Sculpting in Time


Impressions from Andrei Tarkovsky's book

12. 01. 2022

I believe that it is always through spiritual crisis that healing occurs. A spiritual crisis is an attempt to find oneself, to acquire new faith. - Andrei Tarkovsky

I moved to Switzerland six months ago, I started studying there. In many ways, it's an overwhelmingly positive experience, but on the other hand, a little traumatic, for a variety of reasons. Often at night I had trouble staying in place despite the constant rolling in bed and the unstoppable running of thoughts into unbearable contingencies just to get thoughts back to one place, exactly where I least wanted them. One familiar place that hurt so much, but still couldn't be described in any specific way. To a place I wanted to understand more, but that required a lot of pondering, where one's thoughts strayed to different places until unbearable potentialities...

However, this is not an article about me and my misery. I'm better now and I know where I'm going. Rather, this article is based on me, which is why I had to mention the circumstances of its creation briefly, so that you might better understand my motivation, my point of view. I am writing here about the book Sculpting in Time by Andrei Tarkovsky, which I have read and which I would like to share with you. In it, Tarkovsky explains well the techniques he uses to create his work, but possible interpretive keys, insights you can use to study his or other films and works of art.

Tarkovsky has made film history as an important figure, so his films are worth seeing for historical context alone. But I believe they also offer other qualities: an unusual view of storytelling and incredible emotional power. So I will try to describe these qualities better through observations from books.

Interpretation of Tarkovsky films

In a word, the image is not a certain meaning, expressed by the director, but an entire world reflected as a drop of water. Only in a drop of water! T.

Victim (1986) \u2014 I guess I need to look at that again to really understand, but definitely fine.

Well, I'm not such a die-hard fan, in fact, I'm just at the beginning of my journey of understanding his films. I suppose you have it similarly, which is why I want to assure you: don't worry, it's hard to understand Tarkovsky's films, which I would also like to explain here.

I understood most of his sci-fi films, which Tarkovsky considers his weakest. He even writes of Solaris in the book that, when completed, he came to the conclusion that it would have been better to drop the sci-fi theme, because it would have made the message he was trying to convey stand out better. But my overwhelming misunderstanding of Tarkovsky's films became clear to me after the first chapter of the book: I found myself trying always to understand the plot of the film. But this is very cryptic for many reasons. Black and white certainly played a part in my misunderstanding, as well as simply being unfamiliar with the film-I simply turned the film on without context-and references to a Russian USSR culture I had not experienced. Tarkovsky is certainly oblivious to the rational realization of what is happening on the screen, even if it is important for the story line. But there is a good reason for this, which he sees as secondary.

From common filmography, we're used to linear narration, first A, then B, then C, preferably all from the perspective of one person, and it's only within that formula that some experiments happen. Tarkovsky, on the other hand, does not bind the scenes by some inner sense of narrative, but by association. Especially in the film Mirror, the individual images are not chronological, and the exact plot, as it all happened, is difficult to decipher. But that's exactly the kind of decryption we shouldn't try! In the words of the author: The usual logic, that of linear sequentiality, is uncomfortably like the proof of a geometry theorem, whereas Through poetic connections feeling is heightened and the spectator is made more active. He becomes a participant in the process of discovering life, unsupported by ready-made deductions from the plot or ineluctable pointers by the author.

Trying to understand the movies chronologically as they really happened is shortsighted, because even the normal linear style lacks that realness. For example, a sequence of events happens A, B, C, D, but the director puts A, B, D on the screen to shorten the film-but why did he leave out C? Or is it also often changing perspectives, again, by what? Moreover, as a student of physics, I must add that the basic fact of the theory of relativity that the order of events in a time series depends on the choice of the observer is overlooked. So even a linear narrative is not really objective, it just creates an impression about it and thus obscures the state of affairs. So Tarkovsky invites us to accept this and try to integrate the individual images and, in turn, intepret ourselves, thus engaging in an active process.

For me personally, there is a second dimension to this, which is about the understanding of film. Trying to understand the plot and deal rationally with the films is less important, according to Tarkovsky. So, for example, when we see in Stalker a crying woman who has just been dropped by Stalker, we are primarily supposed to be affected by that sad situation rather than looking for existential symbols or feminist allegories in that scene. In short, letting the work come to you emotionally, not rationally.

