Thoughts On: Sculpting In Time - Memory, Dreams, Character


Sculpting In Time - Memory, Dreams, Character

Thoughts On: Sculpting In Time

This is not a post about a specific movie, but Andrey Tarkovsky's book of 'Reflections on the Cinema'. I hope this post doesn't seem too tangential from what this blog has grown to be, but in reading this book, I feel the best way for me to personally learn from it would be to pull it apart and explore Tarkovsky's ideas. And because I enjoy doing this kind of thing, and think it may be beneficial to anyone interested in film out there, I suppose talking to you guys about it wouldn't be too bad. Anyways, let's get on with it...

And in getting on with it I mean I still need to do a bit of introducing. So, I'll be going though this book, chapter by chapter, highlighting interesting passages, quoting them here and then talking about them. The first passage I want to talk about is from Chapter 1, The Beginning. This chapter is centred on Tarkovsky's first film, Ivan's Childhood, and the first passage I want to talk about is on memory, and the projection of a protagonist's perspective. So, the passage...

"Generally people's memories are precious to them. It is no accident that they are coloured by poetry. The most beautiful memories are those of childhood. Of course memory has to be worked upon before it can become the basis of an artistic reconstruction of the past; and here it is important not to loose the particular emotional atmosphere without which a memory evoked in every detail merely gives rise to a bitter feeling of disappointment. There's an enormous difference, after all, between the way you remember the house in which you were born and which you haven't seen for years, and the actual sight of the house after a prolonged absence. Usually the poetry of the memory is destroyed by the confrontation with its origin.

It occurred to me then that from these properties of memory a new working principal could be developed, on which extraordinarily interesting film might be built. Outwardly the pattern of events, of the hero's actions and behaviour, would be disturbed. It would be the story of his thoughts, his memories and dreams. And then, without his appearing at all--at least in the accepted sense of the traditionally written film--it would be possible to achieve something highly significant: the expression, the portrayal, of the hero's individual personality, and the revelation of his interior world. Somewhere here is an echo of the image of the lyrical hero incarnate in literature, and of course in poetry; he is absent from view, but what he thinks, how he thinks, and what he thinks about build up a graphic and clearly-defined picture of him."

What struck me about this passage, about how this idea may be extrapolated as a way to create better/different narratives, is in the idea of who people are. Tarkovsky makes clear a concept of memory being the foundation of character - that we are our pasts. This, of course, isn't an absolute truth. As many would be able to tell you, throughout all science related to people (biology, psychology, sociology and so on) there is a debate of Nature v Nurture. It's easiest seen in the Pavlovian idea of conditioning or the Freudian idea of childhood put against anything to do with genetics. A behaviourist would see a person as a sum of experiences, giving reason why you could be able (with classical conditioning) to ring a bell and have a dog salivate. A geneticist may see a person as an expression of genes, giving reason why certain differences in brain structure or chemical pathways hugely effects individual behavior. Neither is entirely right as one idea effects the other - the expression of genes often deciding how experiences may effect you or how you approach them. This means the debate of Nature v Nurture is under the guise of balance: what effects us more, our pasts or our pre-decided biology? By tagging this idea on to the passage, we somewhat complicate Tarkovsky's proposed principal. He is essentially making a call to revolutionise the approach to a dream sequence. Often, bad dream sequences are expressed through a rippling effect, the tinkle of a harp and then a white fuzz around the frame. What happens within the dream is then usually memories played out like reality (maybe with a little twist) or as a lazy means of building to a jump scare, or providing exposition. The former lazy means of dream sequencing is of course a trope of horror, but the latter is found a lot in fantasy and sci-fi with protagonists having visions of what to do next. But, all three ideas cited are lazy, easily critiqued, ways of expressing the dream. This is because they are writers' devices that serve no entertaining or interesting purpose. And on that note, I think its important to better define why certain writer's devices are, forgive my French, shat on. Obvious writer's devices essentially suck you out of a movie. More than that, an audience understands that certain things have to be in a script to make it work - things like exposition. But, if these are devices are put forward in an obvious way, what you are essentially doing is devolving the art form. Cinema is story, cinema is actual life (at least the representation) caught on a screen for all to see. Life is lived, and in living you very rarely have expository scenes explaining the kind of paranormal activity haunting your house. In such events, there is an awful lot more to be explored than a trip to some 'experts' that have all the answers. There are emotional means of expressing this kind of story that negate explaining what a ghost is or how to defeat it. However, I've shortly talked about this before with, Lights Out - Horror Exposited, and don't want to stay on this tangent too long.

Coming back to lazy dream sequences, we see a form easily mocked and so best ignored as bad story telling or filmmaking. However, the type of dreams sequences Tarkovsky wants to move away from can in fact being seen in what is considered a great scene, and that is Salvador Dali's dream sequence from Hitchcock's Spellbound.

