Monday, January 24, 2005

Stalker of Truth

Luckily, I just stumbled upon the essay that got me into the Telluride Film Festival Student Symposium. Today has been a day full of self-doubt and my words remind me of why I love and make art.

The question was: If you could only take one film with you to the future, which one and why?

Stalker of Truth

A few of years ago, during my nihilistic-existential-Nietzsche-worshipping-black turtleneck-wearing period, I found myself lying on a couch, pondering the absurdity of existence. As I succumbed to the mind-numbing effect of channel surfing, I stumbled upon an image that would change my life forever: A small, burning candle resting on a stone wall juxtaposed with a black-and-white image of a man and a German shepherd sitting on the ground in front of a small pond.

The camera slowly dollies back to show a small Russian wooden house in the background. As this mesmerizing shot unfolds, it begins to snow. Then, the man, the dog and the house are revealed to be inside of an open, roofless Italian cathedral. The film ends and to my dismay there are no end credits! For days, I couldn’t think of anything else and my search for this film, which had provided me with a glimpse of personal truth, became an obsession. I finally found out the film's title, Nostalghia, acquired it and rushed home to watch it again. I was not prepared for the effect that this film would have on me as a human being and an artist. It helped me to realize that, unknowingly, my one-time, nihilistic perspective of religion’s promise of salvation as a dangerous illusion had buried the precious gift of longing for truth deep within me.

I needed to know that I was not alone and abandoned in an empty, absurd universe. Within the first ten seconds in Nostalghia, the late Andrei Tarkovsky shows me that I am not; and as the film unfolds, I have surrendered my attention and consciousness to the hands of a true and powerful poet of the cinema. And he, in turn, has made me a fellow stalker of truth.

The film’s conclusion—an extremely long take of a dying Gorchakov trying to cross a pool carrying a lighted candle in response to a request by Domenico—could be the most moving scene this legendary film director has ever shot. This sequence captures what no amount of searching, studying, reading and asking was able to do for me in my life up to that point. It provides the answer to my questions about personal responsibility for my own destiny and personal happiness. This answer is contained in the close up of Gorchakov's hands as he shields the candle from the wind and slowly puts it down. Unable to verbalize the beauty of this sequence, I looked to Tarkovsky’s own writing. In his book Sculpting in Time, he writes, "The way must be found from one person to another. Such is the sacred duty of humanity towards its own future, and the personal duty of each individual." Tarkovsky's films and the sage-like words of wisdom found in his book helped me to discover the meaning of true responsibility; that every human action has intrinsic meaning, and that therein lies hope. In Domenico’s own desperate words, "We must go back to the point where we took the wrong turn!"

Nostalghia tells us that we have two choices: Perish in a last, desperate cry of warning like Domenico. Or, like Gorchakov, carry the flame of the human spirit with conviction and yearning for a fulfilling existence. Tarkovsky’s films evoke a world illuminated by faith and the promise of transcendence, in which authentic spirituality can flourish. Although I still wear black turtlenecks, I no longer view Sartre and Nietzsche as my support group for dealing with mankind’s path towards more suffering and destruction. Rather, I participate in Tarkovsky's sacred dialogue with creation because he wants his audience to join in this sublime conversation. And I take part in this extended dialogue as a film lover, artist, filmmaker and kindred spirit.

Just as I cannot imagine a life without those I love, I cannot imagine a life without this film. Tarkovsky’s masterwork keeps me honest and gives me the necessary bursts of hope and strength to persevere despite the world’s human suffering and glamorized triviality. Every time I watch Nostalghia, I discover something new in the work that addresses the universal search for meaning. Some people have meditation, yoga, self-help books, Tibetan philosophy, psychiatrists, Oprah and Dr. Phil. I have Nostalghia, Andrei Tarkovsky and the drive and ambition to make my own films that will, hopefully, touch someone the way this great filmmaker's art has moved and changed me.

"Art is born and takes hold wherever there is a timeless and insatiable longing for the spiritual." -Andrei Tarkovsky

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