Thoughts On: The Mirror (1975)
Projected memory merges with the present reminiscence of a dying man.
For me, Tarkovsky’s The Mirror is a profound filmic experience that I just don’t fully understand. Having seen the film 4 times, my respect and fascination with the narrative has only strengthened, but my comprehension of the film on a thematic and directly communicative level has remained loose. Whilst I understand the fluid movement through time that means to transform all objective senses of the temporal into a subjective perspective for character and audience, I fail to grasp it as I watch the film. It’s clear that this philosophy of time that Tarkovsky is famous for is meant to reduce all concepts of past and present to banalities, but, this constructs a predominantly more emotional cinema – as opposed to a mechanical or pragmatic one – which is the root of both why I find it so hard to grasp this film and why I’m so enamoured with it. In fact, this is, in large part, true of all of Tarkovsky’s films. We’ve touched on these two approaches to cinema, programmatic/mechanical and emotional, before, but never has it been a more pertinent subject. Tarkovsky’s cinema is one enveloped in memory and feeling, and so the crux of experiencing his films lies in a silent, almost unspeakable, empathy. This means that the essence of watching a film such as The Mirror lies in how it makes us feel. However, this is arguably true for all films; we watch them to feel a certain way–and such is the crux of our viewing experience. There is, however, under the guise of emotional and mechanical cinema, a difference in the way the emotions of a film and the way it makes us feel are translated to us. One of the greatest architects of pragmatic cinema has to be Hitchcock. This is evident in his mechanistic approach to cinema. Before continuing, I must clarify that ‘mechanistic’ isn’t a bad thing; I do not mean to connote this kind of imagery…
… much rather, this…
Perfectly constructed and functioning machinery can be beautiful, it can be mesmerising, even awe-inspiring – just as nature, a landscape or environment, may be. Whilst we don’t find the beauty in nature to be a concise and rigid conception, much rather a free-formed and quaintly anarchic one, we do find the beauty in human construction to be in its contrivance, in the meticulous attempt to construct something perfect. This speaks articulately of the difference between mechanistic and emotional cinema. Whilst the last word is of beauty, all that proceeds can either be poetic or informative. In such, Hitchcock is informative, Tarkovsky is poetic. Hitchcock builds his cinema, his suspense, crime and mystery pictures, with focus on plot, on the intellectual juxtaposition of images as to create a pragmatic narrative montage. His films are thus utterly reliant on us following simple sentences; his direct instruction spoken in expository images. The example I always use to demonstrate this is the scene in Psycho where Marion decides she is going to leave…
Hitchcock doesn’t provide V.O that has Marion say “I must get out. I must get to a new town where me and Sam may start again, away from wives and alimony. The $40,000 won’t be missed, but, with luck, it can be put to good use; a small shop in a little town, a small home for a little family”. Instead of grating at the audience with this terrible exposition of her inner thoughts, he just shows us action: her bags packed, her getting changed, the money on the bed. The pragmatic construction in this scene is something seen throughout Psycho, in fact, all of Hitchcock’s films. He has the audience work in an almost mathematical way to understand his plots; something derivative of the silent Soviet cinema of the 20s.
Just as Eistenstein or Vertov would use the montage as a way of telling stories – the juxtaposition of imagery needing the audience association as to mean anything – Hitchcock uses a mechanistic plot, one that needs the juxtaposition of actions and events to be decoded through the audience’s associations. This is pragmatic/intellectual/mechanistic cinema in essence. It can produce a vast slew of films that conjure any amount of responses they want from their audience, and so conform to a definition of art as communication, but they do so in a thoroughly constructed manner – one that is evident in how we conceive the film. Poetic cinema exists in a different compartment of the art form.
