What Andrei Tarkovsky’s Most Notorious Scene Tells Us About Time During the Pandemic: A Video Essay

In his films, Andrei Tarkovsky shows us things no oth­er auteur does: an unbro­ken eight-minute shot, for exam­ple, of a man slow­ly walk­ing a lit can­dle across an emp­ty pool, start­ing over again when­ev­er the flame goes out. One of the best-known (or at least most often men­tioned) sequences in the Russ­ian mas­ter’s oeu­vre, it comes from Nos­tal­ghia, a late pic­ture made dur­ing his final, exiled years in Italy. Some cite it as an exam­ple of all that’s wrong with Tarkovsky’s cin­e­ma; oth­ers as an exam­ple of all that’s right with it. But both the crit­i­cism and the praise are root­ed in the direc­tor’s height­ened sen­si­tiv­i­ty to and delib­er­ate use of time — a resource about which we’ve all come to feel dif­fer­ent­ly after a year of glob­al pan­dem­ic.

“Our sense of time dur­ing the pan­dem­ic was just as warped as our sense of space,” says Evan Puschak, bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer, in his new video essay above, a fol­low-up to his pre­vi­ous explo­ration of how lock­downs turned cities around the world into de Chiri­co paint­ings.

At first, “time felt simul­ta­ne­ous­ly slow and fast: hours dragged on at a snail’s pace, but weeks flew by. 2020 seemed end­less while it was hap­pen­ing, but in ret­ro­spect it feels brief, short­er than a nor­mal year.” But even under “nor­mal” con­di­tions, it holds true that “the more atten­tion we give to time, the slow­er it feels.” And when we think back to our past expe­ri­ences, “the more we can remem­ber in a giv­en peri­od expands our sense of its length.”

Watch­ing Nos­tal­ghia’s can­dle-in-the-pool scene, “you become aware of the odd encounter you’re hav­ing with time itself. You can feel the tex­ture of it, its pres­ence, as if time were not only a con­cept, but a sub­stance, stretch­ing out in front of you, expand­ing and con­tract­ing with every breath. It’s beyond inter­est, beyond bore­dom.” Unlike most film­mak­ers, Tarkovsky does­n’t manip­u­late time to keep us on a pre-laid emo­tion­al track, but to make us aware of our own move­ment through it. “It’ll be the same for the pan­dem­ic,” says Puschak. “There are some rhythms we’ll be eager to get back to, and oth­ers, now that we’ve expe­ri­enced their absence, we’ll be eager to leave behind.” Right now, we’d do well to ques­tion the new forms of nos­tal­gia that have beset us. Or we could use the time still on our hands to hold Tarkovsky ret­ro­spec­tives of our own.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online: Watch the Films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Arguably the Most Respect­ed Film­mak­er of All Time

The Poet­ic Har­mo­ny of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Film­mak­ing: A Video Essay

“Auteur in Space”: A Video Essay on How Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris Tran­scends Sci­ence Fic­tion

Andrei Tarkovsky Answers the Essen­tial Ques­tions: What is Art & the Mean­ing of Life?

When Our World Became a de Chiri­co Paint­ing: How the Avant-Garde Painter Fore­saw the Emp­ty City Streets of 2020

Why Time Seems to Speed Up as We Get Old­er: What the Research Says

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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