Of all the films I’ve watched, from the Godzilla and black and white sci fi films of my youth, to the silent films of my teen years, to the Hollywood schlock of, well, always, to the foreign films of the last few years, only three that I have seen have seriously made fundamentally radical usage of time and memory: Chris Marker’s La Jetee, Bela Tarr’s Satantango, and Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre. Marker’s film is 99% still photographs with narration, but, in recall, the mind animates the scenes. Marker thus achieves empathy in a profound manner, by literally altering the remembered reality in the viewer. Tarr’s film does a similar thing. His film focuses so relentlessly on the tiniest moments for the longest time that, again, in recall, the mind compresses the seven hour film into a recalled film of about the same length as a typical new release. The mind is forced to filter out things, as it does in real life, and thus we are empathizing with characters in a more ‘real’ sense. Malle’s film is basically all conversation, yet, again, in recall, there are scenes the viewer will swear he witnessed, even though they were never actually filmed. To this list I can now add Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1974 black and white and sepia and color film, The Mirror (Zerkalo or Mirror).
In many ways, this film, which is truly dream-like (an often bastardized term in film criticism), is almost a continuation of the end of Tarkovsky’s previous film, 1972’s Solaris, which ended with a character dreamily confronting his life and past in a make believe reality; as well being a subtler take on themes raised in Theo Angelopoulos’s Eternity And A Day. Like that film’s end, there is a seeming anomy that the characters experience, yet there is a strong narrative. I repeat, THERE IS A STRONG NARRATIVE, despite the lazy claims of many bad critics that the film has a weak or nonexistent one. It’s simply not a standard narrative that places emphasis on plot nor chronology. That said, the film is not a stream of consciousness work of art since that claim simply does not exist- memories are discrete, and they pause and stop and shift and go (hence the use of punctuation in language, not as a physical pause, but to reflect the metaphoric breaks of memory and thought).
The film follows the life and moments of a man named Alexei (Ignat Daniltsev). At times we see what he does, as ‘he’ is the eye of the camera, whether watching television (as in the film’s opening), re-experiencing a dream or memory, or being a character in his youth or middle age, viewed omnisciently. Sometimes, we see him as a boy, and other times see the same young actor play his son, Ignat. We never see the adult Alexei, though, only hear his voice (Innokenty Smoktunovsky), which sometimes acts as the film’s narrator, until it gives way to the voice of a poet (Arseny Tarkovsky- the director’s father), reading some typically banal Russian peasant poetry. Other actors also play multiple characters, including Margarita Terekhova as his Mother and ex-wife Natalia and Anatoli Solonitsyn as a doctor and a passerby. This is all in keeping with the film’s title, though, as ‘doubles’ appear here and there. Yet, this is what makes the film so visually compelling and real. I have, often conflated two people I knew from different times in my life with each other. Perhaps I had no photo of one, and only the other. In my mind, the person I have a tangible reminder of then somehow displaces the other ‘real’ person in my memory, and I have a doppelganger that was not real in history, but ‘real’ in memory. And memory is what The Mirror is mostly about. There is not, so far as I could tell, a single scene ostensibly and inarguably set in the film’s ‘present.’
