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Andrei Tarkovsky 1932-1986After reading in a few punk zines top ten lists of Science Fiction films, I felt compelled to write to one regarding the bias towards American films. All of these lists omitted the two Science Fiction masterpieces by the late, great Russian director Andrie Tarkovsky. These films proved the genre could be dealt with in an intelligent fashion and stand on a pedestal so far above the others that any comparisons are obsolete.

I decided to expand my letter to the zine to include not just Solaris and The Stalker, but also The Mirror, not a Science Fiction film as such, but Tarkovsky's dynamics blur the distinction anyway.
- Nicky Garratt 1998

The Mirror
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, 1975
1 hour 49 minutes; Color/B/W Russian

Margarrite Terekhova in "The Mirror"Tarkovsky’s autobiographical masterpiece "The Mirror" was his fourth and most astonishing film. Shifting in time and method, "The Mirror" divides into distinct areas, black & white newsreel footage, scenes from two generations, including those derived from Tarkovsky’s own childhood memories and "dream" sequences. Tarkovsky even went as far as to reconstruct the summer house of his childhood on the remains of the original foundation using photographic records. The film is punctuated by the poems of Arseny Tarkovsky, (Andrei’s father) and music by J.S.Bach, G.B.Pergolesi and H.Purcell. Margarita Terekhova was so stunning in her multiple roles as Marsha and Natalia that Tarkovsky, inspired by her performance, actually wrote additional scenes for her during shooting. Completing the dense personal nature of this cinematic collage, Tarkovsky’s own mother played the mother as an old woman. There is also a cameo by Tarkovsky’s second wife Larissa Tarkovskya.

The Stalker
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979
2 hours 41 minutes: Color/Duotone/B/W Russian

Alexander Kaidanovsky as "The Stalker" Based of "Roadside Picnic" by Arkady & Boris Stugatsky’s, starring Alexander Kaidanovsky as the Stalker, Nikolai Grinko (Daniil the Black in Tarkovskis "Andrei Roublev" 1966) as the professor and Anatoly Solonitsyn as the writer. The acting is so intense under Tarkovsky’s direction that it easily let’s you forget you're reading sub titles. As always Tarkovsky’s camera work is light years beyond anything created by any other director. Even Ingmar Bergman talking about Tarkovsky said, "My discovery of Tarkovsky’s first film was like a miracle. Suddenly I found myself standing at the door of a room the keys of which had, until then never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving and fully at ease. Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream." The cut-less sequences in all of his films are at there most pronounced here: two spring to mind as the highest form of cinema 1) The scene where the three protagonists lay among pools of water to rest and the camera makes a spectacular run over them. Various icons of western civilization lay on ruined tiles beneath the puddles. At one point fish move in a bowl suspended in the water while the surface reflects the sky, reminiscent of Es
cher's "Three Worlds". The music is modern over this section but is overlaid by recitation from Revelation 6:12-17. 2 (Interestingly, Vida Johnson & Graham Petrie’s Book "Andrei Tarkovsky" is sub-titled " A Visual Fugue".  Tarkovsky’s films often favor the Fugue master J.S.Bach, while Douglas R. Hofstadter’s literary masterpiece "Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" is sub-titled "A Metaphorical Fugue On Minds and Machines in the Spirit of Lewis Carroll". Not surprising then that "The Stalkers" trio consists of a professor and a writer, and the Stalker himself who is apt to be   submersed in artistic visions accompanying the rhythm of music. Both Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach released 1979!). Earlier in the film when entering the "Zone" there is an breathtaking shot of the jeep moving in and out of the light to avoid the guards and a train. Count the number of aperture changes, re-focusing etc. It’s a dance! (Note: In the 2 3/4 hours the film runs there is only 142 shots!).

Directed by Tarkovsky, 1971;
2 hours 46 minutes; Winner Grand Jury Award Cannes Color/Duotone/B/W Russian

Donatas Banionis as Chris Kelvin in "Solaris"Although Tarkovsky was uneasy with the Science Fiction elements in both of his S.F. films, I believe it’s more of a statement about the poor quality of Cinematic S.F. than of his own doubts about the genre. Interest in this film has increased lately with two feeble, watered down attempts to cull credibility from this masterpiece (Event Horizon & Sphere), Sphere was marginally better, containing some ideas from The Stalker for good measure, but didn’t come anywhere close to Solaris on any level. Interestingly, it took Tarkovsky five years to get this adaptation of the Stanislav Lem book made, making it truly contemporary with the vastly inferior 2001 - A Space Odyssey (1968). Staring Natalia Bondarchuk as Hari & Donatas Banionis as Chris, Solaris brings back Nikolai Grinko (Andrei Roublev, Ivan’s Childhood, The Stalker), as Kris’s Father. While The Stalker is a study of man’s aspirations, Solaris studies humanity in an inhuman situation, and in so doing eclipses all others in the genre. The exceptional use of music, in particular JS Bach’s "Ich ruf’ zudir, Herr Jesu Chris"” BWV639 from Der Orgelbuchlein, which starts and ends the movie and punctuates the center, is haunting.

Update: I'm sure everybody is aware that Steven Soderbergh directed a remake of Solaris in 2002 staring George Clooney as Chris Kelvin. No surprise that the Hollywood version lacked all the atmosphere of the original not to mention the first rate performances. It's funny, in the interview with the director, available on the DVD version, he talked about trying to make an atmospheric movie not an action thriller. However he, amazingly, didn't mention the Tarkovsky version!

Tarkovsky’s other movies are:
Nostalghia 1983 (2hr 6 minutes) Stunning movie shot in Italy
Andrei Roublev 1966 (3 hr 5 minutes) Incredible medieval saga shot in black & white until the last segment
The Sacrifice 1986 (2hr 29 minutes) Tarkovsky’s last & most flawed movie
Ivan’s Childhood (My Name Is Ivan) 1962 Tarkovsky’s first full length movie

Additional Reading:
Sculpting In Time - Andrei Tarkovsky
Andrei Tarkovsky: A visual Fugue - Vida T. Johnson & Graham Petrie