Monday, November 10, 2014

Chasing “Andrei Rublev”

NOTE:  This post is rated R for pervasive mature themes and mild strong language.


This post has given me a bad case of writer’s block.  The topic, the 1966 Russian film Andrei Rublev (Андрей Рублев), is just too huge.  I can’t review this just as a movie—it’s much more complicated than that.  It has been called “the greatest movie ever made” and “a very long film about bearded men.”  As The New Yorker observed, the film—about a 15th-century icon painter—was blocked from being shown in the Soviet Union because the government considered it “ideologically ambiguous in places—an error regarded in Russia as more dangerous than mayhem.”  Andrei Rublev is like this giant heavy weight that can bear down on you even when you’re not watching.  What I’m going to try to do here is capture the experience of my monumental struggle of going toe-to-toe with this movie.  Twice.

By the way, before you decide this topic is too nerdy, and/or that this movie is just a snooze-fest for intellectuals—kind of a My Dinner With Андрей—think again.  This movie softens the viewer up with long, dull stretches, only to suddenly shock him with a brutal Tartar raid, a nude bacchanal, or a scene of brazen ideological ambiguity.  It is as harrowing as it is dull.

Why should you read this?

Read this post if you’ve never heard of Andrei Rublev before and/or you’re considering watching it for the first time.  Are there spoilers here?  Yeah, there are, but believe me, with this film it’s better to err on the side of knowing too much than being mystified throughout.  According to one critic, “[Director Andrei] Tarkovsky himself said:  ‘We worked at drowning our idea in the atmosphere, in the characters.’”

If you know you’ll never watch the movie, read this to improve your cultural literacy, and to know what you missed.  Plus, maybe after this post you’ll change your mind and give the film a try.  (Which you should, if for no other reason than its name-brand director.  Another notable film by Tarkovsky is The Steamroller and the Violin, about a boy who is endlessly teased for playing the violin until he befriends a road worker, who teaches him how to drive his steamroller.  Apparently it ends there, before becoming the most badass revenge flick ever.)

If you’ve already seen Andrei Rublev and just love all the endless commentary about it on the Internet, you might be hoping I can offer a fresh perspective.  Could I be better than the 100 IMDb reviewers?  Well, I am a pretty eggheaded guy, but I’m also not afraid to call a spade a “pompous, self-satisfied, overeducated spade”—to its face.  My credentials as a highbrow type, who nevertheless  appreciates lowbrow sensibilities, can be found here.

My first time watching the film

I first encountered Andrei Rublev when my mom, visiting from Oregon, brought it with her from her local library.  This was a two-cassette copy on VHS.  Now, right off the bat, there’s something wrong with viewing an art house movie on VHS.  Here’s what Tarkovsky intended for us to see:

You know that on-screen notice that says, “This film has been modified from its original version.  It has been modified to fit your screen”?  Here’s what that’s referring to:

When a movie is modified to fit the squarer TV screen , a bunch gets cut off the sides.  Directors in the ‘80s and ‘90s actually compensated for this by putting important action in the middle of the screen.  Tarkovsky, needless to say, did not.  But that’s not even the worst of it.  Our VHS copy of this film was of absolutely terrible quality and looked something like this:

It was actually even worse because it was really grainy.  The whole movie seemed to take place during a blizzard.  (“I’m just so cold watching this!” my wife complained at one point.)  It’s hard enough trying to tell the characters in this movie apart (them all being bearded and hooded) without such a poor image.  I couldn’t follow anything and kept falling asleep.  Not being actually tired, I wouldn’t sleep for long, but every time I awoke, the action onscreen had gotten even more confusing and my poor brain—surely in self-defense—would power down again.  I think I fell asleep about forty times.  Once, I awoke to see a character flying high over the steppes in what appeared to be a homemade ultralight, like what killed John Denver.  This caused me a fit of confusion that was just short of apoplectic.  Though I was the first to abandon the film, my mom and my wife eventually gave up as well.  I don’t think they even made it to the second cassette.

Ever since that day, Andrei Rublev has been a running joke among my mom, my wife, and me.  We try to work it into conversation at every opportunity, as in, “I thought Avatar was a pretty cool movie, but it was such a blatant rip-off of Andrei Rublev,” or “Hey, look, the Key Grip on this movie was Mitch Lillian!  Wasn’t he a grip on Andrei Rublev?”

