Tarkovsky and Brevity

In Tarkovsky and Brevity (Riley, 2012) writer John Riley analyses Andrei Tarkovsky’s polaroid photographs, linking them to his films through the concept of ‘punctum’, which was defined by Roland Barthes in his book Camera Lucida (Barthes, 1982). Barthes describes it in relation to photography as “the moment of rupture when we are shaken out of the official meaning of the photographic image as an objective document, and are personally affected by some small detail contained within it”(Riley, 2012). Riley suggests that Tarkovsky not only sought out these moments in his photography, but also attempted to create them for an audience in his films through his use of long takes. Long take cinema facilitates this moment of punctum by giving the audience the freedom to find their own meaning in a scene, to find what is important to them. Given this freedom an audience is much more likely to find moments and details which generate the profoundly personal response of punctum.


In Camera Lucida Barthes connects this moment of personal connection to mortality. Riley goes on to link it to the Japanese concept of mono no aware, which can be described as “a bittersweet acceptance of transience and fragility (Riley, 2012).” This is turn is connected to the Haiku, through which the concept of mono no aware is often expressed. Riley suggests that the Haiku and the concept of punctum both stem from a search for brevity, and that both achieve it in a similar way, by expressing emotion through objects. Riley gives a cinematic example in the form of Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, writing that “through emotionally turbulent times his characters say little and remain impassive, while Ozu picks up on a small detail such as an empty chair, or a character peeling an apple” (Riley, 2012). Riley seems to be suggesting that though long take may appear drawn out, it is in fact concise in its ability to generate powerful emotion in an audience by simply presenting them with an image in which “the fleeting nature of events is celebrated and mourned at the same time (Riley, 2012).”


The key to creating this moment of punctum seems connected to the conflicting emotions of celebration and mourning identified by Riley in his article, and more generally the concept of juxtaposition. Writing about the Haiku, Riley quotes Japanese scholar Makoto Ueda:

Two disparate objects are abruptly juxtaposed, with little or no explanation. There is little logical connection between the two objects presented in each Haiku. Yet the juxtaposition of the two objects produces a strangely harmonious mood. (Riley, 2012)

The importance of juxtaposition links to the theory of montage, and the creation of deeper meaning through the linking together of disparate images and sounds. It’s another example of the interchange between long take and montage being used to generate powerful emotional responses in an audience. And it reminds me of the in-camera montage in Stalker (Tarkovsky, 1979).


Riley writes that Tarkovsky’s interest in photography was sparked in his childhood by an accidental double exposure which “allowed two separate family members to be in the same space and time, one a ghostly overlay of the other (Riley, 2012).” This juxtaposition of time and space created a new meaning in the resulting photograph and ignited Tarkovsky’s curiosity.

Perhaps then Tarkovsky’s films can be seen as an attempt to allow an audience to create their own montage. Riley writes that “Tarkovsky had a talent for assembling diverse pieces of junk into an aesthetically beautiful assemblage (Riley, 2012).” Combining this talent with long takes and camera movement he creates images which provide the audience with a visual landscape in which they can make their own connections, and in doing so experience the personal experience of punctum:

Films such as Tarkovsky’s — slow paced, with scenes shot in long takes — facilitate an atmosphere where the punctum may be apprehended. Details of performance, scenery, etc., may suddenly jump out of the film and attain significance. (Riley, 2012)

It’s an approach that seems counterintuitive to initial impressions. Rather than trying to push an audience to comprehend everything that he presented to them, Tarkovsky used “long take [as] a way to filter out what was superfluous and focus his audience’s attention on other matters (Riley, 2012).” It’s an altogether subtler approach to montage.


Barthes, R., (1982) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, London: Jonathan Cape

Riley, J., (2012) Tarkovsky and Brevity, Dandelion: Postgraduate Arts Journal & Research Network, 3 (1), pp. 1–16

Tarkovsky, A. (1979) Stalker, Kinostudiya ”Mosfilm”


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