Rhythmic Timing: The Art of the Auteur

The main formative element of cinema, according to the great Andrei Tarkovsky, is rhythm. This sentiment is founded on the notion that films contain, within them, a particular sense of "rhythmic timing," a concept coined by the filmmaker in his book Sculpting in Time. The director's personal imprint, and that what defines them as an auteur, is an expression of the rhythm they impart to their work.

In Sculpting in Time, he writes that the filmgoer experiences a mosaic of time, and that the director's job is to sculpt time -- or rather, the images which exist within time -- into the mosaic that the audience experiences. In his opinion, rhythm or "rhythmic timing" is the "dominant, all-powerful factor of the film image, expressing the course of time within the frame." Andrei Tarkovsky also states the following:

“It is above all through sense of time, through rhythm, that the director reveals his individuality. rhythm colours a work with stylistic marks. It is not thought up, not composed on an arbitrary, theoretical basis, but comes into being spontaneously in a film, in response to the director’s innate awareness of life, his ‘search for Time.’”

In other words, he suggests that, while filming, a director immediately imbues within a film a particular sense of rhythm -- a unique mosaic of time. This sense of rhythm arises due to their instinctive appreciation of life; it could be said that this sense of rhythm is an immediate reflection of the filmmaker's natural sense of awareness -- how they direct their thoughts -- since thoughts similarly exist in the mind as a mosaic of time, expressing, in their course, a particular sense of rhythm most familiar to the thinker.

It's this spontaneous emergence of a particular sense of rhythm that seems to distinguish a director's work; their "innate awareness of life" is expressed within film -- not only within one of their films, but within each of them. It's for this reason that the auteur theory hold significance; a director's films may felicitously be associated and tied together due to their comparable sense of rhythm.

The veracity of a film's rhythm is sensed by the viewer's innate ability to associate the flow of time reproduced in the images with their own implicit awareness of the movement and rhythm of time within nature. The director's "rhythmic timing" or flow need not coincide with the nature of time itself; their rhythm may slow or speed up the life-process. In the case of Andrei Tarkovsky's cinema, the current or pressure of the images, their association with one another, and how the scenes flow tend to slow down the life process, effectively changing the course of time within the frame; as a result, the movement of time (within a film) takes on its own unique, poetic form. This is the rhythm of the film; as he states, "the distortion of time can be a means of giving it rhythmical expression."

The movement of time within a film is further made clear in the "characters' behaviour, the visual treatment (camera angles and movements, as well as elements of mise-en-scène) and the sound -- but these are all accompanying features, the absence of which, theoretically, would in no way affect the existence of the film. In some sense, one cannot conceive of a cinematic work with no sense of time passing through the shot, but one can easily imagine a film with no actors, music, décor, or even editing. It's commonplace to discuss editing techniques when describing an auteur's approach to filmmaking; however, as Andrei Tarkovsky explains, "time courses through the picture despite editing rather than because of it." In other words, although a director's style may be evident in their editing techniques, what truly distinguishes them as an auteur -- their sense of "rhythmic timing" -- exists within a film strip prior to its engagement in editing.

The auteur's distinctive style is not the product of editing techniques, as some might believe, but of the director's innate awareness of life, as expressed by their sense of "rhythmic timing" -- a sense of rhythm unique to an auteur, but for which certain directors may be associated with each other, white others are set apart. In fact, since personal veneration for works of art seems to indicate a connection between the mind of the artist and the beholder, an examination of the similar sensibilities between Andrei Tarkovsky and his greatest influence, Robert Bresson, offers additional insight into this discussion.

The most significant similarity between these respected auteurs is their poetic expression of time; each of them alter the movement of time (within a film). Their films exist in their own world, so to speak. In each of their films, time is slowed down -- perhaps even abandoned. This is done intentionally to give the film image an artistic, rather transcendental quality.