So when, a few weeks back, my wife came home from the library announcing she’d checked out Andrei Rublev on DVD, I assumed she was joking.  She was not.

Why watch this movie?

Don’t let me sour you on Andrei Rublev .  It is a well loved film.  The average IMDb user rating is 8.3, which tops 12 Years a Slave, Argo, The Artist, The King’s Speech, and The Hurt Locker—i.e., the last five Oscar winners for Best Picture.  It has more ten-star IMDb reviews than I’ve ever seen.

That said, this movie isn’t for everyone; it seems to favor the intellectual élite.  Frankly, there seems to be a bit of “emperor’s new movie” effect, with each reviewer seeming to be one-upping the next.   The first ten-star review is titled “The Pietà of Filmmaking.”  I guess I’m just not up to this reviewer’s level because I had to look up “Pietà,” which means “a picture or sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Jesus Christ on her lap or in her arms.”  So how is this movie the filmmaking equivalent of that?  Am I supposed to feel unworthy that I can’t grasp the meaning here and am too lazy even to ponder it?

This review says, “Score it 11 out of 10” and also “It is a difficult movie to follow. One might liken it to James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake as a work of genius so monumental and complex, and so disdainful of traditional narrative form, that it requires extensive thought and study to understand it.  And even after studying it, watching it repeatedly, and reading Tarkovsky’s own comments about it, one still finds it opaque in many ways.”  Yeah, “one” might liken it to Finnegan’s Wake, if one could manage to read Finnegan’s Wake in the first place.  Who is this “one,” anyway, who has the patience to watch a 3½-hour movie repeatedly?

Of course, it’s not just amateur reviewers who praise this movie.  The original review in The Guardian, in 1973, states, “Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie works through a slow, unstressed accumulation of scenes and images.”  Doesn’t sound like the formula that would get a new movie green-lighted … but maybe that’s what makes this one special. 

There’s something odd going on:  the confusing, misunderstood-genius flair of Andrei Rublev has somehow infected the reviewers.  The Guardian reviewer goes on to say of Tarkovsky, “He pared drama of vision; the deliberate grandeur of perception.”  That’s not even grammatically correct.  Worse, it doesn’t make a lick of sense.  It’s just a tossed salad of words that sound kind of impressive together.  Is that what it takes to describe this movie?  The abandonment of cogent thought?

The New Yorker review from 1969 offers praise that is easier to digest:  “It is a film that is fascinating, enriching, full of the sap and the soup of Russian rural life, of dirt and dirty girls, of trees and fields, and of people.”  Fair enough, but … aren’t dirty girls people too?

Ah, perhaps I’ve just caught the interest of the reader who may not care who said what about this movie, but is intrigued by the “dirty girls” notion.  Dirty as in dirt-covered, or as in libidinous?  Good news:   the New Yorker goes on to describe “a too long spring-bacchanal scene of naked full-busted and full-buttocked girls and bearded naked men.”   (Note that “girls” in this case means “women.”  That’s  the sexist language of 1969 coming through, I guess.) 

I think it odd how the men are described as not only naked but bearded.  I mean, just about all the men in this movie are bearded.  Is “bearded” in this context supposed to be as enticing as the women being “full-busted and full-buttocked”?  And speaking of “full-buttocked,” why haven’t we ever come across this description before?  It would have been so useful to rappers like Eminem (in “Ass Like That”) or Sir Mix A Lot (in “Baby Got Back”).

You might also wonder how a bacchanal scene like this could be described as  “too long.”  And yet, like everything else in the movie, it is.

By the way, promoters of this movie weren’t shy about using the sex angle to garner interest.  Check out this poster, which prominently features a very minor character:

My second viewing

Checking out a DVD from the library means you have all the time you need to watch it.  This is a blessing but also a curse.  Night after night we procrastinated.  The mere thought of tackling the movie again was enough to make me irreparably sleepy.

Finally, one night, we put in the DVD.  We were immediately struck by the excellent video quality.  Not only is the aspect ratio restored to movie screen dimensions (i.e., the sides aren’t chopped off), but all the blur and graininess are gone.  Look:

But what the hell was that onscreen?  Just like you, my wife and I were shocked to see, against the backdrop of a church, what appeared to be a gigantic scrotum.  What kind of sick person would put that into his movie?  As the camera panned down, in its slow, unstressed way, I realized this wasn’t a scrotum but some kind of homemade hot-air balloon.  For like twenty minutes we see a bunch of identical Russian peasants running around yelling as the balloon gradually breaks its tethers, and then some guy flies off in it.  There are no subtitles in this scene to explain what the yelling is about.

