During the Covid lockdown many people allowed themselves to indulge in binge-watching TV series. I wasn’t one of them. Not that I didn’t want to. I was ready to finally plow through five seasons of Breaking Bad, which all my trusted friends had assured me, “You’ll be hooked from the start.” But I wound up spending the first months of the lockdown in an apartment with an ancient TV set that didn’t hook up to the internet. Also, being somewhat of a Luddite, I have a very old operating system on my computer, so I couldn’t watch any Netflix on my laptop. Enjoying a movie on a tiny iPhone was out of the question.
But then I discovered something better. Infinitely better. And I mean “infinite” not in the hyperbolic sense, but in the ages-of-ages world-without-end sense.
I was meandering through YouTube, looking for something interesting. Somehow the algorithm that crunches our likes into numbers and then spits them back out at us as suggestions offered me a trailer to the documentary film A Cinema Prayer, by Andrey A. Tarkovsky, the great filmmaker’s son.
The senior Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, Andrei Rublev, had long been at the summit of my top-ten list of all-time greatest films. I’d seen it twice in the cinema, and twice at home on DVD. I’d also seen Ivan’s Childhood and The Sacrifice in the cinema, but so long ago that I couldn’t remember what they were about. All I had left were iconic images: black and white birch forests, the burning house of a family straight out of a Bergman film.
I watched the documentary. It was a beautiful homage to a filmmaker, a declaration of love to a father, and a meditation on art’s transcendental power.
Of course, after watching the documentary, the YouTube algorithm offered me other Tarkovsky films. I took the bait. I started with Stalker, which I’d never seen but had long been on my must-see list.
At the time, I was working very intensely on both a fiction project in the morning and a translation after lunch. Suffice it to say, I spent most of my waking hours in front of my laptop. I needed to take breaks. I was staying on a bucolic lake in the foothills of the Italian Alps and I tried to take a short hike through the forest every day. But while translating, I needed to take my mind off the work for shorter periods of time. After I clicked onto the beginning of Stalker, the solution struck me like an epiphany.
I saw the opening scene — the eerie bar, sepia-toned black-and-white, flute music reminiscent of spaghetti westerns with a post-apocalyptic, even eschatological timbre. The credits and title took all of four-plus minutes to show. Then the epigram setting the scene. Something had happened, something troubling and mysterious. A meteorite maybe. Who knows what? A zone was cordoned off. After the credits, it took another 90 seconds to see the image of a human being: mother and daughter sleeping amid some vaguely paranormal train vibrations. The camera pans slightly and catches the Stalker, lying in the same bed with his family, unblinking.
We are nearly ten minutes into the film before the sound of a human voice is heard. The Stalker’s wife: “Why did you take my watch? Where are you going. You gave me your word. I believed you.”
At this point I realized what I was in for: long, endless tracking shots, static compositions obsessed with texture. The sound of water in all its forms. Wind intimating some metaphysical shiver.
But I had a deadline to meet. I was grateful for still having work during the lockdown and I couldn’t waste too much time on YouTube. Moreover, I understood before I went for that initial click that this film would not be bubble gum for the brain. I would be invited into an aesthetic experience that always skirted the edges of philosophy, flirting with all our notions of beauty, good, even truth.
So I decided to watch one or two long tracking shots during a break. Then I’d go back to translating, back to the text. Maybe two breaks per day. Some days I’d watch up to 30 minutes. This piecemeal experience of Stalker filled me with images and intimations that washed over me during my walks through the woods. I saw Tarkovsky’s compositions, his iconic faces superimposed on the vistas I refused to photograph.
After Stalker I watched Nostalghia, followed by Mirror, then Solaris, then finally, The Sacrifice, again. It took nearly two months to watch this way, in daily eddies and rivulets, taking a few days’ break between films.
I spent my lockdown accompanied by trickles of surreal floods, trees seemingly conscious of being watched. I knew that to get the full effect of the films, I needed to see them straight through, to immerse myself in their visual splendor and let myself be transported by the soundtrack. But the piecemeal approach was as edifying as it was pragmatic.
Photography: a cadre from A. Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker” (1979; source).