The idea of the Russian Epic looms large over popular culture. Russian Epics are created by men with impossibly thick beards and drinking problems. These men are brilliant and depressed and think you should be depressed too. They create massive works that are to be respected from a distance. They are not to be enjoyed. They have been created to remind us that life is nasty, brutish and short. They do this, in part, by being exceedingly long.
It can be difficult, at the end of a punishing day, to subject yourself to further punishment in the form of pop culture. Sitting before one of these towering works can fill you with a peculiar despair that PG Wodehouse referred to as “…the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city’s reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty.”
This aura has clung to Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky as tightly and unfairly as it has to Nabakov or Dostoyevsky. But unlike their works, whose beauty and humanity unfold slowly over countless chapters, it only takes a few minutes for this fear to dissipate in a Tarkovsky film. Their stunning camerawork and sound design, fascinated by human longing and natural beauty, evoke not so much despair as it’s opposite, what the late great Roger Ebert referred to as “elevation”.
Elevation is the feeling of warmth one feels when witnessing acts of kindness and generosity, akin to spiritual uplift or awe. Ebert explained that he always knew when he’d seen a great film because he felt “…a tingling in my spine.” Moral psychologists have studied this feeling and noticed that it’s increased when it’s shared in a large group. The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt could’ve been describing the feeling of leaving a cinema after a powerful film when he explained that “Powerful moments of elevation sometimes seem to push a mental ‘reset button,’ wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration.”
Tarkovsky films don’t hold humanity at an intellectual distance, they attempt to reach through the screen and connect with the viewer’s deepest hopes and fears. “Relating a person to the whole world,” Tarkovsky claimed, “that is the meaning of cinema.”
The Astor Theatre has secured two ultra-rare, 35mm prints of his Soviet-era masterpieces, Solaris and Stalker, playing on the 16th and 23rd respectively. Come along and share with us an experience of great artistic generosity. Vodka is always better shared, anyway.
Solaris and Stalker will be screening at The Astor Theatre on 35mm
When: Solaris – Monday 16th November,
Stalker – Monday 23rd November