Tarkovsky’s poetic cinema uses all the filmic devices that Hitchcock’s does, for example, the juxtaposition of images, but does so in a much more subdued and subjective way – one that cannot be reduced to a handful of images as to be explained. Tarkovsky’s approach to something such as ‘the juxtaposition of images’ is something convoluted by his philosophy of cinematic time. He uses Aleksei as a narrative body, and so we see his memories, his past and resent, but never him in his entirety. In such, the juxtaposition of his childhood and present is the crux of the film. However, we don’t merely see a montage of images depicting how distant he and his mother were contrasted with a montage of the isolation he feels at present. In such, there is no movement through a field where there is a literal distance put between he and his mother proceeding a shot of him, a grown man, lying in an empty room. This is the mechanistic or Hitchcockian approach to cinema. We attribute the pragmatically derived meaning of the first image – a distance between a young boy and a mother – to define that of the second: Aleksei alone, isolated as a result of a cold childhood. The poetic approach Tarkovsky takes is to do away with ‘past’ an ‘present’ by representing Aleksei’s mother and ex-wife as the same person as well as Aleksei himself and his son. So, not only are we forever perplexed by the true identity of the characters played by Margarita Terekhova and Ignat Daniltsev…
… but are intentionally confused by Tarkovsky. He makes this point of convoluting who characters are as to project Aleskei’s perception onto screen; it is because of his perception of himself and son, his ex-wife and mother, that we see them as the same people. And in such, we see Tarkovsky’s approach to ‘the juxtaposition of images’ come to fruition. It is never simple, always contorted by character and narrative. The poetry of this lies in the convolution; the fact that we don’t always understand the mechanics of Tarkovsky’s cinema as we would Hitchcock’s. Despite the audience not fully understanding his film, Tarkovsky can construct a piece of art that can be considered very similar to the art of Hitchcock. Despite the difference between this poetic and mechanistic approach to cinema, the approaces are cinematic – equally so.
This difference between Tarkovsky and Hitchcock, poetic and mechanistic cinema, is so significant to me as I am constantly trying to break down films and explain them – all to learn something. In seeing how Hitchcock conveys his stories, we are all given the chance to build upon or utilise his style. This is true of all technical and more intangible aspects of Hitchcock’s films. We can look at his camera movement, his editing style, framing, shot-types, colouration, ect, and directly see how it translates to the meaning of a scene. In other words, with Hitchcock’s films we can all look at scenes, see that he does ‘this’ then ‘that’ to achieve ‘that’ and thus learn a lesson. So, when it comes to writing our own scripts, making films, or even watching and assessing movies as an audience member, we have at hand the archetypal lesson of the way Hitchcock tells us Marion is about to steal money…
… and can thus re-contextualise a Hitchcockian sensibility as a form of judging a film. In such, when we hear a character narrating their decision to steal money and run away, or explaining it to another character, in any film, we know that there’s a different way to do this – and, depending on the film, possibly a better way. This is one of the benefits afforded to audiences by mechanistic films; part of their beauty is their transparency, is the mesmerising kaleidoscope of moving parts–and this is something we can easily learn from. However, whilst poetic cinema produces great films, films such as The Mirror, it is hard to learn from them.
So, the question I want to ask is: how do we learn from Tarkovsky?
This is a question anyone who enjoys his films must ask, but, if they’re like me, sometimes despairs in asking. How on Earth do you create stories like those of Tarkovsky? This is not a question of replication, and no one should mean to be Tarkovsky. However, there is something intangible that gives films such as Stalker, Nostalghia and The Mirror some sense of magic. This ‘something’ is what I mean to question, – and in a broad sense – but this is hidden by the poetic form of Tarkovsky’s narrative. Whilst one may replicate his shot types, long, meandering, but always focused on something of narrative importance, there is an essence to these films that cannot be put into words as easily. This is all in reference to the atmosphere and tone of Tarkovsky’s pictures. When his films begin it is as if everything must be silenced and put aside, it is as if what Tarkovsky has to say is of such major importance that it overshadows all other facets of our attention. I have described this phenomena as The Monologue Paradox previously, and what this depicts is a form of cinema so immersive that it almost numbs your senses. A great example of The Monologue Paradox which I’ve picked up on before lies in Texas, Paris’ penultimate scene…
When watching this scene I fall into a zone whereby I’m not focused on the images, just the sound, and am completely encapsulated by the story being projected by the monologues. The same thing happens when I watch The Mirror. Whilst it is not the sound that falls away from my perceptual gaze, it is an attention I am acutely aware of when watching a film like Psycho that floats somewhere distant. In films like Psyco, I have to pay attention to the mechanics of the story to understand what Hitchcock is saying, with The Mirror, I just have to give my attention over to fall into something like a trance. But, just as I can’t precisely explain The Monologue Paradox and explain how to conjure it as I would outline how to depict someone stealing money, I can’t explain how Tarkovsky conjures his atmosphere, his masterful tone inherent to all of his films.
