In the nearly 30 years I've been writing about movies for L.A. Weekly, no moviemaking genius has meant more to me than Andrei Tarkovsky, whose seven feature films will screen over the next three weekends at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Welles and Fellini struck my imagination like forked lightning when I discovered them, in the course of the same week, at age 18 — but Tarkovsky arrived later, traveled deeper and less visibly, like an earthquake. I'm proud to say I was an early and sometimes lone champion of his work in these pages, circa 1981, though it required every resource in my maturing brain to make sense of him, as much to myself as to readers.
Before the Weekly, my glib first impression of Solaris (1972) was as a fascinating “competitor” to Kubrick's 2001, as if the Cold War extended into artistry, and “those Russians” were just trying to beat us to the moons of our imaginations. Yet the experience Tarkovsky created proved indelible: that long opening shot of grass waving underwater, magnifying the otherworldly beauty of Earth itself; the hypnotic splendor of the planet Solaris, whose cloud formations so resemble the convolutions of a human brain; the subtle surrender of the astronaut hero to the imperatives of self-examination at Solaris station, where the suicidal wife he buried long ago suddenly reappears, solid as life, only to destroy herself again and again, despite his ever more emotional efforts to save her.
Tarkovsky's first film, Ivan's Childhood (1962), is so original in its ways of seeing and hearing that one cannot mistake it for a film by anyone else. Tragically and ironically, its hero's “childhood” is over by age 5; by 10, he is a hard-eyed, highly effective scout for a platoon of Soviet guerrillas fighting the Nazi invasion. Yet Tarkovsky locates an unsentimental but harmonious eternity within his fleeting life. For all his skeletal ferocity, the boy dreams gently at night. (In film after film, Tarkovsky showed a unique, symphonic capacity for conjuring the most persuasive dream sequences.) Despite war's hell, love is more vivid still — Ivan's gruff captain takes a young nurse in his arms and, in a mute, spontaneous show of passion, suspends her over a ditch with the intensity of his embrace.
Mirror (1974) defies narrative, as memories, dreams and ruminations layer and overlap in powerful currents. We are obliged to swim within them, like embryos. Poetry haunts every vista: Tarkovsky's father, Arseniy, was a leading poet of his generation but deserted his family — a traumatic blow Mirror traces, using lines of his exceptional verse. Nostalgia (1983) is Mirror's closest sibling and in turn reiterates the anguish of loving such a paternal phantom by offering us a poet-hero who is alive to the sacred trembling of every dewdrop yet mysteriously dead to those who love him most.
Tarkovsky directed The Sacrifice (1986) in the last year of his life and, as movingly depicted in Chris Marker's One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (also screening at LACMA), edited the film on his cancer-stricken deathbed. It is a perfect farewell — a conscious last testament that meditates on the fate of Earth. To these eyes, however, Tarkovsky's most towering achievement remains Andrei Rublev (1966), an intimate epic in which medieval Russia is dramatized in relation to an artist-monk who paints icons. To sit with this marvel is to navigate a cycle of interweaving short stories: There's a battle sequence that begins with a lone Mongol flicking at long grass with his sword, which breathtakingly mushrooms into a 40-minute siege on an ancient citadel. The characters and viewers are spared nothing in terms of war's torments and sudden betrayals of self.
It's a fair sign of how beloved Tarkovsky has become in the past 30 years that one may now revisit his work in bits on YouTube. Yet such grandeur demands a big screen. There is a pure and irreducible life in every film Tarkovsky made. To see them in their intended form is to discover afresh that the majestic art he practiced is not only possible but more necessary than ever.
THE APOCALYPTIC CINEMA OF ANDREI TARKOVSKY | Los Angeles County Museum of Art Bing Theater | Through Fri., Feb. 5 | lacma.org/film