I’m new to the films of Tarkovsky, and have become obsessed with them. Yet with the peculiar itch typical of my mind my thoughts on his work keep slipping into thoughts on my favorite filmmaker, Luis Buñuel.
The two don’t seem to have a whole lot in common. I would say in general terms that if Orson Welles created the language of contemporary cinema, if Stanley Kubrick punched that language up and enhanced it in every way, and if Buñuel added to the art a way to explore the internal contents of a character’s mind—if all of this is true then Tarkovsky, like David Lynch, perfectly combines the three. But a first glance does not seem to reward a close comparison of Buñuel to Tarkovsky.
The Surrealism of Buñuel can only be compared superficially to the way the internal lives of Tarkovsky’s characters are shown. Buñuel’s departure from social mores in the dinner scene in The Phantom of Liberty for example appears to have a direct link to French Surrealism, while the girl moving a glass across a tabletop in Tarkovsky’s Stalker looks more like a magical construction to visualize the internal state of the girl, particularly regarding hidden potential or invisible power. It’s a vision that does not suggest a strong connection to other artists or art movements. When Buñuel uses two actresses completely different in appearance to portray one character in That Obscure Object of Desire he seems to be after a different effect than Tarkovsky’s use of the same actress to portray two people in The Mirror. While the visual shock, the dissonance in Buñuel is akin to Surrealism, Tarkovsky takes us into intimate contact with the character who sees the resemblance.
Tarkovsky was the kind of filmmaker that Buñuel disliked. His films were too beautiful, too arty. Some scenes seem to exist for their sheer beauty alone. The viewer with a knowledge of art history will exclaim, Oh, Bruegel! or, Oh, da Vinci! throughout The Mirror, exclamations that would no doubt have brought a cry of, Oh, shit! from Buñuel. Buñuel endeavored to keep his technique invisible and he preferred filmmakers who did the same, admiring La Strada for example, but deploring Juliet of the Spirits.
But once you look past the different aesthetics of the two a comparison becomes rewarding. For the “obscurity” of Buñuel’s “object of desire” is like the blurring of differences in Tarkovsky’s “mirror”. Is it a matter of changing aspect in the other or a matter of the observer’s perceptions? Can the two questions be separated? It seems to me that both filmmakers ask all three questions. Tarkovsky said that all of his films address the dichotomy in man that he is a spiritual being in a material world and these two forces are in opposition. Buñuel pointed to a wine glass and said it is a thousand things to a thousand different people. It seems to me they were saying something similar, that what we call “reality” involves a correspondence between a person’s inner state(s) and his interactions via chance and biophysics with the world which of course includes society.
I have asked myself why I am so attracted to the art of exiles, whether voluntary or forced. Because of Franco in Buñuel’s case and Soviet constrictions on Tarkovsky, both men became exiles. They were forced to think about what their art meant. Philosophy did not add depth to their films, it was of vital importance. Here in the United States we are comfortable. However much we complain, however we are led to believe we should be angry over what we don’t have the fact remains we are comfortable. We do not have to think in order to survive unless we are thrown into exceptional circumstances. The sick, those upon whom grave tragedy has befallen, certain persecuted marginalized people, those who are abused by their own parents and guardians, these are the types of Americans who are forced by exceptional circumstances to think deeply about themselves in relation to the wider world and it is among this group we are most likely to find viewers sympathetic to the films of Tarkovsky and Buñuel.
There are American filmmakers who share a philosophical bond to them—I’ve mentioned Lynch and would add Terrence Malick. But their visions easily get lost on the American viewing public. Malick asks us to reconsider our notions of the individual but we are too busy wrapped in identity politics diving in and out, moment by moment, of social media platforms reacting and taking potshots. Lynch asks us to consider that we’re all asleep dreaming a collective dream and that we might be able to, if not awake, at least become lucid enough to dream a better dream. But we’re too busy bemoaning the loss of a dream that has been false from its inception. Who but those who have been wrenched off the highway and forced to consider their place in the world can really appreciate the cinema of Tarkovsky and Buñuel? We can’t even appreciate our own.
