The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue (1994)

By Vida T. Johnson and Graham Petrie

Johnson’s and Petrie’s study is that extremely rare beast: an academic study that is informative, objective (or as close as anyone can get), and readable. They work from an interesting thesis:

Tarkovsky certainly saw himself as a martyr in his last years and . . . helped to foster a myth of his own persecution that was rather uncritically accepted at face value by well-meaning foreigners. . . . Yet, even if one must reject the more extreme claims of martyrdom, there is no reason not to acknowledge the very real struggles and sacrifices he made for his art.

I’m convinced. Unlike Annette Insdorf’s study of Kieslowski, this one is very much grounded in the particular context within which the director worked. In this case, Johnson and Petrie expose the inner workings of the Soviet film industry, though not in such unnecessary detail as to distract from their discussion of Tarkovsky himself. In doing so, they reveal him to be both the martyred artist he (often) claimed to be and a director allowed unprecedented creative freedom. As a Soviet “employee,” Tarkovsky was forced to maneuver considerable bureaucratic hurdles in pre- and post-production, but during filming he was given complete independence, allowing him to make difficult films free from the economic concerns experienced in the West. Johnson and Petrie wonder what Orson Welles might have accomplished had he been afforded the same budgets and freedom given to Tarkovsky while under the “yoke” of Communism.

The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky is divided into 14 chapters: the first three provide a fascinating overview of Tarkovsky’s persona, his aesthetics, and his working methods; the second section includes close studies of each of the eight films (including The Steamroller and the Violin); and the final four chapters examine recurring images and themes in Tarkovsky’s work. One note: the chapter-long studies of each film are very insightful and well-organized. Each provides a production history, an examination of the critical reception, and a formal analysis by the authors. Johnson and Petrie hold no punches, particularly when dealing with the mostly Western critics who they feel have misinterpreted Tarkovsky’s oeuvre due to ignorance of Soviet culture.

Johnson and Petrie are also quite rough with Tarkovsky, particularly in the chapters on Nostalghia and The Sacrifice. I have to agree with their main criticism. Although both films contain some striking imagery (I especially love the b&w apocalyptic vision in The Sacrifice), neither exactly breaks new ground for the director. In fact, The Sacrifice seems to contradict one of his main tenants — let the images do the talking.