unparalleled artist and visionary who was able to sublimate his subjective visions into objective cinematic art. There is, of course, a huge gulf between the two. One could perhaps forgive Dyer his autobiographical indulgences as Tarkovsky himself, in Sculpting in Time, definitely permitted artists the liberty to make art out of their own histories. Tarkovsky’s Mirror, being the case in point here; but Dyer’s liberties swiftly become licenses which certainly undermine the original “spiritual” intent of his book. By the end, Zona descends into nothing more than a postmodernist game which is as vacuous and superficial as a structuralist decoding, or as self-defeating as a Paul Muldoon poem. For with Dyer we are left, at the climax of Zona (and at the very threshold of The Room), fantasizing only about three-way sex, rather than contemplating:
“…the meaning of all human activity (lying) in the artistic consciousness, in the pointless and selfless creative act? Perhaps our capacity to create is evidence that we ourselves were created in the image and likeness of God?” – Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time (p.241)
Ultimately, Dyer’s spiritual and artistic “journey” within Zona proves to be somewhat bogus and, surely, nothing more than a pataphysical cul de sac; whereas Tarkovsky’s visionary and aesthetic impulses are undoubtedly a genuine spiritual entity. Anyone reading Sculpting in Time, and comparing it to Zona, should be able to discern this.
For Tarkovsky’s book is a compendium of spiritual and artistic wisdom you rarely find in literary works written after Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky; or, at any rate, the great era of the literary Modernists, Yeats and Pound. One could quite contentedly create a collage of quotations from Sculpting in Time and dispense with argument. For instance, the astute insight displayed in:
“Modern mass culture, aimed at the ‘consumer’, the civilisation of prosthetics, is crippling people’s souls, setting up barriers between man the crucial questions of his existence, his consciousness of himself as a spiritual being.” (p. 42)
Or when Tarkovsky challenges Hollywood’s contriving and controlling delineation of genre as its means of manufacturing a celluloid commodity for “modern mass culture” to consume:
“What is Bresson’s genre? He doesn’t have one. Bresson is Bresson. He is a genre in himself. Antonioni, Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Dovzhenko, Vigo, Mizoguchi, Bunuel – each is identified with himself. The very concept of genre is as cold as the tomb. And is Chaplin – comedy? No: he is Chaplin, pure and simple; a unique phenomenon, never to be repeated.” (p.150)
Or later, Tarkovsky writing in lyrical vein, but still with profound insight and sensitivity:
“Above all, I feel that the sounds of this world are so beautiful in themselves that if only we could listen to them properly, cinema would have no need for music at all.” (p. 162)
Or when Tarkovsky, alluding to Dostoyevsky, warns about the Grand Inquisitors that rule in, and over, the world today. Clearly, the Russian film-maker speaks a lot of pregnant sense and one starts to see how much nonsense is actually taught in secondary schools and various institutions of Higher Education after reading just a chapter or two of Sculpting in Time. Tarkovsky is a truly autochthonous artist who really knows what he is verbalising about in terms of aesthetics and auxiliary ethics. In comparison, one comes away from Dyer’s work unsatisfied in terms of artistic and spiritual sustenance. In fact, books like Zona seem rather to have a denigrating effect on the perception and reception of art per se. For Zona is a book which seems to have been contaminated by the “Creative Writing Workshop” mentality which, like a terminal tumour, is currently paralysing the British and North American literary milieus. Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time does not taste of such a disappointment. The answer to why his films continue to have such a visionary impact, even after many viewings, is possible because they have adhered to the “ideals” contained within his own apopthegm:
“…art must carry man’s craving for the ideal, must be an expression of his reaching out towards it; that art must give man hope and faith. And the more hopeless the world in the artist’s version, the more clearly perhaps must we see the ideal that stands in opposition – otherwise life becomes impossible! Art symbolises the meaning of our existence.” (p. 192)
Tarkovsky truly saw, and created conditions for, the “poetic” possibilities of cinema because, essentially, he was able to recognise the very poetry of life itself. This speaks of ethics and lifestyle as much as anything else; or, at the very least, the ability to be truly human accompanied with the artistic sensibility that goes with it. Not that Tarkovsky envisioned a “literature” of film, of course, as he clearly saw the vast differences between the two mediums. Cinema has an enviable immediacy and resistance to cerebral deconstruction that marks it out as an antithetical art to poetry, plays or fiction. What stands out though, page after page in Sculpting in Time, is a visionary impulse and Tarkovsky’s uncanny ability, as an artist, to agree with Paul Klee’s dictum: “Art does not reproduce the visible, it makes visible”.
No doubt, Tarkovsky’s idea of art as “sacrifice” and “artistic responsibility” will be harrowing to some aspiring to be artists in an indulgent era. Yet that will have to remain their problem, as they “fake it new” within a stagnant, postmodernist landscape. Ultimately, the wheat will be separated from the chaff and, undoubtedly, Tarkovsky’s films, and ideas on art, will continue to flourish, prophetically gathering more meaning and resonance with time because they have, indeed, redeemed time.
–Mark Wilson, November 2013.
Mark Wilson has previously published three poetry collections: ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ (Editions du Zaporogue, 2011), ‘Passio’ (Editions du Zaporogue, 2013) and ‘The Angel of History’ (Leaky Boot Press, 2013). His poems and articles have appeared in ‘The Black Herald’, ‘The Shop’, ‘3:AM Magazine’, ‘The Fiend’ and Le Zaporogue.