Film Capsule has recently been contributing to Indiewire’s weekly survey of film critics, which poses some great questions to film writers around the Internet. This week’s Criticwire Survey was a particularly tricky one: “What late filmmaker would most benefit from being alive today and having access to modern filmmaking technology?” My answer was Andrei Tarkovsky, but although digital technology may have afforded the great director tempting new possibilities, how would he have reacted to these change in film art?
It’s a difficult question because the digital debate is a very personal issue for filmmakers. With more and more of the world’s great contemporary directors experimenting with digital technology, and the new documentary Side by Side exploring this very issue, the pros and cons of the format have been on a lot of people’s minds. The benefits are easy to see, especially for young, independent filmmakers, but how would Tarkovsky have responded?
Tarkovsky’s films are often remembered for their breathtaking long takes. He understood the raw power of duration in cinema, of communicating specifically through the dimension of time which film affords. For Tarkovsky, this is the essence of film and the task of the filmmaker: to Sculpt in Time, as the title of his book implores. What a boon, then, digital filmmaking would have been for the great Russian director. With nearly no restrictions on the duration and storage of long takes, he could have mounted some remarkable shots like we see in The Mirror or The Sacrifice. Both films feature long takes of burning buildings, and the patience and confident he shows in composing around a dramatic event is remarkable. During the barn fire in The Mirror, Tarkovsky lingers inside an empty house, revealing more of the fire outside with each deliberate movement. He had one chance to get the shot he envisioned—he couldn’t burn down the barn twice—yet his commitment to the long take is inspirational.
With digital technology, the logistics of producing long takes would have been drastically simplified. Tarkovsky could have saved time and money, and may have been encouraged to attempt even more ambitious shots. While a roll of film only lasts so long, digital takes have almost no limit, giving him an even greater canvas to sculpt in time.
Since the first actualities of the Lumiere Brothers, however, many film scholars have linked the importance of cinema’s ability to take an imprint of time to the “reality” of images recorded on film. The direct result of light emanating from bodies and reacting with chemicals on celluloid, film takes a true imprint of the world. With digital cameras, however, the light hitting the sensor undergoes an extra layer of abstraction, as the image’s source in reality is translated into 1s and 0s. This separation may have been important for Tarkvosky, deeply aware of the philosophical implications of cinema. He was a pensive filmmaker who articulated with great self-reflection his own relationship with film. It’s hard to know what Tarkovsky would have thought about digital filmmaking, but his films and his writing serve as a reminder that ultimately it’s up to each artist to decide what cinema means to him.