It’s no secret that Tarkovsky loves to freeze a given composition and hold it there. His magnum opus is the story of Russia’s great medieval icon painter. There was no way he could eschew the mysterious energy inherent in Byzantine icons. He manages to transfer that energy to the visual field of motion pictures. And the motion is decidedly slow. In an interview Tarkovsky admitted that Andrei Rublev was “shot in very long takes, to avoid any feeling of artificial, special rhythm, in order that the rhythm should be that of life itself.”
Tarkovsky often has actors staring out the window or in the midst of a landscape, expressionless, seemingly locked down in the pictorial frame so the viewer can see through the face and gain access to some deeper area of the character’s — and hence, by that power of transference inherent to art, the viewer’s — soul. The compositions are very static compared to most films. Tarkovsky’s ideas ran counter to Eisenstein’s montage theory, which ultimately evolved into the rapid-fire editing we now see in music videos and action-hero movies.
Time flows in his films, but the visual image is always verging toward another world, a higher reality. Whether it’s the Holy Trinity depicted as human in Rublev’s icon, the Ocean of consciousness in Solaris, the Zone in Stalker, or the infinite human mind and its repository of all fear and aguish, this higher reality, or at least the path to it, is always fraught with conflict. And it is this very conflict that drives the forward motion of Tarkovsky’s films.
As in the tradition of the Byzantine icon, with its polycentric perspective (often deemed a lack thereof) and explicitly transcendental allusions, Tarkovsky’s visual images serve as symbols meant to transport us to a higher reality. Or, if not to a “higher” reality, then to an area of the human psyche that allows for emotions most cinematic narratives are unable to rouse.
In Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky quotes the Symbolist poet Vyacheslav Ivanov: “A symbol is only a true symbol when it is inexhaustible and unlimited in its meaning, when it utters in its arcane (hieratic and magical) language of hint and intimation something that cannot be set forth, that does not correspond to words.”
For humans, aware of their mortality and conscious of the past, the friction between time and eternity always kindles their acts and intentions. Immortality, conquering death, or staving off the awareness of it — through God, art, pleasure, psychotropic debauchery, oblivion, or sex — is an all too human obsession. And cinema can feed on any or all of those modes. Again, Tarkovsky states it plainly in Sculpting in Time: “The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plow and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”
The time of his films is a glimpse of eternity — eternity not necessarily in the sense of endless duration, but outside the frame of time-space altogether, where infinity spreads toward the absolute.
Ineluctably, Tarkovsky concludes: “The idea of infinity cannot be expressed in words or even described, but it can be apprehended through art, which makes infinity tangible. The absolute is only attainable through faith and the creative act.” (Sculpting in Time)
As I watched or re-watched the bulk of Tarkovsky’s oeuvre, I could see its visual afterimages superimposed over my idyllic panoramas: oblique morning light through leaves in the forest, mountains reflected off ripples of water. I felt as if my inner vision was permanently enhanced.
When I finally got back to the big city, with access to Netflix, I decided to dive into something completely different (though on occasion in debt to Tarkovsky’s aesthetic legacy): Breaking Bad. I watched five episodes in a row. I was instantly addicted. I couldn’t quit. My heart was racing. My eyes burned. I could taste that metallic hint of evil on the back of my tongue. By the time I turned the TV off to go to bed, I felt unsettlingly satiated, as if on the verge of a sugar coma.
I couldn’t figure out what, if anything, that had to do with eternity. But I was ready to go to sleep and dream myself outside of time.
Photography: a cadre from Vince Gilligan’s film “Breaking Bad” (2013; source).