Masterclass with Andrei Tarkovsky: Cinema Is a Mosaic Made of Time

On the set of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, 1977. Still photographer: Vadim Murashko © Gambaroff-Chemier Interallianz, Mosfilm

During the period he stayed in Italy to work on Nostalghia, one of cinema’s godfathers Andrei Tarkovsky held a speech at a special event called ‘Thieves of Cinema’ (Ladri di cinema) on September 9, 1982 in Rome. In an engulfing lecture that lasted almost an hour, Tarkovsky discussed his cinematic role models, the filmmakers who influenced him the most, and who are basically the same people without whom the world of film as we know it today would simply be inconceivable. To hear the Russian giant of cinema talk about what he feels about the art of filmmaking is a priceless experience and one we highly recommend to all true lovers of the craft. Thanks to the following sources: A-BitterSweet-Life, & Charles M, a fantastic YouTube account dedicated to Andrei Tarkovsky related materials.

Tarkovsky expanded on his ideas at the conference Cinema Thieves—International Intrigue held at the Centro Palatino in Rome on 9 September 1982. He presented clips from Seven Samurai, Mouchette, Nazarin, and La Notte, the films which had made the most incisive impression on him, as opposed to having influenced him.

ANDREI TARKOVSKY: “The problem of influence, influx or reciprocal activity is complex. Cinema doesn’t exist in a vacuum—one has colleagues and so influences are inevitable. So what is influence or influx? The artist’s choice of the environment in which he works, the people with whom he works, is like his choice of a dish at a restaurant. As for the influence of Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Bresson, Buñuel, Bergman and Antonioni on my work, it is not influence in the sense of ‘imitation’—from my point of view this would be impossible since imitation has nothing to do with the aims of cinema. One has to find one’s own language through which to express oneself. To me influx means being in the company of people whom I admire and esteem.

“If I notice that a frame or a sequence echoes another director I try to avoid it and modify the scene. This happens only very rarely, as for example in Mirror when I set up a frame in which the leading woman was in a room and her mother in the next. There was a close-up of the two women, although it was a panoramic shot and the mother was looking in the mirror. In fact the whole scene was shot through a mirror, although the mirror did not actually exist, and the woman was looking directly into the room. There was only the impression of a mirror. I realised that this type of scene could have come straight out of Bergman. None the less, I decided to shoot the scene as it was, as an acknowledgement of, or nod towards, my colleague.”

“Without the directors I have mentioned, and with the addition of Dovzenko, there wouldn’t be any cinema. Everyone naturally looks for his own original style, but without these directors providing a context or background, cinema wouldn’t be the same. Many film-makers seem to be going through a very difficult period at the moment. In Italy, cinema is in a predicament. My Italian colleagues, and I’m talking about some of the best-known names in the cinema, tell me that Italian cinema has ceased to exist. Cinema audiences are, of course, a major factor in this. For a long time cinema followed public taste, but now the public doesn’t want to see a certain type of film, which is all to the good really.”

“There are two basic categories of film directors. One consists of those who seek to imitate the world in which they live, the other of those who seek to create their own world. The second category contains the poets of cinema, Bresson, Dovzenko, Mizoguchi, Bergman, Buñuel and Kurosawa, the cinema’s most important names. The work of these film-makers is difficult to distribute: it reflects their inner aspirations, and this always runs counter to public taste. This does not mean that the film-makers don’t want to be understood by their audience. But rather that they themselves try to pick up on and understand the inner feelings of the audience.”

“Despite the current plight of the cinema, film remains an art form, and every art form is specific, with a content which doesn’t correspond to the essence of other forms. For example, photography can be an art form, as the genius of Cartier-Bresson shows, but it is not comparable to painting because it’s not in competition with painting. The question that film-makers must ask themselves is, what distinguishes cinema from other arts? To me cinema is unique in its dimension of time. This doesn’t mean it develops in time—so do music, theatre and ballet. I mean time in the literal sense. What is a frame, the interval between ‘Action’ and ‘Cut’? Film fixes reality in a sense of time—it’s a way of conserving time. No other art form can fix and stop time like this. Film is a mosaic made up of time. This involves gathering elements. Imagine three of four directors or cameramen shooting the same material for an hour, each with his own particular vision. The result would be three of four totally different types of film—each person would throw out some bits and keep others and make his own film. Despite the fixing of time involved in film, the director can always elaborate his material and express his own creativity through it.”

“The cinema is going through a bad period in terms of aesthetics. Filming in colour is regarded as getting as close as possible to reality. But I look on colour as a blind alley. Every art form tries to arrive at truth and seeks a form of generalisation. Using colour is related to how one perceives the real world. Filming a scene in colour involves organising and structuring a frame, realising that all the world enclosed in this frame is in colour and making the audience aware of this. The advantage of black and white is that it is extremely expressive and it doesn’t distract the audience’s attention.”