The reason why I can’t break down poetic cinema is that it is so subjective to a narrative and the product of a myriad of unseen moving parts. By this, we can understand that it is Tarkovsky’s manipulation of sound and visuals, sometimes his use of silence or slow motion, that draws us in, but we can’t explain the narrative through this, nor can we grasp the intricacies of the story. This leaves these films incredibly slippery, almost impossible to grip, but immersive nonetheless. When faced with a question of how to capture this ourselves, I must then suggest that you try not to understand this film for what it is, but for what it isn’t, to not understand this film by the plethora of artistic choices Tarkovsky makes, but through Tarkovsky’s artistic prowess. In such, I mean to introduce a form of cinematic assessment encapsulated by an idea of ‘artistic sensibilities’.
To explain this concept, it is best to use one of the most important interviews a filmmaker can ever see. This is a notorious interview between Peter Bogdanovich and John Ford:
Man: Take one. (Claps board)
Ford: Take one? Won’t be more than one take, will there? Shoot.
Bogdanovich: Mr. Ford, you made a picture called Three Bad Men which is a large scale western – you had quite an elaborate land rush in it…
Bogdanovich: … how did you shoot that?
Ford: With a camera.
Bogdanovich: Isn’t The Sun Shines Bright kind of a little picture that you made for yourself – would that–
Bogdanovich: –fall under the same–
Bogdanvich: Mr. Ford, I’ve noticed that the, uh… that your view of The West has become increasingly… sad… and melancholy over the years… Uh, I’m comparing, for instance, Wagon Master to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Have you been aware of that–
Bogdanovich: –change in mood?
The interview goes on for half a minute more. To see it in its entirety click here. But, what’s clear about this conversation is that Ford is either/both grumpy and/or a man not willing to explain his work and self. David Lynch is very much the same – just not as grumpy. Ford’s dismissive attitude, however, speaks in volumes about the questions inspired filmmakers want to ask. They want to expose and mechanise what is often a very intuitive and personal process as a form of learning. But, to poke at a director’s art is to poke at them, moreover, audiences sometimes bring to the film something a director hadn’t pre-conceived. Bogdanovich’s last question of the change in Ford’s westerns is highly indicative of both of these ideas. Instead of embracing the fact that his films can speak of himself as a person or embracing some audience members that look too deep into his films (people like me writing this and you reading it), he dismisses them. Lynch also dismissed questions of what his films mean, but does so in a much more sly and evasive manner; he embraces the fact that people bring something of their own to his movies, that they will take something away that he didn’t intend. This is surely one of the most difficult aspects of art to manage; a writer/director wants to say one thing to an audience, but something else is heard. Such is rather crushing disconnect articulated, but, this disconnect isn’t a futile one. An audience getting something rather than nothing is surely a positive.
