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Mirror (Zerkalo)

dir: Andrei Tarkovsky
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On the back of my last Tarkovsky review, which was ye oldie Russkie version of Solaris, which I didn’t like, I watched the next film in his catalogue, which was the semi-auto-partly biographical Mirror.

And I was pretty impressed. The funniest thing is that I could just as easily say the same kinds of things I said in the Solaris review, but here those points are positives and enhance the film, such as it is.

As to what exactly the film is about, I’ve got close to fuck-all idea. Honestly, it’s about everything and nothing at the same time. It’s a tribute to his father and mother and a dreamlike, nostalgic re-rendering of Tarkovsky’s childhood and adulthood and there’s some Spanish people in there and the conflict between a husband who abandons his family after the war who is then young and being trained incompetently in the war and then the mother is someone’s girlfriend instead and and and…

I’ve got no idea. Tarkovky’s father’s poetry makes some appearances, and he was a famous and respected writer in his time, so maybe its purpose (since it’s dedicated to him) is to honour him. Tarkvosky’s younger sister Marina has stated on the record that Tarkovsky used many snaps from the family photo albums to summon up much of the incredible imagery and scenes in this non-linear, multi-dimensional, chaotically coherent film.

Although Mirror is the far more appropriate and poetic title, it could just as easily have been called Tarkovsky: Shit I Remember from My Childhood.

Many, if not most scenes are imbued with a strange dream-like quality which is appropriate when taking stuff from the inside of your head and trying to recreate it outside of your head in order to film it. To call the flick autobiographical would fail to comprehend or even approach what Tarkovsky, the most celebrated and therefore overrated Russian director in cinema history, attempts and succeeds at doing. Each vignette or sequence, unbound as it is by time or chronology, builds to give a picture that tells no story that I can figure out, nor is there a plot, per se capable of grasping.

And then there’s actual, hideous war footage dating back from the Second World War, from the Soviet side of things, woven in to the fabric of the film in order to have us grasp at elements that go to characterise both the Russian “soul”, and his father’s essence, at the same time.

But mother and father, the father mostly unseen, are woven throughout the lyrical visual narrative continuously. You have no doubt as to how profound an impact these people have had on the mindscape of the director, but it goes beyond the autobiographical accounts that usually make it into the movies (I’m thinking of more recent fare such as the “can you believe how crazy, kooky and selfish my parents were” movies such as Running with Scissors and The Squid and the Whale).

Almost anything an artist does, and there are, were and will rarely be cinematic artists as accomplished as Tarkovsky was, is autobiographical to an extent. No, I’m not going all post-modern. No, I haven’t been smoking dope.

Tarkovsky has always used imagery and ideas straight from his head regardless if whether they’re there because they serve a story purpose or not. The problem audiences, and by audiences I mean myself, have is they confuse imagery and symbolism with meaning. Sure stuff means stuff, and nothing is entirely random even if someone doesn’t know exactly why they’re “saying”: that in itself is saying something either from their conscious or unconscious mind.

In other words, uh, yeah, stuff can be deeply meaningful and meaningless at the same time. Without context, without understanding the signifiers and the significances, sure, we’re screwed.

Except, and this is a big except, there are many instances where we can deeply appreciate something that we don’t necessarily understand.

Allow me to demonstrate with an exceedingly piss-poor example.

I listen to, amongst a million other pieces of music, to orchestral / choral work like that of Henrik Gorecki or even Mozart, and, to put it more simply, to the music of outfits like Dead Can Dance, Sigur Ros, The Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine. In all of the above instances, the lyrics involved are either not in English, incomprehensible or inaudible, or are in a completely made-up language of the artist’s devising. It’s not for me to tell other people whether the music is objectively good or not, or whether they’d enjoy it themselves. Still, I derive a great deal of pleasure from hearing many of their songs and listening to their music.

A-ha!, you scream, irritated beyond boiling point by your impression of me as a filthy, pretentious savage: the artistic medium is the music in these cases, not the fucking lyrics! That’s it, you’ve shown me up for the fool that I am.

Except for this one little factor: in this case, since I don’t comprehend the music on the level of necessarily understanding what it is about, what does it mean?

Nothing and everything is the irritating answer. It doesn’t matter if I don’t understand the deep themes of the Russian / Soviet experience and history, or every complex aspect of Tarkovsky’s life and character, or every trenchant and pungent thought that popped into the shmuck’s head that he put on film. His films, this film, can be experienced and appreciated like a piece of music with lyrics you don’t understand.