The film’s narrative emerges from this doubling of persons, the juxtapositions of dream and reality and fantasy and mismemory and ‘reality’- both Alexei’s, and that of newsreel footage of Russian history in the 20th Century- and what are newsreels but doppelgangers of what really happened? Between those newsreels and Alexei’s life, there are a handful of distinct time periods, and this film certainly owes a debt to George Roy Hill’s 1972 film, Slaughterhouse-Five, another film in which time is fluid, and the central events of the main character’s life are based in World War Two. Having said that, while Hill’s film is severely underrated, and needs more viewing by the masses, Tarkovsky’s film is far richer and subtler in its time shifts. It is also a pure work of art, whereas Hill’s film is a Hollywood film, as good as it is. We get snippets of the parallels in the lives of Alexei and his son- Alexei sees his mother and father (Oleg Yankovsky) split up, his mother flirt with a doctor, his family barn burn down, his escape from Moscow under the Nazi assault. We then hear him on the phone with his mother, in more modern times, and then see earlier scenes that somehow connect up with the phone call, but not as the film is watched, only when one recalls the film. In other words, Tarkovsky’s film seems disjointed to some, while watching it, but things fall into place when they are remembered. The film thus recapitulates the act of memory, by making more sense, in a Negatively Capable way, in memory, rather than ‘experience.’ This is how Tarkovsky joins the pantheon of Marker, Tarr, and Malle as a prime manipulator of time, memory, and experience. As example, at various times we see slow pans around the varied apartments, factories, buildings, homes where Alexei and his ‘people’ live and work. Thus, when we get scenes of levitation or sepia, scenes of disembodied voices, we are not sure whether the scene is real or what is remembered, and by whom: Alexei, his mother, the works of architecture themselves? Nor is the coloration of the sense tied only to one time, to give viewers an easy handle on when they are watching. We also get almost manic switches of emotional intensity that do not occur in real life, but do when memories collide with each other. We see Ignat, as a boy, mouthing off to a Soviet military leader at his school, and then tossing a fake hand grenade that sends all scurrying. We see his grandmother, Alexei’s mother, fretting over a nonexistent problem at the book bindery where she works, only to be comforted by a co-worker who then, inexplicably rips into her for driving her husband away with her perfectionism.
We then get one of the most interesting paired ‘mirror’ scenes I the film. We see a disembodied Alexei quarrel with his wife Natalia (also played by Terekhova), then soon see Ignat (played by the same actor who plays the young Alexei) in an apartment with a woman who may or may not be his grandmother, yet whom he seems to not know, who is drinking tea. She asks him to pull a book down and read a letter by the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin. He then gets a call from his father Alexei, answers the doorbell, to find a second strange woman, who does not know him. He turns around to talk to the first old woman, but she is gone. Or was she there, or a ghost? In the first scene with the adult Alexei, we never see him, but hear him, and, from his point of view, see how he is not understood or intellectually recognized by a woman, his wife. Then we see Alexei’s son, as others see him, and although he speaks, his words make little sense within the context of the moment (although they do in the larger filmic context of the life of Alexei as the body of Russia), and he is not physically recognized by two women, one of which may be Alexei’s mother. We then see Alexei ill, possibly dying (likely not, despite many critical assertions of such, for those assertions ignore the tongue in cheek aspect of the scene and the tendency of Alexei’s character to be melodramatic), and holding then letting a bird free from his grasp (perhaps the tritest and most silly moment in a film otherwise free of clichés), only to have the film end on a scene of his mother, pregnant, and wondering whether or not to have the child, as the camera sweeps away and over the landscape and back. The impression left is that, in that final scene, the mother of Alexei may have just had a vision of the future of the child she is carrying (i.e.- the whole prior film), meaning that we finally may have ended up in the film’s present, and all else has been a flashforth.
