Last night I watched Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia on MUBI. Released in 1983, toward the end of the great Russian director’s life, it’s the next-to-last of his seven features, and the first one shot outside of the Soviet Union. The plot, such as it is, concerns a Russian writer on a sojourn in Italy searching for… actually, it’s not clear what he’s searching for, not even to him, but he begins to think he might discover some kind of truth from a so-called lunatic he meets in an old Roman bath in the country who has visions of a local saint.
I’m not going to attempt to analyze it in depth it at this point. Suffice it to say there’s a lot going on in this profoundly dreamlike work. My lingering impression this morning is that I’ve never seen a film incorporate surrealism so organically into its narrative – the very strange things that happen, the mind-boggling things we see, seep into the story like water seeps into the Roman bath, and seem to grow out of it as naturally as the moss and lichens that grow on its walls. In the light of day it feels as if I myself was dreaming while watching it.
The question on my mind right now is whether it was a bad idea to watch it on my 11-inch Macbook Pro. Nostalghia is characterized by compositions that are as densely packed with (weird) images and ideas as they are vast in scope. It’s a HUGE film in all ways. It’s common to say, “This film must be seen on a big screen.” OK – but that’s true of most films. But say there’s not a Tarkovsky retrospective happening in your town anytime soon and you just want to check his stuff out. Is it some kind of betrayal of his work to watch it on your laptop? Is it an artistic crime?
Last night after watching the film, I was thinking about Roger Ebert’s vow: “I will never, ever watch a movie on my iPhone. Nor will I read a book on my thumbnail.” I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty. But when I looked it up this morning, I found this answer to a reader’s question, with a much softer and more pragmatical stance, and one that would make anyone who grew up loving movies in humble circumstances proud:
From Rodney Welch (Elgin, South Carolina):
Is watching a movie on a cellphone an artistic crime?
Probably, and I’ve never done it – but then I remember that as a budding movie lover I grew up watching classic cinema on a small portable black-and-white TV. That’s where I fell in love with Citizen Kane, Sergeant York, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Casablanca and all the other Hollywood classics. I was 10 or 11, and I couldn’t have cared less about aspect ratio or poor lighting. All I cared about was decent reception and sound – and if I had that, then I have to say that at that time and that age I had as fine an artistic experience as I could have hoped for. The story, the performances, the script, the allure – all those most important elements can very definitely come through a tiny screen if you’re an alert and interested viewer who yearns for a good story. Didn’t Scorsese grow up the same way – watching afternoon movies on the tube? Didn’t we all?
Watching a movie on your cellphone, with stereophonic sound (if you use headphones) is actually probably a step up from what I had then. If you handed me an iPhone and a Netflix or Hulu Plus subscription in 1974 – I would have thought I had died and done to heaven! (Especially if you grew up in the rural South, and you knew that you would be forever denied any chance at all of seeing a movie by this guy Buñuel that Pauline Kael raved about unless you moved to a big city.)
By all means I think you should see a movie on a big screen with a fantastic print and superior sound – that’s the ultimate experience – but if a cellphone is all you have to work with, go for it.