Sunday Editor’s Pick: The Mirror (1975)

by on March 1, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sun March 11 at 6:00 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]
*Intro by author Geoff Dyer
“Geoff Dyer on Tarkovsky, Cinema, and Life” celebrates the publication of novelist/essayist/columnist Dyer’s new book Zona, a highly personal and experimental meditation on Tarkovsky’s Stalker. An onstage conversation moderated by MOMI curator David Schwartz at 3:00 is followed by the Russian auteur’s stream-of-consciousness film, The Mirror (indicating that Dyer has perhaps burned out on Stalker viewings).

Dyer says: “Along with Stalker, Mirror is one of Tarkovsky’s two masterpieces, and one of the most strikingly beautiful films ever made. It is so deeply autobiographical that it is like stepping through to the other side of a mirror, to images of a universal childhood. Terrence Malick surely had it in mind when making Tree of Life.”
Maximilian Le Cain for Senses of Cinema:

Between Solaris and Stalker Tarkovsky made Mirror, a non-narrative, stream of consciousness autobiographical film-poem that blends scenes of childhood memory with newsreel footage and contemporary scenes examining the narrator’s relationships with his mother, his ex-wife and his son. The oneiric intensity of the childhood scenes in particular is so hypnotic that questions of the film’s alleged impenetrability dissolve under the impact of moment after moment of the most visually stunning, rhythmically captivating filmmaking imaginable. Tarkovsky’s evocative use of nature is at its most elaborate and accomplished in creating the dreams and memories that we are asked to share with him here. The archive footage of big events that have occurred within the narrator’s lifetime are presented with the contemplative detachment of events considered but not participated in, a contrast to the extreme intimacy of the memories. This is thanks mainly to the extraordinary use of music and poetry Tarkovsky accompanies these ghostly, distant newsreel images with. During the present day scenes – spats with his ex-wife, phone calls from his mother, chats with his son – the narrator is significantly never visible on screen, preserving the audience’s sense of existing only within his subjectivity. Margareta Terekova plays both the unseen narrator’s ex-wife and his mother in younger days. If ever a film embodied the concept of cinema as a recreation of the human thought process, Mirror is it. Not only is it Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, but it is one of the high points in the development of modern cinema.



Chris Peabody for Time Out (London):

Tarkovsky goes for the great white whale of politicised art – no less than a history of his country in this century seen in terms of the personal – and succeeds. Intercutting a fragmented series of autobiographical episodes, which have only the internal logic of dream and memory, with startling documentary footage, he lovingly builds a world where the domestic expands into the political and crisscrosses back again. Unique its form, unique its vision.


Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian:

The images and sequences – some in colour, others monochrome, some newsreel footage of wartime Russia, Germany and China – are presented in a collage. Very often, these images are transcendentally brilliant, particularly those shot in crystalline black and white. Others, like the slaughtering of the cockerel scene, sit rather more heavily on the screen. But it is a startling piece of film-making, floating free of the conventional demands of period and narrative. And the mysterious opening sequence, in which a teenage boy is cured of his stammer by a hypnotist, eludes explanation and classification. It’s simply inspired.


J. Hoberman originally proclaimed in The Village Voice “An essential film, an extraordinarily beautiful movie.” For Bookforum:

It may have been that Solaris’s virtual memories inspired Tarkovsky’s most avant-garde film, Mirror, less a narrative than an assemblage and closer in many respects to the first-person cinema of Brakhage than to anything ever produced in the Soviet Union.


Oliver Lyttelton for The Playlist:

Tarkovsky’s penultimate Soviet film eschews traditional plot and instead works at its own rhythm and logic, directly correlating with the filmmaker’s sentimental beating heart. Shifting between three different periods (pre-war, war, and post-war) the film’s narrator looks back on his life while on his deathbed, dreaming of everything including arguments with his ex-wife and a rather stressful moment involving his mother at her proof-reading day job. Deemed incomprehensible and unreleasable by Gosinko, Russia’s state committee for cinematography, “Mirror” is an astonishingly affecting cinematic composition, a dense film surprisingly devoid of the difficulties that slow-moving minimalist narratives tend to require. This could be due to Tarkovsky’s knack for honing in on the essence of a particular moment, be it an odd televised seance involving a stuttering boy being cured of his impairment (which also has to be one of the best openings on celluloid) or the simple act of a maternal figure washing her hair in a basin. Or it could simply be the sheer mastery of the medium on display, as his “sculpting in time” cinematography and aural sound design (both the selection of classical music and attention to nature’s tunes) have never been better. This isn’t just someone’s soul captured on film stock, it’s life at its purest; a certified masterpiece through and through


Lawrence Frascella on Dyer’s book, for NPR:

For decades, Dyer has been obsessed with Tarkovsky’s richly suggestive 1979 masterwork, Stalker. Perhaps in an effort to exorcise its hold on him, Dyer takes us step by step through the film, detailing what scans as a rather uneventful plot. Tarkovsky’s methods are so obscure yet so evocative, the film turns into a litmus test of one’s attitude toward the bigger, broader themes. Hope. Faith. Love. Death. You name it. This is perfect material for Dyer. Whether he’s writing about the world’s best doughnuts or D.H. Lawrence, he is ultimately concerned with the nature of life itself — and how best to live it.

As a result, Zona is not your typical exegesis of a film. The meaning of the movie — and the making of it — are probed with seriousness. But this is not a book of cinema scholarship per se. Dyer uses the movie as a stimulant and stepping-off point for a wide range of memories (his parents appear often), musings and concerns. Basically, he throws Stalker into his Dyer-rama and hits “spin.”

Dyer remains a uniquely relevant voice. In his genre-jumping refusal to be pinned down, he’s an exemplar of our era.

The Paris Review offers a taste of a Tarkovsky essay by Dyer.
The Daily Beast features an extensive review of Zona:

In one aside, which is to say a side note within a three-page footnote, Dyer says Tarkovsky’s largely autobiographical film Mirror is “not a film about nothing, obviously (it could equally claim to be a film about everything), but one held uniquely together by the director’s style.” He is openly daring us to make the same observation about the book we hold in our hands. In the film, when asked about his work by Professor, Writer answers, “One should write about ‘absolutely nothing,’” Dyer writes. “So, a Flaubertian in his way.” Or a Dyer.

Tarkovsky discusses the reactions to the film:

James Steffen with some background, for TCM:

The Mirror dates back to 1968 when director Andrei Tarkovsky and screenwriter Alexander Misharin began work on an autobiographical film. The title of the project was originally A Bright, Bright Day; it comes from a verse by Arseniy Tarkovsky, the director’s father and a noted poet who reads his own works on the film’s soundtrack. The title was later changed to Confession, then to Why Do You Stand So Far Off? and finally to The Mirror. At one point, the film was going to include hidden-camera interviews with Tarkovsky’s mother, but the director eventually dropped the idea. Work on the film was delayed when Tarkovsky agreed to direct Solaris (1972); in 1973 he and Misharin returned to the project and developed it in earnest. In his diaries (published in English under the title Time Within Time) he mentions Bibi Andersson as a possible candidate for the role of the mother–he admired her work with Ingmar Bergman and had recently met her while doing preparations for Solaris. However, the prospect of battling with the Soviet film bureaucracy to hire a foreign actor made him change his mind. In retrospect, Margarita Terekhova seems the perfect choice for the dual role of the protagonist’s wife and his mother as a young woman. Vadim Yusov, Tarkovsky’s collaborator on all his previous films, was supposed to serve as the cinematographer; however, due to creative and personal differences he withdrew from the project and Georgi Rerberg took his place instead.
Part of the emotional impact of the film no doubt comes from its precise and vivid evocation of the director’s own childhood. The dacha (country house) seen in the film was reconstructed on the basis of childhood recollections and surviving photographs. Tarkovsky even ordered a field of buckwheat planted on the location to return the place to its former appearance. He also had the mother’s costumes made to match photographs of his own mother. As a further personal touch, his real-life mother Maria appears as the mother in old age, his wife Larissa appears as the doctor’s wife to whom the mother sells an earring, and his stepdaughter appears as the red-headed girl with whom the narrator falls in love as a young boy.


Acquarello for Strictly Film School:

Mirror is Andrei Tarkovsky’s visually transcendent, artistically revelatory autobiographical film on lost innocence and emotional abandonment. Presented as a languidly paced, achronological cinematic montage of modern day life, personal memories, historical news footage, and dreams, Mirror is an introspective journey through the course of human existence, hope and despair, success and frailty: a television broadcast of a young man seemingly cured from stuttering through hypnosis; a neglected wife (Margarita Terekhova) humoring a village doctor who has lost his way; a custodial argument between a faceless narrator (Innokenty Smoktunovsky) and his ex-wife; a precocious young man trying the patience of his military instructor (Yuri Nazarov). To attempt to conform these images into some coherent plot or universal conclusion is meaningless. After all, Mirror is a reflection of Tarkovsky’s haunted soul: his search for spirituality, connection, Truth – exposed through indelible images that inevitably define our own imperfect lives, however trivial or mundane.
Andrei Tarkovsky deliberately obscures time by using the same actors to portray the two phases of the narrator’s life: the fatherless boy attempting to reach out to his distracted mother, and the distant father unable to relate to his self-absorbed son. Anachronistic newsreels of world events are interspersed to provide environmental reference and tonal shift. The structure of the film constantly evolves through the use of flashbacks and flash forwards, defined through chromatic shifts. This results in a film that is thematically cyclical, reflecting the narrator’s pattern of alienation and emotional isolation. The absence of logical order in the film elicits a visceral reaction from the audience: the knowledge that we have experienced truth in all its intoxicating beauty and desperate longing… and perhaps even a brief connection with the artist himself.



Ryland Walker Knight for Reverse Shot:

Each cut is an event, a moment not simply to collide images but also to layer the collage of the film: picture and sound, married and abutted, proffering new sights, new landscapes, new emotions and new realities in light. Andrei Tarkovksy’s Mirror is full of such event-cuts, each defining or sensing the cohesive whole of the film, like its maker, as discrete moments hung together through time, however disparate and dispersed its instances, like his limbs, may seem. To whittle a life into a film, as Tarkovsky attempted, may be impossible. However, Mirror does not attempt a picture of an entire life: it offers metonymic moments of a life caught across a celluloid timeline. Mirror says we are each immortal, forever unbounded by the “robes of a skeleton” that “sheath” our bodies; therefore I find the defining edit of the film near its close when, abruptly, the narrator finally flies, unlocked and awakened, into the immortal, eternal life the film attempts to define and inhabit.
Actors are reprised in different roles, dispersed across the film’s timeline. Their multiplied and simultaneous presence throughout the film (itself a series of memories and reflections) frames the film’s realities as connections arrayed by the time-bridging cuts. Mirror’s editing performs an odd alchemy of memory that proliferates identities as much as converges them. Like in a prism, or kaleidoscope, mirrors are everywhere in the film (adorning walls or registering in windows) forever multiplying realities and planes, forever furthering the refractive inward reflection, or meditation […] a film cannot physically present all moments of time simultaneously, as the kind of idealized eternal return of immortality Mirror preaches of, or compile all the moments of a life, in the compact confines of a celluloid yarn. To compensate, Tarkovsky must rely on the rhymes and repetitions of his established tropes to trigger our own memories as we build the film, and bridge the timeline in our heads, collapsing the dialectic relationship between the screen and audience—which is the implied motive of its title. Just as we see the bird and the narrator in the field we see ourselves in the film—the first person point of view of the narrator becomes our point of view: in Mirror’s diffuse temporal sphere, past is present is future, each memory and each present moment of the narrator’s odd non-narrative—each forged image of the film—refracts its abutted, multiplied mirrors.
Mirror’s best moments are poetic leaps through time, jumping between memories just as they are triggered by unique sights and sounds, like the layering of poems over images, which marries visual with literary literacy—stream-of-consciousness meets Cubism. Mirror wants to look at each affective event independently of its surrounding refractions but also all at once—to look through the prism but also see the prism as a whole. This film exists as an idealized domain beyond time, beyond mortality. To watch Mirror is to step into it, and live unbounded in time, if briefly, until it ends.



Tarkovsky in interview with Jerzy Illg and Leonard Neuger:

Concerning its structure, Mirror for me is in general the most complicated of my films — as a structure, not as a fragment considered separately but precisely as a construction; its dramaturgy is extraordinarily complex, convoluted.

Just like the structure of dreams or reminiscences. After all this is not just a regular retrospection.

Right. This is not a regular retrospection. There are many such complications there which I don’t even completely understand myself. For example, it was very important for me to have my mother in some scenes. There is one episode in the film in which the boy, Ignat, is sitting… not Ignat… what was his name? — the author’s son, he is sitting in his father’s empty room, in the present, in our times. This is the narrator’s son although the boy plays both the author’s son and the author himself when he was a boy. And as he is sitting there we hear the doorbell, he opens the door and a woman enters and she says: “Oh, I think I’ve got the wrong place” — she was at the wrong door. This is my mother. And she is the grandmother of this boy who opens the door for her. But why doesn’t she recognise him, why doesn’t the grandson recognise her? — one has completely no idea. That is — firstly, this wasn’t explained by the plot, in the screenplay, and secondly — even for me this was unclear.

Not everything in life is understandable and clear…

No, for me it is — how can I put it — coming to terms with various emotional bonds. It was extremely important for me to see the face of my mother, this is a story about her after all, who enters the doorway uneasily, kind of timidly, a bit à la Dostoyevsky, à la the Marmyeladovs. She says then to her grandson: “I think I’ve got the wrong place.” Can you imagine this psychological state? It was important for me to see my mother in this condition, to see her face when she is confused, when she feels timid, ashamed. But I understood it too late to compose some precise subplot, to write the screenplay in such a way as to make it clear why she didn’t recognise him — whether it was because her eyesight was bad… It would have been a very easy thing to explain this. But I simply said to myself: I’m not going to invent anything. Let her open the door, enter, not recognise her son [sic] and the boy won’t recognise her, and in this state she will leave and close the door. It’s a state of human soul which is particularly close to me, a state of some kind of despondency, spiritual restriction — it was important for me to see this. It’s a portrait of a human being in a state of certain humiliation, certain feeling of being brought down. And when one puts this side by side with the scenes of her youth — this episode reminds me then of another one: when as a young woman she comes to that doctor to sell her the earrings. She is standing in the rain, she is explaining something, talking about something, why in the rain? What for?


A very important, most important experience I gained with this film was that it turned out to be as important to the audience as it was to me. And it didn’t matter that it was a story only about our family and nothing else. Thanks to this experience I saw and I understood many things. This film proved there was a bond between me as a director, as an artist if you will, and the people for whom I worked. That’s why this film turned out to be so important to me because when I understood that, nobody could complain to me that I did not make films for people. Although everybody complained about it later anyway. But I couldn’t make this complaint to myself anymore.



Jennifer Baldwin for Fandor:

Tarkovsky’s The Mirror is the pinnacle of dream movies. Part dream, part remembrance (and even part newsreel), The Mirror is a stream of consciousness movie-poem that eschews traditional narrative storytelling in order to recreate the experience of dreaming and remembrance. By using the same actor – the same face – for two different characters, Tarkovsky is able to tap directly into the subjectivity and supra-rationality of memory and dream. Is this not the very quality of a dream, where we “know” the person in our dream is our mother or our best friend or our brother and yet the face is of someone else?
The experience of dream and memory is so perfectly realized in the film that it immediately sends our thoughts hurling back in time to remember our own past experiences, transmuting the images of Tarkovsky’s dreams into our own. The elemental, eternal images – fire, water, wind, the flight of birds, seasons, doorways, mirrors – are so basic that they can’t help but inspire deeply personal reflections on the part of the viewer. I’m reminded of my own fear of fire, of the nightmares I used to have as a child of my room on fire and the walls flaking into ash. The wind through the grass – done in haunting, poetic slow motion in the film – reminds me of so many youthful summers spent at my grandmother’s house.
Tarkovsky manages this filmic alchemy because he lets his shots linger. He moves the camera rather than make a cut. He holds the shot on a face or a doorway, zooming in with almost imperceptible calm, so that we must contemplate the image. He prolongs our gaze until the image we see is no longer just a barn on fire or a woman levitating like a ghostly white balloon or 12-year-old Alexei staring at his reflection in the mirror – we see instead a reflection of our own dream images, our own thoughts and memories. Tarkovsky refuses to relieve the tension of these shots with a cut. We become like young Alexei, staring into the mirror, forced to look and see beyond the immediate image into the inexhaustible image of eternity.


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