Would the dialogue have been discernible to a native Russian speaker?  I don’t know.  The DVD jacket advertises “New English subtitles translating 40% more dialogue,” suggesting that the bar had previously been set pretty low.  (The audio isn’t very good, by the way.  Later in the film, I replayed a brief scene several times to try to learn the Russian for “motherfucker,” but I couldn’t hear the word clearly enough.)

Who knows, maybe you’re not supposed to grasp what’s going on.  We watched this balloonist fly over the bleak Russian landscape for a good while, until he finally crashed.  Who was he?  What was he doing up there?  Was the balloon made for him, or had he stolen it for a joy ride?  Did he survive the crash?  And what did this have to do with Andrei Rublev, the icon painter?  None of these questions was answered.  Nothing made sense in this chapter, the first of nine.

I’m not going to walk you through the entire plot of the movie, but let me share with you some highlights, to convey how difficult—and yet beguiling—Andrei Rublev turns out to be.

The second chapter is almost as mysterious as the first.  Three monks leave their monastery on horseback, muttering something about going somewhere else to seek their fortunes as painters.  It starts to rain.  They seek shelter in a barn where a jester entertains a bunch of peasants with a disturbingly bawdy performance that goes on and on.  Finally the monks show their disapproval, which puts a damper on everything, including the movie.  Then some soldiers arrive and haul the jester away.

Where is Andrei?  What does it all mean?  I tried to shrug this off.  In the third chapter, we come upon a character who at first seems to be dead but turns out just to be really, really old.  He starts up a long dialog with this other guy about painting icons.  Suddenly I’m hopeful:  could the younger guy be Andrei Rublev, meaning that after like 45 minutes I’ve finally isolated a character whose actions and words might actually be important?  I’m on the edge of my seat even before the old guy asks him, “Are you Andrei Rublev, by any chance?”  Now my heart is in my mouth!  There’s a long pause and the young man replies, “Nyet.”  Dammit!

That was enough for the first night.  We broke the viewing into three, maybe four nights because we kept falling asleep, and there’s only so much you can take.  But, with all the snow and blur from the VHS version removed, we found ourselves looking forward, in a way, to picking the film back up again.  (I know this isn’t how you’re supposed to watch this kind of movie, but hey, we’ve got kids, and lives outside of our passive video entertainment.)

On the second night, we did gradually figure out who’s who and what’s going on.  Rublev looks a little bit like Woody Harrelson with a beard and a hood.  If you ever watch the movie, keep an eye out for the guy who looks like this:

The basic gist is, Rublev gets recruited by the old guy, Theophanes the Greek, to be an apprentice and (eventually) paint the Last Judgment on the walls of a church.  There’s a great scene where Rublev says goodbye to Daniil, his mentor at the monastery.  It’s a bit of bromance I suppose; Rublev is really emotional and does an interesting hand-jive on the table, fingers drumming and hands moving around like giant spiders, probably because he’s so nervous.  If you watch this scene a couple times, as my wife and I did, you can stretch the moviegoing out even further.

Wait.  Would you want to stretch it out?  Well, possibly.  There’s something kind of pleasant about this movie, once you relax a bit and give up on trying to comprehend everything that goes on.  It’s a good movie for just drifting along, taking in the unusual scenery and attractive cinematography.  Many reviewers have described the movie as soothing; my wife agreed, saying, “It’s almost kind of narcotic.” 

Before Rublev settles down to paint, there are long scenes of him arguing abstract artistic and religious matters with Theophanes in the middle of some blasted landscape.  Some of the dialog is predictable and boring, but other snatches are very cryptic, like when Rublev suddenly yells at his helper, as they’re out wandering in some grassland, “You idiot, you let the glue burn on the flame!” and then some old guy comes out of nowhere, cuffs the helper on the ear, and yells, “You idiot, you let the glue burn on the flame!” as if Rublev hadn’t just yelled this.  (What glue?  What flame?  Where?  Beats me.)  Fortunately, before these scenes become too tiresome, we’re on to the pagan bacchanal scene.