The DVD, put out by Kino, is bare bones, and one disk. There isn’t even a valid menu. The film runs 106 minutes and is a solid transfer, in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio- no enhancement has been done (speckles crop up here and there), but the original print could have been in worse shape. Fortunately, the gold subtitles stand out against the film quite effectively, making reading the words rather easy, although an English dubbed soundtrack would have been a godsend. The acting is all solid, but oddly, the best performance is likely given in the all vocal acting of Innokenty Smoktunovsky, as the adult Alexei. His voice is wise yet empathic, detached yet visceral. While his comments are not pure poesy, the moments when his voice speaks, it utterly shunts aside everything else in the film, including the often evocative imagery. The screenplay, by Tarkovsky and Aleksandr Misharin, is superb and daring. It threads a story that coheres powerfully, both intellectually and emotionally, in recall, giving the percipient a s sense that he or she is the lead character. The lack of seeing Smoktunovsky as the adult Alexei also aids in this identification process. Eduard Artemyev’s scoring is solid, as it never interferes with the film, but never does much to enhance it, either; although the use of ambient and real world sounds is far more evocative. The cinematography by Georgy Rerberg, is more interesting than groundbreaking. There is nothing, technically, that is stunning, but the arrangement of ordinary scenes- say of the barn fire or a dream of levitation, or the destruction of a home via water, or the sweeps around living quarters, or the recurrent image of wind sweeping across flora- has the ‘just-off’ quality that real dreams do, rather than some mind-bending computer graphics. He also allows characters to walk by cameras then turn 360º to catch up with them, almost affecting a funhouse mirror feel. The camera also seems to have a mind of its own, straying from what would seem the natural center of a scene. As example, in the scene where the family barn is burning, children are seen at a table, the camera pans away, the mother informs them of the fire, and the children leave, yet the camera stays on a jar of milk that then falls to the floor. It then pans out the back of the house, and we see the fire. We then pan in closer, and see the mother yelling at a man about animals in the barn. We then get what appears to be a cut horizontally, but then the camera pans out, and we see that we are looking at the mother as the camera takes in the fire again; yet, if we were logically following its motions, it should be turning to the left or right to get the fire in frame again, not pressing into the background. We then pull back to see the inferno framed by water dripping off the eaves of the family home. But, this is all thought of after the moment. In the moment, it makes perfect sense because no one is caring for the geographic’ logic of the moment, only the emotional impact, and memories often misalign. Japanese film master Yasujiro Ozu was correct when he stated (I paraphrase) that film theory that concerns itself with matching eyelines or fidelity to a logical truth cannot captivate a viewer, because they do not care for such, as long as the tale and emotion felt by the characters, in a given moment, work. Tarlovsky proves Ozu prescient in that sequence. The Mirror is primarily a visual work draped over a strong, albeit daring, screenplay.
There have been many interpretations of the film, but there is no final interpretation that fits all the mirrored moments. It is, of course, about the life of Alexei, and perhaps it is his last moments of life, for he may or may not be near death at film’s end. Or, it may be his mother’s momentary life vision for her yet to be born son. Either way, both are the poles of the same life, and both are valid ways to see the film; as is the idea that Alexei is the physical embodiment of his country. What amazes most is how so few viewers and critics actually get this film on any level. It is certainly not that confusing- a bit, perhaps on first experience, but, in recall, and certainly on subsequent viewings, it crystallizes wonderfully. Yet, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, it leaves just enough unstated and unexpressed that one is forced to ruminate on it. This is certainly poetic, if not always poesy.
The film, although it received mixed critical reviews, was obviously thought of highly enough by Soviet authorities because, after initially not wanting to release it, they did, but refused its entry into film festivals like Venice of Cannes, for fear that it would win, and thus draw more attention to Tarkovsky’s non-agitprop works. The irony is that, had Tarkovsky, and other artists, been allowed to pursue their art unfettered, it would have reflected all the greater on the Soviet system. Having seen earlier and later films of his, I can say that The Mirror is likely Tarkovsky’s best film- not a perfect film, but a great film, and easily. Earlier works culminated in this, while later works stole from it. Tarkovsky, himself, wrote this, in his memoirs: ‘(the film) has demonstrated to me, again, how well founded my conjecture about the importance of personally experienced emotion was in telling a story onscreen. Perhaps cinema is the most personal art, the most intimate. In cinema only the author’s intimate truth will be convincing enough for the audience to accept.’ In actuality, cinema is second, in that regard, to poetry; but then cinema is closer to poetry than any other art in giving its creator an almost God-like ability over time and space. However, its visual element does make it more accessible to many than poetry; if not more intimate.
