Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Tarkovsky, Lebowski, and Us

I may be the only person ever to watch Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice and the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski on the same night. Or the only one who lived to blog about it, at any rate.

The Sacrifice is an astonishing film. It's Art with a capital A. Everything about the film is thought through -- the camera, the use of color, the sound design, the way the shots are composed, the acting. There's a single long take at the end of a burning building which is utterly amazing. That he had the balls to try it makes the film worth watching.

It also breaks every rule of American screenwriting, from opening on a static close up of a murky Leonardo da Vinci painting under a full five-minute credit roll, which cuts to a dreamy monologue in Swedish about civilization, Nietzsche, and whether we can talk about hope that fills the next fifteen minutes. Tarkovsky followed up this crowd-pleasing combo with a long, meandering scene of a Swedish Shakespearean actor and his intellectual family and friends emoting about ennui and referencing 19th century literature before dinner. Then there's a nuclear war. So I guess he got that midpoint beat pretty much nailed.

The movie sounds fairly dreadful from an American screenwriter's standpoint. But it's actually incredibly gripping. Believe it or not. And maybe this post is just about reminding ourselves that there are other ways to do this. We can shoot a little higher.

So much of my job is simply about making a story understandable on screen. For Tarkovsky, understandable was not enough. It had to be truthful. Truth is never simple. It doesn't present itself to us for neat, easy reading. There are no absolutes, which takes me back to the post about Jerry Falwell.

In the DVD extras, there's a very interesting scene on set. In the script, the actor is supposed to get down on his knees, and really pray for the first time in his life. The actor goes through the motions, and Tarkovsky does exactly what an American director wouldn't do. "Loosen up your body! No, it's too clear what you're trying to do. He shouldn't look like he's praying. He might be falling down because he's had too much to drink, or he's just exhausted." Tarkovsky actually wanted to make it murky. Why, because truth is more important than our understanding. Tarkovsky knows that, given the context, falling to your knees to pray includes a lot more than a simple actor's direction. There are many aspects to the simplest act, and as an artist he needs to capture that. This is what makes his films engrossing.

You won't get produced on the spec market following Tarkovsky's lead. But you will get some extraordinary moments that you never thought you'd see. Like what a man's face looks like when lust mixes with rejection and the realization the world won't be saved.

The Big Lebowski. You've probably seen it. It's a beautiful movie in a very different way. It's a monument to good American screenwriting. And I'm not sure that it really says that much less about humanity than Tarkovsky's film. It's the kind of script I'd teach from most days. But not today.

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