Le Fanu’s review of Bird’s book on Tarkovsky

One of the journal articles I retrieved at the library yesterday is a review of Robert Bird’s book Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema.  The review is by Mark Le Fanu and it’s in the current issue of Cinema Journal (vol. 49, no. 2, Winter 2010, pp. 170-2).  Now, I’m already on record as calling Bird’s book “excellent,” and I have learned a great deal by reading both this book and Bird’s earlier book on Andrei Rublev.  In what I’m about to write, it might look like I’m trying to “walk back” my earlier compliment, but that’s really not the case.  I do think Bird’s books are excellent, despite their limitations.  If I didn’t go into these limitations in my earlier posts, it’s because I was mainly discussing how Andrei Rublev was made, and for that, Bird’s books are an excellent resource, as even Le Fanu seems to admit: “The author… a Russian-speaking British scholar based at the University of Chicago… has been able to penetrate Russian sources, including the archives of Mosfilm and Goskino, in greater detail than any other previous English-language study of this director.”  And while I might agree with Le Fanu that “Bird is not a very elegant writer,” I don’t agree that “His epigrams tend towards the vatic and vacuous.”  When I see barbs like this in a scholarly journal, I have to wonder whether there’s “history” between the two of them.  Be that as it may (and I have no idea, one way or the other), I think the substance of Le Fanu’s criticism is valid and insightful.  He forces us to confront two deficiencies or limitations in Bird’s book that I believe are widespread in Tarkovsky interpretations today.

The first deficiency concerns Bird’s diminution of the role of language and “speaking out” in Tarkovsky’s films.  As evidence, Le Fanu cites this statement by Bird, “Imagery is more important than text in Tarkovsky’s cinema,” and this one, “Tarkovsky’s characters are unable to find shelter in language as a social body or as a historical text… they are left… with language as a form of alien music.”  Le Fanu acknowledges the partial truth of these statements about Tarkovsky’s oeuvre.  But then he goes on to say:

But surely this is only half of the story; we cannot stop at this point, after all!  If dialectic is going to be invoked honestly, one has to see the other side as well.  And this is, that Tarkovsky’s films, almost uniquely in the context of modern cinema, really do speak out to their audience.  How can the sympathetic viewer miss this?  What other significance can be imputed to such sequences as the opening passage in Mirror (1975) in which the adolescent youth triumphantly shakes off his stutter?  The whole approach to language and communication in the film is glorious and positive.  To “think” is to “thank,” said Heidegger: Mirror, surely, celebrates our common humanity, through speech, beyond and against ideology.  Bird makes much play with the ambiguity of Arseny Tarkovsky’s poems that at different points in the film are spoken (intoned? sung?) over the sound track; but, if one has ears to hear, their affirmatory afflatus – their solicitation of (and belief in) truth and enlightenment – is inescapable.

Tarkovsky’s “speaking out” – his astonishing explicitness, and the bravery of his idiosyncratic individualism – only becomes worthy of notice, of course, in the context of a society where you couldn’t speak out, or if you did, you ran the gravest risks to your freedom.  One doesn’t get any sense of this profound social context from reading Bird.  There is a voulu element to the author’s procedure here; apparently it’s still not the “done thing,” in certain circles, to mention the wickedness of the system.  Yet one is talking about Soviet communism, after all, not the watered down Western European version; and in these matters the responsible critic, in my opinion, shouldn’t beat about the bush.  Why be more backward on the issue than Tarkovsky was?

To which I say, bravo to you, Mr. Le Fanu, for saying this.

As another example of a recent critical engagement with Tarkovsky’s “speaking out,” I would point to a chapter in the book, Tarkovsky, edited by Nathan Dunne, titled, “Before Learning to Speak: Genre in Tarkovsky’s Earlier Features,” written by Alastair Renfrew.  Renfrew interprets the prologue to Mirror – where the stuttering youth is cured of his speech impediment, and then clearly states, “I can speak” – as the key turning point in Tarkovsky’s career.  Renfrew says, “it is impossible to resist the implication that the youth speaks also for the director, who thereby announces the discovery of his own authentic ‘voice’ as a filmmaker.”  And, according to Renfrew, this new-found ability to “speak out” is closely aligned, in the case of Tarkovsky, with a rejection of genre and the narrative constraints typically associated with specific genres.  Renfrew goes on to argue that “on ‘learning to speak’ by rejecting the constraints and prohibitions of genre… the mature Tarkovsky undermines his later work at least as much as he refines it,” and that Tarkovsky, in his later films, “becomes a film maker of the dislocated set-piece, the occasional orchestrator of particular images and sounds to produce isolated memorable effects.”  In short, the later films are, “without the binding power of genre and the numerous routes it offers back into the history of cinema – despite the extraordinary and inspiring fearlessness in their voice – inferior to the films Tarkovsky made before learning to speak.”  It’s true that Renfrew is careful not to devalue Tarkovsky’s “speaking out” per se.  But by so closely linking Tarkovsky’s “speaking out” with a “rejection” of genre, it seems to me that Renfrew, in effect, does devalue the former.

