The Steamroller and the Violin

What makes a children’s film?  It’s quite easy to distinguish what does not make a children’s film, and even easier to fall back upon cliché definitions revolving around the maturity of themes present in so-called children’s entertainment.  But neither of these really brings into focus what it is that makes a good children’s film good.  They simply explain what makes boring cinema.  The questions then arise: should a children’s film also aim to please adults?  Should it be held to any standards other than those we hold more seemingly mature films of ‘merit’ to?  Are children’s films inherently inferior to serious works of artistic pomp and circumstance because they are at least superficially targeted to an audience unconcerned with supposed artistic depth and complexity?

Do children’s films even matter in the first place?

Well, to posit that question immediately makes one question whether films of supposed artistic worth matter, and that’s a route of debate that has waged since the development of film as an art form.

To begin a review of Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Steamroller and the Violin with a monologue on children’s entertainment may seem a little misguided or tangentially self-indulgent, and there is certainly some merit in those claims.  But at the same time, The Steamroller and the Violin IS a children’s film, in some form or other.  It is a film about a child, his friend and his world, his encounters and experiences, but mostly simply about just a child.  As Tarkovsky develops and portrays this boy’s interaction with the world and other characters in his diploma film, he already begins to showcase his burgeoning style and thematic motifs that he would revisit countless times over the course of his career.  And yet, despite this being one of his first films, it retains a Tarkovsky-ian presence that is impossible to ignore or write off; there is no other filmmaker who could sculpt the atmosphere of The Steamroller and the Violin, imbue a quality of character portrayal that is simultaneously both expressionistic and realistic, and above all, craft an immediately-noticeable sense of abstract relevance than Tarkovsky.

Part of what makes this short film function beautifully is Tarkovsky’s understanding of characters and their relation to the overall context of the work; he is rather unconcerned with the development of the characters in themselves, exchanging the minute details that many storytellers bring into their narratives for a more immediate and all-encompassing approach to thematic presentation.  As may be clear to anyone familiar with some of the man’s other works, Tarkovsky has a tendency to treat characters with a distant hand, moving them around a pallet and onto his canvas as he maneuvers the rest of the devices of his film—they aren’t real people, nor are they supposed to be.  They are devices and facets of a greater product.  He prefers to craft an experience and a process of relation to his audience rather than some sort of intricate ornament of filmic and narrative superficialities that exist largely only to pull at audiences’ heartstrings in a very rudimentary and unaffecting way.  This is an aspect universal to his body of work.  The Steamroller and the Violin is certainly no different, and anyone who wishes to instead try to dissect the work for some sort of intrinsic, decipherable, articulated meaning will soon stumble across inherent contradictions, muddled “symbolism”, and a faltering of traditional narrative expectations.  It isn’t about what certain aspects of the film represent in the first place; it is about what the film means to the viewer.

The Steamroller and the Violin is indeed much larger than a mere indulgence in superficial character dynamics.  It is a story that falls somewhere between a slice of life plot that drops the audience into the life of Sasha and Sergei, and a symbolic exposition of art, labor, maturity, and friendship.  Tarkovsky’s avid contempt for symbolism no doubt obscures convenient interpretation of the film, as many thematic relationships explored through and around his devices are developed in ways that simultaneously conflict with and reinforce one another.  In doing so, he presents a sense of meaning that cannot easily be explained.  It is—like many of his films—a slice of life, with all of its subtle and unsubtle complexities that lurk beneath the surface of perception. 

But all the same, this is indeed one of Tarkovsky’s first films.  While surprisingly developed and mature, his method is still far from being at its most profound or impactful.  Its length—double what is expected for a short film—reminds the viewer of Tarkovsky’s penchant for longer takes and seemingly unfocused and tangential narrative structures.  In doing so, the film actually retains a great deal of the wonder and the subliminal charm present in childhood itself, where actions and events segue effortlessly into one another without any need for deeper explanation or conscious meaning.  It mirrors the life of the child protagonist, but also draws in any audience who can (still) relate to being a child of that age. 

The film isn’t one that intentionally reeks of pretentious symbolic mysteries and allegorical criticism, it is instead crafted with the intent to convey as fully as possible the sense of existence that the director wished to present; it is that sense of mystery and puzzlement universal to conscious understanding that Tarkovsky often preoccupied himself with, and it is clear even in this early work.  To dismiss these thematic complexities as “bad storytelling” is to take a very rigid and ineffectual stance on criticism and the process of relation, as indeed any story of memorable note abounds in ambiguity and mystery to keep its audience pondering it.  The Steamroller and the Violin, similar to the rest of the man’s filmic work, exhibits this quality to such an extent that attempted symbolic interpretations of the action and drama will inevitably collapse into frustrated attempts at understanding the absurd.  In some senses, this is precisely what makes it such an effective film for children, not just adults.

What Tarkovsky sculpts in The Steamroller and the Violin isn’t only a children’s film.  Its themes and modes of arrangement present a purpose and a complexity that remains relevant to an audience of any age.  Although ‘merely’ his diploma film, and although ‘merely’ a forty-three minute long film, it retains many of the blueprints that stamp it firmly within Tarkovsky’s repertoire, not the least of which being his signature sense of “Tarkovsky-ian” mystery that parallels the ambiguity of the individual’s experience of reality.

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About Merridian
Merri lives with his wife in the USA. He writes fiction and blog posts, plays music, and teaches CMA when he isn't working. He wrote for Forced Perspective while the project was active, and he is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of QNUW.

2 Responses to The Steamroller and the Violin

  1. Juuso Uusimäki says:

    Ahh, nice pick. This has always been one of my favourite short films (which shouldn’t be too surprising, heh). Tarkovsky was a master from the start

  2. Michael Paul Rojas says:

    Your article was superb. Thanks. I asked myself what is the symbolism in the film to which I could fine no logical answer, deriving inherently at the same conclusion as you did but unable to pinpoint and put into words as you have.Thanks.

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