Of course, just to muddy the pre-Glasnost waters even further, of course the flick is subtitled, so we do understand at the very least what people are talking about when they’re talking.

But the visual imagery, the film’s structure and scenes and how they link (or don’t), the sensations he tries to elicit from his audience in watching a dream of his childhood and his father’s childhood made solid, are about conveying meaning above or beyond or transcending symbols and signposts. On some level, probably the easiest level, maybe it is just about what it’s about: family anecdotes and reminiscences through the lens of a director’s powerful imagination.

When we see the (or a) protagonist’s father undergoing infantry training after becoming an orphan through the Siege of Stalingrad, and being terrible at it, it has the patina of a family story beyond telling a story for its own sake. But when the drill sergeant loses his helmet, thinking that a hand grenade is about to go off, and we see the pulse beating where skull and hair should be, it’s a freaky moment. Freaky in the sense that I wonder how it was done, but mostly because I hope it was what I thought it was, and not some alien, fucked up mutant thing that I just didn’t get.

Interspersed in this part of the film are actual scenes of war, which are anything but patriotic rabble-rousing. They make the Russian side of the war look like the ugly mess it must have been. No marching, square-jawed Soviet supermen marching into the future here.

Later, or before, there is a long sweeping scene through an apartment, which is shot and designed to look like something of a painting in and of itself. Of course, when the camera slowly pans over a poster for Andrei Rublyev, Tarkovsky’s earlier work regarding Russian history and iconographers, you wonder if he’s just being funny, or whether it means something else for him, since the apartment itself could just as easily be the inside of Tarkovsky’s skull.

A boy, presumably Tarkovksy himself, is asked questions by his father, who is the camera, about whether he wants to come and live with him here, in this apartment. The son seems to demure, but then there are also a whole bunch of Spaniards in the apartment. One of the Spaniards asks the boy to read from a book on the shelf, and he does so, reciting a letter from Pushkin to a friend decrying his friend’s stance that Russia’s history is worthless compared to that of Europe.

As the boy finishes reading the text, he returns to the place where the Spanish woman sat. She is gone. As tense, fearful music rises to an agonising crescendo, we see that the impression made by her arm’s skin on the table where she sat is still visible, like the faint moisture our hands leave behind when we touch glass-like surfaces. It slowly fades and fades, until it is gone.

It’s a frightening moment, and one that took me by surprise. What does it mean? I haven’t got the faintest idea. Much of the film is like that, and it didn’t bug me. It’s a form of cinema that I am not completely comfortable with, because, call me conservative and old-fashioned, but I like to be able to make sense of what I’m watching. But here it bugged me less, because I knew that what might have seemed like free-form surrealism actually had the structure of dream logic, and fit a purpose as befitted Tarkovsky telling something of his childhood and life.

He doesn’t bring the same exuberance and naughtiness to such a telling that, say, Fellini does in many of his flicks, but they’re coming from completely different places as artists, and I wouldn’t want them to be in any way similar. The vast gulf of culture, history and intellect separating the two directors means their films are as if by two different alien species.

Mirror remains, though, an astounding and unsettling visual experience. I won’t claim to understand it, and I suspect it might be too chaotic and disconnected for other viewers to enjoy it on anything apart from the visual level. There’s much to be said for a director who can make a gust of wind across a forest seem like one of the most powerful images you’ve ever seen, or a woman’s hair casually flicked away from the front of a tired face, or a woman suspended from the ceiling with water cascading every which way, which you don’t understand but are still affected by.

In the end though, it really is a simple story. A dying man has regrets: he regrets having hurt the people he loves, and he realises that it is too late to make amends. The entire film is his meditations upon a life, filled with beauty, that he cannot change, similar to the manner in which no audience can change the outcome of what they’re watching. Like Tarkovsky himself, like his father, they are trapped by their memories, and the lives they have lead, by the film of their life.

That Mirror it is about memory, the nature and perils of memory, and how it manifests in our lives, is undeniable. And that Tarkovsky was a hellishly pretentious git who populated his films with classical music by Bach and references to Leonardo Da Vinci solely to equate his works with theirs is also undeniable. But, I’ve got to hand it to him, sometimes you feel like the guy really did have the skills to pay the bills.

This is the perfect example of the power of film in dangerous hands.

10 mirrors of the Russian soul out of 10

“I simply wanted to be happy” – Mirror.