The highbrow Soviet director's movies seem like a strange fit for the video site best known its cute kitten clips. But the experiment just might work.
Solaris starts slowly. The Soviet original, filmed in 1972 and directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, opens with achingly apparent deliberation. The camera glides over running water, foggy plants, and gnarled trees. Protagonist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) stares out at all this nature, and his face exudes brooding Dostoevsky angst, all amid close-ups of a teacup as rain begins to fall. Unsmiling and decked out in a plain blue jacket and grey shirt, Kelvin stares up at the sky.
"Is this on mute?" the a friend asked me after watching a few moments of Solaris. He was perplexed at the drawn-out pans of Russian streams.
No—it's just Andrei Tarkovsky.
But the reaction of this guy, in his 20s and part of a culture dominated by the Internet, smartphones, and blockbusters like Fast Five (the top-grossing movie in the world these days), is hardly surprising. Modern audiences expect flash, conflict, at least some hint of a coherent narrative within the first few minutes of a film. A film like Solaris isn't particularly easy on modern media diets ... and of Tarkovsky's seven long meandering classics, it's often considered the most accessible. In the language of Netflix categories, it's "mind-bending, cerebral," 165 minutes showcasing a man's voyage to another planet where he encounters his dead wife on the orbiting space station. Despite the fantastical-sounding plot, the film manages to be graceful and often psychologically devastating.
This spring, the Russian film studio responsible for most Tarkovsky films as well as many classics of Soviet cinema has begun releasing them free onto the Internet with English subtitles. Mosfilm first put out around 50 of the old masterworks, including several of Tarkovsky's features, and announced that it will continue to release around five additional films per week. The goal is 200 movies on the web by the year's end.
The real kicker? Mosfilm dropped these films on YouTube. Yes, YouTube.
The partnership between the nearly 90-year-old studio and the six-year-old, Google-owned titanic repository of 10-minute clips (perfect for kittens and quick one-liners) is a wonderful and forward-looking move. The cognitive dissonance of putting Andrei Tarkovsky's movies on YouTube is enormous, due to both the meticulous visuals, meant for a big screen, and the wildly different audience expectations associated with the mode of delivery and the subject.
Tarkovsky—a man who saw himself as "sculpting in time" with his mystically oriented, leisurely epics--never produced art films that were easy to love. Today's audiences don't expect his dream-like long takes, his inscrutable departures from traditional narrative, the pretense of artistry. Just look at the controversy surrounding the coming film The Tree of Life's bizarre, unhurried, and ambitious style, crafted by the American director most reminiscent of Tarkovsky in approach, Terrence Malick. Tarkovsky's films are equally full of quirk: objects that float, an obsession with water, transitions from black-and-white to color without warning, and long pans of art.
Yet Tarkovsky is the man Ingmar Bergman, the acclaimed Swedish art film director, called "the greatest." His films can be a lesson in patience, in a different way of thinking about and watching movies, and their addition to Mosfilm's YouTube channel should be viewed as an opportunity. His filmography, from Solaris to the haunting, baffling The Mirror (1975) to his offerings after he left the Soviet Union, like The Sacrifice (1986), pose a new way of seeing--in these long, maddening Tarkovsky takes, you don't have a choice, frankly.
Although many may be familiar with Tarkovsky's later films, like Solaris and the minimalist, bewildering Stalker (1979), for films that offer real difficulty as well as reward, look to Tarkovsky's earlier movies from the 1960s. Particularly worthwhile is Tarkovsky's second feature, Andrei Rublev (1966), which presents a world so alien as to be untenable, perhaps, for many modern audiences.
Why untenable? Andrei Rublev is three hours and 25 minutes long, shot almost entirely without color, without a unifying narrative, and tells the story of a Russian monk and icon painter from the Middle Ages, our title character of Andrei Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn). No convenient romantic narrative lends itself to the drama and comedy of the scenes—the closest thing the film offers is Andrei's friendship and conflict with two monkish associates, Kirril and Danil. Little flash characterizes the thoughtful, unusual film. For long stretches, the character of Rublev refuses to even speak. It is a story of faith and art, disease and travel, death and invasion, and achieves better fidelity of atmosphere to 15th-century medieval living than perhaps any movie in memory.
Patience is a gift with a film like Andrei Rublev, and its many unconventional vignettes can stir real emotion if you're receptive to the world the film shapes. These darkly mesmerizing scenes show the bloodiness of a dying horse in battle, the ambition to craft authentic art, the pettiness and politics of dialogue, and the mystifying opening of the film, which shows a crowd's joy at launching a primitive hot air balloon. The movie is a stark reminder of just how truly different the Middle Ages must have felt—for faith to be front and center amid so many endeavors and Tsarist confusions, the banter of a wandering jester, the naked bodies of pagans rushing past.
Watching Andrei Rublev is rebellion, a challenge, and should be attempted even if you can't stand more than twenty minutes of such foreign moments ripped straight from a history that feels distinctly human. The experience is hardly easy and may need to happen in short bursts. Despite its difficulties, Tarkovsky gave audiences something genuinely touching and real in these scenes, which amazingly weren't even released to a mass audience until years after their filming. The impact has resonated throughout countless films since. I listened to U.S. filmmaker Julian Schnabel this month, and as he listed his influences, this was the first film he named.
Andrei Rublev and Tarkovsky's other older films, such as his excellent and more dramatically straightforward debut Ivan's Childhood (1962), are available now on Mosfilm's YouTube channel. Just give one a few minutes—and if you want to write it off as dreary or dated, that's fine. Understandable, even. The perfect kitten video is, no doubt, only a click away.