Andrei Tarkovsky – Sculpting Time


"A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened."[1]

"At the dacha the buckwheat blossomed."[2]

When Andrei Tarkovsky was preparing to shoot his fourth feature film the walls of his Mosfilm workroom were covered with faded, family photographs bearing witness to the people and places that had populated his childhood. At the centre were images of his ancestral dacha (small, rural, wooden cottage) that ignited in him his earliest and most affecting memories. Through these images he would recall his father Arseny Alexandrovich - whose poetry he would reference many times throughout his work – and his mother Maria Vishnyakova. He would remember his grandparents, friends and acquaintances; the clothes they wore and the objects that adorned the old house. He would think of his evacuation during the war; of a burning barn on a warm summer’s evening; and the smell of the buckwheat blossom.

The film he would eventually fashion from this assemblage was Mirror (1975) but his connection to the fugue-world between the concrete and the imagined owed much to a childhood discovery of an accidental double exposure (produced when two photographs are taken, one on top of the other, without winding the camera on) depicting two people, at different times, together on the same plane. This simple but evocative illusion would develop into the defining characteristic of his cinema: the poetic, dreamlike expression of time.

John Riley relates Tarkovsky’s style to Roland Barthes’ theory of the Punctum in photography [3]; where small, uncanny details in certain photographs prick us, causing a personal response quite separate from the information contained within the image. When Tarkovsky utilises the long, unbroken take - refusing to rhetorically direct the gaze - he is inviting the viewer to apprehend details for themselves and, in so doing, to participate in the process of creating meaning; “to recognise the material of the film as their own, assimilating it, drawing it into themselves as new, intimate experience.”[4]

In his book Sculpting in Time Tarkovsky refers to the essential component of film as being the “time pressure” or “time thrust” within the frame. What is important, he says, is not simply a shot’s duration, but rather its attentiveness to the rhythmic, physical and organic qualities of life captured that give rise to thefeeling of time; of time as a state, experienced uniquely by each individual:

“Just as from the quivering of a reed you can tell what sort of current, what pressure there is in a river, in the same way we know the movement of time from the flow of life-process reproduced in the shot.” [5]

Following on from his insistence on the temporal qualities of rhythm is his expression of the internal, spiritual nature of time. In other words: time as it relates to memories and to dreams.

Tarkovsky’s sequences often exhibit a strange, uncanny or dream-like flow, arresting the attention and forcing a heightened sense of perception. But, it’s important to note the point at which he deviates from prior approaches to the defamiliarisation of the “normal”. Rather than making clear, aesthetic distinctions between action taking place in “real” and “unreal” time, Tarkovsky conceives an aesthetic of “non time” wherein there is no clear distinction.

This is most strikingly realised in the structure, or non-structure, of Mirror where everyday remembrances of a dying man are sequenced in an amorphous, non-linear fashion with contrasting formal and poetic elements freely transposed, lending the entire film the logic of a dream.

Tarkovsky’s entire oeuvre is inflected with appeals to the elemental and the divine. He was said to have believed, absolutely, in miracles and indeed there are multiple instances of them in his films: The levitating mother from Mirror (1975); The sentient ocean of Solaris (1972); the mysterious, forbidden territory of the Zone in Stalker (1979) rumoured to contain within it a room where ones deepest desires are fulfilled.

The miraculous in his cinema is always framed in relation to the physical and organic: “The ultimate Tarkovskian spiritual experience takes place when a subject is lying stretched out on the earth's surface, half submerged in stale water; (his) heroes do not pray on their knees, with their heads turned upwards, towards heaven; instead they listen intensely to the silent palpitation of the humid earth...” [6]

One of the great sequences in all Tarkovsky is the Casting of the Bell in the 15th century epic Andrei Rubev where a young, orphaned boy called Boriska undertakes the task of casting a giant copper bell for the tyrannical Grand Prince. If the bell fails to ring it will cost him his life. As the process begins, Boriska whispers a prayer into the night sky. The series of images that follow are of unrivalled force and wonder and when, finally, the clear sound of the bell rings across the silent planes, Boriska collapses, frenzied by exhaustion in the clay and mud. Through tears he tells Rublev that his father had died without passing on the secret of casting, and he had, in fact, no idea how to achieve it.

His gesture is one of desperate, ecstatic folly that finds it’s only logical echo in the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky; a filmmaker who asks us to look in a different way, against logic, in the hope that we might locate the sublime within ourselves.

Sam Kenyon
Coordinator of Document Human Rights Film Festival


[1] Albert Camus, Selected Essays and Notebooks (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984) p.26

[2] Andrei Tarkovsky quoted by Natasha Synessios in Mirror (London: Tauris, 2001) p.44

[3] John A. Riley, Tarkovsky and Brevity (http://dandelionjournal.org/index.php/dandelion/article/viewFile/65/106, 2012)

[4] Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time (University of Texas Press, 2010) p.120

[5] Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time (University of Texas Press, 2010) p.120

[6] Slavoj Žižek, The Thing From Inner Space http://www.lacan.com/zizekthing.htm (September 1999)


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