Gazing into Time: Tarkovsky and Post-Modern Cinema Aesthetics
A paper read at the 2003 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies in
Toronto. © Robert Bird, University of Chicago, Slavic Languages and Literatures.
Andrei Tarkovsky was one of those relatively rare directors who develop their
own cinematic aesthetic and apply it in an uncompromising fashion, making their body of
work into a space of constant dialogue between theory and practice. As a result, his films
have presented significant challenges for conventional approaches to film. However many
readings of Tarkovsky have dealt with the manifest discontinuities in his work only by
incorporating them within the hermetic continuities of an allegorical narrative. My modest
purpose in this paper is to survey several recent works that have challenged the
complacence of Tarkovsky criticism by focusing on key discontinuities which, in my
view, make any neat interpretation of his works impossible but require a more attentive
and flexible approach.
Thus it should be with art, which engages us at the pre-theoretical level as a tactile
communication or historical artifact. The central shortcoming of existing criticism is
precisely its conflation of Tarkovsky's multivalent art with a stereotype of his rigid
ideological position. As a result, both the narrative and technique of Tarkovsky's films
are taken as transparent applications of ideas imported from another realm. I would like
to focus on this assumption of theoretical transparence via two specific questions: the
narrative function of religious-philosophical allegory (especially in Andrei Rublev and
Nostalgia), and the interpretation of Tarkovsky's trademark long-take (especially in
Nostalgia and Sacrifice).
If in literary criticism the intentional fallacy has largely been banished, it at times
can still be found flourishing in film studies. The fault in this case lies partly with
Tarkovsky's main interpreters, who have often stressed the biographical context of his
works. The status quo in Tarkovsky criticism both in the West and in Russia can be
illustrated by two major monographs, Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie's The Films of
Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue and Igor' Evlampiev's Khudozhestvennaia filosofiia
Andreia Tarkovskogo (Andrei Tarkovsky's Artistic Philosophy). Johnson and Petrie's
approach is basically that of formalist literary analysis. Despite their exhaustive
consideration of production history and immediate critical reception, they caution against
reading Tarkovsky's films as "political or personal allegory" (86). Instead, they identify
key "motifs" in Tarkovsky's films and trace the arrangement of these motifs within each
narrative. For them, for example, Andrei Rublev is a story about "the nature of the artist
and his responsibility toward the community" (86). The character of Rublev represents
Tarkovsky's ideal artist: humble, self-effacing, questioning, and profoundly concerned
with the way his audience engages in "'joint creation' of meaning in a work of art'" (89).
However, Johnson and Petrie are not too interested in how viewers participate in forming
Tarkovsky's films. They note Tarkovsky's "sense of physical reality" and attitude of
"detached observation" without really integrating these stylistic features with the main
theme of the film. On Tarkovsky's long-takes, for instance, they note that they "impose
a measured and studied rhythm on the film that contributes, along with the grandeur of
the imagery, to its genuinely [...] monumental effect" (96). About the crucifixion scene in
Andrei Rublev, Johnson and Petrie merely establish that it is "Rublev's dreamlike vision
of a Russian peasant crucifixion" that quotes a painting by Bruegel with Rublev's
voiceover (193, 252, 267). About Tarkovsky's use of Piero della Francesca's Madonna
del parto in Nostalgia they write that its "calm and radiant beauty" "contrasts with
Eugenia's dangerous seductiveness and represents an ideal of femininity associated above
all with motherhood" (246, 253). Tarkovsky's technique and visual style are thus
assimilated to the narrative as another layer of allegory.
Igor' Evlampiev basically takes a similar approach to Tarkovsky's films but
augments it with an almost religious reverence for the director, whom he calls Teacher (5).
