Notes on cinema inspired by historical images by Dan Williams
Memory – Landscape
A black and white image of a detached, historic building, a fortress, surrounded by the natural elements, including a lake. This picture from our collection is cue for further reflections on the work of Andrey Tarkovsky, the Russian filmmaker whose work is currently being shown again in new prints. Tarkovsky might have liked this image with its mystery and representation of immersion in the natural world.
Tarkovsky’s films invite contemplation of the still image in their carefully composed mise-en-scène, and regular use of the long take, but of course, his work differs from photography in the movement, and experience of duration, however gradual. Films like Mirror and Nostalgia, include at certain points arresting images of old buildings in remote country settings, but the sense of history is very personal.
After the credits sequence which begins Nostalgia with a dreamy, haunting Russian landscape, the film enigmatically shifts to show a car pulling to a stop in the Tuscan countryside. The woman who leaves the car walks across the fields. She is reluctantly followed by the man, and the shot reveals, as the camera pulls back, a building on the horizon. But, we do not go to the building. Instead what follows is the woman inside a monastery, walking through its interior. She is Eugenia, the companion of Gorchakov, a poet researching an 18th century composer who moved to Italy, but returned to Russia and killed himself. This is a film about memories of the Russian homeland for an exile in Italy, which was the case for Tarkovsky at this time. Gorchakov’s state of mind appears to represent state of melancholic reflection on the relationship between past and present. He does not follow his companion to the church but seeks out Domenico a mentally deranged figure, who expresses even more directly a sense of anguish about worldly affairs. With Tarkovsky, we are in a psychic space, but still geography and physical location are key elements. As Norman Skakov has explained, for Tarkovsky in Nostalgia, buildings express instability, they are ruins or ambiguous spaces without clear borders (Skakov, The Cinema of Tarkovsky : Labyrinths of Space and Time, I B Tauris, 2012).
Memory – home
Tarkovsky’s blurring of the boundaries between inside and outside a building occurs throughout his work in striking ways including the invasion of wind, and the crumbling of brickwork, in Mirror, and the strange natural interior journeyed to in Stalker. As Sakhov points out, in Nostalgia, Domenico’s house contains a very unusual internal door detached from the wall, so that the space within the house destabilises our idea of a unified and coherent domestic arena. Another still image from our collection offers a contrast. Here is a document of history, which evokes the homely experience of looking out, and allowing natural light in. In fact, for Tarkovsky as well, home is a fundamental emotional pull, as we see in Nostalgia when Gorchakov’s thoughts return to the image of his family in front of their rural dwelling, a shot made dream-like through the camera movement and doubling of the human figures. However, as already stated in Tarkovsky films, nature and civilization permeate one another, so that interiors may be invaded by natural elements like water and fire.
Memory – mother
In his approach to ‘montage’, an aesthetic of juxtaposition, Tarkovsky aims to capture subjective realities not accessible in linear modes of representation. For example he often includes oblique flashbacks rather than concentrating on stories which only move forward; but still his work is grounded in emotion. Strikingly, Nostalgia is dedicated to his mother, a focal point for the haunting images of childhood in both this work, and his earlier film Mirror. This leads to the feeling that these films are very personal, and open to psychoanalytic interpretation, as well as linking to the work of other great artists preoccupied by this subject.
Above, we see another picture from our collection from da Vinci. In contrast to this work, Tarkovsky’s representation of his mother is more elusive in Nostalgia. In fact the film has been seriously questioned for its representation of gender, with the apparent critical treatment of the character of Eugenia, Gorchakov’s companion. We appear to see most things through his psyche. However, in the evocation of the past, of home and homeland this is an underlying emotional pre-occupation that links with the subject of Mirror, and suggests a different dimension, possibly maternal and nurturing, in contrast to the cruel reality of Domenico’s final self-destruction when he dramatically sets fire to himself on a famous Roman statue.
Dan’s new film study class ‘Introduction to British Cinema’ will start at WEA from the New Year (2017).
The course is for everyone with an interest in cinema who would like to study the subject in greater depth.