Sculpting in Time: Legendary Russian Filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky on Why Film Enchants Us and What a Great Director Should Aim to Do

“What a person normally goes to the cinema for is time: time lost or spent or not yet had."


We live stretched between the ephemeral and the eternal, constantly negotiating the two. Swept up in the vortex of immediacy — the now of what we’re experiencing with such insistent urgency — we yearn to anchor ourselves to some sense of temporal stability. We long for immortality in a universe predicated on impermanence. “If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail," the great French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote in contemplating our paradoxical relationship with time, “we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer." The poet Mary Oliver put it even more perfectly: “All eternity is in the moment."

No human invention has rendered this paradox more pliant than the cinema. That’s what the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (April 4, 1932–December 29, 1986) examined in the last year of his life as he considered the raw material of his art in Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema (public library).


Tarkovsky writes:

Time, printed in its factual forms and manifestations: such is the supreme idea of cinema as an art, leading us to think about the wealth of untapped resources in film, about its colossal future.

A passionate proponent of the creative and psychological benefits of boredom as a function of learning to fully inhabit time, he considers the undergirding psychological scaffolding that makes the allure of film so robust:

Why do people go to the cinema? What takes them into a darkened room where, for two hours, they watch the play of shadows on a sheet? The search for entertainment? The need for a kind of drug? All over the world there are, indeed, entertainment firms and organizations which exploit cinema and television and spectacles of many other kinds. Our starting-point, however, should not be there, but in the essential principles of cinema, which have to do with the human need to master and know the world. I think that what a person normally goes to the cinema for is time: time lost or spent or not yet had. He goes there for living experience; for cinema, like no other art, widens, enhances and concentrates a person’s experience — and not only enhances it but makes it longer, significantly longer. That is the power of cinema: “stars," story-lines and entertainment have nothing to do with it.

Tarkovsky turns to the task of the filmmaker as an artisan of time:

What is the essence of the director’s work? We could define it as sculpting in time. Just as a sculptor takes a lump of marble, and, inwardly conscious of the features of his finished piece, removes everything that is not part of it — so the film-maker, from a “lump of time" made up of an enormous, solid cluster of living facts, cuts off and discards whatever he does not need, leaving only what is to be an element of the finished film, what will prove to be integral to the cinematic image.

Complement Sculpting in Time with T.S. Eliot’s exquisite ode to the nature of time, Virginia Woolf on its dizzying elasticity, and the story of how Einstein and Bergson’s 1922 debate changed our understanding of it. For a very different flavor of wisdom from another cinematic sage, see Werner Herzog on making a living out of what you love and his advice to aspiring filmmakers — excellent advice applicable to all fields of creative endeavor and entrepreneurship.


By Maria Popova via Brainpickings