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