And there's a good side to it, it tells us how to deal with human forgetting. It doesn't matter that we forget some specific storylines of Tarkovsky movies as we get older. Their message is not some rational argument that then collapses, but it's some impresance that impressed us. And the fact that she influenced us isn't going to erase any of our forgetting. For thought is brief, whereas the image is absolute.

Film's Indelible Influence

Yes, Tarkovsky is referring to Proust here, but I'll leave that interpretation level as an exercise for the reader. I'd rather concentrate really on the awe I feel when I look at the big screen, that strange depersonalized feeling when I walk out of the cinema and squint, trying to remember what it's like to live in our world at all. I believe you have experienced something similar. As an allegory for said cinematic feeling, I refer to one of my personal specific medical complications called low blood pressure. It turns out that if I sit for a long time, especially in some unhealthy position, and then get up, I get dizzy. I don't think the blood will run to my brain or I don't know, but sometimes I pass out and lose my memory for a while, and then the consciousness just starts reading into my head in pieces. At that moment, I don't remember my name, where I am, what I'm doing, why I'm holding a fork, and what the fork concept is. In fact, it's an experience quite analogous to turning on Dark Souls on a new seed, or any rpg game. You see a character there, you have to accept that, and then you're just slowly getting to know what world you're in, what your job is, what your relationships are with other characters, and how the game mechanisms work.

This truly bizarre medical discomfort, where at random intervals I am thrown into the world over and over again, is actually something I experience in the film, but of course on a slightly different level. During the two hours or so that the film is running, ideally, I have complete empathy for the characters and the film world, and when the film ends, I have to compare myself to everything and come back to reality. I agree with Tarkovsky when I say that the real art of film isn't necessarily just entertainment, but it's more than that.

Tarkovsky says film *is* reality. Or, that there's literally no difference between living our lives, going to the store, or feeling our feelings, and watching a really good art film that lets us experience some partisan world. And I like this interpretation very much because it explains my squinting, it explains how Shinji's psychotherapy could have been so effective for me at the end of Neon Genesis Evangelion. It also explains how I felt that the narrow loneliness of the heroine of Perfect Blue was also my loneliness. The viewer doesn't go to the movies for fun, they go there to learn, to empathize with others' life experiences, to experience reality. Experience the passage of time, learn what time is.

Thus, Tarkovsky is not particularly keen on symbolism when he says that film should be its own reality. The scenes in the Tarkowski films (mostly) don't mean anything, they're not tags for which we should find tagged by some obscure key. Scenes just are, they're meant to affect us. That's why Tarkovsky is against the director's methods being known to the viewer, everything should look as natural as possible, not pretentious. He describes it as follows himself When an audience is unaware of the reasons why the director has used a certain method, he is inclined to believe in the reality of what is happening on screen, to believe in the life the artist is observing. But if the audience, as the saying goes, catches the director out, knowing exactly why the latter has performed a particular expressive trick, they will no longer sympathise with what is happening or be carried along by it, and will begin to judge its purpose and execution. This is in direct contradiction to the Eisenstein method, and Tarkovsky complains about him several times in his book.

When a movie is a reality, I should also say something about what lies beyond or above reality. For Tarkovsky, there is only one obvious answer: God. Everything about him sort of blends together: an artist doesn't make art, he lives art, he's not able, not able, it's impossible for him to have a non-artistic existence that comes to him spontaneously. The consumer of the artist's work, as I said, does not actually consume art, but reality. Moreover, he also puts himself in the role of artist, because (postmodernly) he becomes the author when he interprets the work. The goal is to gain some greater understanding in momentary flashes of insight. Why? I'll let the author speak: The meaning of religious truth is hope. Philosophy seeks the truth, defining the meaning of human activity, the limits of human reason, the meaning of existence, even when the philosopher reaches the conclusion that existence is senseless, and human effort \u2014 futile. The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.

I'm not religious, so I don't really subscribe to that interpretation, which involves a higher sense. But it seems to me that there are such things as flashes of insight, I also think that art is indispensable to human life, and that somehow art completes one's lost parts. But how it all fits together, I honestly have yet to think about it myself.


In his book, Tarkovsky illuminates the principles of his films: he wants to hit us on an emotional level, to paint a credible picture with which we will resonate. Perhaps that's why some of his films are hard to understand today: he uses symbols and themes peculiar to his time and time, but a little foreign to us. But Tarkovsky is still worth watching, but I hope that you, enriched by my text, already know a little more about how to approach surveillance. And that you use this approach when consuming other art, or making your own.