This dissertation examines the films and philosophy of Andrei Tarkovsky in relationship to the artists that influenced him and in the context of the tradition he and those artists create. I am particularly interested in theological and philosophical aspects of his work as they address aesthetics and in the effects of literature, painting and music on his film style. This work is part historiography and part meditation on the meanings of the films and how they are created. I suggest that, despite a reasonable popularity, Tarkovsky is widely misunderstood, and I hope to demonstrate that the cause of this misunderstanding results, at least in part, from failing to account for the broad artistic tradition to which Tarkovsky belongs.
One of the most pressing concerns is the fact that critics, and indeed western viewers in general, are bound to world views that reduces experience and conceptualization to either/or propositions. The first two chapters address this problem in detail, and both go on to suggest the proper context in which to place Tarkovsky. Chapter one covers philosophical or theoretical questions while chapter two looks mainly at artistic production. The central idea is that, contrary to the western mindset, the truth is never a choice between mind and body, between intellect and emotion or between soul and material. The first two chapters demonstrate that the philosophers and artists to whom Tarkovsky is closest understood this.
The next three chapters examine Tarkovsky’s film style, arguing toward conclusions often quite at odds with more established notions about his films regarding narrative framework, use of symbolism and sound design. Everything important in art is in its style. It is never the abstract idea expressed that matter most, but the way it is expressed. Style is what makes art irreducible to its supposed idea, and thus defeats the compulsion to fit it into a binary. This is how I would describe my methodology, and I would argue it is also how Tarkovsky viewed making films.
The chapters dedicated to specific films detail how some of the complexity and difficulty of watching films with elusive and unstable ideas. Three of the chapters engage a particular artist who features prominently in each film, using him as a touchstone for addressing Tarkovsky. The point is not that Tarkovsky has something in common with Bruegel, Leonardo or Shakespeare. Rather it is to view Solaris, Offret and Stalker as Tarkovskian dialogues with these artists that allow the viewer to understand better their works as well as his. My study of Zerkalo is a more straight-forward interpretation, employing much of what was developed in the three chapters on style to understand what seems to me to be Tarkovsky’s least accessible film.
The chapter about Nostalghia and the conclusion address two major misconceptions about Tarkovsky, his attitudes about women and his religious beliefs. Taken together they consider the false binaries inherent in feminist critiques of Tarkovsky’s portrayal of women and in both dogmatically religious and skeptical views of his work. The dissertation thus ends where it began, asserting that Tarkovsky’s films break down methodologies used to attack them and to praise them; the works defeat even the most carefully considered ideas about them. The Tarkovsky film makes one consider that which is opposed to their deepest sensibility. The faithful person is made to engage their intellect, and the skeptic is made to negotiate miracles in order to experience the inseparability of the mind and the spirit.