Even one of the best examples of a dream sequence here is devicive. However, Hitchcock/Dali balances the expository aspects of this scene with the awe it inspires, with the captivating means it translates revelation (though explains in arduous detail later - another scene like that in the end of Psycho). Nonetheless, with this tremendous sequence we see a glimmer of what Tarkovsky talks about. He wants to translate what would be a book, the interior thoughts of a character, onto film by making an entire film a near dream sequence. It's this idea that 'became the starting point of Mirror' for Tarkovsky. But, I don't believe that film totally expresses the implimence of this idea if you took it to an extreme. Mirror is a film unto itself that I'm not criticism in its form, rather, using its fundamental idea Tarkovsky has just put across to explore the dream and perspective in relation to cinema. And what the pure expression of a dream put to film would look like is highly debatable. In fact, this is the source of an upcoming Thoughts On: talk about Inception, so I'll save it. Coming back to Tarkovsky's principal we see that he accepts you would not want to make a film that is a perfect dream. We see this in his reference to atmosphere and the disappointment of the dream - the destruction of memory upon its meeting its origin. In other words, Tarkovsky sees artistic sculpting needed around a dream sequence as memories are not pure representations of the past. What makes them poignant to us is a subjective and skewed perspective of them - as his reference to going back to a childhood home explains. It's this sculpting that is the source of why you wouldn't just film memories, or raw dreams - because you are missing the presence of character based perspective. He then infers that to make a great dream sequence you need to have us feel the events of the dream as a character would - the job of a director and technical team.

Here's where we can muddy the waters though. What Tarkovsky implores (allows us to infer) is an abandonment of an accepted reality for the sake of personal perspective. To provide stronger heroes, to build better characters, he wants to express their thoughts like a book may, but through visuals - visuals tantamount to a dream. But, this expression of perspective is imbued with two tricky nuances when we come back to the Nature v Nurture debate. If we are expressing experience, if we are expressing a nurtured reality through a dream, where is nature? The first nuance of this idea is in support of Tarkovsky's principal. By expressing a dream, and by expressing true character, the argument may be made that the nature of a person is inherent to their perspective - not lost. This means that when we are seeing their dream we are seeing not just their experience of the world, but their experience though the looking glass of a body both nurtured by experience and founded by a biological nature. A twist on this nuance is that even if we see the sole experience of a character without their biological urges taken into account we bring the biology and nature to the film or sequence ourselves. By this I mean to reference evolutionary, chemical and biological responses to experience. It could be argued that by seeing a person's dream and being scared or aroused as consequence means we bring what our genetics have built our bodies to be to the experience, hence, bringing the nature to the nurture, the experience-driven perspective of a memory, on show.

However, there are faults in both the former argument and the latter twist. The idea of us bringing the rest of a character (in terms of biologically determined responses) to the scene is detrimental to the idea of expressing individual character. By this I mean that even though 'nature' is a term that implies we are all very similar (because we're all built from DNA) it doesn't imply we are copies of one another. As anyone who's sat in a biology class about reproduction, meiosis and so on could tell you, genes are expressed in offspring individually to how they are expressed in either parent. This means the nature side of the debate sets up individuality that, if brought to the filmic experience, goes against the idea of communicating a protagonist's persona. To give an example, we could look at a film like...

Rust and Bone is a beautiful film and I absolutely love it. It's of course about how a woman's life changes when she loses both of her legs. If we were to see a dream sequence from her perspective coming from this biological angle, we couldn't expect to bring our own idea of human nature to explain hers. By losing her legs her entire biological preset is rocked to its core. Her idea of fear, her emotions as created by brain structuring and chemical pathways, would be completely different to ours--who most probably have both our legs. A more concise example of this would be to imagine a dream sequence from someone born with a disability, someone born blind, deaf or with a paralysing condition. Their biological preset would be different from ours. Moreover, you can come at this from a completely different angle. You can look at this in terms of sexuality or gender. If you were to show the dream of a woman to a man, you'd find it hard to express her personality, nature and character in the way you mean to, simply because men and women see things differently. Moreover, if you were to show the dream of a homosexual to a heterosexual there would be a biological basis on which the two would differ. My point here could be easily expressed with this one shot from Memento:

This is Leonard's wife and we see her from his perspective in a flashback sequence. This only expresses something about his character specifically because we know he is a man, we know he has memory loss issues, and that his wife is dead. It's the context of Leonard's biological preset (his sexuality, gender, physical  and mental state) that allows character to be built from this shot. What if we did't know this was Leonard's flashback/dream? If we changed the biological presets of the protagonist to a woman, to a homosexual, to someone not with memory issues, but with depression, this image would mean something very different. And it's this idea that is at the core of the second nuance of Tarkovsky's principal. By introducing the idea of biology, not just memory and experience by some Freudian or Pavlovian idea of personage, to the dream we are able to say an awful lot about characters. What I'm then waging is the traditional narrative over the dream sequence. I make the argument that the dream sequence only works because there is a traditional narrative built around it. And this all comes down to an idea of reality. Personal reality is incredibly difficult to express - and this explains what is wrong with the assumption that a protagonist brings all the nature to the narrative, that we see the dream sequence through the looking glass of a body both nurtured by experience and founded by a biological nature. Putting in that natural drive, creating characters that could pass as 'human', is incredibly reliant on how good of a writer you are. And in all honesty, no matter how good of a writer you are, the expression of a person's complete nature is near impossible within the confines of a 2-3 hour slot. What this means for our take on Tarkovsky's principal is that he wants to portray personal realities of a character, but in a way that cannot live up to the promise of the principal. What I mean to critique is this idea:

... without his appearing at all--at least in the accepted sense of the traditionally written film--it would be possible to achieve something highly significant: the expression, the portrayal, of the hero's individual personality, and the revelation of his interior world. 

If we took this concept as a way of driving a type of cinema, we'd end up with something similar to a poem, but not something I think would work. This is because the physical appearance of a person in a film suggests an awful lot about their character, and this is the crux of cinema in my perspective. Cinema is the presentation of the tangible. We all know the adage: show, don't tell. This is the concept of pure cinema embodied perfectly. You show the story, you do not explain it in dialogue or in V.O. In the same respect, you don't explain character, you show it. A dream sequence can be a great means of showing character, but I don't see that revealing their true personality, or allowing us into their interior world. Dreams are a muddle expression of the subconscious (maybe). Dreams are not memories, dreams are the subconscious perception of the world made so nearly tangible. It's in this that the nature and the reality of a character are locked out of the principal. We are seeing their strange shade of reality, one based in experience with impure seeds of nature. I think expressing this shade of reality is an amazing idea, something we should strive to do more with cinema, but a personal shade of reality means nothing without a control. And it's here where traditional cinema shines through as imperative to the dream sequence. We only know we are in a dream because we have established what reality is in a film. The over-kill of explaining this to the audience has been touched on with cliches such as tinkling harps and ripples, so that's probably something we should stay away from. But, what this over-kill suggests is that there has to be a transition to preserve character. As we see in Memento, we get glimpses of Leonard's present in juxtaposition to his past. This is the source of everything great about Memento. It's where the mystery, the confusion and the philosophy of perspective come from. There is the confusing reality around Leonard juxtaposed to his twisted perspective that is only there to protect himself from recognising that he killed his wife. If we took away the reality scenes in Memento we'd see the world as Leonard does and so be mislead to see his distorted reality. There would be no message in this film, there would be no excitement, there would be nothing much that's interesting.

What this suggests is that Tarkovsky's principal of a dream sequence-esque film cannot be translated to all kinds characters. But, there are greater faults in the confinement of realities. A character is, in short, as much of what he or she is as they aren't. To explain, a character may be an honest husband, hard worker, charitable fund-raiser. But, what if they killed people every now and then? What made them 'good' in the first place would be revolutionised by this sudden 'bad'. What they weren't in the beginning was transformed by the end. A great example of this would be...

What makes Patrick so interesting is that he seems, under the ruse of his normal life, his surrounding reality, sane, when he's later revealed not to be - not by a long shot - and by the messed up thoughts in his head, by his perceived reality. (More on American Psycho here). This is what traditional narratives and cinema affords you: the juxtaposition of reality and a person's perceived world. This is incredibly important for all narratives to do if they want to reflect a person's real character. Who you are isn't just who you perceive yourself as - it's also how you're seen. What's more, what allows us to understand who you are is, as said, routed not just in your experiences, but your preset nature. There is so much you can explore with dream sequences, but also so much you can lose without a fundamental presentation of reality, of how a character is perceived, and of their mechanical structurings.

So, the end take away from Tarkovsky's principal of character and the dream is that we can use his idea to boost greatly character work in cinema and in our own works, but that reality beyond poetry is inherent to the art form. A film without reality, without tangible character (without tangible evaluation of that character through expressed exterior perspectives) is a film I don't see as something possible, is a film that if you achieved as explained would be pointless in consuming. In fact, we see a near representative example of this in...

And, for me, Enter The Void was a painful filmic experience. Despite that, there was still a first act grounded in reality, that wasn't a pure dream, memory or from the true perspective of Oscar. However, I think it's important to reaffirm that what we've been discussing isn't Tarkovsky's Mirror. We're talking about the principal of dreams, of poetic perspective being laced over traditional narratives to create a different kind of cinema - a type of cinema I find no faith in. But, alas, it may just be my lack of imagination that holds back a film of pure perspective, character and dream that actually works. So, all we can take from Tarkovsky's principal as discussed is where things may go wrong, which may open up ways for you to figure out how to cinematically express a juxtaposing reality inside a person's perspective, but at the same time, a real dream or memory without detriment to plot, atmosphere and narrative. This sounds like a difficult task enough as is, but, it's one that will be hugely confused when we take a look at Nolan's Inception:

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