“You can find examples of expressive modes in colour cinema, but most directors who are aware of this problem have always tried to film in black and white. No one has succeeded in creating a different perspective in colour film or in making it as effective as black and white. Italian neo-realism is not only important for the fact that it turned a new page in the cinema by exploring the problems of everyday life, but also, essentially, because it did this in black and white. Truth in life doesn’t necessarily correspond to truth in art, and now colour film has become a purely commercial phenomenon. The cinema went through a period of trying to create a new vision through colour, but this hasn’t amounted to anything. The cinema has become too glossy, which means the film I am watching becomes quite different for a person sitting in the other corner.”

“The film clips which I am showing represent what is closest to my heart. They are examples of a form of thought and how this thought is expressed through film. In Bresson’s Mouchette the way in which the girl commits suicide is particularly striking. In Seven Samurai, in the sequence in which the youngest member of the group is afraid, we see how Kurosawa transmits this sense of fear. The boy is trembling in the grass, but we don’t see him trembling, we see the grass and flowers trembling. We see a battle in the rain and when the character played by Toshiro Mifune dies we see him fall and his legs become covered with mud. He dies before our eyes.”

“In Buñuel’s Nazarin, we see the injured prostitute being helped by Nazarin and how she drinks the water from the bowl. The final sequence of Antonioni’s La Notte is perhaps the only episode in the whole history of cinema in which a love scene became a necessity and took on the semblance of a spiritual act. It’s a unique sequence in which physical closeness has great significance. The characters have exhausted their feelings for each other but are still very close to each other. As a friend of mine said once, more than five years with my husband is like incest. These characters have no exit from their closeness. We see them desperately trying to save each other, as if they were dying.”

“When I start shooting, I always look at the films I like, by the directors I consider to be in ‘my group’—not to imitate them, but to savour their atmosphere. It’s no accident that all the clips I’m showing are in black and white. They are important because the directors transform something close to them into something precious. And all these scenes are unique in that they are not like events in everyday life. This is the stamp of a great artist, showing us our interior world. All these scenes cater to the audience’s desire by conserving beauty rather than giving enjoyment. These days it’s extremely difficult to deal with this type of subject, it’s almost absurd even to talk about it—no one would give you a sou. But the cinema will only continue to exist thanks to these poets. To make a film you need money. To write a poem all you need is pen and paper. This puts cinema at a disadvantage. But I think cinema is invincible, and I bow down to all the directors who try to realise their own films despite everything. All the films from which I’ve shown examples have their own rhythm. (Nowadays, it seems, most directors use rapid short scenes, and directors who use cutting and speed are considered to be ‘really professional.’) The aim of any true director is to express truth, but what do producers care? In the 1940s, there was a survey in America ranking professions according to stress. This was at the time of Hiroshima and pilots came out on top. The second place went to film directors. It’s almost a suicidal profession.”

“I’ve just come back from Venice, where I was on the festival jury, and I can testify to the complete decadence of current cinema. Venice was a piteous spectacle. To understand and accept a film like Fassbinder’s Querelle requires, I believe, a totally different type of spirituality. Marcel Carné obviously accepted it more than I did. I think it’s a manifestation of an anti-artistic phenomenon; its concerns are sociological and sexual problems. It would have been profoundly unjust to have given the film an award simply because it was Fassbinder’s last film—I think he has made much better films than this. The present crisis in cinema isn’t important, however, because the arts always go through periods of crisis and then there is a revival. Just because you can’t make a film doesn’t mean the cinema is dead.”

“At its best, cinema comes between music and poetry. It has reached as high a level as any art form. And as an art form it has consolidated itself. Antonioni’s L’Avventura was made a long time ago, but it gives the impression of having been made today. It’s a miraculous film and has not aged a bit. Perhaps it is not the sort of film one would make today but it still has that freshness. My Italian colleagues are going through a very bad period. Neo-realism and the great directors seem to have disappeared. Producers are like drug-pushers, they only want to make money, but most of them don’t last long. I almost disowned the version of Solaris which was shown in Italy. But now the company which distributed it no longer exists, which seems to be the fate of most distributors.”

“Cinema is an art form which involves a high degree of tension, which may not generally be comprehensible. It’s not that I don’t want to be understood, but I can’t, like Spielberg, say, make a film for the general public—I’d be mortified if I discovered I could. If you want to reach a general audience, you have to make films like Star Wars and Superman which have nothing to do with art. This doesn’t mean I treat the public like idiots, but I certainly don’t take pains to please them. I don’t know why I’m always so defensive in front of journalists—I might need you one of these days, especially if my film gets the same kind of distribution as Angelopoulos’!” —Andrei Tarkovsky in Italy

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