From Russia with Love

By James Norton


Tarkovsky is explored, celebrated, further mythologised in two new publications

The omens are looking good for Quantum of Solace, the coming James Bond film. The film’s director Marc Forster contributes the concluding chapter, ‘What Would Tarkovsky Do?’ to the new critical collection Tarkovsky, claiming that he asks himself this question whenever presented with a directorial problem. The thought of Daniel Craig repeatedly carrying a lighted candle the length of a drained swimming pool (pace Nostalgia…) in an attempt at spiritual redemption is a mouth-watering one. Particularly if he’s wearing those tight blue swimming trunks again.

But another question lingers. Do we need any more books about Tarkovsky? Both of these books contribute valuable insights into his work and new information about his methods, at least to readers in English, so the answer has to be yes. To write about cinema is to risk neutralising the magic of the screen with the written word. These books are filled with descriptions of shots and camera movements and angles, an obvious way to explain the technical processes with which film creates meaning, but all it effectively does is to show the writer’s fluency in encoding the filmic experience in mechanical terminology. This isn’t really the writers’ fault, but exposes the deficiency of an over-reliance on the conventions of shot listing when unlocking meaning from the medium of film, and demonstrates that cinema, to borrow Lacan’s phrase, like the unconscious, may be structured like a language but is not one. Although lavishly illustrated, both books therefore rely for their effectiveness on the reader’s thorough familiarity with the films themselves. Although that is not too much to ask, these are probably not books for newcomers to the work; they are not books of initiation.


Tarkovsky, edited by Nathan Dunne, is a work of coffee-table scholarship. Its weight and minuscule type mean that the optimal position for reading it is lying on one’s bed with the couple of kilos of Tarkovskiana propped up on a pillow. Dunne’s egregious introduction promises an irreverent and interdisciplinary opening out of Tarkovsky studies, although the essays themselves scrupulously respect the conventions of academia and contain a wealth of useful clarification, particularly of the music and paintings used in Tarkovsky’s films and revealing contextualisation that implicate his films within the Soviet cinematic system. This reviewer’s task is made easier by the fact that the two contributors whom I know personally wrote two of the best chapters: Evgeny Tsymbal’s memoir of the tortuous production of Stalker, and Natasha Synessios’ elegantly persuasive account of the advancing petrification of Tarkovsky’s filmmaking; both pieces confidently free of jargon. There is also frank criticism of Tarkovsky’s anti-feminism, notably in Birgit Menzel’s account of a workshop given by the director in Berlin. Within such a compendious volume there is inevitably plenty of repetition, waffle and spurious theorising, but these can be excused by its ambition. However, the book’s high production values conceal errors that make the reference sections practically useless: in the filmography, none of the distinguished cinematographers who shot Tarkovsky’s films are listed, with assistants or unknowns named in their place; and mistakes in the dating of the cinema classics listed in the chronology are too numerous to mention.

Robert Bird’s Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema meanwhile is a snug paperback, enabling it to be read whilst wandering about. Bird’s book is thus ideal for daylight reading while Dunne’s feels like more of a nocturnal pleasure, with the effect on the reviewer that it is unclear which material came from which book, not least because Bird also contributes a chapter to his heavyweight rival. However his own book has a satisfying density that belies its slighter form. Bird divides his study into the four classical elements and subdivides these into aesthetic and cinematographic themes, which sometimes makes for an awkward distribution of the subject matter, but his approach is both rigorous and stimulating. Bird is so fond of such coinages as ‘incinerating images’ and ‘suturing time’ that he repeats them throughout, but his text is also sprinkled with surprises hidden in the master’s oeuvre, such as a radio play that he produced of William Faulkner’s naval story ‘Turnabout’ and his screenplay for an Uzbek thriller called Beware, Snakes! which is obviously a film we all need to see as a matter of urgency.

Tarkovsky, edited by Nathan Dunne (Black Dog Publishing)

Andrei Tarkovsky – Elements of Cinema, Robert Bird (Reaktion Books)

James Norton is a researcher, producer and director for television.