Pavel Tavares’ video essay Tarkovsky’s Napes begins with a study of Tarkovsky’s signature shot before moving into a more personal examination of crisis. Like many video essays, this film shifts modes of address as it transitions from subject to subject.
Tavares’ study initially dwells on Tarkovsky’s recurring images of napes – of the back of the head. The essay careful traces the variety of ways Tarkovsky integrates these shots across many of his films. In some cases, Tarkovsky brings the nape into the shot via actor movement. At other times, the camera moves around the actor to frame the nape. The abundance of evidence helps make the case of Tarkovsky’s fetishization of this shot and Tavares often provides graphic matches of framings from different scenes and films to show the consistency of Tarkovsky’s framing of actors.
The filmmaker then speculates on the use and effects of these shots with interesting insights. Counter to conventional Hollywood cinema and its reliance on the close-up to convey psychological clarity (see Kevin B. Lee’s The Spielberg Face – the ideal companion to this film), the framing of the nape creates a kind of unusual variation of off-screen space. While the actor remains within the frame, their face is withheld, leaving the audience to ponder or, as Tavares speculates, project our emotions onto this obscured surface.
The film then drifts into an investigation of crises and links this investigation into issues from Latin American cinema. The film’s second half strays from the particulars of Tarkovsky to his more theoretical and political ideas. Indeed, the film becomes more self-reflexive and poetic, examining issues of personal, political, and perhaps even spiritual crises. These interesting ideas remain more elusive and fleeting, relying on an audience already familiar with Tarkovsky’s and Glauber Rocha’s films and writings.
Throughout the video essay Tavares integrates original footage. This formal move in the video essay genre is one worth considering. What does it mean to imitate a shot from a Tarkovsky film? In my experience, there is a profound intellectual leap that occurs when creating cinema. For instance, knowledge acquired from watching and reading about films provides one level of understanding. However, filmmaking provides an even more intimate knowledge of moving images. One becomes profoundly aware of the infinity of visual choices available and the struggle to decide which singular option best communicates meaning to your audience. This struggle provides a level of insight nearly impossible to gain otherwise.
Indeed, Tavares’ own use of the nape shot appears to compel the creation of this essay as we glimpse (perhaps too briefly) a series of shots from his previous films. The film’s first half then enunciates the struggle of understanding meaning as Tavares proposes and tests different ways in which Tarkovsky’s napes can be understood. This essay raises more questions than it answers but that is its point as answers cannot be found if we don’t first frame the questions.
While the documentary aspires toward the explanatory, the video essay dwells on those cinematic ambiguities that remain imperceptible, unconsidered. And the questions Tavares raises, give us a way of re-viewing Tarkovsky in an important, new way.
Tarkovsky’s films often dwell on close-ups of faces, faces that are frequently looking directly into or towards the camera. Many critics have considered these facial close-ups as having transcendent, spiritual properties. Angela dalle Vache, for example, has paralleled Tarkovsky’s faces with the holy faces of Russian Orthodox icon painting; both turn us away from ‘the distractions of the world toward deeper and unspeakable regions’ (1996, 143). As Tavares notes in this video-essay Nucas de Tarkovsky (Tarkovsky's Napes), however, the films also frequently feature another kind of shot, in which the face is turned away from the viewer and the camera, to show the nape of the neck and the back of the head. Nucas de Tarkovsky edits together and thus catalogues some of these moments, noting similarities and differences between them, in a process of visual rhyming. Watching this, I was reminded of Marie-Aude Baronian’s exploration of cinematic necks in Levinasian terms; for Baronian, the focus on the neck of the character lends proximity and intimacy, but also a distance, preserving the radical otherness of the person on screen (2008; 2016). In Nucas de Tarkovsky, Tavares also attempts to consider the significance and power of these ‘nape shots’; none of the explanations, however, entirely satisfy him, which draws the video essay towards a crisis of meaning and understanding. Mid-way, the video-essay enacts the breakdown that occurs when we find ourselves coming up against the impossibility of accounting for the hold particular kinds of images might have on us. Inside this breach, Nucas de Tarkovsky creates a collision between Tarkovsky’s images and sounds and those of a seemingly disparate filmmaker, Glauber Rocha. The sertão seems a landscape far removed from Tarkovsky’s Russia, yet the images that Tavares combines here reveal visual echoes - more napes, more backs of heads – and a shared concern with spirituality, or rather, its crisis. If the close-up of the face might be associated with God’s presence through the icon, might the nape shot, in its simultaneous evocation of submission (bowing one’s head) and a turning away, be more redolent precisely of a crisis of faith? The montage of images and sounds created in Nucas de Tarkovsky gives rise to such questions without claiming to answer them, performing instead a crisis of the image itself.