The Great Russian filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky (1932-1986) died in exile in Paris at age 54. In this memoir, published the year of his death, Tarkovsky breaks down cinema through the prism of his perception. It’s a remarkable work for reasons I’ll try to articulate. It’s also a necessary work, in ways I think we can all understand.
Tarkovsky influenced many filmmakers, and one doesn’t necessarily have to go through him to get to, say, Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Lars von Trier. But Sculpting in Time maps a route to new ways of seeing those filmmakers and others.
Portions of Tarkovsky’s reality are familiar to us through the lens of Cold War propaganda films and books. While the West trafficked in thick caricatures of bumbling Russian spies and duplicitous politicians, Tarkovsky took aim at an internal war of ideas that needed to satisfy government censors and evade formalistic conventions. The subtleties … and deviousness … necessary to meet both conditions led to prizes, condemnation and even exile for many artists. These conditions also set the stage for Tarkovsky’s ideas about cinema.
When Revolution convulsed Czarist Russia in 1917, the pioneering filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein was 19 years old. Lenin’s famous saying, “… for us, cinema is the most important of all the arts,” can be understood as an indictment as well as an ambition.
The Bolsheviks invested heavily in film production and gave Eisenstein, Vertov, Pudovkin and other filmmakers carte blanche for expenses and innovations. The result: an amazing fruition of experimental filmmaking in the 1920s that, though shut down in the ‘30s, produced films with wide popularity that remain at the core of any film studies curriculum. By Stalin’s time, Socialist Realism dominated on-screen as the principal doctrinaire cinema.
Besides butchery and cosmonautics, Stalin’s love for and patronage of silly musicals like the Busby Berkeley comedies also marked the era. And where Eisenstein signaled the origins of jump cutting, quick edits and montage so familiar to us today, Tarkovsky delivered us into the sustained gaze of the long take, in absolute opposition to what was then current in film (and what came before).
This book shows that Tarkovsky incorporated elements into his films to satisfy Stalinist policies, yet that he also embodied a kind of second wave of experimental filmmaking inside Soviet Russia in the 1950s.
It means his Soviet-era output bears a true double edge: It satisfies the need for Communist ideology and at the same time, in the case of Andrei Rublyov (1966), experiments with a sympathetic portrayal of religion.
Tarkovsky gained funding for his films, though they were very poorly received at home. After Andrei Rublyov won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1969, Tarkovsky returned to the USSR and spent nearly 10 years arguing for the work’s wider circulation in Russian theaters. Deemed too controversial by authorities, Andrei Rublyov also earned condemnation by Soviet writer and dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose novels brought the reality of Stalin’s gulags to the wider world. (The Nobel Prize-winner chafed at Rublyov, rejecting on moral grounds a scene in which a bell-maker orders the flogging of workers.)
Soviet critics loathed Andrei Rublyov’s excessive naturalism and, indeed, Tarkovsky pushed a lot of buttons, both to get his films made and to challenge the limited audiences who viewed them. But his vision for cinema took shape in the strange Soviet crucible that blended censorship, formalism, the pressures of funding and audience expectations, and the rich literary history of Russia. For an artist whose medium really turned out to be time, all of these elements served as tools to his art.
Those of us in the West, bred on box office metrics and the Hollywood blockbuster, may find it difficult to understand how anything good came of such an oppressive existence. It seems paradoxical to think of an elevated discourse on creativity rising from Communist society. But history is replete with examples in which the constrained develop a deeper understanding of freedom, including artistic freedom. We know why the caged bird sings … and the beauty of its song stirs us.
Watch Tarkovsky’s Solaris. Or consider this passage from Sculpting in Time:
Masterpieces are born of the artist’s struggle to express his ethical ideals. Indeed his concepts and sensibilities are informed by those ideals. If he loves life, has an overwhelming need to know it, change it, try to make it better, – in short, if he aims to cooperate in enhancing the value of life, then there is no danger in the fact that the picture of reality will have passed through a filter of his subjective concepts, through his states of mind. For his work will always be a spiritual endeavor which aspires to make man more perfect: an image of the world that captivates us by its harmony of feeling and thought, its nobility and restraint.
Stalinism, a millennium of Russian history and the struggle to produce in an expensive medium consorted to create Tarkovsky’s reality. His memoir shows that a response to that reality—the films Tarkovsky conceived and executed—invariably spliced together a rather different view of those forces than we know in the West.
If you think about it, you can actually allow this counterfactual idea to free you from all the constraints imposed by a lifetime of jumps cuts, 3-D and romantic comedy storylines. In a world where films require enormous budgets to create worlds that transport us, where escape itself has become a medium, we actually still find room to work out what we are, think and feel. Sculpting in Time shows that we still have a lot to learn about film … and that what we learn applies to us as readers, moviegoers and people. For artists, regardless of the medium, this book offers instruction.
Tarkovsky begins his memoir with a simple admission: He was unable to find a book on film that expressed the ideas he most favored about his art. So he set out to write one.
Working professionally under Communist regimes, he had little idea about the popular reception to his films inside Russia. But in his first chapter he shares snippets of letters from admirers among his countrymen that confirm their understanding of his work. They clamor for new films. These communications, as though they verified his own hunches, buttressed Tarkovsky and paved the way for discussions of art and responsibility to follow.
From this beginning, Tarkovsky’s memoir offers critical, lucid and insightful opinion on every aspect of his craft—the literary aspects of scenarios, the cinematic necessities of poetry, the boundless inspiration that travels along the arc of faith in an audience. Tarkovsky believed in a moviegoer’s thirst for substance and genuine emotion as much as his own. In modern parlance, he demands a lot of an audience; in his phrasing, he leaves room for imagination. He believed cinema, though young and vulnerable to the marketplace like no other medium, stood as an art form in its own right.
He writes about it all, translated from the Russian by Kitty Hunter-Blair, in the same context. Time means timelessness, quality means persuasion. Your judgment is always the prize, rather than your satisfaction.
We all need this reminder. Life can be crushing, unforgiving, short … but poetic in its abundance at the same time. We reach this abundance through art forms that, as Tarkovsky explains, develop distinct sets of conventions:
I classify cinema and music among the immediate art forms since they need no mediating language. This… kinship between music and cinema… distances cinema from literature, where everything is expressed by means of language, by a system of signs, of hieroglyphics. The literary work can only be received through symbols, through concepts – for that’s what words are; but cinema, like music, allows for utterly direct, emotional, sensuous perception of the work.
So depending on the power of our imagination, a book might mean one of a thousand things, as an author turns a story over to us and our powers of perception. We bring what we already are to every painting or novel we encounter. Cinema is the one art form where the author can see him/herself as the creator of an unconditional reality—an emotional reality. A second reality.
Learning the language of cinema in Tarkovsky’s films and in this stunning memoir, we reacquaint ourselves with art’s function: in the author’s words, “to turn and loosen the human soul.” We find the joy in the perpetual-motion machine between artist and audience. Artists create awareness in society. In return, society creates new artists.
This deeply textured exchange should be a standard. We should continue to develop expectations—of ourselves, of our art and of our artists.
Sculpting in Time serves as a guidebook—an easy-to-understand set of instructions on moving-image presentations … in every sense of those words.
Alan Flurry is author of the e-novel Cansville and director of the one-hour GPB documentary, ARCO in Venice.