What Andrei Tarkovsky Said About Francis Coppola

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Writing about Coppola last week made me think of a story I’ve told many times to my friends about Andrei Tarkovsky, who just happens to have a retrospective coming up on July 7th at the Walter Reade Theater in New York.

In the early 80’s, I was running a movie PR firm called “Reid Rosefelt Publicity.” The title sounded impressive, but it was only me and an assistant or two working out of my bedroom in my apartment on Riverside Drive. Some of the people who worked with me included future Premiere Magazine editor Howard Karren, director/producer Sara Driver (mentioned last week), writer Jane Hammerslough, leading New York unit publicist Julie Kuehndorf, and filling in for a few weeks as a favor, Adam Brooks, who would go on to write Jonathan Demme’s “Beloved” and direct “Definitely, Maybe.” Among the films that were promoted out of my bedroom include Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise,” Susan Seidelman’s “Desperately Seeking Susan,” Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” (and Les Blank’s “Burden of Dreams”), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Querelle,” Bertrand Tavernier’s “A Week’s Vacation,” Paul Verhoeven’s “The 4th Man,” Jeanne Moreau’s “L’Adolescente,” Stephen Frears’ “The Hit,” and Dennis Hopper’s “Out of the Blue.” I might add that before Jarmusch made “Stranger,” I hired him to put up posters for a re-release of “The Seven Samurai.” (He had a lot of experience, having done it for his band, The Del-Byzanteens, and knew where the good spots were.)

Andrei Tarkovsky In 1983, my firm was hired to publicize Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Nostalghia.” I was dazzled by the prospect of spending time with Tarkovsky. To me he was such a legendary director as to be slightly unreal. I had only seen “Solaris” and “Stalker” at that point, and they totally mystified me. I loved them but I couldn’t explain what they meant or why they had such an impact on me. It was more the atmosphere that I got—the constantly dripping water, the mists, the fog, the beauty of his compositions, the aching feeling of loneliness and alienation.

“Nostalghia,” is a very slow, melancholy and meditative film. It’s not an easy film to watch, but if you give it your deepest concentration it is a very moving and rewarding experience.

Of course not everyone agrees with me. In his review in The New York Times, "Nostalghia" PosterVincent Canby wrote that “the meaning of water in his films isn’t as interesting to me as the question of how his actors keep their feet reasonably dry.”

The story is about a Russian poet (Oleg Yankovsky) who is traveling in Italy with a beautiful translator (Domiziana Giordano), to write a book on a 17th Century Russian composer who had lived in Bologna. The translator is hoping that they will become lovers, but the poet is too sad and caught up in his own world to connect with her in any way. Instead, he becomes fascinated with an eccentric madman named Domenico (Bergman regular Erland Josephson).

The meaning of the title isn’t “nostalgia” as we know it, but the pain of exile, the longing that Russians have when they are separated from the homeland. Sadly, after making the film, Tarkovsky found himself in the same place as his character. Searching for creative freedom, Tarkovsky defected after “Nostalghia” and never returned to Russia. He made one more film, “The Sacrifice,” in Sweden in 1985 before he died in Paris at the end of the following year. In his book, Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky wrote, “How could I have imagined as I was making this film that the stifling sense of longing that fills the screen was to be my lot for the rest of my life.” I don’t believe one word of this. You don’t make a decision to defect in five minutes. I think the whole film, his first made outside Russia, sprang out of his tortured considerations about possibly becoming an exile.

To deal with this anxiety I felt about working with Tarkovsky, I watched nearly all of his films that I hadn’t seen. During the summer, I managed to see all but his debut, “Ivan’s Childhood,” on decent sized screens in revival houses. You could do that in those days. This was followed by research. In those pre-Google days, research Mary Corlissmeant going to MoMa film library. Mary Corliss (married to Richard) would bring out these little boxes of faded clippings, which I would carefully peruse.  After I made my choices, I’d go down the hall and wait in line to use the Xerox machine. Google is faster and more convenient, but the information in Mary’s boxes was a hell of a lot more comprehensive. I also loved just being there--it oozed the serious contemplation of cinema. There were cool posters on the wall and there were always scholars silently poring over their boxes, no doubt knee-deep in preparation for an article in Sight & Sound magazine or writing a monograph on Eisenstein.

