Compiled from different media over a long period of time, with essays on a wide range of film topics, Sculpting in Time has no single theme. Nevertheless, Tarkovsky is clearly preoccupied with several ideas. He insists upon abandoning commercial, consumer-type filmmaking. (One wonders, as one reviewer suggested, whether Tarkovsky could have found the money to film Andrey Rublyov in the West, or whether Shakespeare was less an artist because he desired in part to entertain.) Tarkovsky writes, “It’s only possible to communicate with the audience if one ignores that eighty per cent of people who, for some reason, have gotten into their heads that we are supposed to entertain them.” It is the duty of the director to tell people the truth, he says: “Any one who wants can look into my films as into a mirror in which he will see himself.”
In this quest for truth, a director needs total freedom, including the right to alter the script, if necessary; after all, writers write screenplays. Tarkovsky relates film to poetry, not to the linear stories of prose. While the art of film lies in the ability to communicate, cinematic art must be separated from literature. Although the reader perceives words subjectively as the viewer perceives images in cinema, there is no place for literary symbolism in film. As with music and poetry, film should be free of ideology. Similarly, Tarkovsky sees film as akin to religious faith, a theme explored in Andrey Rublyov and, even more directly, in The Sacrifice.
The director must encourage the audience to ponder, to ruminate after leaving the film. In film, thought does not develop logically—the same is true for both poetry and religious faith, a position demonstrated in The Mirror. It is wrong to provide a final deduction for the viewer, whose participation is essential to the success of film art. Tarkovsky says that he witnessed Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) “a great many times,” each time seeing something new. He regards that film as a true work of art, since it allows him to interpret it differently at each viewing. Tarkovsky dislikes the cinema of his much-heralded countryman Sergei Eisenstein, whose montage technique in a work such as Potemkin (1925) results in mere thought control; Eisenstein’s editing deprives the viewer of his interpretive role, providing nothing elusive.
According to Tarkovsky, filmmaking is very close to life, but not in the classic realist manner of depiction. Everyday life is filled with suggestions, innuendos, nuances, poetry, and mystery—elements of filmmaking which the supporters of realism often ignore. Hence, the surreal in cinema is closer to real life than is often imagined. Life depends also on individual expression (Andrey Rublyov), on the reassertion of conscience (The Sacrifice), and on memory (Nostalgia). If an author, he writes, is moved by a chosen landscape, if it brings back memories and suggests associations, even subjective associations, then such a memory will also move the audience.
As for actors, Tarkovsky takes the unpopular position that only the immediate scene should be understood by the performers. He never tells the actors about subsequent developments, because the conclusions may intrude upon what should be spontaneous performances in each scene: “I am adamant that the actor should not connect any piece he plays with the whole, sometimes not even to his own immediately preceding and following scenes.” Tarkovsky contends that actors are freer without this knowledge, but he readily concedes that not all actors are able to recognize that....
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The theory of cinema found in these pages represents the culmination of an aesthetic movement begun by Ingmar Bergman and supported by Federico Fellini, following the production of his Le notti di Cabiria (1957; The Nights of Cabiria). Bergman’s preoccupation with religious belief and Fellini’s trenchant critiques of material values via his surrealist techniques in Giulietta degli Spiriti (1965; Juliet of the Spirits) and later films launched a movement that enjoyed critical favor for a generation. Tarkovsky especially liked the Spanish work of director Luis Bunuel. He liked Bunuel because films such as Viridiana (1961) were protest films devoid of political ideology.
Like Bergman, Fellini, and Bunuel, Tarkovsky swam upstream against the tide of popular filmmaking. Ironically, his style was more acceptable in the West during the 1960’s, when his own films were limited in distribution. Having emigrated to the West in the 1980’s, he made it his candid mission to help rescue filmmaking from the crass materialism of capitalism, yet by then, the aesthetic movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s was yielding to a new realism. His own films never received the acclaim of those of other radical directors, partly because of the limited distribution of Soviet films and partly because of the waning of that style. Hence, through Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky seeks to explain his type of art to a generation unacquainted with it.