Day 12 – The Sacrifice (Tarkovsky)

It’s halftime, so perhaps it’s a good idea to focus on a classic today. It feels odd writing about Tarkovsky, because he has never been named as a slow-film director, until the term Slow Cinema came up. I was really happy when I could finally get the Tarkovsky box set. The reason I’ve chosen The Sacrifice for today is that I remember the film for its slowness. No other Tarkovsky film felt this slow, and, I have to admit (shame on me!) that I didn’t finish the film the first time round. I almost fell asleep. This must have been two or three years now, so it was time for a retry.

The Sacrifice was Tarkovsky’s last film. If you haven’t watched any of his films, it might appear less obvious. But The Sacrifice is his bleakest and darkest film. His films were never cheerful. Yet, this one is the culmination of bleakness. There is repeated talk of hopelessness, the downfall of humanity, loss of perspective, death. And then there is this imminent nuclear disaster. Béla Tarr has ended his filmmaking career in a similar way. The Turin Horse was the culmination of his bleak view on the world. You could see that there was nothing else to say. I had the same feeling about The Sacrifice.

The Sacrifice (1986), Andrei Tarkovsky

I found two features striking. Neither of them has a lot to do with slowness, though. The first one is the general set-up indoors. Alexander, the main protagonist, who vows to sacrifice all that is dear to him so as to prevent the nuclear catastrophe that had been announced on TV, is a retired theatre actor. I’m not sure whether Tarkovsky intended to transmit this via his filmmaking, but the shot length, the camera angle, and the movement of characters certainly imply that there could equally be a theatre play going on rather than the production of a film.

The camera is a good distance away from the actors. They tend to speak towards the camera as if to a (theatre) audience. The whole – fairly scarce – mise-en-scène (the interior of the house especially) brings up images of a theatre stage with a painted background and a few props positioned on stage. I haven’t had a similar feeling in his other films. The Sacrifice, however, never had much of a film-feeling to me. I guess the long-take help with this. And somehow, I can’t help it, the colours help, too.

The second thing is perhaps a bit obscure. Although I used to love the concept, and actually still do, especially when I’m watching a film by Tarkovsky, I have put it aside, because I brought up two people against me, and I wasn’t fond of that. The Sacrifice is, in parts, a great demonstration of what Daniel Frampton called “the filmind”. The basic idea is that film has a mind on its own. Film is thinking. As radical as it sounds, when I read his book, his proposal blew me away. I cannot detect a “thinking” film all the time. But Tarkovsky’s films are exemplary to Frampton’s approach.

The Sacrifice (1986), Andrei Tarkovsky

The beginning of The Sacrifice can be taken as a very simply illustration. When Alexander sits with his back against a tree and continues with his monologue, the camera moves away from him. It feels as if the camera, or the film, decides to look for something visually more interesting or important. It is really only the camera moving, but I always got the sense of the film doing something, and not only the director. There is an eerie presence of a third agent in (all of) his films. I’ve only ever had this eerie feeling with Tarkovsky’s films.

The feature of the thinking filmind is spread throughout the film, as it is in Mirror, where, I believe, it is most evident (I have actually written quite a bit on this a while ago). The independence of the camera (or the film) can also be found in Tarr’s films. The film makes decisions independent from what the characters say or do. Perhaps it sounds like an abstract concept, but you should give the book Filmosophy a try.

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5 thoughts on “Day 12 – The Sacrifice (Tarkovsky)

  1. This is a very nice response to one of my favorite films.

    Can you say a bit more about the concept of ‘filmind’? I think you’re spot on in seeing the way the camera wanders away from Alexander in that scene as its looking for something more interesting or important than the image of him reciting his monologue.* However, I’m unclear what distinguishes the film looking for something more interesting from Tarkovsky so looking. What does the distinction gain for me as a viewer? What does it let me see that thinking in terms of what Tarkovsky is doing disguises?

    *Aside: but I think this challenges/lessens the overall bleakness of the film. Tarkovsky dedicated it to his son, and this sort of future-orientation I think gives it a hopeful undercurrent that prevents it from being seen as wholly bleak. The film’s boredness with Alexander’s speech is a contributor to this trend. What does the camera find? Growth, life, green things. I think this is in stark contrast to The Turin Horse, which is a gradual progression toward the total cessation of movement, and ends when that terminal point is reached—the final scene shows nothing other than the final movements of the film world (which has grown gradually smaller and now contains only a single room of the house), and when these movements stop altogether, the film is done. Tarr and Tarkovsky certainly agree that something has gone wrong, horribly wrong, but Tarkovsky, I think, preserves and emphasizes a way out, whereas in Tarr everything conspires against any such way out. (I’ve written about this in Tarr if you’re interested: http://dyssebeia.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/death-by-fire-and-death-by-ice/ )

    • Hey, thanks a lot for your extensive comment! First of all, I should perhaps say that I didn’t quite mean that there was something more interesting (for the viewer) than Alexander’s monologue. Personally, find the monologue exceptionally profound. It is more like “What else is there to see apart from Alexander?” His voice stays with us, but do we have to stay with him? This explanation is probably more to the point.

      As for the filmind: The concept is radical in that it sees film as an independent being. If we speak about film, we always speak about what the director does, or the cinematographer, etc The filmind annihilates this, and, provocatively, suggests that it is the film itself that is making decisions about the film world. This also resonates with a bit with my interest in Slow Cinema in that it is about feeling and experience, not necessarily about some set-ups that provoke preferred readings.

      Thanks for the link to your blog post. I have, in fact, read it a while ago on your Treefingers blog. I liked it a lot. Very interesting reading of Tarr’s films!

      • If I understand you correctly, then the ‘filmind’ concept serves to open up interpretation: instead of discovering an intent behind the film (the director’s, perhaps), we simply have the film, with which we interact as if it were an autonomous individual. The question is then more one of how we interact and communicate with this individual than with interpreting it. (Does Frampton connect this with Plato’s famous claim that “texts” do not respond? Does it give us a way to think of the film as responsive?)

        Right track? I feel I may be reading my own concerns back into it a bit too much.

      • I think you’re on the right track. This was my reading of the Filmind. There is, however, probably more than one way of reading it.

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