Saturday, May 22, 2010

Crisis of the Historical-Image

One of the things that struck me in Andrei Tarkovsky's book Sculpting In Time, was his theories on films embedded in specific time periods. He spends a small section of the essay talking about the challenges his crew faced when filming Andrei Rublyov, which takes place in the fifteenth century. He makes the bold claim that by focusing too much on "how everything was" the filmmaker actually does the cinema a disservice [1]. In virtually every big production period piece we see today, the primary emphasis is put on historical accuracy: Do the costumes match the period? Are the actor's speaking in correct accents? Do the props and the scenery evoke the proper time? These obsessions with period and detail only detract from the emotion, the rhythm, and the character of the film. Asking these questions will only kill time, which Tarkovsky tries so hard to sustain. The image becomes completely historical, but for Tarkovsky, history is not time; it is only a consequence of it [2].

Tarkovsky would probably argue that when making a period piece, the filmmaker should be emphasizing the likeness between the film and the viewer instead of the difference. This would be the only way to enable the audience to endure time through the cinema. By magnifying the minute details of the period, the cinema becomes more of a museum hall than a proper theater. The material is instantly frozen in time and made into a relic, inaccessible by the audience. The viewer is distanced from anything the filmmaker might be trying to convey.

In Andrei Rublyov, while the art direction is appropriate for the times, it isn't beaten over the viewer's head. The audience is able to experience the characters more closely and the long takes become more contemplative and visceral as opposed to simply visual. I'm actually trying to achieve the same thing in my graduate film, which takes place in an unspecified time and place circa war torn Europe in the early twentieth century. I was undaunted by the difficulty in shooting a period piece on a low student budget, because of the notion that I could establish a better sense of time without emphasizing the era, but how I believe that time was experienced by the characters. Just because a film is made in a classical period does not mean it must be made classically; one can make full use of the more modern time-image, which Deleuze speaks of. As he also states, the time-image creates a sense of present/pastness. The films that focus on capturing historically accurate details are only considering the past, and are not merging it with the present viewing, which is necessary for the time-image. This historical-image is fully crystallized in that it has already achieved everything it can; there is no more virtual and there is no more connection to the body. The historical-image has become all it can before it is even viewed by an audience. The affect for the viewer would only be one of an academic appreciation at best, but not new though process would be generated. With the time-image, the image is still alive and can continue to become.

(1) Tarkovsky, Andrei Sculpting in Time, p.78
(2) Tarkovsky, Andrei Sculpting in Time, p.57

--Jonathan Masino

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