Virtue's reward

Some viewers find Tarkovsky’s films boring, but those who persist are, by definition, better people.

Andrei Tarkovsky is, give or take Billy Wilder and Terrence Malick, my favourite film director. However, when watching his films, I want to get up and walk out of the cinema more often than with almost any other film-maker, give or take Michael Mann and Michael Bay. Certainly, I think about escaping into the life and movement of the world outside more than with any other director whose work I love.

And I do love Tarkovsky's films, all of them. I was recently asked to participate in a symposium on his work at Tate Modern, and when it came time to think of a topic for my talk, I decided to address this dominant aspect of his films. First, because it is the thing that many people hate about them. They find them painfully slow, overprecious, pretentious and just plain boring. Second, because I've come to think that "Tarkov sky's Boredom" (the title of my talk) is where his message lies.

That the work has anything as old-fashioned as a message is beyond doubt. In the documentary Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, the maestro says straight out, "The purpose of art is to help man improve himself spiritually." It's very easy to dismiss this as a typically vague, pseudo-profound statement of the sort to which Russians are given. However, I think he meant exactly what he said, and meant it on this level - that every single frame of his films should, in and of itself, help man to improve himself spiritually.

In order to make this kind of film, the director has himself to be spiritually as pure as possible. In another documentary, Tempo di viaggio (Voyage in Time), about the making of Nostalgia, Tarkovsky makes the most extraordinary statement I've ever heard a film-maker come out with. He is on a sun-hazy balcony belonging to Tonino Guerra, scriptwriter of Nostalgia. Guerra is relaying some questions that have been sent in as letters. One comes from a film student, and is bland enough: "What advice would you give to young directors?" To which Tarkovsky, haggardly thin, says that too many directors "take their work as a special position, given to them by destiny, and simply exploit their profession. That is, they live in one way but make movies about something else. And I'd like to tell directors, especially young ones, that they should be morally responsible for what they do while making their films."

Contrast this to the attitude of most wannabe directors, who see popular success as their ticket to Fellini-world. Tarkovsky's is a very extreme position to take: that what happens off-screen will be part of the ultimate meaning of a film. The proof of his assertion, however, working backwards, is that Tarkovsky's own films are more spiritually progressive than any movies ever produced by Hollywood. (This is an argue-late-into-the-night point.) And one of the ways they achieve this is, to put it plainly, by being at times agonisingly slow: by being boring.

"Boredom" may be the wrong word, but I chose it because it is how many viewers experience a Tarkovsky film. For myself, I find certain sequences not tedious, but totally angst-ridden: just the way I find Kafka's Trial or Beckett's Waiting for Godot. My desire is to escape from what is going on, or for what is going on to stop. Tar kovsky's films make a virtue - literally - of the very, very long shot.

Perhaps the most famous of these comes in Nostalgia. For eight minutes and 41 seconds an ailing man in a heavy overcoat attempts to carry a lit candle from one end of a drained, misty Roman baths to another. He fails repeatedly; three times the candle blows out - three times the man has to return to his start point, relight the candle, and set out again in uncertainty. It is Buster Keaton redone as existentialism.

Now, I would defy anyone to say that they watch this sequence with the same intensity of attention from start to finish. We are bound to drift off and return. We are - I think - meant to drift off and return, and to feel conscious, if not guilty, of having drifted off.

What we have in this scene is clearly and unmistakably a very simple and beautiful but also painful metaphor for all human struggles, especially spiritual ones. In fact, the metaphor is so blatant that, at moments, I am almost embarrassed to watch - even though, and here's the thing, I know that on the fourth attempt the man will succeed in reaching the far end.

Because Tarkovsky's films are slow, it would be very easy to shorthand them as "meditative". Yet in the case not only of this scene, but every frame certainly of the later films, I think they go further, becoming objects of meditation. And as with meditation, particularly the Zen Buddhist practise of zazen, or "just sitting", the failures of consciousness are just as important as the moments when consciousness is stilled or transcended.

Seen this way, Tarkovsky's slowness, his boredom, is formally inevitable. DVDs, good as they are, give us too much opportunity to pause, to take breaks. The true experience of Nostalgia is the sitting-through-it. More than the works of any other director, Tarkovsky's films should be allowed to bring us together to be isolated in a common dark.

I quite understand why many, if not most, people would object to this kind of film-making, and would prefer to head for the multiplex and its fast-cut eye candy. But because they do not permit lapses of attention, such films are - on Tarkovsky's terms - bound to be spiritually void. (Not to mention that they are probably made by individuals who are as morally corrupt and spiritually bankrupt as their pay packets and drug habits permit them to be.)

The people who are patient enough to sit through Tarkovsky's films are patient people. They are, I would argue, very likely to be better people than those who walk out or reject this kind of cinema entirely: more considerate, more capable of self-control, less quick to anger, less manipulable by bright lights and loud bangs. Even if this is not true, I think it comes close to what Tarkovsky believed. And, by being so utterly out of step with our times, it exposes these times all the more vividly.

This article first appeared in the 12 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, 1968 The year that changed everything

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis