In college, I took a film class (can’t remember which one) that required us to read Andrey Tarkovsky’s book Sculpting in Time. I found this book, more so than his films, revelatory. Not just of ideas on cinema but on art in general. A lot of my work now, at the intersection of art and film, is heavily influenced by some ideas articulated by him. It’s nice to revisit his text every once in a while to remind myself what “sculpting in time” is all about. Here are some excerpts:
He starts to be an artist at the moment when…his own distrinctive system of images starts to take shape—his own pattern of thoughts about the external world—and the audience are invited to judge it, to share with the director in his most precious and secret dreams. Only when his personal viewpoint is brought in, when he becomes a kind of philosopher, does he emerge as an artist, and cinema—as an art.
What are the determining factors of cinema, and what emerges from them? What are its potential, means, images—not only formally, but even spiritually? And in what material does the director work?
I still cannot forget that work of genius, shown in the lasat century, the film with which it all started—L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de La Ciotat. That film made by Auguste Lumi``ere was simply the result of the invention of the camera, the film and the projector. The spectacle, which only lasts half a minute, shows a section of railway platform, bathed in sunlight, ladies and gentlemen walking about, and the train coming from the depths of the frame and heading straight for the camera. As the train approached panic started in the theatre: people jumped up and ran away. That was the moment when cinema was born; it was not simply a question of technique, or just a new way of reproducing the world. What came into being was a new aesthetic principle.
For the first time in the history of the arts, in the history of culture, man found the means to takes an impression of time. Once seen and recorded, time could now be preserved in metal boxes over a long period.
Film took a wrong turn…
The worst of it was not, in my view, the reduction of cinema to mere illustration: far worse was the failure to exploit artistically the one precious potential of the cinema—the possibility of printing on celluloid the actuality of time.
Time, printed in its factual forms and manifestations: such is the supreme idea of cinema as an art.
…the essential principles of cinema, which have to do with the human need to master and know the world. I think that what a person normally goes to the cinema for is time: for time lost or spent or not yet had. He goes there for living experience; for cinema, like no other art, widens, enhances and concentrates a person’s experience…
What is the essence of the director’s work? We could define it as sculpting in time. Just as a sculptor takes a lump of marble, and, inwardly conscious of the features of his finished piece, removes everything that is not part of it—so the filmmaker, from a ‘lump of time’ made up of an enormous, solid cluster of living facts, cuts off and discards whatever he does not need, leaving only what is to be an element of the finished film, what will prove to be integral to the cinematic image.
There is a term which has already become commonplace: ‘poetic cinema’. What is meant by it is cinema that boldly moves away, in its images, from what is factual and concrete, as pictured by real life, and at the same time affirms its own structural wholeness.
‘Poetic cinema’ as a rule gives birth to symbols, allegories and other such figures—that is to things, that have nothing to do with the imagery natural to cinema.
Here I feel on more point needs clarification. If time appears in cinema in the form of fact, the fact is given in the form of simple, direct observation. The basic element of cinema, running through it from its tiniest cells, is observation.