For him, Tarkovsky belongs among the great Russian religious philosophers, while his
films are "philosophy in the form of art" (7, 9). Evlampiev accordingly puts the long-take
in the context of Tarkovsky's philosophy of time. Traditional and montage types of
cinema operate in "objective time" insofar as they take life in its normal duration and
excerpt it in an edited narrative. Echoing Tarkovsky's hostility to Eisenstein, Evlampiev
writes that for montage cinema "the technique of 'juxtaposition' [stykovka] or montage
takes upon itself the entire content of the authorial design" (16). In Tarkovsky, by
contrast, the stress is on individual episodes which become meaningful only as they are
experienced by individuals (18). This "subjective" time presupposes the interaction of
visible reality with "the protagonists' dreams, fantasies, and visions" (18). However this
contrast remains a matter for conscious reflection in abstract philosophy, more than of
direct experience in a work of art. Therefore in his reading of the "Russian Golgotha"
scene Evlampiev remains in the realm of allegory:
Tarkovsky takes to an extreme, almost to a paradox, the idea of Christ's voluntary
sacrifice for people; he affirms (through Andrei Rublev) that it is not only that
Christ loved all people, including his crucifiers, but they also loved him [...]
Especially expressive is the image of the girl [...] [who] feels the grace-filled and
transfiguring character of the event [...] Christ's tortuous death is a radical
metaphysical "event" [...] Therefore not only all people, but even the angels [...]
should participate in it. (108)
In this reading, a fair and standard one, the scene of the "Russian Golgotha" is a straight
depiction of Andrei Rublev's inward vision that expresses Tarkovsky's theoretical
understanding of Christ's sacrifice. Again, there is the assumption of a unified and
domineering ideology behind the disparate narrative and formal layers of the film.
The virtues and limitations of Evlampiev's philosophical approach are evident
also in his understanding of Madonna del Parti in Nostalgia, which for him denotes "the
conflict between the sphere of reality, where destructive tendencies reign, and the sphere
where life-creating powers still act" (273). Gorchakov, he writes, refuses to view the
"famous fresco" Madonna del Parto to avoid being a "consumer" of spiritual values; the
scene in the church enacts a spiritually authentic "event" before the Madonna, while the
sacristan expresses Tarkovsky's thought that one needs faith in order for the event to
take hold (274). This "miracle [...] concerns all of being and reveals the creative,
constructive principle of being; its 'mystical' essence [...] is denoted by the bird feathers
which fall from above on to the altar candles" (275).
The interpretations provided by the literary and the philosophical approaches are
united by a couple of key assumptions that are challenged in the readings I consider here.
First, they assume a direct and evident causal relationship between authorial design and
film viewership. The spectator is primarily engaged in decoding the author's ideas as
inscribed in complex audiovisual images. Of course, Tarkovsky demonstrated a similar
approach in his critical writings, but luckily the director cannot control the readings of his
films, which speak to each viewer in unique ways. Second, they assume absolute
continuity and interpretability in Tarkovsky's narratives and their corresponding
ideological matrices; everything must dispense some definite ideological value or be
discarded. For instance, while Johnson and Petrie allow that the "perverse [...] refusal to
situate many of the episodes [in Andrei Rublev] in time and space" may have been "a
deliberate aesthetic choice," they suggest that they may also have resulted from cuts
enforced by censorship. Thus it is common for critics to explain scenes by reference to
the expansive screenplay published in 1964, which spells out characters' thoughts and
intentions more explicitly.
The shortcomings of existing Tarkovsky criticism are reflected even in the work of
such a penetrating thinker as Fredric Jameson, the prophet of postmodernist
consciousness. Jameson's perceptive comments on Tarkovsky's technique are all
qualified by his derision of the director's "grandiose mysticism" (97). Viewing
Tarkovsky's Stalker as "a lugubrious religious fable," Jameson notes a single "vivid
moment" in the film (the final sequence of takes) while expressing distaste for "the
allegories themselves, and the drearily suffering Christ-like solemnity of a protagonist
who, in the novel [Piknik na obochine by the brothers Strugatsky—R. B.], was still an
attractive trickster and social deviant" (Jameson 92). Thus, in the case of any ambiguity,
Tarkovsky's allegories always trump his stunning but disconcerting aesthetic. Jameson
confirms this devaluing of the film's actual structure when he dismisses its rhythm as an
expression of Tarkovsky's ideology; he attributes the film's solemnity to the way
"[Tarkovsky's] camera and his actors mov[e] if anything more slowly than real time
itself," which is "intolerable to any but the truest believers (in Tarkovsky [...])" (92).
