Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting Time

This summary of Chapter 5 from Andrei Tarkovsky’s book, “Sculpting Time”, will be read and discussed along with a selection of clips from his films and a similar discussion/analysis of the work of Sergei Eisenstein for our Seoul Contemporary Philosophy Group Meetup in Gangnam on Saturday April 15th, from 4pm-7pm. We meet weekly to discuss contemporary philosophical texts. We have a Facebook page and meetup page. Please join us one afternoon.

Tarkovsky’s Sculpting Time (1989)

I’d like to build through Eisenstein, Tarkovsky. Chronologically it works of course, but there is a great deal more than just historical trajectory I have in mind. To repeat a few points about Eisenstein’s thought, art is always in conflict. This is fundamental. The basic elements of film are shot and montage. For many, montage is the laying out of an idea in single shot form, one after the other in succession. As art however, it is better understood as the collision of independent and even opposing shots after one another (Eisenstein, 4). In this sense Eisenstein’s well-known point is that succession is not a rolling out of one shot to the next, but a layering. One shot in the mind’s eye of the viewer is superimposed with another shot. The previous shot is not forgotten in the mind, but retained.

(The Old and New, Cream)

Eisenstein sees film previously as a direction of emotions. With his understanding of film however and with his new filming style, quick clear shots and powerful images superimposed over other powerful images, he is able to grab hold and direct the entire stream of thought of the viewer. Film, traditionally a direction of emotions, is now given the opportunity to direct the whole thought process (Eisenstein, 16). He leads himself in this analysis to the idea that his form of film is most suitable for the expression of ideologically pointed theses. As we have seen this couldn’t be any more accurate. I want to drift toward the word propaganda here. Eisenstein’s technique of cinema, leads itself to the propagation of a particular strand of thought. The images are surely dynamic, but it is unidirectional in a sense, because one image leads to the next so quickly and forcibly, there is little else one could think about, but the represented image itself. One second later, there is a new image. Any kind of reflection is limited or condensed into a very short space. By doing this, they become all the more powerful and effective. Eisenstein writes that with this new form of film expression, we are freed from traditional limitations and move toward a purely intellectual film (Eisenstein, 16). Eisenstein’s four major films were of this type for certain. The nerve of cinema for Eisenstein is montage. That he uses the term “nerve” here is appropriate. Eisenstein’s films, at least his earlier silent ones, are of the cerebral, intellectual kind. They hack into the central nervous system directly. They are meant to take control of you.

If Eisenstein is of the central nervous system, Tarkovosky is all the other systems, notably, more than the others, the circulatory system, the human bloodlines. Much of the distinction has to do with the time in which both directors worked. Eisenstein a child amidst the revolutions, Tarkovsky a child long after the revolutions had settled. Furthermore, the impression we might have of Eisenstein is that we have the beginning of filmmaking in general, and an inner desire sparked by the times (the revolution and new Soviet era) to create new methods for this new medium. By Tarkovsky’s time, many years later, film had shifted, finally, into a kind of poesis. Poesis is not merely creation, but action that transforms and continues the world. In it comes a resolution, of sorts we might add, of thought with matter, time and being, the being, in the world. This term complements the work of Tarkovsky well. In his work, again and again, we are reminded that there is not meant to be any kind of technical wizardry at play here for the guided direction of thought (a la Eisenstein), nor are there any romantic allusions to some ideals or concepts of being human and being capable to do whatever it is that humans do. Tarkovsky says that just as sound is to music, color is to painting and character is to drama—time is to cinema. This makes a film bigger than what it is. The power of the film, its evocation itself in its poesis, does not comes out of the precision and technicality of the film form, but instead seeps into you, taking hold of you in a very different way than montage methods do. This seeping far extends beyond the ending of the film, the edges of the frame. It’s a haunting.

(Nostalghia, Farmside,)

Time flows beyond the edges of the frame of a film and it becomes something other than its ostensible existence (Tarkovsky, 118). Tarkovsky is interested in the moral qualities which are inherent in time itself, since the time that a person lives gives her the opportunity to know herself as a moral being, engaged in the search for truth (Tarkovsky, 58). He writes, “And life is no more than the period allotted to him [man], and in which he may, indeed must, fashion his spirit in accordance with his own understanding of the aim of human existence. The rigid frame into which it is thrust, however, makes our responsibility to others and ourselves all the more starkly obvious. The human conscience is dependent upon time for its existence” (ibid). Film is the essentially the observation of phenomenon passing (Tarkovsky, 67). Passing implies the signature of time and movement. With film, for the first time in the history of the arts, man found the means to take an impression of time (Tarkovsky, 62). We can take a moment and look at the following clip. 1898. Pay attention to the depth and bustle. The people filmed likely hadn’t the slightest idea what the instrument beside the train tracks was.