According to Buñuel, one wine glass, common to all as the tomato, means a thousand different things depending on the observer’s desires, memories and the accidents of his life. It is always a wine glass, yet it is always different depending on who is viewing it. All of Buñuel’s films involve the radical juxtaposition of a character’s internal life with the contingencies of the outside world. Without ignoring the unique inner drives and desires of an individual, Buñuel’s films show that no human being forms in seclusion. In a similar way, Alva Noë suggests that my consciousness is always my own yet it does not exist without the outside world and the consciousness of others.
In Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia the madman tells the poet that when you add one drop of water to another one you do not have two drops, you have one bigger drop. What difference does it make, one or two? Maybe more than we know. It could be that our ideas of ourselves/reality inform our lives as much as our deepest desires do. Beyond that, it could be that when these desires and ideas reach out to the world and others a common world is made, the world we share and live in, the world we create together. Even if science one day provides the answer to everything and on that day every human becomes God, we know one thing beyond a doubt—we ain’t anywhere near that yet. And without adding our biological selves to a (hypothetical) super-computer the limited beings that we are will always encounter resistance to a (hypothetical) God-consciousness. We’re very good at encountering our limits at every turn and then making another turn to deny them. Tarkovsky’s films begin with disaster, loss, disorientation. If there ever were answers, they’ve been lost. Stalker and Nostalghia are worlds without answers, extreme visions that throw a clear light on our own world. In both films an act of magic is performed in an attempt to recover harmony or bring about a new one. The same thing happens in The Sacrifice, even if one would rather not designate as magic an act of prayer. These strange visions suggest to me that Tarkovsky is asking a troubling question: Life itself is living in the meantime. Without The Answer we must either go on a working model or go on living with the knowledge that the search for such an Answer is a false path. Shall we recognize this and seek the best working model for all, or is the best response to let go of such a search? His characters are seekers because it is by no means certain that our current world is the best possible one.
And here is where the comparison ends. For I suspect Buñuel would hate what I have written about Tarkovsky. He was a Sadean. I suspect he’d say something like, We are what we are as ants are what they are and we get the world that is coming to us. It is not in our power to choose. We’re too small, too insignificant, though our obsessions are everything to us. At best we can skirmish and battle amongst ourselves, based on our obsessions, to achieve power.
Right or wrong, I don’t know, Buñuel remains my favorite filmmaker and I’d like to conclude by indicating why this is so. Like Sade he was pitiless. But in that he is strong. Strange as it may sound I think of that strength in moral terms. I recall something Simone de Beauvoir said about Sade:
We find in his work the most extreme form of the conflict [the individual in society] from which no individual can escape without self-deception.
Please show me an artist freer than Buñuel from self-deception. It is rare because it is difficult. The fact that Buñuel wanted, like Sade, upon his death to be utterly forgotten (and his works burned) testifies to the difficulty. If we can call this freedom a kind of moral vision, then I would say that most artists, in distinctive ways, use artistry or narrative ambulation not to enhance or clarify but to cushion the blow of moral vision. And I’m talking about the good ones, not those whose moral enunciations are mere derivatives of religion or philosophy that has not been lived or deeply thought out. Pick an artist at random in any category and almost every time you will have someone who could not maintain the strength of his convictions. There is almost always, often unspoken, a Yes, but…. and that “yes, but…” informs their work, whether that means veering into sentimentality, idealism, beauty, mysticism, mystery or any other kind of distraction. Buñuel’s vision, direct and devoid of ornamentation, revealed people driven to behave according to the way they are constructed in conjunction with chance events. He is almost alone in producing the unobstructed clarity of this vision. And he refused to be distracted from it. It rules every film, regardless of its theme, whether comedy or drama, whether original story or adaptation, from the cheapest Mexican ones to the celebrated late French ones. He was the most disciplined of artists. People talk about “vision” but it rarely gets this strong. The company is small; I think of artists like Cecil Taylor and Michael Brodsky. People who never waver.