Jameson's sublime imperviousness to artistic discourse allows him to refuse Tarkovsky's
films' artistic autonomy and take them as plain expressions of the director's theoretical
texts. Jameson addresses his objection "not so much to the religious content" as to
Tarkovsky's "artistic pretentiousness," or rather his pretension to art (92).
On Tarkovsky's long-take Jameson writes stirringly of Tarkovsky's ability to
capture "the truth of mosses" (99); Tarkovsky's "camera tracks the moments in which
the elements speak" (98). However Jameson reads this material continuity as an attempt
to bypass film's inherent conventionality: "The image remains beautiful and false unless
that Kantian disinterested viewer's body can be somehow tricked back inside of it, to lend
it truth" (98). He concludes:
The deepest contradiction in Tarkovsky is then that offered by a valorization of
nature without human technology achieved by the highest technology of the
photographic apparatus itself. No reflexivity acknowledges this second hidden
presence, thus threatening to transform Tarkovskian nature-mysticism into the
sheerest ideology. (100)
Jameson depicts Tarkovsky as torn "between a life-denying fascination with sacrifice and
the wide-screen libido of a created world that gorges the eyes rather than putting them
out" (98). For Jameson, therefore, Tarkovsky's intent is "to forestall aesthetic qualms
with religious gravity, while afterthoughts about the religious content are to be chastened
by the reminder that this is, after all, high art" (92). Tellingly, Jameson buttresses his
reading with a lament of "current Soviet religious trendiness" which he qualifies as a
disgraceful disease (111). Thus, instead of putting the film's "vivid moments" together
with the allegories to view the larger whole, Jameson discards Tarkovsky the artist in
favor of Tarkovsky the allegorist who is engaged in an ideological conflict, moreover he is
on the wrong side. Any discontinuities in Tarkovsky's visual narrative are simply
ascribed to the moralist's failed gesture towards artistic discourse. I would reverse the
valuation and affirm that one can find patent ideological discourse in Stalker or in any of
Tarkovsky's films only by reading it into the actual films, based on one's prior
knowledge of Tarkovsky's personal utterances, and by ignoring their manifest difficulties,
which are much more important for the film's immediate impact on the viewer.
What unites the essays which I shall now briefly recount and analyze is therefore
a readiness to confront the films first and foremost as sovereign works of art whose
reception is conditioned by multiple orders of factors. In particular, these readings are
prepared to contemplate the films not only as continuous communication by the director
to the viewer, but also as discontinuous questioning of communication by the director
together with his viewers.
The possibility of more vigorous approaches to Tarkovsky was first breached by
Gilles Deleuze in his well-known volumes Cinema. Whatever one's attitude towards
Deleuze, his rigorous dissection of the cinematic image has revivified its concealed magic.
Deleuze is able to provide positive avenues of interpretation for continuities,
discontinuities, and even "false continuities" within and between takes (1:28). For
Deleuze, mature cinema has given up telling stories to our conscious selves and seeks now
to communicate directly with the virtual world of memories, fantasies, and dreams, which
for the viewing subject constitute the crystalline structure of his time experience. Real and
virtual images coalesce in a constant "exchange" (2:69; cf. 75). Needless to say, these
images do not submit to unambiguous transcription into concepts. Deleuze's sparse
comments on Tarkovsky mask the director's profound significance for the theorist.
Deleuze's reconciliation of rigorous analysis and cinema's temporality actually allows us
to view Tarkovsky's conceptual writings in a new light, alongside his newly challenging
The affinity between Deleuze and Tarkovsky's technique has been analyzed by
Jon Beasley-Murray in his article "Whatever Happened to Neorealism? — Bazin, Deleuze,
and Tarkovsky's Long Take." For Deleuze, the new cinema began with Orson Welles'
radical use of takes in depth and long-takes; Tarkovsky essentially represents the peak of
this tendency, especially in his very long takes such as at the end of Sacrifice.
Beasley-Murray contrasts this shot as seen in the film with the documentary footage of
Tarkovsky directing it. He notes that the documentary presupposes an unobtrusive
camera that records a unique and unrepeatable event; when we hear Tarkovsky utter "eb
tvoiu mat'," we are hearing what he really said, glimpsing what "really went on" (45-6).
