If you are a cinephile, it is a fair guess that you have seen your share of war-time romances, one of the stodgiest of all film sub-genres. But that does not mean you have a Soviet war-time romance, nor have you seen a Mikhail Kalatozov war-time romance. Kalatozov is one of the masters of world cinema (his later Yo Soy Cuba is both a passionate ode to a lifestyle and a perplexing, dumbfoundingly beautiful exercise in pushing the heights of camerawork to impossible achievements). He is not nearly as well known today as he ought to be (but the same can be said of all post-Eisenstein Soviet cinema, excepting Tarkovsky), largely because political lines in the sand were well entrenched by the time Cranes was made. He was bound to the lingering death of existing in a world with more interest in denouncing art than expressing it. At least Cannes got it right, putting political qualms aside and awarding The Cranes are Flying the Palme d’Or for its luminous artistic achievement, transcendent performances and craft, and its stunning ode to love and loss in a world that no longer knew the meaning of the former term. Continue reading
Update 2018: Such an old, out-of-date review from my youth, and so little time to re-review. But after watching Stalker again, I’m still floored by its meditations on apocalyptic time, and the way it seems to persist with the weight of eternity and the pressure of stillness yet still evoke a diaphanous, ever-fluctuating quality. The film visualizes experiences that temporarily illuminate before us and yet constantly seem to be shuddering apart before our eyes.
It’s Tarkovsky, so Stalker is tinged with a dose of the Burkean sublime, but never before or since did his quest for transcendence seem so embattled, so threatened, so clearly aware that achieving sublimity isn’t a linear motion toward another realm of physical being but to another way of thinking, another form of consciousness aimed not at stringing together life narratively – looking for the accruals, the goals, the definitives – but toward noticing the fluctuating states of being around you. The sublime, in Tarkovsky’s framing then, is a poetically doomed project, where one reaches new temporary truths only to confront how partial, provisional, and ephemeral they are. Obviously rebuking Soviet modernity’s mechanical modernities and reconnecting Russia to a long-lost mysticism, Tarkovsky’s film has much in common with earlier Russian radicals, reanimating their spirit much as his closest American contemporary, Malick, rekindled the currents of Emerson and Whitman. Both filmmakers resist definitives in their search for cosmic connection, observing nature with a spectral fluidity that moves from the majestic to the terrifying but always remembers the friction in the moment, treating each image not as a statement but a constantly-perusing question, a verb, an unresolved mosaic. His films are about finding a world elsewhere and living with the knowledge that this elsewhere is forever unfinished.
So many sci-fi films from the late ’70s play with eldritch horrors and far-flung futures but never truly explore their capacity for touching the unknown. In this morass, Tarkovsky’s Stalker is uniquely in touch, not only with the cosmic implications of its claims to visualize new truths but the fallibility of those implications, the sense in which the sort of unmediated truth another film might seek is hopelessly static and abstract. Comparatively, while Stalker may seem abstract on the surface, it attunes, rather singularly, not only to the desire for transcendence but the ground-level rhythms of searching, stumbling, falling, and getting back up necessary not only to get there, but to realize that these rhythms of failure are the cadences of humanity, that transcendence is not a fixed state or a destination but a path forward. Continue reading