(L’Arrivee d’un Train en Gare de La Ciotat, clip)

The story goes in the first screening of this film, the people in the theatre jumped up and ran away as the train approached the tracks. In their jump and run, a new aesthetic principle was formed, according to Tarkovsky. In film, man acquired a matrix for actual time. Just as the sculptor carves into the marble before him, the film director, is a sculptor of time. As an artist he is inwardly aware of the features of his finished piece. The key to this form of editing is rhythm, the expression of time in each frame. Tarkovsky uses the image of bodies of water of differing sizes flowing into each other, or alternatively water pipes that need to be connected. It is the director’s job to control the operative pressure of these waters as the volume of their liquids change from one scene into the next. Tarkovsky’s film directing process then is in stark contrast to Eisenstein’s process, indeed he outright rejects it in the text. For Tarkovsky, the editing process does not engender or recreate a new quality; it simply brings out a quality already inherent in the frames that it joins (Tarkovsky, 118). Perhaps this is why he is inclined toward long cuts, where details can be detected and sat with in the mind of the viewer, in effect becoming old and familiar even though they are presented on the frame over the course of a singular take in a minute or less. Tarkovsky’s affinity to the Japanese aesthetic is evident here. In the book he is led to a discussion of saba, rust. Quoting a journalist, he writes that for the Japanese, time helps to make known the essence of things (Tarkvosky, 59). Saba is link between art and nature, a theme very much alive in all of Tarkovsky’s work. Cinema, for Tarkovsky is first and foremost, observation. This observation is immediate, there before us. It may be filtered with our perceptions or memories, but it is ongoing before us, and even when we take our eyes off of it, we have come to know through age or experience, that it will continue beyond our recognition of it. “On screen”, he writes, “the logic of a person’s behavior can transfer into the rationale of quite different—apparently irrelevant—facts and phenomena, and the person you started with can vanish from the screen, replaced by something quite different, if that is what is required by the author’s guided principle”.

(Rublev, Climbing)

(Sacrifice, To Go)

What we have for Tarkovsky is film, an impression of time that situates itself in the space where the aesthetic coincides with the ethical. There is a scene in his first long film that pulls these three factors together; time, the aesthetic and the ethical. Here we have a young boy passing by a shoppe window. Aided by mirrors, he suddenly becomes aware of the passing of the world. The moral, the child’s place in the world, comes out in his smile. He is mesmerized, caught up in the world and his smile brings gives him a place in this, a recognition. For us the viewer, it does the same.

(The Steamroller, Morality)

Why do people go to the cinema, he asks? Because people want an enhanced concentrated version of time. Our memories exist as such. They are impressions or stamps of a brief moment. A number of Tarkovsky’s most memorable scenes work as concentrated time. They always involve a natural movement toward that most impressionable moment. In this scene, a child awakens from his bed and gently walks out of his room. Without this scene prior to the Water Dance, one wonders of its effectiveness.

(Mirror, Water Dance)

Another reason why Tarkovsky is so against the montage method is that the methods are apparent. Keeping inline with his aesthetics, he believes the audience should never be fully aware of why a director is choosing any one method over another, otherwise, as Marx warned, the spring starts to stick out on the upholstery (Tarkovsky, 111).

(Mirror, The Slaughter)

The director above all through attention to time, acquires a sense of rhythm. As we mentioned, the director directs the flow of the various rivers and streams. Here too a director develops his or her own individuality. Tarkovsky argues that this is what is lost in Hollywood films, a distinct time signature of the director, which a careful eye would recognize instantly as a particular director no matter where one might be in that director’s filmography. One’s rhythm then colors a work with the stylistic marks of a director (Tarkovsky, 120). This cannot be constructed entirely on a theoretical level nor fully planned out before hand. There has to be a level of spontaneity to the filming process, which comes from “the director’s innate awareness of life, his ‘search for time’ (ibid). There are at least three scenes in three separate films that Tarkovsky records the flow of a water plant moving under a current. In this text, and given the aesthetics of time and Tarkovsky’s shift and interest in it as the basis for man’s morality, their movement tells us something. Just as the movement of a reed tells us the direction of the current or wind, all that is available to us, all that is observable, tells us, the movement of time. This leads us to fire. We could imagine an Eisensteinian scene of a fire, followed by a frantic group of people with buckets of water trying to douse it. Their sweaty eyebrows are in close up, their charred hands, the fire violently giving into the whim of the wind. The fire goes out, brows are wiped and smiles all around. It is so often with Tarkovsky, that we not only see the fire, but we see the people, his characters seeing the fire. What comes of this is something much more intimate, arguably, real. For Tarkovsky too, we don’t witness the fire going out. We know it will, as fires do, but for now, the fire lingers as it should.

(Mirror, Farmhouse)


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