Critic with a Camera

One Day in the Life of Andre Arsenevich

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Chris Marker.

Industry flacks claim that Hollywood movies have been dumbed down out of commercial necessity — they're just giving audiences what they want. I don't buy it. Audiences aren't being offered intelligent movies, or at least those aren't the ones getting multimillion-dollar ad budgets. This was especially the case during the past summer, though as usual, most of the press tolerantly excused the fare as standard silly-season stuff — as if we and not the industry and their advertisers were responsible. The flacks may love to shift the blame by telling us how dumb we all are, but their contempt finally may be causing a minor counterreaction.

Difficult, demanding, and incorrigibly serious art movies have been becoming more popular — though that may be less the result of a backlash against Hollywood than of a growing awareness that the makers of art movies are more respectful of the seriousness, intelligence, and spirituality of moviegoers. The first solid indication of this trend I noticed was the nationwide success of the Robert Bresson retrospective, which came to the Film Center in the spring of 1999 and drew enough crowds to warrant a partial revival of the series a few months later. Another was that, according to Stephen Holden in the New York Times, the belated New York theatrical premiere of Krzysztof Kieslowski's ten-part, ten-hour Decalogue (1988) this past summer earned $247,711 during its eight-week run at the Lincoln Plaza, occasioning a repeat engagement downtown that's still going. And Brian Andreotti, who books films at the Music Box, recently told me that the reason Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us won't arrive in Chicago until December 8 — well over a year after it opened in Tokyo and Paris, and two months after its premiere in Buenos Aires — is that it's been doing so well in New York that he wanted it to play here for at least three weeks, which wouldn't be possible until the Christmas season. (Decalogue will be playing then on the Music Box's other screen.) Kiarostami's poetic comedy has more offscreen than on-screen characters, and whole sections of the plot are left up to the viewer's imagination, which has led some critics who generally operate as Hollywood apologists to chide Kiarostami for being self-indulgent — though he's simply refusing to create the kind of trash they're used to reviewing. The best way to make poetry more attractive in any culture may be to suppress it; this hasn't happened here in any literal way, but the industry's and the media's assumption that we're all unpoeticlunkheads who only want to see movies such as X-Men was bound eventually to drive us back to poetic work.

Here's another example of that shift. According to Martin Rubin, who joined the Film Center last February as its new associate director, the biggest crowds he's seen there since he arrived have been at the Andrei Tarkovsky retrospective in July. Since almost all of Tarkovsky's oeuvre is available on video — I believe the major exception is his 1983 feature Nostalghia – the people who went to see these works could have seen them on their own, but they turned out instead for the big-screen communal event.

I didn't make it to any of the screenings, though if I'd been going to movies strictly for pleasure, I probably would have attended most of them. I've seen all seven of Tarkovsky's features, some of them several times, but I've never felt anywhere close to exhausting them. I haven't seen Andrei Rublev (1966) for a good quarter of a century, and The Mirror (1974) struck me as almost completely opaque the single time I saw it.


I also have to confess that most of Stalker (1979), now my favorite, infuriated me when I first saw it in the early 80s. With the possible exception of My Name Is Ivan (aka Ivan's Childhood, 1962), Tarkovsky's first feature, all of his movies qualify to some degree as head scratchers. The same goes for the best films of Kieslowski and Kiarostami. As Chris Marker puts it, some filmmakers deliver sermons, but "the greats leave us with our freedom."

If we emerge from Tarkovsky's films somewhat puzzled, this is only the first of the special gifts they have to offer, for ultimately they aren't so much mysteries to be solved as experiences to be interpreted, learned from, and assimilated. Marker notes that human levitation figures in at least three Tarkovsky films — Solaris (1972), The Mirror, and The Sacrifice (1986) — but has a narrative justification only in the first, when the characters are in free-fall in a space station. This doesn't make Solaris an easier film to understand than the other two, because the narrative justification winds up clouding more issues than it clarifies; Tarkovsky himself once suggested as much by implying that Solaris was compromised by its relation to science fiction. I should add that it was mainly my generic expectations of Stalker, his other so-called science fiction film, that initially infuriated me. Tarkovsky once avowed that the only genre that truly interested him was film itself. "The true cinema image is built upon the destruction of genre, upon conflict with it," he wrote in his book Sculpting in Time, adding that filmmakers such as Bresson, Antonioni, Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Dovzhenko, Vigo, Mizoguchi, Buñuel, and even Chaplin created their own genres and that "the very concept of genre is as cold as the tomb."

Marker's 55-minute video One Day in the Life of Andre Arsenevich – showing this Friday at Columbia College and on Saturday at Chicago Filmmakers — was made last year for the excellent French TV series "Cinema de notre temps" ("Film in Our Time"). It's the best single piece of Tarkovsky criticism I know of, clarifying the overall coherence of his oeuvre while leaving all the principal mysteries in the films intact. It becomes clear early on that Marker was an intimate friend of Tarkovsky and his family, and was shooting home-video footage of some of Tarkovsky's final days in the mid-1980s, when he was dying of cancer, for Tarkovsky and his family's use as well as his own. But this is handled throughout with exquisite tact and restraint and is never allowed to intrude on the poetic analysis of the features. In fact, the video interweaves biography and autobiography with poetic and political insight in a manner that seldom works as well as it does here, perhaps because personal affection and poetic analysis are rarely as compatible as Marker makes them.



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