Camera & Modernity + Dreams = “The Mirror” Part I

Oh, look, it's that guy from "Stalker."
Oh, look, it’s that guy from “Stalker” just beyond the bush.

The best art grows deeper with context. For instance: the second time one watches a Jason Statham flick, one feels degraded and sad, as you realize that the only thing that was good about it the first time was the novelty/shock value. The second time one reads a good novel, however, you’re bound to feel enriched, and the prose is better retained in the brain. As you may know, I’m way into Tarkovsky right now, and his films might actually be completely impenetrable without context, requiring not just patience of his viewers, but reverence and dedication to the artist himself. It can be a burden to delve into an artist like him, because it requires so much responsibility. But responsibility can sometimes feel like relief when you’ve spent too much of your time watching Jason Statham punch people’s heads; the loss of brain cell’s to a Statham foe seems to be vicariously felt in the viewer’s own head.

“The Mirror,” which some people apparently think is Tarkovsky’s best movie, is the most impenetrable, opaque one that I’ve seen. It contains a kind of a pulsating, transmutating narrative, providing impressions that last long enough for the viewer to arrive at some thoughts or feelings, but then confounding you by switching, dream-like, into different modes while staying in the same setting, or among the same characters. As the narrative of a dream wanders, and the crises change, a feeling remains, connecting events as the same dream.  Our parents appear, as do our childhood homes, ancestral feuds, deep unacknowledged fears, surreal incongruity of image: dreams are the realm of nostalgia, of unuttered thoughts, and of the unreal. Sorry to be writing about “dream space” with the earnestness of an early Freud or Surrealist, but, I mean, come on, they are really special. Dream logic is what rules the universe of “The Mirror”, making for a fascinating and extremely frustrating movie. The truth of it is dense and muddled, tied to Tarko biography, tied to Russian history, and is just about as ambitious as a movie can be. The following is my attempt to unravel some of it.

First, the myopia. It’s long been a meme for me that the particular is the key to unlock the universal, and I think Tarko is on my wavelength. There are many moments of “The Mirror” that are almost claustrophobically intimate, especially in the scenes between the mostly unseen narrator and the protagonist lady. These are scenes from a life and from a heart–complete with careful attention to moles on the protagonists’ back, the way tears run down a cold cheek, the way hair glistens when wet. The camera hovers close to her face, while she looks into it and discusses with it the practicalities of custody for her  lonely son–the camera in many scenes is quite literally her ex-husband/narrator/director himself. His voice questions her and disagrees with her just beyond what we can see.

Then there’s the matter of the ex-wife being conflated with the narrator’s mother. Mother and wife are played by the same actor. The narrator even comments that when he tries to remember his childhood, he pictures his ex-wife in the place of his mother. (I didn’t bring up Freud for no good reason.) The film wavers between the richly textured, degraded interiors of a shabby-and-only-slightly-chic Moscow apartment and a cozy, damp dacha in the north country, the former one assumes the location of the narrator’s present, and the latter where he was raised.

And then spliced into this intimacy is archival footage of civil war, upheaval, atom bombs, Cultural Revolutions, technological feats and follies of the last century. The film is a history, a mirror on the artist and his time. To make a movie like this is a both an absurdly huge and absurdly pompous task, and only a gifted-few are allowed to pull stunts like those in “The Mirror.” To show historical footage in your film is like waving a sign that says, “Hey, I’m deep.” Tarko shows scenes specifically from a border dispute war in Russia’s south-eastern reaches–the part that borders with China–and has footage of Maoist demonstrations in the newly minted Communist country from the 60s. In footage of the border dispute, the Uyghurs (who are a rather stateless people
who hang in central asia) rather mildly chant and knock about a circle of Soviet soldiers, who, young, big-eyed, and stoney-faced, simply hold them back in a line. It’s not a genuinely violent revolt. It’s not a battle. It’s not even that passionate of a protest. In another scene, we see people trudging through a flood plain, every step more burdensome than the last, their pants rolled up to their ankles as they book it, Oregon-Trail style, in covered wagons and desperation. In many of the archival footage of war and disaster, people make eye contact with the camera, self-conscious or fascinated by the thing capturing them. There is a remarkable shot of a little girl either in pre-fascist Italy or civil war Spain who looks into the camera giddily, but her face darkens into a mortified grimace for reasons we can only guess at one the other side. These scenes show small and intimate and inefficacious moments of conflict, as opposed to a grander narrative of valor or tragedy in warfare.

The constant in this wavering between small-moments-in-world-time and small-moments-in-subjective-time is the camera–an all-seeing eye that fosters self-consciousness and bewilderment, that is capable of collecting both the scurry of a beetle on a sunny stone and the destruction of entire cities by bombs.

Stay tuned for PART II because this blog post started to go OFF THE CHAIN.