Moreover, the failure of this particular take — a demoralizing and costly failure for
Tarkovsky — ensures the value of this documentary, which becomes the sole true record
of a unique occurrence that does not make it into the official film. However this naked
reality is actually quite contrived by its hidden authorship and dramatic montage. The
documentary of the shot is half as long as the shot itself although it includes multiple
points of view. This documentary truth is therefore "dependent on cinematic fiction
itself," as Beasley-Murray quotes Deleuze to say (47), and is similar to how Jameson
reads Tarkovsky's films — as naïve attempts to record life itself.
"The contrast between the documentary real and Tarkovsky's realism," Beasley-Murray
asserts, "lies in the fact that the documentary subordinates the image and the
time of the image to a subjectivity extrapolated and produced exterior to and transcendent
to the real it purportedly portrays" (47). Tarkovsky, by contrast, restores the "actuality
of time" by constructing a subjectivity that would inhabit that reality directly (47). This
shot establishes multiple planes "only to destabilize all these positions through the
incessant movement that characterizes the take throughout its six minutes' duration" (47).
"Tarkovsky produces a fluid series of encounters, near encounters and operations of
capture, though even the success of this capture produces only an ethereal stability" (47).
Tarkovsky, like the neo-realists, frankly exploits narrative conventions to open up gaps
within the fictional fabric, gaps which may be inhabited by emptiness or by some
transcendental fullness, but which remain comfortable in the realm of fiction without
making false pretensions to some kind of documentary realism. The Real becomes
authentically accessible only at such a distance. Time, in Beasley-Murray's view, is
manifested not through some kind of narrative code, but through the bodily sensation of
attending to "images which are what they are" (50).
Similar in some ways is Slavoj Žižek's appreciation of Tarkovsky, which in its
fullest form has been published as "The Thing from Inner Space." Žižek's affinity for
Tarkovsky is not self-evident; like Jameson, he underscores his disdain for
Tarkovsky's alleged "obscurantism," which he rather naively sees as the "point" of
Tarkovsky's films. Of Tarkovsky's Solaris, for example, Žižek contemplates two
readings, a Jungian one and a correct one. According to the Jungian interpretation, the
"point" of the planet Solaris is "simply [the] projection, materialization of the (male)
subject's disavowed inner impetuses. In fact," Žižek continues, "what is much more
crucial is that if this 'projection' is to take place, the impenetrable Other Thing must
already be here — the true enigma is the presence of this Thing," which Žižek defines
as Lacan's Real (Žižek 2000: 234). Žižek gleans from an interview with Tarkovsky
that the director "obviously opts for the Jungian reading, according to which the
external journey is merely the externalization and/or projection of the inner initiating
journey into the depth of one's psyche" (234). By contrast, according to Žižek, the
"point" of the original novel by Stanislaw Lem "is precisely that Solaris remains an
impenetrable Other with no possible communication with us" (234). Apart from the
obvious reductionism involved in discussing a work based on its "point," it is
noteworthy that Žižek's analysis seems to assume some primordial narrative
"Solaris" which yields a finite number of possible interpretations, from which artists
effectively choose: the Jungian one, the Lacanian one, etc. Since the "point" of the
work is equally communicable via a novel, a film, or a magazine interview, Žižek
seems to deny the aesthetic work any autonomous being whatsoever, except as
packaging for the "point." The "crucial dilemma" of Tarkovsky's films is not an
aesthetic question at all, but rather, "is there a distance between his [Tarkovsky's]
ideological project (of sustaining meaning, of generating new spirituality, through an
act of meaningless sacrifice) and his cinematic materialism?" (254).
Thankfully, Žižek's pre-ordained conclusions does not preclude his readings
of the films from opening up completely new aspects of the works in question. A case
in point is Žižek's reading of the director's notorious long-take. Žižek
scene in Nostalgia where the female protagonist Eugenia erupts into a sudden
hysterics "against the hero's tired indifference, but also, in a way, against the calm
indifference of the static long take itself, which does not let itself be disturbed by her
outburst" (233). Žižek's irreverent observations liberate the viewer from any pious
presuppositions and draw attention to the play of detached gaze and embodied
materiality in Tarkovsky's world.
