There is a joke in my family that my dad is awful at choosing videos. He sometimes goes for Russian directors, picks an awful film that is awkward to watch, too difficult to understand and not right for the relaxing weekend mood everyone else was in. This may have been one of them.
Tarkovsky is a name I first heard of in relation to the Ewan McGregor film Young Adam that came out in 2003 about something that happened, something sexual, on a barge. I gathered that Targovsky was revered, but I was unsure whether he was a poet or a filmmaker, or even what nationality he was, perhaps Scottish. (I played rugby with someone at school in Edinburgh called Targowski.)
I was unsure what was going on in this film. There was a blond woman who featured prominently, and a few young boys, who didn't seem to be brothers. There were hardly any men, except the one the blond woman sometimes spoke to off camera. Early on a teenager overcomes his stutter in black and white. Then the blond woman sits on a fence and smokes while a man who says he's a doctor walks towards her, flirting. He sits next to her and the fence breaks. He makes some joke about falling in love. Soon after there is a stark change in the tone of the colour film. It may have been accidental, a process of ageing and restored prints, but it was quite clear that it got darker. There are many variations in film stock, black and white, colour, soft lighting, overcranking, archive footage of the war and Mao's Chinese cultural revolution. I didn't follow what was going on and how all these people and incidents were related. There was not a conventional narrative - not that it's a bad thing. Just don't expect it.
The overall feel I got was that I was watching someone else's dreams. There were many things that were Symbolic, but as these were someone else's symbols, they were often lost on me. There was still a certain beauty to them, though. Many books, sitting on the sill beneath an open window, or reflected in a mirror; lights of gas and fire; rain and wind. One wonders how they created such wind in the fields and the woods. Did they have a huge blower and dub the sound afterwards? There is also a beautiful shot of the blond woman levitating three feet above a bed, her hair stretched out horizontally, as if supported on a pillow. Some of the overcranked shots of rain and running are also majestic. It reminds me now, somewhat, of the avant garde films of Maya Derren, an obscure Ukranian-American filmmaker I discovered when I was writing my essay on time and space for the Anglo-American Film option of my Oxford English degree: the way that characters seemed to float and appear again in unexpected places within the same take; the merging of time and space; the blurring of narrative.
I am comfortable not being able to understand the Meaning of films (I didn't even gather the plot until I read a synopsis afterwards). That's not what I will take from this, though. I will remember an image of a rural Russia, blighted by war; stark like a Chekov story, imbued with a literature of Dostoevsky, Mandelshtam and Tolstoy that remains alien to me. Instead, I found other things to appreciate, such as the long tracking shots through the rain, or in the printing press, or through the fields and back into the woods at the end. He may not be the greatest storyteller I have ever encountered, but there is something unique about Targovsky's cinematography, something that might make him worth another look with more patience.
Nugget: I noticed the shadow of the boom mic in the opening scene of the teenager being cured of his speech impediment. Could this be an oversight when everything else seemed so carefully choreographed and edited?