Sculpting in Time

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Sculpting in Time
Sculpting in Time.jpg
AuthorAndrei Tarkovsky
GenreFilm theory
Publication date
1986 in German
1986 in Italian
1987 in English

Sculpting in Time (Russian "Запечатлённое время", literally "Depicted Time") is a book by Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky about art and cinema in general, and his own films in particular. It was originally published in 1986 in German shortly before the author's death, and published in English in 1987, translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair. The title refers to Tarkovsky's own name for his style of filmmaking.


The book's main statement about the nature of cinema is summarized in the statement, "The dominant, all-powerful factor of the film image is rhythm, expressing the course of time within the frame." It contains a great deal of poetry written by the filmmaker's father Arseny Alexandrovich Tarkovsky along with a fair amount of Tarkovsky's personal writings on his life and work, lectures and discussions during making of Andrei Rublyov with a film history student named Olga Surkova, who later became a professional critic and helped in writing of this book.

The book has commentary on each of his 7 major feature films, and his complex relationship with the Soviet Union. The final chapter, a discussion of his film The Sacrifice, was dictated in the last weeks of his life.

Origin of the Book[edit]

Andrei Tarkovsky

Tarkovsky decided to write this book in part to explain, or give insight, to his puzzled audience on the nature of his films. In the Introduction of his book, he cites many letters he received throughout the years, both of appraisal and discouragement. The letters, regardless of their nature, seemed to agree on one thing: the people did not understand what was going on in the film. This book, as Tarkovsky explains, is a response to the questions of an audience that is willing to dialogue with him. Through a personal approach, the author reveals his many views on cinema, which in turn shed light to all his films and allow a greater understanding of them.

Olga Surkova[edit]

Tarkovsky received inspiration to write the book from Olga Surkova, who is a co-author of the book. As mentioned in the synopsis, discussions with her greatly influenced the content on this book and, in editions in other languages, she appears as a full-fledged co-author.

Ogla Surkova was a close friend and a student of Tarkovsky, and throughout the years they maintained a close relationship (even after he left Russia). She herself, many years after the publication of Sculpting in Time, wrote a book on Tarkovsky. In that book, she tried to reconcile the many ideas she had about him, for their relationship suffered a major schism as she was not given proper credit as co-author of Sculpting in Time.

Although no translation in English exists for the book Tarkovski i ya, a brief translation of the introduction can be found online.

Olga Surkova is a film critic.

Summaries of Chapters[edit]

Chapter 1: The Beginning[edit]

This chapter is about Tarkovsky’s beginnings as a director, which started with the production of Ivan’s Childhood (1962). The film is based on Bogomolov’s short story. Tarkovsky says that there are two types of literature, one that cannot be adapted to cinema and one that can be adapted to cinema. He explains that Bogomolov’s story is so descriptive and straight-forward that it lends itself well to being translated into cinematographic language, which is innately poetic.

He says poetic logic must be employed in cinema, for it gives it an innate freedom and a sense of truth that is proper of itself.

Although for his first film he received inspiration from literature, Tarkovsky argues for the emancipation of cinema from conventions of other artforms (like literature, painting, theatre, etc.), for they only limit cinema and do not let it reach its full potential. From this chapter, he already begins to emphasize the expression of absolute truth in cinema. At the same time, he acknowledges that his views on cinema have changed as he has gained experience.

He recognizes the talent his crew for his first film, which was also present for the making of his second film, Andrei Rublev (1966).

Chapter 2: Art- A yearning for the ideal[edit]

Andrei Rublev, main character of Tarkovsky's second major film.

This chapter mostly is concerned about the ideas around Andrei Ruvlev (1966). a film which Tarkovsky sees as an investigation of the “poetic genius” of the Russian painter bearing the same name as the film.

Tarkovsky elaborates on the sacred calling of the artists as servers of their society and as enlightened observers and communicators. He also firmly claims that art cannot be merely for self-expression, for it must serve the people, and not only the artist. He acknowledges that artists are often doomed, because they have a noble calling, but usually have a difficult life. The main character in Andrey Rublev illustrates this.

Tarkovsky explores the questions of what a masterpiece is and does so through some painters of the Italian Renaissance. Art, he also explains, is meant to explore, examine, or at least touch upon the meaning of life and help people assimilate the world. Among many other things, Tarkovsky sees art as something that opens oneself to good, as beauty and perfection, as a means of communication, and most importantly, as a living organism functioning with its own rules. He exhorts artists not to make art exceedingly obvious nor pretentious, and to rid it from associations to other things. He says a true artist only must be honest to his working principles and to himself. 

Throughout the chapter, Tarkovsky contrasts science and art, and insists that the disciplines are very different, although they may have similar elements. The main difference is that art creates, and science discovers. Tarkovsky also slashes modern art and its mass consumers, who according to him have only damaged the true nature of art. In addition, he demonstrates opposition against art critics, who want to offer a single interpretation for a work of art, when art is by nature subjective and multifaceted.

Chapter 3: Imprinted in Time[edit]

This chapter begins with a discussion on the nature of time. Tarkovsky claims, among other things, that time cannot be defined, that it is a state, and that it exists because of each individual. He indicates that his objective in this chapter is to explore the “moral qualities” of time. He asserts that the past is more real than the present, for the latter is always fleeting. He also says that through memory, each person can travel in time.

Tarkovsky criticizes many things that have gone wrong in cinema. Among them, the commercialization and industrialization of filmmaking, the use of cinema for recording plays and for reproduction of literary works, the idea that cinema is a composite art (which is related to the imposition of rules from other art forms in cinema), and the filling of cinematic image with symbols (i.e. the so-called poetic cinema.). And to reduce these problems, he exhorts the audience to have an individual opinion about cinema, to be free from preconceived ideas, and to remain truthful to one’s own opinion when producing a film.

He also defines his very own cinematic style as sculpting in time and highlights the intricate relationship cinema has with time. He cites Haiku as an example of what cinema should be. As he explains, Haiku describes life exactly as it is, giving a profound impression on its reader. Cinema is boundless and it should express reality as is, as it were if one perceives things through senses. But also explains that cinema still has not found its language and attributes its misuses to that. He says cinema offered a new aesthetic principle and a method to manipulate time (i.e. recording it, reproducing it).

Chapter 4: Cinema's destined role[edit]

Tarkovsky opens this chapter talking about art in general. He explains that each art has its own poetic meaning, and that the general purpose of every artform is to answer the questions of each time period (with the appropriate techniques, special for each time). From this, he explains that cinema is a novel artform specifically targeted for this epoch, for it makes up for things one has not lived through (as a result of a busy, modern life). He goes on to mention that cinema is still evolving, trying to find its language, and is faced with hardships that no other artform experiences (i.e. a more demanding audience, the conflict between commercial cinema and artistic cinema, etc.).

He includes an explanation of how cinema should be. For instance, he says cinema should follow the rhythm of life, show the personality of the author, his vision of the world, and his style. He declares that a film, as any other artwork, is a living organism, and it should be given its own space and liberty. The same space should be made available to allow dialogue between the filmmaker and the audience. Through cinema, Tarkovsky argues, life should be observed with great precision. Moreover, he highlights the importance of keeping a direct link between form and purpose in film.

Tarkovsky confesses that Ivan’s Childhood (1962) was a turning point in his career. He had started it with the intention to determine whether he had what it took to be a director, because up to that point he had felt a disconnection with cinema. All he seemed to know were a series of techniques, but he had not found his own principles. After Ivan’s Childhood, he began thinking of the idea of “imprinting in time”, which is his ultimate working principle. Along with this personal experience, he expresses that receiving an artistic education does not mean knowing how to create art, that it merely means having paved the way to reach that. To exemplify this, he cites Andrei Rublev (1966), who after venturing into the world realized how alienated his principles were with reality. He suffered greatly after seeing those things, but in the end,  he realized the importance of his initial working principles. He also touches on failure and how to take it.

Tarkovsky criticizes many things in this chapter, like mass culture and the hypocritical stand point of the USSR about the West. He also talks of the degradation of art (seen in the avant-garde movement).

Chapter 5[edit]

.Chapter 5 is one of the most extensive chapters from this book. It is the chapter that deals the most with theory of cinema.

The Film image:[edit]

This work by da Vinci is cited in the book and appears also in Mirror. Tarkovsky explains how this painting parallels the heroine of his movie.

The purpose of this section, as Tarkovsky explains it, is to elucidate the elements an image should have. An image, Tarkovsky says, can never be expressed in words, for it should be infinite, absolute and as truthful as possible. An image should not contain any symbols or associations, it should be pure. Tarkovsky also explains how different layers of meaning naturally arise as an image is truthful. He cites haiku as the most perfect observation of life in art (for it is simple and truthful), and as something the cinematic image should strive for.

In this section, he discusses Mirror (1975). In particular, he explains how the drawing by da Vinci parallels the character of the heroine, which both attracts and repels. He also discusses scenes he would remove, and the importance of message over technicalities.

Finally, he discusses character image and how something original could easily become exploited. He concludes that an image is something taken from everyday life, and the more developed it is, the more original it becomes.

Time, Rhythm and Editing:[edit]

Tarkovsky begins this section by asserting that the image is not a combination of various elements; it is an element itself, including visuals, sounds, and rhythm. Likewise, he asserts that no single part of a film could be a work of art by itself, that it is the whole film what constitutes a work of art. He defines rhythm in cinema as the passage of time through the frames. He clarifies that it is not editing what makes up a film, for the editing comes naturally from the filmed material, from the time contained in it. Tarkovsky sees time as the foundation of cinema. And so, he claims, it is of ultimate importance to represent time as it is in real life. This partly explains why he is against short shots, and why he defines the cinematic art as sculpting in time.

He discusses how editing Mirror (1975) was an arduous task, and how he felt that all the filmed material would go to waste, for it did not seem to “hold together” (i.e. lacked meaning, lacked unity) after the editing. He writes that one day, almost by miracle, everything seemed to work out, and the film was finished.

He explains how the audience plays a vital role in giving life to a film. Tarkovsky believes a film is like an organism, and as each person that watches it assigns a new meaning, the film grows and becomes something greater. And that is also why it is important to allow room to interpretation in a film.

He closes the section by reminding the reader that art comes from breaking the rules, and that what matters most is not to master techniques, but to have a personal style.

Scenario and Shooting Script:[edit]

Tarkovsky says that the main problems he’s experienced while making a film is forgetting the initial reason why he started making it and retaining inspiration. He briefly discusses how the director is at risk of becoming a mere witness in filmmaking.

Regarding script, he emphasizes over and over the importance of ridding it of any literary inclinations, and keeping it as cinematic as possible (i.e. a description to a blind man of things to be shown). He says it is also important to envision in the script the psychological state of the characters.

He confesses that throughout the years he started making more general scripts to leave greater room for spontaneity in films. Then, he specifically speaks of Mirror (1975). He discusses how he finally got to obtain the final idea for the film (i.e. combining his mother’s stories, the newsreel from the Soviet army, his father’s poems) and how content he felt after the movie was finished.

The film’s graphic realization:[edit]

In this section, Tarkovsky discusses the importance of group work when making a film. He says it is crucial to recognize that each member of the team is a creative artist and can make a valuable contribution to the final product. Through experience, he has reached the conclusion that it is sometimes necessary to manipulate relationships with colleagues, but that it is a hard thing to do. He also emphasizes the importance of having a strong bond with every member of the crew.

For Mirror (975), he explains, every crew member had to accept his childhood story as their own for the film to come together effectively. At the end of the movie, he says, it felt as if his family had grown.

Tarkovsky also talks about color in cinema. He sees it mostly as a commercial factor rather than a aesthetic one. He says that too much color can be distracting, and that to achieve balance, there must be a balance between color and monochrome frames.

The Film Actor:[edit]

One of Tarkovsky's favorite actors to work with. He appeared in many of his films. Anatoly Solonitsyn.

An idea he develops throughout the section is that film actors must possess different skills than their theater counterparts. Unlike theater actors, who must build up their role from the beginning, a film actor can build up the role as the movie progresses. In other words, he says a film actor must only live while performing. Ultimately, the goal is to reproduce something truthful on the screen.

Tarkovsky explains that, as a director of his films, he always takes responsibility for everything in his films, and that includes the actors’ performances. A director must induce states of mind to his/her actors, so that in the film, the audience is able to grasp the personality of the character. To achieve this, he says he often hid the plot from the actors, so that the end would not affect their performances. In the section, he gives examples of how he dealt with actors in some of his films.

He also notes that it is hard to find the right actors and to learn to work effectively with each of them.

Music and noises:[edit]

Music, Tarkovsky notes, has accompanied cinema since its beginnings (i.e. from silent cinema), but that even now when sound exists, music still keeps its original role as mood builder. In addition, Tarkovsky explains, music can offer a different perspective and add more meaning on the visuals.

He confesses not being sure of whether he has mastered the use of music and sounds in his films. But he says the key should be to only enhance certain sounds, and to incorporate electronic music, rather than any other type. Earlier on in the book he had argued for the independence of cinema from other artforms, and music in films is contrary to this idea. But electronic music, he says, lacks the associations that any other type of music has.

Chapter 6: The author in search of an audience[edit]

Tarkovsky opens the chapter by asserting that the relationship between the audience and the author is complicated by the nature of cinema (i.e. as an at and an industry). He criticizes that people assign aesthetic value to a film based solely on the laws of economics (i.e. supply and demand), for these laws do not apply to art.

He states many things regarding art. Among them, he says art is aristocratic and selective, and that there is no such thing as collective interpretation of art, for it affects each person individually, based on their personal experiences. After declaring this, he exhorts the artist not to think of the audience when working on a film, and more importantly, not to try to please that audience. As a filmmaker, he says, the most important thing is to be honest and responsible towards the audience. He assures the reader that if this is done, there will always be an audience, regardless of how small, and that it will be perfect. He declares that art targets emotions in a person, and that it opens his/her soul to goodness. He identifies a decay in art and a decline in artistic education.

Tarkovsky expresses a deep love for Russia in the last chapters of his book.

He mentions how critiques seem almost unimportant to him, because once they are said, the film is already finished and there’s nothing he can do to change it. He also says that once the film is released, it acquires a life of its own, and the director is unable to control its destiny. In that sense, he says cinema is a two-way process, where both the author and the audience contribute.

He discusses the role of the artist and calls him/her the voice of the voiceless, a person bound by his/her calling (like a prophet). He also says that every artist is a product of his environment and of his time, and through his/her art, s/he is a presenter of those things. When he mentions this, he asserts his allegiance to his country, which often criticized him for being out of sync with reality.

Another important point he makes in this chapter is that cinema is not meant to entertain an audience, but to carry the filmmaker’s message truthfully, whatever that might be.

Tarkovsky confesses that he once thought of quitting filmmaking, given that so many people seemed not to understand his films. But he was encouraged by those people willing to dialogue with him.

Chapter 7: The artist’s responsibility[edit]

A central part of this chapter is the comparison/contrast between cinema and literature. Tarkovsky says that these two artforms share a comparable freedom when it comes to using the material, and both depend on an audience. This last element is common in all art, but Tarkovsky explains that in literature, the reader acts almost as an editor, sharing part of the authorship, and that is something that happens in cinema too.

In addition to this, he reiterates many of the claims he has made on previous chapters. He reminds that the cinematic image is directly tied to reality, and that it must aspire to be as truthful as possible, and to reflect the author’s viewpoint to a maximum. He reiterates that the artist is bound by his calling, and that his art is always like a selfless sacrifice, of which only the audience benefits. That the director is in full control to create a unique world through the cinematic image, but that he also holds great responsibility. That the director must allow room for the audience to live in the film.

With respect to cinema, he says it is the only artform which allows the artist to create an unconditional reality (an emotional one). He restates that cinema is not a “system of signs”, but that it is an immediate art form, like music. This is to say that cinema has an immediate effect on its audience, directly stirring emotions. He says that if a film does not accomplish that, it is purely commercial cinema, which only extinguishes feelings and thoughts. In general, he states that art should show a craving for the ideal and that it should strive to ennoble its audience. However, he also recognizes that art can go wrong. Cinema, he says, can destroy more than any other artform. And according to him, cinema specially destroys when it aims for entertainment.

A filmmaker that only makes films to entertain people, Tarkovsky argues, is indifferent towards its audience, because all he wants is instant remuneration and success. He claims, once more, that cinema does not have to be easy on the audience. Art itself is meant to destabilize the status quo.

In his films, he says, he wanted to show the links that unite people, including one’s own roots. In Mirror (1975), this link is shown with the newsreel of the Soviet army and the music. He also discusses the major themes he identifies in his own movies.

Themes in Stalker (1979): human dignity, suffering caused by lack of self-respect, ill society, lack of spiritual courage, disbelief, faith, and love as proof of hope.

Themes in Mirror (1975): profound emotions, suffering as a result of those emotions

Themes in Solaris: unending quest for knowledge, unattainable knowledge, roots, and conscience.

Chapter 8: After Nostalgia[edit]

Scene from Nostalghia (1983) .

Nostalgia was Tarkovsky’s first film made outside of Russia, but it was about Russian nostalgia as a result of a fatal attachment to the motherland and an incapacity to assimilate to a new country. He remarks that, to his surprise, what he showed in the movie later became his reality while in exile.

In this chapter he discusses in detail the story of the movie and the characters in it. Most importantly, he says that this movie contained in it a homogenous mood, which was only attainable because the cameraman followed exactly what he desired. This proved to him that cinema, too, could be a “matrix of the soul”. What interested him more in this movie was to develop the inner world of each of the characters, and to create a “metaphysical scenario” of sorts. Also, he identifies the themes of Nostalgia: futility of human endeavor, destruction, death, strength to oppose popular opinions, individual responsibility towards everyone, attachment to people and the past, and weakness as strength.

Tarkovsky says that the theme of weakness as strength surfaces in all the main characters of his films: The Stalker, Andrei Rublev, Domenico, the hero of Mirror, Kelvin…He says he personally admires those people who are ready to sacrifice for higher morals and who fight against personal corruption. He is deeply inspired by people who are able to take a stand. He cites Hamlet as an example.

Edited picture of a scene from Stalker (1979). The Stalker is a person willing to selflessly sacrifice himself to give something greater to the people he leads into the Zone.

Ultimately, he says, the most important thing in art is to devise one’s own principles and then break them.

Chapter 9: The Sacrifice[edit]

Theory of Cinema[edit]

Tarkovsky describes his own distaste for the growing popularity of rapid-cut editing and other devices that he believes to be contrary to the true artistic nature of the cinema.

Artists and Intellectuals Cited[edit]

Reception of the Book[edit]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]