Thoughts On: The Mirror (1975)
A film we’ve covered before, but will be looking at in a different light today…
As with all of Tarkovsky’s films, The Mirror is not the easiest watch, but is clearly masterful, undeniably mesmerising, irrefutably beautiful, complex and immersive. The crux of all that makes this film so ambiguously hypnotic is the manner in which Tarkovsky uses dreams and memory to characterise his protagonist. The statement made by this formal approach is then that we are, in large part, the memories we hold of the experiences in our pasts. Tarkovsky introduces further complexity to this with his re-application of characters, like the protagonist’s son in place of himself and his wife in place of his mother. This suggests a cycle built into the fabric of humanity; we are not only our pasts, but are guided by our parent’s pasts and go on to dictate our children’s futures. Melancholia then seems to seep into this narrative because of an indescribable sensation of loss and a lack of a place. Stuck in the currents of history, paddling your way along the present with memory, the future only seems to be an endless body of water. It’s considering yourself as memory that this nihilistic paradigm threatens to surface, and this seems to be the core concept Tarkovsky explores across this narrative as we see our protagonist’s memories and dreams materialise.
What’s so interesting about this film’s approach to character and narrative is then the divide between who a character is and what they have been through. A question we’ve all heard and scoffed at, asked ourselves before biting our tongues, is, who am I? This existential gas bomb is something storytellers must ask themselves – or is at least something they inherently face when casting their story. After all, how do you represent and project a character without questioning that process?
It seems to be very evident that we are genetic factors interacting with experiences – all to varying degrees and across billions of seconds and millions of moments of being. However, there is an equally common assertion that there has to be something more to people and humanity. This ‘something more’ can be characterised through some idea of purpose, significance, religion or philosophy, and is generally resonant, but problematically (from banal to minor to extreme degrees) ambiguous. The relation of this to writing and cinema comes when you consider your favourite characters – or, at least, characters that you feel are powerful, great, such and so on. You do not see, say for instance, Indiana Jones or James Bond as genetic factors interacting with their pasts. Whilst you are given hints of back story and come to understand them, through their behaviours, in the present moment, this is not where you find the magic of characterisation – not in my view. What makes characters great seems to be their capacity to both draw upon our own memories and past experiences, but, more importantly, to draw upon our dreams. That is to say that Indiana Jones or James Bond resonate with you because you see yourself, in part, in them. And where you do not see yourself in them, you wish you could be them. To further clarify, you may have a fear of snakes…
Whether it be genetically written into the code of your personage or you had a terrible experience with a snake as a child, you hate snakes (or at least aren’t the biggest fan). And because of this, when you see Indiana freeze in fear, you feel closer to him. He becomes human because he is allowed to become a vessel for yourself – whom I’m sure you consider human. In fact, simply seeing fear humanises Indiana. It doesn’t have to be a specific fear of snakes that resonates with us, but fear itself – as we’ve all felt that.
Indiana Jones transcends this empathy-seeking and self-deprecating characterisation however by actually turning down that humanisation we’ve granted him. Indiana sucks it up and grabs the snakes or runs to safety. Screaming and fearful or not, Indiana remains a hero that we probably aren’t. This act of transcendence is so pivotal and is what makes a character like Indiana Jones so powerful because, as he stops being us (in a certain sense), we start becoming him; we become the hero. This is, at the least, what the mirror that Jones has become allows us to feel for a moment.
So, what we are seeing in this example of powerful characterisation is an appeal to, firstly, experience, and secondly, the dream. Indiana appeals to us on our terms, then acts as wish fulfilment for ourselves. This seems to be the magic belying the mysterious process of characterisation and it functions, seemingly so, because it is mysterious. In appealing to the dream, to our own wishes of being the hero and overcoming our fears, we are given light to peer down an avenue of pure unknown qualities. This aligns with our observation that people can see themselves as genetic factors interacting with experiences (a somewhat concrete assessment of the human condition), but, still believe there is room for more – that humanity holds a crucial ambiguity that makes it special; a soul, purpose, deity… something.
The function of a dream, whether it be in an audience member wishing they could overcome fears, get a girl, or become successful, is then a hole or a dark spot which humans constantly look for in life. Whilst we have science, whilst we have progression, revolution, evolution, we are constantly striving into a void. The scientist wants to know what is beyond the atom, what is beyond the universe. The progressive wants to know how society can change, how it can continually move to some ambiguous somewhere. We find this in all aspects of life; there never seems to be a true end manufactured into the most enjoyable and fascinating of human endeavors. And in such, science, philosophy, art and construction will never seem to end. This relates to cinema as that infinite void is the catalyst for dreams – we use dreams to push further into this void, to explore ourselves and the world around us. Cinema is thus a form of pure human procrastination – just as any other art, science or form of philosophy seems to be.
The relationship between past, present and future in reality is contextualised within the human mind as memory (past), experience or sensation (present) and dreams (future). In recognising this, we are starting to come full circle and back to Tarkovsky’s, The Mirror. To ask who am I? is, basically, to further ask what, when, where and how? This is to suggest that to ask any of these existential questions, we are asking of our place in the world – we are asking of context. Context, or reality, is past, present and future. For humans to be put in context to this, you’d have to appeal to memory, experience and dreams. So, to answer who am I?, to characterise a figure, you must seemingly give them these three things – you must define them in relation to the world around them (that including the viewer and his/her world). This is the cinematic lesson we can draw from Tarkovsky’s formal approach to characterisation in The Mirror. This film is so profound, in part, because of the manner in which it handles and projects memory, experience and dreams. The particular focus on memory and dreams is what gives this narrative a magical and ambiguous quality – and is what also further suggests profundity.
Before concluding, if we were to take a quick step back and look to Indiana Jones again, we see a great character – but one that would not fit into a film by Tarkovsky. For a plethora of pretty obvious reasons, there is a mismatch here. But, there is an underlying idea of memory, experience and dreams that is projected, in differing ways, through both of these figures. The reliance on experience and dreams in a present context within Indiana Jones is what makes his narrative an action film and so entertaining. There is this lack of time and presence in The Mirror, which, as said, gives it a sense of profundity, but also makes the film very difficult. What we are thus seeing when we compare these characters are two approaches to our subject, one that is entertaining and one that is intellectually stimulating. Having hopefully demonstrated this clearly enough, I’ll leave you to consider your opinion on these two representatives of a spectrum in characterisation between a film like The Mirror and Indiana Jones.
The Matrix – We, The One
Elle – Complex Characterisation; Where Functionality Meets Dysfunction
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