Gearing up after the holiday, I find that a couple of recent DVD releases keep interacting in my thoughts, Zeitgeist’s Ten by Abbas Kiarostami and Facets’ Voyage in Time (1983) by Andrei Tarkovsky and Tonino Guerra (who has written several scripts for Antonioni and Angelopoulos). I’m always fascinated by the creative process, and Zeitgeist’s disc comes with Kiarostami’s 10 on Ten (2004), his master class lecture I first saw at TIFF, in which he drives around his favorite location in Tehran, a mountainous road featured in Taste of Cherry, and elucidates his approach to directing. Tarkovsky’s documentary presents his own personalized reflection on the artistic process as he too travels–around Italy in search of locations and themes for his next film (which ultimately became Nostalghia). Though Kiarostami’s film is designed as a lecture and Tarkovsky’s film is more a poetic diary, both films reveal two supremely creative artists sharing their ideas about the cinema and their individual roles in it.
Most interestingly for me, Kiarostami’s theories on film seem little more than modern elaborations on the realist school of AndrÈ Bazin (the filmmaker as listener, the director as revealer of life, the elimination of artificiality, a spontaneity of script and the use of non-professionals, etc) seen most clearly in Bazin’s beloved Italian neorealism (of which the Iranian cinema has often been compared) through Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer up through the present age. Kent Jones recently identified this tradition in the pages of Cinema Scope (an “ontology-based” tradition he sets up in opposition to a more literary cinema personified by Olivier Assayas) and Kiarostami’s musings on sound and image and revealing the inner life seem so indebted to his predecessors that he quotes Cesare Zavattini (who wrote classic neorealist films such as Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D) and Bresson twice, and summarizes his interest in actors in what can only be a direct paraphrase of the opening line of Diary of a Country Priest. (Kiarostami: “The simplest, natural, or nervous reactions can unveil the insignificant secrets of a life which is apparently ordinary and without mystery.” Diary: “I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong in writing down daily, with absolute frankness, the simplest and most insignificant secrets of a life totally lacking in mystery.”)
Kiarostami scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum recently wrote that in 10 on Ten “there’s something suspect about Kiarostami’s cookbook-style lucidity–he may be sincere, but he seems to be overestimating the role rationality plays in his decisions.” But regardless of whether or not Kiarostami describes his own creative values with perfect precision, I find his adoption of these ongoing, international values of realism and minimalism a moving affirmation of cinema’s history and its ongoing vitality.
If anything, however, Tarkovsky’s approach is even more irrational and intuitive. Voyage in Time contains many moments of silence and contemplation of architecture or landscape juxtaposed with conversations about the art of movies. (It’s too bad, therefore, that the quality of Facets’ DVD is substandard, grainy, with awkward subtitles.)
As Guerra describes their trip (and, by extension, their film about it) in his introduction to Instant Light: Tarkovsky Polaroids, the book recently published in the UK:
“We travelled extensively from Naples southwards, where [Tarkovsky] was struck by the beauty of the Baroque architecture of Lecce and the vision of Trani Cathedral. By the time we finally arrived in Bagno Vignoni, the ideas for the structure of a film were entwined around a story he liked. I remember when we entered the little church on the edge of the water-filled square, where the mist rising from the water gave a sense of distance to the landscape of ancient houses. The warm light that morning streamed through the dusty windows and came to rest on faded decorations on a wall. He surprised me [by taking a polaroid while] sitting on a pew, as though I were just the right shadow to accentuate the caress of the sun on the walls beyond my dark body.”
Although Kiarostami and Tarkovsky have many pronounced stylistic differences, Voyage in Time and 10 on Ten suggest that some of their feelings about the creative process overlap. “It has been said that anyone can write a good novel as long as the novel is about himself,” the Iranian filmmaker notes, and when asked what advice he has for young filmmakers, Tarkovsky asserts, “Nowadays everyone makes movies . . . but the advice I can give to beginners is not to separate their work, their movie, their film from the way they live. Not to make a difference between the movie and their own life.”
Tarkovsky also cites his own cinematic references: Dovzhenko, Bresson, Antonioni, Fellini (“not for his popularity but for his humanity”), Vigo, Paradjanov, and Bergman. And Kiarostami summarizes his approach with a statement that could equally apply to the Russian cineaste: “I should say that I’ve always worked in natural settings and tried my best not to make any drastic changes to it; and to remain faithful to nature and human nature.”
Both films are revealing and inspiring portraits.