The second deficiency that Le Fanu says Bird “isn’t willing to face candidly” concerns “spirituality and religion.”  Le Fanu on Bird:

Whenever we come near these matters, warning lights go on and alarm bells start ringing. Yet they are central to an understanding of Tarkovsky, and not impossible to talk about sympathetically, even if, as a critic, you don’t necessarily subscribe to the filmmaker’s precise system of beliefs.  Bird doesn’t write about religion in a sophisticated way, as something which, being part of culture – and a huge part of culture – it’s reasonable to have an allegiance to.

Again I say, bravo to you, Mr. Le Fanu, for saying this, although I would hardly single out Mr. Bird as unique in this respect.  I find the overall lack of scholarly engagement with Tarkovsky, from a religious point of view, curious and disappointing.  We know, from Birgit Menzel’s chapter in the aforementioned book edited by Nathan Dunne, that Tarkovsky himself indicated, at his lengthy seminar at Berlin in 1984, that the teachers who modeled his worldview were “the Russian religious philosophers of the Silver Age: Berdiaev, Leont’ev, Solov’ev, Frank.”  Confirmation of this is available from Vadim Moroz (organizer of the Berlin seminar) in his book Andrei Tarkovsky: About His Film Art, where he states (emphasis mine), “Our further conversations confirmed Tarkovsky’s knowledge of other ‘forbidden authors’ [besides Pavel Florenski] such as Ivan Ilyin, Nikolai Berdyaev and Frank.  One of the most important books for Tarkovsky was the last philosophical work of Simeon Frank Reality and Human Being.

Where can one find books or articles that take seriously this obvious connection between Tarkovsky and the Russian religious philosophers of the Silver Age, that study it in depth?  Believe me, I have looked for them, at least among publications in English.  Perhaps I’ve just overlooked them?  The book I’ve seen that treats Tarkovsky the most seriously, from a religious point of view, is Through the Mirror: Reflections on the Films of Andrei Tarkovsky, edited by Gunnlaugur A. Jónsson and Thorkell Á. Óttarsson (the editors, and many of the contributors to this book, are Icelandic).  And one of the chapters in this book, the one by Torsten Kälvemark, actually does discuss the Russian religious philosophers.  Kälvemark also points the way to a 2001 book, in Russian, by Igor Evlampiev (in English, it would be titled Andrei Tarkovsky’s Philosophy of Art), which Kälvemark says “probably provides the most well-founded analysis of all books published on the philosophical ideas of the filmmaker.”

I recently bought a copy of Evlampiev’s book, and I’m beginning to learn to read Russian.  I hope to eventually see for myself whether this book is all it’s cracked up to be.  Interestingly, I recall seeing a reference by Robert Bird, in a journal article of his (I don’t have the cite handy right now), to this book, and my memory is that, among other things, Bird was bothered by the fact that Evlampiev referred to Tarkovsky as his “Teacher.”  I suppose Mr. Bird sees this form of address as indicative of a lack of scholarly detachment, but it strikes me as fairly incidental and harmless, at least on the face of it.  Until I can read Evlampiev’s book for myself, though, I’ll have to reserve judgment on it.

In closing, let me quote two more paragraphs from Le Fanu’s review:

Notwithstanding his tremendous cinephilic appeal, Tarkovsky has not quite been welcomed into film studies.  It is perhaps not hard to see why: his religious disposition, his moral fervor, his stated belief in truth (and in the complementary existence of error), his ideological dogmatism – all this is contrary to the coolness of our epoch, and to the technicist bent of much academic discourse in the humanities.

. . .

The author of Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema is an explicator, and an erudite one.  But that is not quite the same thing as being a critic. The films of Tarkovsky are admired by Bird, but not appreciated artistically: he doesn’t convey how wondrous they are.  It is a paradox.  Evidently, few people know more about the movies than he does; but the greatness of their utterance, in the last resort, eludes him.

The second paragraph seems overly harsh to me.  I still find much of value in Bird’s interpretations of Tarkovsky, despite their limitations (as I see them, in general agreement with Le Fanu).  However, the first paragraph seems spot-on to me and probably explains, as much as anything, the deficiencies that Le Fanu assigns to Bird’s book.  I think these same deficiencies are also apparent in many other Tarkovsky studies.

This entry was posted in Andrei Rublev, Frank, Semyon, Mirror, Russia (uncategorized), Russian religious philosophy, Tarkovsky, Andrei. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Le Fanu’s review of Bird’s book on Tarkovsky

  1. Pingback: A Review of a Review of Bird’s Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema | Filmwell

  2. Pingback: Dostoevsky, on the Fall: a literary interpretation | Extravagant Creation

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