Indeed, these women are full-busted and full-buttocked and nude.  They’re not bad-looking, but fortunately not that good-looking either, which would be silly (like the heroine in Braveheart who is not only really pretty but has unrealistically perfect teeth).  There’s a lot of frolicking in the forest, and Rublev is caught spying on the action by some pagans who tie him up and vow to come kill him in the morning.  He’s freed by a full-busted and mostly nude pagan woman, Marfa, who later flees through the woods, showcasing her full buttocks.  It’s a strange butt, not just ample but oddly square, and my wife said to me at this point, “Please tell me I don’t have a Marfa-butt.”  (She assuredly does not.)  I am quite sure that phrase will be immortalized in the specialized jargon of our family.

Finally, Rublev shows up at the church in the city of Vladimir to do his work.  There’s just one problem:  Rublev doesn’t actually paint.  It’s like a stalled-out government contract job.  We’re supposed to grasp that there’s an artistic dilemma involved here, between what the government wants (a cautionary tale of some kind, I guess) vs. Rublev’s desire for something that expresses the essential humanity of all involved and charts a new course for Russian painting, etc.  But how do you convey that?  Rublev just comes off like a slacker, and it doesn’t make for very exciting cinema.

Maybe that’s why we suddenly get an endless scene of Tartars sacking the city of Vladimir.  (The plot of Andrei Rublev is a bit like how Pauline Kael describes the James Bond movies:  “One damn thing after another.”  Come to think of it, Rublev being rescued by a babe, who’s supposed to be the enemy, is right out of a Bond film, innit?)

There’s a lot to alarm you in the Tartar raid scene (e.g., people’s eyes being gouged out, women being dragged off, dwellings getting torched) but what really jarred my wife and me was a horse falling backward down a staircase.  In this pre-CGI era, how did they get this footage?  We feared for the horse.

The New York Times review from 1973 says, “I wondered … how the director got a horse to fall down stairs.  Was the horse hurt?”  I’m glad somebody else was bothered by this.  What is it with Russian artists and horses?  In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment a horse is brutally tortured; in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina Vronsky (distracted by Anna) crashes his beloved horse during the steeplechase and the poor creature must be put down; in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time the hero literally rides his horse to death.  Such depictions are disturbing enough in literature, where actual animals aren’t involved in the rendering.  I discovered this tidbit on IMBD:  “For the scene where the horse falls down the stairs, it was shot in the head.  The crew acquired the horse from a slaughterhouse, and it was going to be shot the next day, so they decided to use it for the film.”

Perhaps the coolest part of the movie is toward the end when this teenager, bluffing, tells the authorities that he has learned, from his late father, the secret to forging bells (like the kind you’d put in a church tower).  So he gets a commission for this giant bell, which hundreds of poor Russians help build, in the middle of a damn field, casting it in a huge clay-lined pit with a raging bonfire.  It’s the polar opposite of our modern 3-D printing, and an impressive sight to behold.  Could you just rent the movie and fast-forward to this part (perhaps pausing along the way to take in the nude bacchanal)?  Well, you could, but I think it helps to be in a stupor when you get to this scene.

At the very end, the movie switches from black-and-white to full color, and the camera passes (in its slow, unstressed way) over the still-extant icons that the real Andrei Rublev painted.  Many critics have been really impressed by this part, but my wife and I found it infuriating.  The footage is too close-up, like trying to look at an elephant from six inches away.  I knew from what I’d read that this was the end of the movie, but as far as my wife knew, we could have only been halfway through.  When the credits started rolling she gasped, “That’s it!?  We’re done?!  You mean we actually did it?!”


Our great intellectual adventure behind us, we decided that the next thing we watched would be more on the lowbrow side.  (I was particularly interested in something more frivolous, as I’d been reading a novel about a 17th-century English village ravaged by the bubonic plague.)  So a few nights later we watched the first episode of Mad Men on DVD. 

Wow, what a comedown.  Every point it made—Women were treated so badly!  Everybody smoked back then!—was so glaringly non-subtle, I found the show tedious, like being fed with a baby spoon.  “Man, is this like a two-hour pilot episode?!” I finally asked, before toggling the display and discovering that we’d only been watching for 45 minutes.  It only seemed long.  I guess after a difficult movie like Andrei Rublev, typical media fare just isn’t difficult enough.

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