Can we improve our appreciation of movies from studying the life and work of famed director Andrei Tarkovsky?
Could this study also help us to make better movies? Could it help us even to better understand the human condition and its current challenges?
Tarkovsky directed only eleven movies. At least two, Solaris and Mirror, have been acclaimed as movie masterpieces. He also created or co-wrote some 23 movie scenarios or screenplays. Beyond this, all in all, the challenge of creating stories suited to becoming movies seems to have dominated his whole adult working life.
In addition to making movies, Tarkovsky created an auto-biographical reflection of his work experience. There, he described movie-making as the art of “sculpting in time.” It is this striking image that attracts us to Tarkovsky’s book and to the task of making his ideas there more accessible.
At the outset, one has to admit that Tarkovsky made movies most audiences find difficult both to sit through and to understand. As a result, his movies tend now to attract only a relatively small ongoing audience. However, it is not an argument against the value of some art work that it is difficult to appreciate. Shakespeare and Plato are difficult. Nevertheless, those two still attract relatively large audiences.
His fellow director, Ingmar Bergman said Tarkovsky’s genius was in creating a film language which captures life as an internal reflection or perhaps as a dream. Others, including Tarkovsky himself, refer to his work as more like poetry than literature. But a poetic sensibility alone does not make movies difficult. Dr. Zhivago, for example, was a conscious effort by David Lean to create a poetic experience. Yet it continues to attract a general audience and almost no one would describe it as difficult to watch, though it might be difficult to understand properly.
In order to do the work for which people make a gift of their time, movies must create a spectacle through which the audience finds entertainment, education and motivation. That is, audiences give movie makers the chance to feed or heal in some measure all the fundamental non-material human needs. As a rule of thumb, we might suppose that the greater a movie is found to be, the better it accomplishes this task of feeding and healing the soul; and doing so in approximately the most suitable proportion as those needs are found in its audience.
When a work of art is described by many as difficult or unsatisfactory, usually it is because the creator failed to find the right balance between entertainment, education and motivation. One might say, “The creator simply was incompetent.” Yet one must be slow to make this judgment when a movie maker has received wide acclaim and been granted the resources to produce a substantial body of work, like Tarkovsky.
In passing, we should also mention the case of works seemingly difficult because their creator, like Nietzsche, expects to find his or her audience at some time in the future. This is not the case with Tarkovsky, however, as we will discover in his book. He is addressing us.
The usual failing for a sincere creator with some profound insight is to attempt education or motivation with insufficient entertainment. High entertainment values allow large audiences to benefit from a movie even if they are incapable or not ready to receive the gift of education offered. Shakespeare was a master at this. In Tarkovsky’s case, this most common failing does seem to account for most of the difficulty audiences experience with his movies.
If he or she is not incompetent, then creators commonly fail in this way because the insight they would share with us is either very profound or very urgent. In fact, Tarkovsky believed that the enlightenment with which he had been blessed, and which he would make as a gift to us through his movies, was both profound and urgent.
Tarkovsky believed so emphatically in the value of the gift that he wanted us to share that he once hid the true nature of the movie he was shooting from his funders. And, when he was found out, he destroyed the half finished work so that it could not be debased. He also voluntarily went into exile from his homeland, separated from his family. Even further, some observers believe, and there seems evidence for it from insiders, that Tarkovsky, his wife and his favorite actor all died from the political campaign to silence him. When a talented artist and thinker endures such hardship and risks even death while trying to help us, it should catch our attention.
“Sculpting in Time,” then, is of interest for two reasons. First, it is a second forum in which Tarkovsky tries to make a gift of his profound and urgent insight. Yet, as a work of literature addressed to the small group of people interested in making better movies, it can never hope to reach the same audience as a movie itself. Second, in this book, Tarkovsky describes his experience with making movies. And he develops his own special insight into movies as a communication medium or as works of art. Whether we just want to understand movies, or whether we want to contribute to an improvement in movie making, this last is a special gift all on its own.