Telling Time With Andrei Tarkovsky

By Colin Sharp-O’ Connor

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In his directorial manifesto Sculpting in Time, Andrei Tarkovsky took a firm stance against the predominant directorial tradition in film (at his time of writing in the 1960s) known as “montage cinema,” in which the continuity and rhythm of a film is ultimately the result of its editing, the way each shot is strung together. To him this approach was backwards. It was nonsensical to speak about time as a phenomenon arising from component parts because time is the fundamental element of film, and each shot only a length of its passage. Rather, proper editing was dictated by a quality of each shot that Tarkovsky called “time pressure.” Only by considering this particular quality, the felt experience of time in each shot, could the film be put together; or back together, for Tarkovsky seems to consider all parts of filmmaking after the shooting is done to be as much reconstruction as construction, piecing together the time already immanent in his material rather than building it artificially through cuts and rearrangement. The results of this bottom-up approach are evident even in Tarkovsky’s earliest films — the simple passage of time carries a weight and veracity undisturbed from shot to shot.

Writers have a particular flexibility when it comes to the passage of time. Since the medium has no inherent bond to it the way that film or music do, prose is capable of compressing years into sentences and drawing pages out of seconds. It can consider time historically or speculatively, as a series of snapshots or as broad, far-reaching strokes — its only limits are the imagination and linguistic dexterity of its author. With such a remarkably athletic medium, any writer working with time, which presumably includes most of us, might consider adopting Tarkovsky’s editing ethos.

The major difference between film and prose, at least in respect to creating a sense of felt time, is that a writer creates his sentences from scratch where the director or cameraman is stuck with the reality in his viewfinder. This both simplifies and complicates things; on the one hand it allows the writer complete control over the impression a certain timeframe makes, not only its actual length — if it spans minutes or only moments — but whether that time slips by unobtrusively or makes every word felt; on the other it demands the conscious consideration of these elements at every step of composition. This is true of directing also, but in prose it’s no less necessary to have a strong vision of the scene at hand while each sentence is written. A writer who neglects the immediate (daresay, cinematic) sense of being in a given moment has no foundation to build an impactful scene; the time pressure of his sentences will fit poorly and without intention. Conversely, a well-envisioned sentence is imbued with a kind of poetry, a sense of existence stretching beyond the words on the page. Good fiction, like good art in general, becomes alive in its own right when it can provide its reader with such a felt experience.

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