However, what lies at the core of this disconnect is a person trying to say something. For Ford, maybe he just wanted to make an entertaining piece of cinema – maybe he’s just bored or tired of trying to put that across to people. Nonetheless, herein lies the epitome of artistic sensibilities. Ford knows what his films mean, just like Lynch may (eventually) do, just like Tarkovsky may do. Their intuitive projection of this understanding is facilitated by their sensibilities as an artist. Because of this, I sometimes I hear just as much from interviews with Tarkovsky or from his book Sculpting in Time, as I do from this interview with John Ford. That is not to say that Tarkovsky is inarticulate, just that he is a man that seems to know his art on such an individual and subjective level that it is difficult to re-contextualise. When he tries to explain this, when he tries to convey just what his films mean through his philosophy of cinema, we can easily be lost. This describes, again, what poetic cinema is. It’s not just opposed to a mechanical approach to cinema as so subdued and ambiguous, but personal; steeped in the hidden depths of a person. The Mirror serves an example of this that cannot be bettered. This is a film that is, in large part, autobiographical for Tarkovsky. It’s his and Aleksandr Misharin’s (screenwriter) childhoods that are being projected through Aleksei; a mere vessel of character. What we are then seeing in The Mirror are the core emotions of Tarkovsky himself – those that he may not be able to articulate in a mechanistic way. What this picks up on is another struggle of anyone trying to tell another something. One of the hardest questions anyone can ever ask you is ‘Who are you?’. On a side note, this is a concept probably best explored through Hugh’s Breakfast Club…
Back on track, to answer a question such as Who are you? you can almost never say anything better than your name. Just as I am Daniel Slack and Tarkovsky is Andrei Tarkovsky you are …………… . In saying our names, we trigger in ourselves a vast network of experiences accumulated throughout our lives that define ourselves to us alone. We do not see these events as individual mechanistic lessons, rather a conglomerate of emotions, a singular feeling symbolised by our name. Such is the crux of our disconnect and inarticulable personage as people; we can’t just tell other who we are as we’re not that simple. Nonetheless, we all make this attempt in telling stories, for some, in making films. Tarkovsky means to answer this unfathomable question of who he is through poetry, through poetic cinema. In such, we are seeing him turning his film into a symbol tantamount to that of his name. However, the film is so much more because it has detail, it makes an attempt to explain with some depth who Tarkosvky is. In such, we see the best means of answering this incredibly complex question of Who are you?; your approach has to be open, ambiguous, needing interpretation, so that it has the dexterity to be understood by so many on such a profound level. This kind of understanding when translated through film, however, retains ambiguity – which is exactly why The Mirror is such a profound experience I cannot explain. The ambiguous poetry of this film is thus the only way Tarkovsky can approach the kind of communication he pursues.
However, we’re still left with the question of how to assess and learn from Tarkovsky. The answer lies in the simple idea of artistic sensibilities. This is a complex codex of an artist’s intentions intertwined, at times lost, in a narrative. To comprehend an artists’ sensibilities you just have to absorb their films. In such, you aren’t just learning about them as a person (as Bogdanovich must have with Ford’s films), but learning their style. In knowing a person’s style you aren’t able to see their films as mechanistic entities, like you may Hitchcock’s, though. This is frustrating, but you can nonetheless learn from an artist like Tarkovsky. By watching his films you can slowly figure out what he is doing in terms of what he is not doing. An example would be the way Tarkovsky doesn’t use traditional plots. He jumps throughout time and into characters in a very fluid and dexterous way that can’t be plotted on a beat sheet – that always stems from a character. Without a beat sheet and by watching and re-watching Tarkovsky’s films we can learn a myriad of details that make up his take on cinema. These details are much easier picked up than expressed in an essay – this is why its so important to watch his films, this is why poetic cinema is such an significant kind to consume. Whilst films such as The Mirror aren’t as coherent as Psycho, they are not only great filmic experiences (if you have the patience and attention for them) but lessons in how to approach cinema. What Tarkovsky’s artistic sensibilities then teach in the most profound sense is that all artists have their intentions. And whilst I may proclaim that we can break Hitchcock’s style and sensibilities down, this is only true a certain extent. To get the most from Hitchcock you must also consider him as a poet in the same respect you would Tarkovsky. This will allow you to absorb even more from his films – something that you can’t put on the page, but will learn from.
So, the crux of what The Mirror really teaches is as a test, it is a trial in our ability to absorb art as the craft of a handicapped person; the artist; he who means to express the inexpressible, he who means to face the impossible question of Who am I? in all of its forms. Absorb Tarkovsky, absorb great films, and you will find yourself the most crucial and stifling lessons about telling stories through the medium of film. The key to this absorption, however, is recognising the futility expressed in the John Ford interview, is recognising the hardship implied by this concept of artistic sensibilities.
The Last House On The Left – Exploitation Is Intimacy
Bridget Jones’s Diary – Unashamed Intimacy
More from me: