Friday, July 12, 2013

The Mirror (1975)

Zerkalo, USSR, 108 minutes
Director: Andrei Tarkovksy
Writers: Aleksandr Misharin, Andrei Tarkovsky, Arseni Tarkovsky
Photography: Georgi Rerberg
Music: Eduard Artemev
Editor: Lyudmila Feiginova
Cast: Margarita Terekhova, Innokenti Smoktunovsky, Larisa Tarkovskaya, Oleg Yankovsky, Ignat Daniltsev, Anatoli Solonitsin, Alla Demidova, Arseni Tarkovsky

By all I can tell, The Mirror was shot and first released in the USSR (under heavy official sanction, which prevented it from entry into Cannes) and then made its way slowly across the world—the first screening in the U.S. was 1983, according to IMDb—approximately during the period when I was busy attending revival house and art film theater series, taking film appreciation classes, and thinking a lot about movies. Yet even the name was plain unfamiliar to me many years later when I ran across it in a list of Greatest Films You Must See or some such. I shoveled The Mirror on in to my Netflix queue, along with two more highly regarded Tarkovsky pictures I knew only dimly, Andrei Rublev and Ivan's Childhood.

In retrospect, I think I can see how Andrei Rublev could become for some what I found in, say, The Mother and the Whore or Berlin Alexanderplatz: a vast, bewildering, disorienting film unlike any other, certainly unlike anything before it, and profoundly formative somehow. By comparison, The Mirror is more chamber suite, moderated by the focused scope and intimacies of autobiography. No surprise, it requires patience, and probably some previously existing predisposition toward director/co-writer Andrei Tarkovsky's work. Few filmmakers seem to me as capable of exploiting the daunting levels of complexity the medium can accommodate. But the slipperiness of the narrative handholds are frustrating. Yet there it sits at #27 on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Well, it's not hard to see whose film-critical star is on the rise. The Mirror made it to the top 30 up from #67 last year, while Andrei Rublev is up to #22 from #42, and Stalker is up to #54 from #117. Three films by one director in that top 50 is the kind of thing achieved by figures such as Federico Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock, and Orson Welles, and them not always, which speaks volumes to the burgeoning esteem for Tarkovsky.

The Mirror is a lush overheated swamp of a filmmaking laboratory. How many types of film stock are used here? There are scenes in black and white, sepia, and multiple color tones, plus generous portions of historical documentary and newsreel footage. In a page from Persona, deliberate bad filmmaking techniques—boom shadows in frame, chopped-up cuts, and distracting cue marks (those dots in the upper right corner that signal projectionists)—are used at will, elaborately insisting on reminders of the medium. It feels like there ought to be a schema, such as in the shifts between black and white and color, but looking carefully I'm damned if I can make one out. The dreamier, hallucinatory sequences are in both black and white and color. So are the explicit memories. So are the present-day scenes, which modulate into harrowing, convincing, and oddly riveting relationship dynamics. So are scenes that seem to be advancing a narrative, however anecdotally. If anything, the shifts between black and white and color are like rhythms of nature, pounding waves, vibration, shifting across the tonal planes of this movie.

It is dense—often the visuals and audio are telling us two separate things at once. It includes voiceover narration by Tarkovsky's father Arseni, reading his own poetry. The omnipresent center of this film is actually not easy to find. I take it as autobiographical because that's what I've read, and that's what makes the most sense as a frame, though it's very generalized. We experience it from a deeply internalized place, rarely seeing the evident author (son and husband) in the present day, only as if glimpsed in mirrors, though the stream of his thought and speech is a constant. In many ways, it is how we experience ourselves, a body only occasionally seen and a voice constantly heard.

As pure filmmaker, Tarkovsky is capable of amazing technical feats. The complexity of his setups, and how well suited they are to the mood of the story (such as it is), are what make this for me. Early on, for example, there is a long tracking shot that starts from the dark interior of a country house, watches two children hurry from the breakfast table to see a calamity, stops and lingers on a mirror that reflects the backs of the children and our first tiny glimpse of a barn on fire, and then tracks out of the house and into a long wide exterior from under the eaves of a porch. Tarkovsky is good with buildings engulfed in flames, as he also demonstrated in The Sacrifice. He is also very good with simple and elusive things others rarely think of, or use poorly, such as wind. He is remarkably good with wind. He is remarkably good.

There are many scenes and images of great power strewn across The Mirror. Margarita Terekhova delivers a bravura performance, playing both the mother and wife. The picture possesses flourishes of magic realism, a risky stock in trade, but managed well. That means levitation among other things. The mushroom cloud makes an appearance, which arguably belongs in the autobiography of anyone alive since 1945. The implicit comparisons and refractions of memory and mirrors effectively layer on more complexity. The placid sense of revery often surprises. Everything feels thought through somehow, even as the ends seem to elude one. As with a good short-story anthology, the sum is not necessarily greater than the parts. But the parts indeed can be very great.

1 comment:

  1. Just watched this. It ranks high on the list of Movies Steven Won't Like, although I didn't hate it. Thank you for mentioning Margarita Terekhova ... I thought she was the best thing about the movie, but many of the reviews I've read leave her out entirely.