Žižek also interprets Tarkovsky's use of discontinuous and incongruous sounds
as creating an aura of "ontological undecidability": "It seems as if Nature itself
miraculously starts to speak, the confused and chaotic symphony of its murmurs
imperceptibly passing over into music proper" (254-5). Žižek admits that "these magical
moments" lend themselves both to "the obscurantist reading (the mystical art of spirit
discernible in nature itself), but also to the opposite, materialist reading (the genesis of
meaning out of the natural contingency" (255).
Žižek here is developing the thoughts of Michel Chion, which have received their
fullest accounting in a 1992 essay by Andrea Truppin "And Then There Was Sound: The
Films of Andrei Tarkovsky." Truppin notes how Tarkovsky's sounds inexplicably fade
in and out of audibility, often deceiving the viewer's assumption as to their source (237).
The aural landscape of the film seems to exist parallel to its visual expression, but issuing
perhaps from a different direction. Thus "sounds hover between the believable and the
exaggerated, heightening our awareness of them" (241). Truppin demonstrates that, in his
later films especially, "the use of ambiguous sound plunges the audience into a never fully
resolved struggle to believe in the diegesis, much as the films' characters struggle with
their own ability to have faith" (235). As Beasley-Murray concluded about Tarkovsky's
long-take, Truppin argues that "[Tarkovsky's] sounds destabilize; they make the
coherent and comfortable seem suddenly strange and disorienting" (237). Thus
Tarkovsky's use of discontinuous sound opens up spaces for the spectator to glimpse
the numinous real or else to question the possibility of any ontological safety whatsoever.
In both cases the real shock of the film is that it has this effect not by masking its use of
artistic convention, but by foregrounding the impossibility of the fiction, which becomes
as stubbornly inevitable as reality.
One practical consequence of dwelling on these discontinuities is that one comes
to question the direct transferability of Tarkovsky's films into neat ideological schemes.
That is to say, the complex horizontal and vertical construction of each of his shots, their
sheer density, excludes their being read as transparent allegories. The best example is the
"Russian Golgotha" from Andrei Rublev. If one watches carefully, one sees that the
preceding scene conspicuously loses the pupil Foma from the camera frame. As the
camera tracks, Foma is glimpsed twice at the water's edge. The change to the winter
Golgotha scene is masked; at first after the cut we see only a cloth rippling in running
water, while Andrei continues to speak as he has for some time. The difficulty of
following Andrei's rather suspect theology while watching this fascinating scene, which
has its own diegetic music, underscores the incongruence of sound and image. On several
occasions we glimpse angels dressed in stock angel costume. Where do they come from?
How are they to be placed in the otherwise realistic world of the film? After the scene,
the camera focuses on the previously absent Foma and seems in sympathy with his
movements, as he washes the brushes in the river and slowly stands up. One suggestion is
that the Golgotha scene is actually imagined by Foma as he listens to Andrei, which
explains the visual rhyme between the cloth and the brushes at the beginning of both
The discontinuities of this scene allow for interpretations which avoid viewing it
as the immediate visual correlate of Andrei's (and Tarkovsky's) view of Christ. This is
quite liberating for those viewers who are reluctant to be spoon-fed religious allegories.
Noting the rather melodramatic acting, Antoine de Baecque views it as "mockery and
satire" of Tarkovsky's own "most sacred gesture of supreme sacrifice" (Žižek 2000: 242;
de Baecque 1989: 98). De Baecque overgeneralizes on the basis of this one scene when he
concludes that "The characters are condemned to relive the Bible in their own flesh and
their own spirit" (96). On the contrary, his reading of the scene calls our attention to the
variety of ways Scripture is brought into the film and into its characters' lives.