By the time Tarkovsky turned up, I was as well versed in his oeuvre as I could be. He was a lot shorter than I thought he’d be, but otherwise he was pretty much what you’d expect, ultra serious and intense. He was accompanied by his wife, and a “translator” who not only wasn’t as beautiful as Domiziana Giordano, but who I suspected was something of a Soviet watchdog, there to make sure nothing got said that was out of line. Or at least a jerk. On the first day, he encouraged me to use a Russian word that he said Tarkovsky would appreciate. It turned out to be something like “comrade” and of course Tarkovsky hated me for it.

Julie Kuehndorf remembers that he always kept the window shades down in his room at the Mayflower and his wife sent her out for a pineapple, something they couldn’t get in the USSR.

Andrei Tarkovsky at the Mayflower Hotel (Photo by Reid Rosefelt) One of the people who came to interview Tarkovsky was Michael Wilmington, who I knew when we were both students at the University of Wisconsin. Michael would later become a critic at the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune, but at that time he was working for Heavy Metal magazine. In the photo above, you can see Tarkovsky flipping through a copy of the magazine to get a taste of the highly prestigious publicity outlets I’d found for him.

Domiziana Giordano in "Nostalghia" It turned out that the Botticelli-beautiful Domiziana Giordano was living in New York at that time, and I had the opportunity to meet her. Later on, Neil Jordan would cast her in “Interview with the Vampire,” based on seeing her in “Nostalghia.” She would also go on to appear in Godard’s “Nouvelle Vague” and numerous Italian films, as well as a varied career as an artist, video artist, photographer, poet, and writer. Recently, this multifaceted intellectual appeared on a “Survivor”-like Italian reality show, which made me wonder what it would be like if Susan Sontag could have lived to be on “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!”Domiziano Giordano on a "Nostalghia" poster

The distributor of “Nostalghia” was a father-and-son company called Grange Communications. The father, Myron Bresnick, had founded the 16mm non-theatrical film company Audio Brandon and sold it to MacMillan. He was now picking up high-quality European films and sub-distributing them through companies like Kino. Myron was old school, but Geoff Bresnick, who was closer to my age, was pretty wild. It was weird to team up with a character from the cast of “The Hangover” on this profound art film, but after I got used to it, it was a lot of fun.

The Bresnicks took Tarkovsky to the Telluride Festival, where they put on a big tribute for him in the Opera House. As soon as we got there, the festival directors Bill Pence and Tom Luddy whisked him away to points unknown. See ya! I thought that was a bit extreme as the Bresnicks had gone to the great expense and hassle of bringing him to the U.S., as well as bringing him to Telluride. The idea of Telluride at that time was that publicity was strictly verboten, and publicists like me, while not completely persona non grata, weren’t supposed to work while they were there. Telluride opened up that policy years ago, but then it took a major effort just to locate Tarkovsky and meet my commitment for one measly phone interview. But the thing that really drove me nuts about the whole Telluride experience is that they programmed “Ivan’s Childhood,” the one Tarkovsky film I hadn’t seen, at the same time as the Tarkovsky tribute! But the tribute was amazing, as all Telluride tributes are. And after the festival ended, Geoff Bresnick drove me to Denver at what seemed like 150 MPH the whole way, which now that I think of it is a perfect way to top off watching a lot of Tarkovsky films.

So what does all this have to do with Coppola, you ask?

Andrei Tarkovsky Throughout my time with Tarkovsky, I refused to give up trying to make a connection and draw him out. After all, I was a card-carrying Tarkovsky buff! Attention must be paid! I had a lot of questions, but I was always in the same position as Domiziana’s character and the poet in the movie, getting nowhere He would dismiss me, telling me over and over again that I could never fully understand his films because I wasn’t Russian.

But one time he was talking for a long time about “The Godfather;” really getting into it in a very sophisticated way. Thinking that I had him, I asked, “How can you understand ‘The Godfather’? You’re not Italian-American.” He looked at me in this bemused way, perhaps with a trace of compassion for my inability to grasp the obvious.

“All artists understand each other,” he said.