Robert Bresson, for instance, tends to film pauses within action; the result of this is a lingering movement of time. In Au Hasard Balthazar (1963), when Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) and Gérard (François Lafarge) sit in the car together, a minute long scene takes place where the actions might have only lasted a few seconds. The movements of the characters are exceedingly slowed down, while the camera pauses briefly on still images -- rendering the movement of time during these actions virtually still. The scene is shot in this way to accentuate details; it is minimalism at its finest. In its simplicity, the rhythm of the scene and the movement of time is slowed down so significantly that what might have been a ten second scene is explored in sixty. The viewer’s sense of time, as a result, is altered, or transcended, in order to fit with the nature of time expressed within the film.

In the documentary Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (Michal Leszczylowski, 1988), Andrei Tarkovsky states that Robert Bresson captured an incredible "lightness" in his films, which is what influenced his own artistic direction. The sense of rhythm expressed in Andrei Tarkovsky’s work shares many similarities with Robert Bresson; in a similar manner, his films too alter the viewer’s sense of time. In Mirror (1975) -- a film so ethereal and outside of time that it is difficult to pin down -- poetically explores the existence of mankind and human relations, and does so by expressing a sense of eternal unity. The film loosely depicts the actions of several generations of mothers, fathers, and sons, visual images, in conjunction with audible poetry (spoken in voice-over), illustrate how they are innately, perhaps spiritually, connected to each other, and, by extension, to life itself. The images shift, and yet, while moving through time, they seem to exist within each other in some kind of perennial harmony -- the image of the child, the boy, and the man are, effectively,  the same, despite the necessary passing of time. This, coupled with the timeless poetry and fleeting style of continuity, inspire in the viewer a sense of eternity, in spite of the fact that the film itself exists within time; such a quality may rightly be considered transcendental. In this sense, it is reasonable to associate the films of Robert Bresson with those of Andrei Tarkovsky. Their innate sense of awareness of life and their "search for Time" was similar; consequently, their however unique senses of "rhythmic timing" have comparable qualities.

Alfred Hitchcock, on the contrary, an auteur in his own right, imparts within his films a sense of rhythm that expressively speeds up the life process. Rope (1948) appears as if in real-time; however, the one-and-a-half hour film depicts what would be several hours of interaction. The film appears as one continuous take -- in fact, it consists of eleven -- the viewer is given the impression that the gathering, drinks, dinner and aftermath altogether last under two hours. This, of course, does not coincide with the nature of reality; nonetheless, due to the continual sense of rhythm, the sped up movement of time feels natural. The viewer's sense of time is altered, as with the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson, in order to fit with the nature of time expressed within the film. The veracity of the film’s rhythm takes form in the mind of the viewer, imprinting in their vision the artistic touch, and innate awareness of life, of the auteur at hand. In the case of Alfred Hitchcock, as opposed to Andrei Tarkovsky or Robert Bresson, the viewer’s sense of time is sped up; the affect of which is the creation of suspense -- the effective quality of The Master of Suspense's particular sense of rhythm.

In Hollywood, however, typical assembly-line films display no distinct, personal sense of rhythmic timing; it would seem that the art of the auteur is not at all present here. The categories of genre have taken place of the film theoretical perspective of auteurism, causing films to be classified based on relatively insignificant elements; in actuality, Hollywood’s formulaic films all tend to blend together, rendering the concept of genre quite arbitrary, and stripping cinema of the artistic touch of the auteur. The following is Andrei Tarkovsky's quote on the subject:

“In so far as sense of time is germane to the director’s innate perception of life, and editing is dictated by the rhythmic pressures in the segments of film, his handwriting is to be seen in his editing. It expresses his attitude to the conception of the film, and is the ultimate embodiment of his philosophy of life. I think that the film-maker who edits his films easily and in different ways is bound to be superficial. You will always recognize the editing of Bergman, Bresson, Kurosawa or Antonioni; none of them could ever be confused with anyone else, because each one’s perception of time, as expressed in the rhythm of his films, is always the same. On the other hand, if you take a few Hollywood films, you feel they were all edited by the same person; they are quite indistinguishable.”