I have discussed ways in which Tarkovsky's obtrusive tracking long-take and
discontinuous sound decentralize his narratives, making them multi-centric and opening
them up for interpretation by the active viewer. Lastly I would like to note one laudable
example of how close attention to Tarkovsky's production methods is capable of
revealing serious holes in any smug reading of his films as religious allegories. Here I
would call attention to a fine essay by James Macgillivray on Tarkovsky's use of Piero
della Francesca's Madonna del Parto. Comparing the filmic image in Nostalgia to its
actual situation Macgillivray discovers that, far from filming some authentic religious
ritual in an ancient shrine, Tarkovsky displaces the fresco to a different locale and creates
a new ritual.
Macgillivray writes that the original painting had undergone severe reworking over
the centuries; originally incorporated into an altar, it had gradually become a framed
fresco. The church it was in had also been altered significantly, so that, by the time
Tarkovsky got to see it, the fresco was poorly visible on a side wall. Thus, Macgillivray
writes, "When Tarkovsky came to view Piero's Madonna in 1979, most of the painting's
ritualistic dimension had already been destroyed, leaving it a plastic object suitable for
reproduction in film" (90). Accordingly, Tarkovsky actually placed a large reproduction
of the painting into a different church which Tarkovsky's montage further manipulates to
create a strangely discontinuous space. Tarkovsky sutures together shots that cannot co-
exist in the same space or time. "What were once absolutes in the architecture (the apse,
the altar, the east) become relative conditions depending upon the contingencies of the
camera's field of view" (96).
Foregrounding the discontinuities in Tarkovsky's cinematic style shows how
Tarkovsky's spectator is always an active participant in the construction of the meaning
of his films (if any "meaning" can be specified at all, beyond the viewing experience).
Žižek and Macgillivray indicate ways in which the long-take and the manipulation of
Piero's Madonna yield an anti-feminist reading, by subjecting Eugenia to an indifferent
male gaze that seems to admit her only as a potential child-bearer. However these
critiques are couched in terms that are meaningful only to adepts of psychoanalytical gaze
theory. One might with equal success relate Tarkovsky's manipulation of Piero's
Madonna to Deleuze's concept of the exchange between actual and virtual images, which
achieves a constant flow between the fictive and the real both on the screen and in the
space between the screen and the viewer. However, such easy interpretations would, by
sealing Tarkovsky's films with the glue of theory, close off the films from some of the
valuable achievements that are manifest in the critical essays I have surveyed, which
succeed in revealing new levels of information in Tarkovsky's film and in calling us as
viewers to attend to Tarkovsky's art with increased concentration and sensitivity.
Tellingly, Jameson's essay on "Soviet Magical Realism" illustrates its
consideration of Sacrifice with a still from the documentary footage of the grand long take,
with Tarkovsky peering at the burning house through a widescreen camera (99). In the
light of Beasley-Murray's analysis, the implication is that Jameson's claim to be cutting
through Tarkovsky's un-reflexive ideology is actually a far more egregious imposition on
the open fabric the film. The postmodern emphasis on discontinuities in Tarkovsky's
cinematic world can yield fascinating insights when applied thoroughly to the films
themselves, instead of to the chimeras of Tarkovsky's ideology.
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Tarkovsky's Long Take." Iris 23 (Spring 1997) 37-52.
Chion, Michel. Audiovision: Sound on Screen. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
De Baecque, Antoine. Andrei Tarkovski. Paris: Éditions de l'Étoile/Cahiers du cinéma, 1989.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinéma-2: L'image-temps. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1985.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema. 2 vols. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.
Evlampiev, Igor'. Khudozhestvennaia filosofiia Andreia Tarkovskogo. St. Petersburg: Aleteia, 2001.
Jameson, Fredric. The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System.
Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press; London: BFI, 1992.
Vida T. Johnson and Graham Petrie. The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue.
Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Macgillivray, James. "Andrei Tarkovsky's Madonna del Parto." Revue canadienne
d'études cinématographiques 11 no. 2 (Fall 2002) 82-99. [ reprint ]
Truppin, Andrea. "And Then There Was Sound: The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky."
Sound Theory/Sound Practice, ed. Rick Altman. London: Routledge, 1992. 235-48.
Žižek, Slavoj. "The Thing from Inner Space." In Sexuation. Ed. Renata Salecl. Durham
and London: Duke University Press, 2000. 216-59.