Tarkovksy on individual expression in film and fiction

Tarkovsky’s films are, to me at least, something like literature. They’re slow, perfectly crafted, remarkably internal. Even when the characters are just wandering through corridors or tromping through fields, they hold me spellbound until the credits roll.

In Sculpting in Time, the filmmaker compares the editing of film with the crafting of fiction.

In so far as sense of time is germane to the director’s innate perception of life, and editing is dictated by the rhythmic pressures in the segments of film, his handwriting is to be seen in his editing. It expresses his attitude to the conception of the film, and is the ultimate embodiment of his philosophy of life. I think that the film-maker who edits his films easily and in different ways is bound to be superficial. You will always recognise the editing of Bergman, Bresson, Kurosawa or Antonioni; none of them could ever be confused with anyone else, because each one’s perception of time, as expressed in the rhythm of his films, is always the same.

Of course you have to know the rules of editing, just as you have to know all the other rules of your profession; but artistic creation begins at the point where these rules are bent or broken…. Lev Tolstoy was not an impeccable stylist like Bunin, and his novels lack the elegance and perfection which mark any of Bunin’s stories, [but] Bunin cannot be declared greater than Tolstoy. You not only forgive Tolstoy his ponderous and often unnecessary moralising and his clumsy sentences, you even begin to be fond of them as a trait, a feature of the man. Faced with a really great figure, you accept him with all his ‘weaknesses’, which become the distinguishing marks of his aesthetic.

If you extract Dostoievsky’s descriptions of his characters from the context of his work you cannot but find them disconcerting: ‘beautiful’, ‘with bright lips’, ‘pale faces’, and so on and so forth. But that simply doesn’t matter, because we’re talking not of a professional and a craftsman, but of an artist and a philosopher. Bunin, who had an infinite regard for Tolstoy, thought Anna Karenina abominably written, and, as we know, tried to rewrite it — with no success. Works of art are, as it were, formed by an organic process; whether good or bad they are living organisms with their own circulatory system which must not be disturbed.

The same applies to editing; it is not a question of mastering the technique like a virtuoso, but of a vital need for your own, distinct individual expression.

All of this calls to mind one of Borges’ remarks in his Paris Review interview: “[P]erhaps in order to write a really great book, you must be rather unaware of the fact. You can slave away at it, and change every adjuctive to some other adjective, but perhaps you can write better if you leave the mistakes.”


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