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.