Monday, November 30, 2009

Through a glass, enduringly: Three reflections on Tarkovsky's Mirror

A television documentary shows a young man being treated for a severe stutter. A woman perches upon a bowed fence, gazing upon a pastoral landscape. Nearby children are sleeping. A gust of wind brushes through the undulating foliage, causing everyone to pause, as though grasping at some elusive memory. Soon a house will catch fire. Later the woman will rush back to the printing press where she works, panicked that she may have made a disastrous typographical error—this is Stalinist Russia, and there are words that can ruin lives. Soon a father will tell a son about a red-haired girl he once loved. There will be newsreel footage, of the Spanish Civil War, of Soviet troops wading through the shallow, muddy waters of Lake Sivash, of clamoring Chinese holding up Mao's Little Red Book. There’ll be a second woman, physically resembling the first, but more guarded, modern and icily sexy than her twin, who’ll examine herself in mirrors while talking to a man who remains off-camera. There’ll be a snow-blanketed field where children play in an evenly scattered formation, as though staged by Brueghel. All of these scenes, separated by time, by their varied roots in personal memories or dreams, hearsay or history, flow into one another, linked only by the filmmaker’s carefully guided stream of consciousness and ever-drifting camera; by the immersive central performance by Margarita Terekhova, who resembles the young Meryl Streep, as the filmmaker’s mother and first wife; and by poems read by their author, who’s also filmmaker’s father, though this is never made explicit. Zerkalo, or The Mirror (1975), has typically been described as Andrei Tarkovsky’s most difficult film. So why is this the one that moves me most?

Solaris (72) and Stalker (79), The Mirror hovers between these science-fictions as something grounded in personal experience, in the realms of childhood and parenthood, war and terror. It is among the closest things we have to a poetic memoir from a major filmmaker. It floats in the confluence of the political and the personal while eschewing context. I’d suggest regarding The Mirror as an essay film as much as anything else, yet ultimately the film’s genre is stubbornly sui generis. Among its offerings is the opportunity to watch a film discover its own form as it unfolds. If you treasure this iconic maverick of Russian and later European cinema, you partly do so because of his relentless belief in the medium’s possibilities. Tarkovsky often looked to painting, music and literature for inspiration, yet rather than result in something merely mimetic or regressive, his absorption of other media rendered his films only more distinctive and progressive, more uniquely cinematic. Because The Mirror is so personal; because it’s as perplexing as it is hauntingly beautiful; because its structure requires such an act of surrender from viewers unconditioned to its rhythms and ambiguities, it speaks directly to each individual’s unique points of connection to what transpires on screen, whether it be the tensions lingering between divorced parents, the longing for some lost idyll or some now-aged or dead parent to take us by the hand, the blur of historical upheaval, or the sight of our home going up in flames.

Everything we need to comprehend about the film’s fundamental purpose is made plain in the title: this is a work of reflection. Appropriately, there are reflective surfaces everywhere, not to mention water, pouring down walls in the most dream-like moments. It’s also an interrogation of vanity and fears of aging. Like a hall of mirrors, it’s a labyrinth where truth, conjecture and fantasy, where reality—Tarkovsky’s actual parents, the archival footage—and re-enactment—the dacha which we return to again and again was meticulously reconstructed on the original site from photos of the actual dacha were Tarkovsky spent childhood summers—are often indistinguishable. To “decode”
The Mirror, to catalogue and understand the full significance of its many layers, requires repeat encounters and research into both Tarkovsky’s life and Soviet history. (Vida T. Johnson and Graham Petrie's Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue is an excellent place to start.) But to understand the emotional textures of The Mirror should only take a single, patient viewing, after which this ghostly parade of memories will likely remain unforgettable.

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