BluRay/DVD Reviews

VOYAGE IN TIME

By • Nov 23rd, 2004 •

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Do I dare to be the philistine who claims that VOYAGE IN TIME, a 1983television documentary about famed Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, will be of great interest to those who know and revere his work, but will do little for those who don’t already know something of him and his legacy?
Tarkovsky, who was born in Ivonova, Russia in 1932, grew up to become what many considered the greatest Russian filmmaker since Eisenstein, although he himself felt that Eisenstein’s approach “contradicts the very unique basis of the process whereby a film affects an audience.”* Tarkovsky in his own deeply personal way, tried to give the audience the “opportunity to live through what was happening on screen as if it were his own life.”* In creating films that, in his view, did this, plot meant very little to him, which put him at odds with the mainstream of Soviet realism. Accordingly, he made only five feature films in Russia (IVAN’S CHILDHOOD, ANDREI RUBLEV, SOLARIS, MIRROR, and STALKER), before leaving the country for Europe, and presumably, more artistic freedom.

VOYAGE IN TIME follows Tarkovsky and famed Italian screenwriter Tonino Guerra as they travel through Italy, putatively searching for the locations for Tarkovsky’s first film outside of the USSR. Tarkovksy’s lack of concern about plot is corroborated by the location-seeking jaunt. As Guerra leads him from medieval church to eighteenth century villa, Tarkovsky envisions a critical scene from the screenplay–perhaps some sort of a spiritual crisis, taking place in the depressing hotel room they have stayed in, or, if not there, perhaps in a swimming pool they’ve passed by, as the mist rises from it in early morning. He seems connected to the emotional meanings that these places evoke for him, and unconcerned that there is not yet a story to draw the places together. The hero of this screenplay does have a profession, however; he is an architect, and this becomes a source of some friction between the Italian screenwriter and the Russian auteur. Tarkovsky complains that Guerra is only showing him the tourist spots. Yes, he agrees, the character is an architect, but just because the character is an architect, that doesn’t mean we want the audience to see a lot of architecture.

However, I would be remiss to suggest that this film revolves around a central conflict or feels in any other way like a narrative. Although Tarkovsky has written about his distaste for symbols that become cliches through use, this documentary shares stylistic, structural, and imagistic icons with his feature films. The film starts out with a distant shot of a villa on a hill, and then moves slowly through the city and finally resolves itself on the balcony of an apartment, where Guerra is waiting for Tarkovsky, or maybe; it’s difficult to know how we are really supposed to connect these shots to each other. Tarkovksy suggested that some of his shots of nature and landscapes should merely be watched as one watches the sea or the sky, and perhaps that is all he intends here, or in the lengthy shot out a car window, of amber meadows passing by as a stone city looms larger and closer.
There is a curious distance from, or apathy toward, the characters. Scenes between people are either shot from a great distance, or the arguing protagonists are not framed at all, while the camera idly focuses on a flower pot. In a prolonged scene of an “Italian peasant tailgate party” the stock pot full of pink, spiny sea creatures and the lush flesh of split watermelons catch the camera’s eye. The people, Tarkovsky, his interpreter, and Guerra, are talking, but the voices have been removed from the soundscape, and only the sound of the cutlery hitting the china, and the distant traffic, remains on the track.
Another odd element is that Tarkovksy speaks Russian while Guerra speaks Italian, and they seem to comprehend each other fine during their first encounter in Guerra’s apartment, and at other times when they are alone, but whenever the interpreter is present, she translates every phrase. One wonders what exactly they are sharing with each other when she is not there. Perhaps it is something beyond language.

In between scouting trips, the two talk about the legacy Tarkovsky would like to leave for young filmmakers, what film he most regrets not ever making, the filmmakers he most admires, etc.

Tarkovsky would remain in Europe for the rest of his brief life; the Soviet government made it impossible for him to reunite with his family and he died in Paris in 1986. He made two films in Western Europe, NOSTALGIA and SACRIFICE. NOSTALGIA was written with Guerra, and it tells the story (to the extent that it tells any story) of a Russian poet who goes to Italy to research a book, but finds himself enveloped by homesickness, the homesickness that, in Tarkovsky’s view, made it impossible for Russians to assimilate. It’s nice to know that the collaboration documented in VOYAGE IN TIME transformed into something more. The beautifully haunting and achingly tedious NOSTALGIA reminds me of a letter a Russian engineer wrote to Tarkovsky about a much earlier film of his, MIRROR: “I saw your film. . . I sat through to the end, despite the fact that I developed a severe headache as a result of my genuine efforts to analyze it, or just have some idea of what was going on. . .”* That sums up my relationship to Tarkovsky’s work: while there is something very compelling about the imagery, it is at the same time frustrating and agonizing to try to figure out how one is supposed to get inside of this filmmaker’s “unconditional world” and “build the separate parts into a whole.” I feel the same way about VOYAGE IN TIME, although its brevity does make it Tarkovsky lite.

About the DVD: it would be nice if there were more features on the disk, besides the feature, to give the uninitiated context. The film is very grainy, but I suppose they’ve done the best they could. Biggest disappointment for me was that there was supposed to be a supplementary booklet included in the case (silly me, I kept looking for a virtual booklet ON the disk, until I realized that there was a place for the physical hard copy of a booklet in the case, which was empty). I am sure that this will provide some of the material that would make this appeal to a broader base.

* Marked quotations are from Sculpting in Time, by Andrey Tarkovsky, trans. Kitty Hunter-Blair, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

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