Towards the end of his life, Andrei Tarkovsky decided to set down some of his ideas not only about film in general but also about his own artistic process. The resulting book – Sculpting in Time – is extraordinary in so far as it manages to be both lightly conversational and intensely theoretical without every seeming to break stride or shift emphasis. While the book covers a lot of ground, it is forever returning to these sweeping metaphysical proclamations about the nature of art and the quasi-spiritual role of the artist as a figure in 20th Century culture. As befits an artistic genius like Tarkovsky, most of his proclamations are in direct opposition to each other and yet themes and methods do emerge from the chaos.
One of the book’s recurring motifs is the idea of the artist as destroyer who does not so much create new meanings as remove extraneous in an effort to reveal hidden patterns of truth and meaning:
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.
The eccentricity of this worldview is perhaps best expressed through one of Tarkovsky’s own thought experiments: Imagine making a film that captures every detail of a person’s life. Imagine filming every last second of their life and doing so with a mastery of style and technique so flawless that you convey not only the objective facts about your subject’s life but also the nuances of their inner turmoil. According to Tarkovsky the resulting document could be beautiful, thought provoking, and compelling to watch but it could never be a true work of art. For Tarkovsky, art was not about capturing and reflecting objective truth but about simplifying reality to the point where it becomes comprehensible to the human mind.
The question we need to ask when watching the films of Tarkovsky is whether the truths uncovered by the process of simplification are supposed to be anything more than the reflection of our own prejudices. Was Michelangelo’s David literally present in the marble before he picked up his tools or did he simply hack at a piece of stone until it started to resemble our pre-existing ideas about men with huge hands and tiny cocks? Like many Soviet filmmakers of his generation, Tarkovsky understood the psychological processes involved in making sense of cinematic imagery and he understood that a series of evocative images would encourage audiences to leap to their own conclusions as to the ultimate meaning of the film. These questions become even harder to answer when you realise that Tarkovsky not only acknowledged the death of the author but viewed his audiences as active and equal participants in his own artistic process thereby ensuring that the truths we uncover in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky are always at least partially our own.
Given that the metaphysical and epistemological issues surrounding Man’s Search for Meaning are obviously present in mature works like Stalker or Mirror and obviously absent from his debut film Ivan’s Childhood, Tarkovsky’s second film Andrei Rublev can be viewed as an important transitional work in so far as it spends nearly three documenting the life of its subject without ever managing to secure a definitive meaning beyond those generated by the speculation of the audience.
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In my recent piece on James C. Scott’s toweringly excellent The Art of Not Being Governed (2010), I suggested that there are unwritten laws governing the up-take of particular theories. Laws that have less to do with logic, reason and scientific rigour than they do with our deep psychological needs.
For example, Gibbons’ The History of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire (1789) argues that the Roman Empire fell into decline because the Romans lost their sense of civic responsibility and their hunger for military conquest. This idea that power leads to moral corruption and that moral corruption leads to social decay seems to coincide with a similar pattern of rise and fall that features in the theories of both Giambattista Vico and Ibn Khaldun.
These different works attempt to account for radically different societies and yet they all share a similar underlying narrative. A narrative of rise and fall that even pops up in places such as The Bible and Plato’s allegory of The Cave. In my piece, I suggest that the over-arching narrative described by Scott in The Art of Not Being Governed is so powerful that it may come to rival that of Vico and Ibn Khaldun as a source of inspiration for writers and artists (let alone academic historians and political scientists). My aim with this piece is to delve further into this intuition and try to unpack some of the ideas contained within it. Does it make sense to talk about selecting theories on the basis of criteria other than truth? Do these other criteria in any way relate to truth? What are the aesthetics of ideas? These are some of the questions I will try to address with this piece.
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Back in 2006 an odd little programme snuck out on BBC Four. The programme was called A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and it featured nothing but the hirsute and lisping Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek talking animatedly about his favourite films. The director Sophie Fiennes did not impose any limitations upon Žižek’s ramblings: She did not ask him questions. She did not impose themes. She did not even demand that the films Žižek dealt with be ordered chronologically or in any kind of order that might render his analyses more accessible to a lay audience. She simply let him get on with it. Her sole input seemingly being at the level of mis-en-scene, ensuring that when Žižek spoke of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) he did so sitting in a motorboat crossing a harbour, or that when he spoke of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), he did so from the bathroom and balcony of the same hotel that appeared in the film.
In the four years since A Pervert’s Guide To Cinema first aired, it has come to be seen not as a documentary about film or a series of cleverly shot televised lectures and more as an experiment in documentary film-making. The experiment involved making a documentary about the arts without seeking to explain either the act of creation or the fruit of that process. By allowing Žižek to chat about his favourite films Fiennes was distancing herself from the obsession with biography and context that dominates cinematic depiction of the arts. A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema was not a film about Žižek or a film about films, instead it was a cinematic appercu of the act of artistic creation itself.
Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow sees Fiennes return to the same philosophical template by providing us with a glimpse into the creative processes of the German installation artist Anselm Kiefer. Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow is not so much an arts documentary as it is an invitation to worship at the unholy altar of an insane god.
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In my piece on Polanski’s Repulsion (1968), I highlighted the homage paid by Polanski to the generation of Surrealist filmmakers who came before him. In this piece, I want to examine the similarities in tone between another of Polanski’s films and the branch of French Surrealism that provided the source material for one of Polanski’s best known films, The Tenant (1976).
By 1960, the vultures had started to circle the Surrealist movement. What had started out as a desire to destroy and rebuild the iconography of Western Art in the aftermath of the First World War now seemed like a circular and pointless endeavour through which one section of the bourgeoisie tried to shock and outrage another section of the same narrow social institution. While members of the Generation of ‘27 burned with anger at the Franquist government which had exiled and jailed them, the alliances with Marxism that would impact film-makers such as Bunuel were still a way off. Facing such creative stagnation, Fernando Arrabal, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Roland Topor came together to form Burlesque, a creative clique which would later inspire itself from the god Pan and name themselves the Panic Movement.
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