(Criterion Streaming, December 2019) At this point, I’ve seen enough of Andrei Tarkovsky’s non-Science Fiction films to be able to write the same review every time: Dour, long, dull. Great cinematography, clear mastery of the craft, fine actors, but ultimately not worth the time investment. Mirror almost perfectly fits the bill. It’s in colour, allowing Tarkovsky one more cinematic lever. It’s partially autobiographical, making it an essential part of his filmography to those interested in knowing more about his life. It’s also decidedly non-conventional, and perhaps even more so than many other of his movies: Executed like a poetic collage of images, it moves through time, characters, eras and themes to deliver something far more elegant than a straight narrative. Inward-looking and possibly hermetic to anyone but Tarkovsky, it’s made for the art-house crowd, and so I will leave the film to them.
(Criterion Streaming, December 2019) I have a confession, dear readers: I dozed off somewhere in the third quarter of Andrey Rublyov and only woke up to the film’s final splashes of colour. I will not go back to see what I’ve missed. I regret nothing. I would do it again. I would encourage others not to do the same, but to doze off even earlier. OK, that may be overstating it. But still: As I develop this appreciation of classic cinema as a rough approximation of time travel, there’s the corollary that there are periods to which you really don’t want to go and medieval Russia is high on that list. Andrey Rublev, surprisingly enough for a Soviet film of the Cold War era, talks a lot about religion, faith and sacrifice—no wonder the film was not a favourite of the regime. (And no wonder, perhaps, if western film critics lionized Andrei Tarkovsky as a defiant gesture to the Soviets.) While snippets of the film approach the ultimate parody of a European historical black-and-white art-house film, other moments show mayhem on an epic scale, with battle sequences involving hundreds of participants, horses and a very wide frame seen from above. Still, the film’s massive length (no less than three hours and 25 minutes) eventually got the best of me, especially since the battle sequences end up forming a comparatively small proportion of the film. While I liked the bell-making sequence, the rest of the film didn’t do it for me: the film’s ponderous rhythm, self-conscious dialogues and art-house aesthetics gradually sent me to sleep. I will not go back to see what I’ve missed. I regret nothing. I would do it again. I’m not the kind of viewer for which Andrey Rublyov was made, and I don’t care about how many best-movies-of-all-time lists include it as a top pick.
(On Cable TV, January 2019) Despite my best intentions, I remain unmoved by Andrei Tarkovsky’s filmography. Stalker is often mentioned in “best science fiction movies” lists, but I have to wonder how much of this reputation is due to contrarianism or historical desire to annoy the USSR. (Or, within the written SF community, the excellent standing of its source novel by the Strugatsky brothers.) It’s still true that Stalker is quite unlike most Science Fiction movies even today. At nearly two hours and 45 minutes, it’s a long sit made even longer by the glacial pace of the film—and most of it only features three characters walking around industrial ruins. (Considering this and the sorry state of the set decorations on Solyaris, I have to wonder how much of Tarkovsky’s SF filmography was based on the availability of disaffected Soviet factories.) Tarkvsky, of course, isn’t some kind of rapid-fire auteur—his entire oeuvre is slow paced and you know from the second film what you’re getting into. Still, I didn’t dislike Stalker as much as I wanted to: There are a few good ideas buried under the lengthy shots, and some very clever filmmaking ideas as well—the picture shifts from sepia to colour as the characters enter the mysterious alien “zone” in which the story takes place, and Tarkovsky’s knack for striking images is not to be dismissed easily. Still, it takes an effort of will to avoid fast-forwarding through the entire thing. Tarkovsky could be ten times as interesting if he was twice as concise.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) It doesn’t often happen that watching “the original” makes me appreciate “the remake” even more, but Solyaris is not a typical film. It took me a surprisingly long time to get to it, considering that I have written for Solaris-the-magazine since 1997 (yes, the name comes from the Stanislaw Lem novel, which I read back in the nineties), and my page on Solaris (2002) Explained has achieved a surprising level of popularity. But Solyaris-the-original is a product of the Soviet film industry. It’s maddeningly opaque, slow, philosophical and emotionally flat to a degree that appears excessive even to an ultra-mild-mannered person such as myself. It’s more than two-and-a-half-hours long and feels considerably longer, not helped along by credulity-straining sequences in which we follow a car driving through Tokyo for a few minutes. (You think I’m making this up, but I’m not.) The set design of the film is straight from the garbage bin of Soviet industry, with a few striking images but little consistency from room to room. I could go on and on, but let’s admit a few things: I’m not watching the film as if it was 1972. Back then, I would have been almost de rigueur to praise Solyaris for its intellectual take on Science Fiction tropes, refreshingly devoid of special effects and heavy on human psychological exploration. The alien nature of the Soviet film production would have been fascinating and writer/director Andrei Tarkovsky’s quirky choices would have been like no other in recent history (well, other than 2001: A Space Odyssey). But this is 2018 and we’ve seen quite a number of good-to-great SF movies in the decades since then, all able to balance well-paced ideas with outright entertainment. In fact, the key piece of evidence is Solaris-the-remake, which manages to cover the ideas of the original (and add a few more) while chopping more than an hour from the running time. The remake actors are significantly better, the set design is coherent, the SF elements are used intelligently and the pacing is incomparably faster. Plus there’s Steven Soderberg at the helm of the remake, meaning that the result does approach cinema-as-art. Watching the remake was challenging, but watching the original is just a chore. Is it unfair that a remake would improve upon all aspects of the original?