The biggest critical boner about the film, however, seems to be the idea that the lead character, Alexei, dies in the film, or that the film is about his death, in either memory or toto. Yet, this simply is not a sustainable claim because, as mentioned earlier, the scene in which Alexei supposedly ‘dies,’ is done in a blackly comic sort of way- with two old babushkas kvetching about Alexei possibly dying, even though he may only have strep throat. Yet, by virtue of the images of his memory we have seen to that point, Alexei clearly embellishes to a point of heightened reality, in the least, and melodrama, at most. Therefore, if he is the source of the claim of impending death, it is suspect. Clearly the two babushkas are not credible sources since they seem puzzled by the claim. The so-called doctor in the scene seems not too concerned, either. Likely, Alexei is hypochondriacal. The other pillar for the claim of death is when we see Alexei grip and release a small bird upward in the air. First, the image is so trite, and obviously so, that Tarkovsky, if this was his intent, made an error in judgment that is very bad, for it thuds the film flat. Instead, given the absurdity of the scene, this is likelier Alexei’s own melodramatic tendencies coming to the fore again, and him trying to paint an end to the scene, not his life, for Alexei does, at times in the film, seem to break the fourth wall in his recall. Also, the bird does not fly free from Alexei’s dead hand. His hand heaves up and releases the bird. It’s a toss- a thing that would not occur in a last gesture. Given these visual certainties, the far likelier scenario is that, perhaps, this may be the present state of the film, with Alexei ‘s memory the rest of the film to that point. The end, with his mother’s learning of her pregnancy with him, is just Andrei’s exclamation point after the melodrama with the bird. Or, as I stated earlier, the whole film may be a flashforth with a return to the present of his mother at the ‘start’ of his life.
On the flip side, there are several good scenes that stand out narratively and have other import. The best is the dig at Stalinism and censorship when we see Alexei’s mom freaking out over a possible typographical error at her job. She clearly fears staining her record, and the consequences that may bring. That this worry is compounded by the overt aggression of her co-worker makes for a scene where personal and professional ills collide convincingly, and the scene ends in a shower, where she relieves her stress by laughing. During the dummy grenade scene, when the drill instructor pounces on the grenade, we see his fear reflected in the pulses of his forehead where skull has clearly been removed- likely in a shrapnel explosion. It is eerie, realistic, and memorable. There is a scene where we see spilt milk and the odd coalescence of milk on a floor, or in the scene where Ignat reads Pushkin’s letter aloud, then returns after opening the door, to find her gone. It seems a dream, except we see a moist condensation stain that evaporates on the wooden table, suggesting it was ‘real.’ This scene prefigures similar scenes of ghosts in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, just five years later.
But, then, in a sense, Alexei may or may not be a ghost- a possible person, or a past person. Certainly he embodies his nation, and the film is not wholly from his point of view. There are scenes, such as parts of the dummy grenade scene or when his mother frets over a possible typo, that simply cannot have been known by Alexei, unless he is more than just a human character- perhaps an amalgam of persons and idea(l)s absorbed by his surroundings. After all, early on the doctor tells his mother that some believe that plants have senses of perception. Similarly, some of the newsreels used in the film make no sense, as they are, nor in the context of the film, until one considers that not all memories make sense. Things rarely make sense in a fugue, anyway, and that’s what The Mirror is- a visual fugue on thought and memory, and a great one. Compare it to any of David Lynch’s similarly posited films, and Tarkovsky’s film’s superiority is manifest, for Lynch’s films are piffle, in contrast. From literary references (Chekhov’s Ward No. 6) to historical context to self-referentiality (a scene where a film poster of Tarkovsky’s own Andrei Rublev hangs) to visual sleight of hand to characterization by accumulation, The Mirror succeeds as a great film by simultaneously being as large as everything while focusing on the trivia of life that one rarely recalls. Yet, the film never bores, it invites rewatch to re-trigger memories of it and one’s own. Rare is the trigger that is also a bullet. Bang!