Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Mirror. (1975) Andrei Tarkovsky

Over the past week or so, I've been studying what is commonly referred to as Tarkovsky's most personal film, The Mirror.

I say "studying" because I've gone back since my first viewing and watched bits and pieces of it here and there -- thank God for the DVD! -- and read quite a bit about this fascinating film on various blogs around the web. Somewhere in the house I've got a copy of Tarkovsky's book, Sculpting in Time. I wonder if that might be a good reference for carving out an understanding of this film, too. The montage, which he often referred to in the book as the "rhythm" of a film, seems very different in The Mirror than in the other Tarkovskys I've seen. (Solaris, Andrei Rublev, Offret and Stalker.)

And, for many, that's a good thing. One of the largest complaints about those other films is in regard to their deliberate, snail-like pacing. In a sort of hindsight reaction to the rapid cuts of his filmic forefather Eisenstein (in The Odessa Staircase, for instance), Tarkovsky is well known for long, drawn out scenes and an extremely slow tempo where a shot can reach eternal proportions and a cut can take several minutes to get to. It's either mesmerizing or frustrating depending on the viewer. Tarkovsky felt that the cut was a false reality, and in his attempt at truth, an ideal he held in the highest regard, he widely employed the long take, a sometimes agonizing approach in which emotions are reached not through the manipulation of the edit but rather the truth of the reality depicted (perhaps most famous in this three minute railroad sequence from Stalker).

And yet I can use a word like "agonizing" as easily as I can use words like "enriching" and "rewarding." I really appreciate Tarkovsky's ability to slow down our pulse, giving us space to think and breathe, helping us seep gently into the layers of one of his films. In the digital age we rarely have a chance to consider reality, and the rapid edit goes hand in hand with a lot of CGI. I've sat and counted 1.2 seconds between edits in many frustrating movie houses. Our culture despises patience but it is patience that always pays off. Tarkovsky created films that teach from their image as well as their philosophy.

One of the things all Tarkovskys have in common with each other is that they are a complete visual euphoria. And while Tarkovsky seemed to steer clear of overt metaphor, the images conveyed in his films constantly point to an unknown Creator. "Through the image is sustained an awareness of the infinite: the eternal within the finite, the spiritual within matter, the limitless given form," he has said. The Mirror is certainly no different in this regard. From a bottle tipping from a table for an unseen reason to several flurrying portions of mystical montage, viewers are transported into a greater awareness of life; there is more than just the physical that meets the eye. Tarkovsky employs tricks in the mis-en-scène as well as tricks in scene blocking and the lensing. It's a visual feast -- not scopophilic, but transitory.

It is for this reason one can make it through The Mirror for the first time. If it weren't for these visual flourishes, the film would be lost on us at once. The Mirror is visual poetry, with autobiographical details that won't ever be fully understood by anyone in the audience. This is why people who love the film say they've seen it ten, perhaps fifteen times, and that they get something new out of it every time they sit and watch. This is Tarkovsky on Tarkovsky, full stream of consciousness, and he gets away with it because of the film's Eye.

It has something to do with three periods of time: pre-World War II, the actual time of war itself, and the Russian recovery from the war all the way into the sixties. There is nothing chronological about the way these periods are rendered. They pop up sporadically at will. Archived film, newsreels, also pop up wherever they want, some of the grainy black and white images astounding. The most memorable images being soldiers in a time of war, or a man on a chair in the air on one of the very first flights in a balloon.

The film follows a few main characters that seem to stand in for Tarkovsky as a boy, with his mother and lover always close by (lead actress Margarita Terekhova playing both roles). We see into all their lives in a non-linear story in which random moments of their existence play out. The time the barn burned down and all they could do was watch. The time the kids got in trouble in their battle training. The time that lady came over instead of mom coming home. The time the water ran out in the shower. A good portion, if autobiographical, is also a jaunt into childhood memories, ones that won't be forgotten because they're preserved on film forever.

The film is punctuated by philosophical poetry, the narrator asking the important questions about life. Wind and nature are a constant source of reflection as if we should meditate on these elements daily. Quite a few times I was reminded that my favorite director Lars von Trier dedicated his movie Antichrist to Andrei Tarkovsky. Going back to The Mirror, you can see where von Trier borrows, how he playfully uses the methods that have been passed down to him from the Russian master. And you can see why he holds the Russian master in highest esteem.

If you're not prepared to simply bask in the visual elements, I think The Mirror can be a frustrating trip for a first-time viewer. If you're not at all familiar with Tarkovsky's work, it will undoubtedly be a point of frustration. While the film is surreal, I still can't put meaning to it the way I can with a film like, say, Eraserhead, where I have loved for years to dip into the tiny details and drag the symbolism out of the film. Eraserhead remains in my mind a surreal work of art from which I continue to take away personal reflections.

So The Mirror, to me, is an incredible achievement, an expansive and majestic work of art, and yet I cannot derive much meaning from it in my first few days with it. This is Tarkovsky's own reflection and perhaps only he fully understands it. But it reminded me of the greatness of his entire body of work, and I find myself in the wake of The Mirror wanting to revisit the four I've seen very soon. And perhaps I'll add a few I haven't seen to the list.

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