Andrei Tarkovsky’s Message to Young People: “Learn to Be Alone,” Enjoy Solitude

I remem­ber the first time I sat down and watched Andrei Tarkovsky’s lyri­cal, mean­der­ing sci-fi epic Stalk­er. It was a long time ago, before the advent of smart­phones and tablets. I watched a beat-up VHS copy on a non-“smart” TV, and had no abil­i­ty to pause every few min­utes and swing by Face­book, Twit­ter, or Insta­gram for some instant dis­trac­tion and dig­i­tal small talk. The almost three-hour film—with its long, lan­guid takes and end­less stretch­es of silence—is a med­i­ta­tive exer­cise, a test in patience that at times seems like its own reward.

I recall at the time think­ing about how didac­tic Tarkovsky’s work is, in the best pos­si­ble sense of the word. It teach­es its view­ers to watch, lis­ten, and wait. It’s a course best tak­en alone, like the jour­ney into the film’s mys­te­ri­ous “Zone,” since the pres­ence of anoth­er, like­ly per­plexed, view­er might break the qui­et spell the movie casts. But while watch­ing a Tarkovsky film—whether Stalk­er, Andrei Rublev, Solaris, or any of his oth­er pen­sive cre­ations (watch them online here)—may be a soli­tary activ­i­ty, it need not at all be a lone­ly one.

The dis­tinc­tion between healthy soli­tude and lone­li­ness is one Tarkovsky is par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in. It’s a cin­e­mat­ic theme he pur­sues, and a ped­a­gog­i­cal one as well. In the video above from The Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion, Tarkovsky offers some thought­ful insights that can only seem all the more rel­e­vant to today’s always-on, mul­ti-screen cul­ture. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the sub­ti­tles trans­late his words selec­tive­ly, but Maria Popo­va at Brain Pick­ings has a full trans­la­tion of the filmmaker’s answer to the ques­tion “What would you like to tell young peo­ple?” Like some ancient Pan dis­pens­ing time­less wis­dom, Tarkovsky reclines in an old, gnarled tree—on what may very well be one of his wild, wood­ed film sets—and says,

I don’t know… I think I’d like to say only that they should learn to be alone and try to spend as much time as pos­si­ble by them­selves. I think one of the faults of young peo­ple today is that they try to come togeth­er around events that are noisy, almost aggres­sive at times. This desire to be togeth­er in order to not feel alone is an unfor­tu­nate symp­tom, in my opin­ion. Every per­son needs to learn from child­hood how to spend time with one­self. That doesn’t mean he should be lone­ly, but that he shouldn’t grow bored with him­self because peo­ple who grow bored in their own com­pa­ny seem to me in dan­ger, from a self-esteem point of view.

Though I speak as one who grew up in an ana­logue world free from social media—the only world Tarkovsky ever knew—I don’t think it’s just the cranky old man in me who finds this advice com­pelling­ly sound. As a recent Tom Tomor­row car­toon satir­i­cal­ly illus­trat­ed, our rapid-fire, pres­sure-cook­er pub­lic dis­course may grant us instant access to information—or misinformation—but it also encour­ages, nay urges, us to form hasty opin­ions, ignore nuance and sub­tleties, and par­tic­i­pate in group­think rather than digest­ing things slow­ly and com­ing to our own con­clu­sions. It’s an envi­ron­ment par­tic­u­lar­ly hos­tile to medi­ums like poet­ry, or the kinds of poet­ic films Tarkovsky made, which teach us the val­ue of judg­ment with­held, and immerse us in the kinds of aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ences the inter­net and tele­vi­sion, with their non­stop chat­ter, push to the mar­gins.

Tarkovsky’s gen­er­al advice to young peo­ple can be paired with his chal­leng­ing advice to young film­mak­ers, and all artists, in par­tic­u­lar—advice that demands focused atten­tion, patience, and com­mit­ment to indi­vid­ual pas­sion and vision.

via The Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion/Props to Brain Pick­ings for the trans­la­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Tarkovsky Films Now Free Online

Tarkovsky’s Advice to Young Film­mak­ers: Sac­ri­fice Your­self for Cin­e­ma

A Poet in Cin­e­ma: Andrei Tarkovsky Reveals the Director’s Deep Thoughts on Film­mak­ing and Life

Andrei Tarkovsky Cre­ates a List of His 10 Favorite Films (1972)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Very First Films: Three Stu­dent Films, 1956–1960

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Mary Angela Douglas says:

    This is a won­der­ful essay with many fine and rarely heard points. And even more won­der­ful to know Tarkovsky’s phi­los­o­phy on this sub­ject. Con­sid­er­ing the immense qual­i­ty of Tarkovsky’s films and that oft not­ed capac­i­ty of his films to draw the view­er into Time itself and dream, the atmos­phere of dream and mem­o­ry, nos­tal­gia all at the same time, the fact that he val­ued this soli­tude is strong rein­force­ment for young (and old) poets and artists who are often crit­i­cized for NOT attend­ing more group think events. And by the way, THANK YOU for using the word group­think. I thought that Orwellian term had dis­ap­peared total­ly from con­scious­ness in the cur­rent era with its near adu­la­tion of pub­lic events, of pub­lic EVERYTHING.

    And I could not agree more that the lack of real soli­tude is MOST detri­men­tal to poet­ry. As I live by that and always have and have been severe­ly crit­i­cized for it at times.

    Have you noticed in the case of artists who have lived this way they are often called “reclu­sive artists?

    This is so absurd. HOW ELSE WERE THEY SUPPOSED TO GET THEIR WORK DONE? The term reclu­sive artist indi­cates the mania for being out there in pub­lic full speed ahead all the time.

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