Atop the pantheon of Russian artists, alongside Fyodor Dostoevsky and his psychological novels, sits Andrei Tarkovsky. A deeply poetic filmmaker, Tarkovsky dared explore spirituality and art in the Soviet Union with seven major films over roughly 15 years, until his death in 1986. His work enjoyed a retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last week, which included “Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky,” a documentary from 24-year-old Dmitry Trakovsky that will be shown again on Feb. 13 and Feb. 14 at Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.
“I wanted to preserve the world that (Tarkovsky) left behind,” Trakovsky said ““ the similarity of his last name is but a coincidence. “I wanted to make a work that would preserve the memories of those who worked with him.”
Trakovsky’s own memories of the filmmaker date back to his childhood, but it was during his undergraduate years at UC Santa Cruz, watching Tarkovsky’s films on his laptop, that he developed the unusual depth of feeling that inspires the making of a documentary. He began hosting “Tarkovsky Tuesdays” on campus, and soon acquired a grant from the school to work on a film that would investigate one of cinema’s most distinctive artists.
“(Tarkovsky’s films) are spiritual explorations of life,” Trakovsky said. “Unlike in other films where you have a story told through a lot of bits of information, Tarkovsky has a few long sequences, and in these long sequences he tries to capture, as he called it, “˜time pressure.’ He tries to capture the unique pressure of time in a moment. This kind of style, combined with his spiritual exploration, combined with his tendency to explore the mysteries of the world ““ the product is something very unusual.”
Trakovsky spent four years creating the documentary, which is organized around 15 original interviews with people intimately tied to the filmmaker’s life, including Tarkovsky’s son and the Swedish actor Erland Josephson. Central to these interviews and to Trakovsky’s project as a whole was an assertion Tarkovsky made often during his lifetime, that death does not exist.
“It was much more important for me that the viewer have an encounter with the person being interviewed, rather than just use that person as a vessel for information,” Trakovsky said.
“I tried to present these people as human beings and really to answer the question at the heart of the film: What did Tarkovsky mean when he said that death doesn’t exist? In which ways does a person live on after they die? Not through words and what these people had to say, but through the experience and the emotion in the interviews themselves.”
Among the interview subjects is Vyacheslav Ivanov, a professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at UCLA. Ivanov knew Tarkovsky as a child, brought together by their fathers, and during the late 1960s and early 1970s he and Tarkovsky were close friends.
Tarkovsky spent most of those years making “Solaris,” a science-fiction epic that Ivanov sometimes shows students in his Russian Science Fiction course; the film is best known to American audiences because of Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake of the same name starring George Clooney.
“Film was the only possibility to represent real life, without some special transformation of life as it is usually done in the classical arts,” Ivanov said. “This particular combination of life, philosophy of life and art ““ that is possible only in film as the great art of Andrei Tarkovsky, and of some other great filmmakers.”
Though film critics usually discuss Tarkovsky in these terms, as an exalted member of the cinematic elite, he remains somewhat outside the vocabulary of the general movie-going public. That may be changing, though, which would prove timely indeed for Trakovsky’s documentary.
“(Tarkovsky) has a larger audience today than ever,” said Trond Trondsen, who runs the Tarkovsky informational site nostalghia.com. “He used to be this kind of exalted guru; he was mostly studied by film scholars, and even they were scared of criticizing him. Now you’ll find he has more of a mainstream following, film critics are more critical of his work. They’re being interpreted in various ways. He’s not this untouchable guru anymore.”
Trakovsky’s documentary may make him less untouchable still.
“It’s not easy to represent a great man, a great person, but I think that through some quotations from his movies, through some words from people who know him, we can guess something about the important features of this great man,” Ivanov said.
“He was a great man, a man of genius in a very difficult situation, and still he succeeded in doing what he wanted to do.”