Studying Andrei Tarkovsky's Use of Water & Fire in His Films: Is There Symbolism?
If you look through the books, documentaries, and websites dedicated to the legendary Russsian director Andrei Tarkovsky, you'll quickly find out that his work is often described as poetic. There's absolutely no doubt that his films, full of metaphysical themes and beautiful long takes, are visual poetry; they're emotionally resounding, and film theorists, critics, and students of film have spent decades trying to decode the poetic messages believed to be in his visual motifs, like his use of water and fire for example. However, is there really something there to decode, or did Tarkovsky avoid symbolism altogether?
Tarkovsky uses two elements quite frequently in his films: fire and water -- sometimes even at the same time, like in that gorgeous scene from The Mirror.
Because he uses them so often, many who admire and study his films believe that they have symbolic value -- that they represent something that Tarkovsky's trying to poetically say. Here's a video by Luis Enrique Rayas that shows Tarkovsky's extensive use of water in his films.
One of the reasons Tarkovsky is so near and dear to my heart is because he's a poet, and like many who feel this way about him (and other ways about him, too), we've watched his films and tried our hand at deconstructing the possible meanings behind his recurring visual themes, objects, and techniques.
Which is why it saddened me at first when I read in Andrei Tarkovsky: Interviews what he said during a 1981 Guardian Lecture at the National Film Theater:
There are some artists who attach symbolic meaning to their images, but that is not possible for me. Zen poets have a good way of dealing with this: they work to eliminate any possibility of interpretation, and in the process a parallel arises between the real world and what the artist creates in his work.
However, Tarkovsky has gone on record about the symbolic meaning behind certain objects in his films. In The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue, author Vida T. Johnson writes how the director discusses the things he frequently uses in his films -- rain, snow, and water -- and explains that they are "a symbol of faith." However, she notes that, yes, he's incredibly reluctant to attach any kind of meaning or symbolism to his visuals.
This doesn't mean, though, that he doesn't use these elements on purpose and with purpose. Tarkovsky has been asked time and time again by interviewers and fans why he uses certain objects in his films so often. One quote shared in a piece by Peter Green sheds more light on his thoughts about using these things so frequently. When asked about his use of rain and water, Tarkovsky replied:
There is always water in my films. I like water, especially brooks. The sea is too vast. I don't fear it; it is just monotonous. In nature I like smaller things. Microcosm, not macrocosm; limited surfaces. I love the Japanese attitude to nature. They concentrate on a confined space reflecting the infinite. Water is a mysterious element -- because of its structure. And it is very cinegenic; it transmits movement, depth, changes. Nothing is more beautiful than water.
And here's an interesting approach to studying one of the most famous shots of Tarkovsky's entire career: a video by Kevin B. Lee puts all 123 scenes of the film Nostalghia up on-screen, including 9-minute shot of a man carrying a candle, until they all fade out (like candles -- see what he did there).
Though neither of these videos really unravel any mysteries about Tarkovsky's symbolism (according to him, there is none), they certainly celebrate Tarkovsky's mastery. His philosophy on life, spirituality, and cinema is definitely worthy of study and celebration.
What do you think? Though a filmmaker doesn't intend to include symbolism in his/her work, do you think audiences should try to attribute meaning anyway? Can a symbol be made by a patron even after the work of the artist has been created? Share your thoughts in the comments below.