Andre Tarkovsky had a penchant for confronting our worn-in perceptual habits and restoring a sense of awe and wonder to the ways we see. Relatively ordinary scenes and settings in his films always have a way of transubstantiating into spiritual states.
I am reminded of another wizard of pictorial rigor and invention, Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte. I introduced Tarkovsky in these pages after mentioning some Danish filmmakers and promising to compare and contrast them with him. I haven’t gotten around to that yet. This is what can happen when you open the iris on a vast and intricate subject such as this. In doing so, it feels natural to identify another root influence in modern art that helps me comprehend and appreciate Tarkovsky all the more. There seems to be some overlap in these two artist’s interests. Magritte addressed what he called “the problem of the mirror” in a number of paintings. None is more effectively than his “Not to Be Reproduced (1937).
Magritte said his pictures were material evidence of freedom of thought. In addition to this similarity, Magritte’s paintings came to my mind while watching “The Mirror,” when Ignat is leafing through a book of drawings and paintings by Leonardo. The last color plate in the series is a study of hands. I’m not sure of Tarkovsky’s intent, but the disembodied particulars on that picture plane reminded me of paintings like “The White Race “(1937), “Acrobatic Ideas” (1928) and “One-Night Museum” (1927) from Magritte’s catalog. This might seem a rather obscure association if it were not for all three artists’ fascination with perspective. Where the overlap occurs is in their shared penchant for confounding our habitual ways of seeing.
Maria, the main character reflected in Tarkovsky’s mirror is heartbroken and grieving. Like Dreyer’s “Gertrude” she clings to idealized love. Gertrude imagines eventually meeting the object of her infatuation in the future. Maria’s ideal is anchored in the past. It invades every image in which she appears. We witness her emotional preoccupation even more acutely, with every close up, but we aren’t invited to share in it, because that’s what we’re accustomed to.
We are treated to something far more rare, Tarkovsky’s universe. His camera follows, not the characters onscreen, but the essence of a vivid moment in their past, as that very moment is imprinting in their memory. The camera grabs on to random details similar to the way our imagination does, for mental prompts associated with that time and place.
As a case in point, recall the spectacular image which takes place in the beginning of “The Mirror,” the barn fire. The sequence begins in the kitchen. Neighbors are shouting, a low rumble fades in on the soundtrack. A couple of children eat from bowls at a table. Their mother tells her children to come see the fire. The room empties out, but the camera remains. We hear the roar of combustion and voices shouting off screen, but we’re made to pause on a static view of the empty room–until a bottle falls off a table and lands on the floor mysteriously, without visible provocation. Then we move on.
Some kind of anomaly is present in the vast majority of Tarkovsky’s virtuoso passages, a small detail that defies ordinary laws. Is this because it was misplaced by the imagination of the rememberer; a floater or phantom, the shred of something not quite in sync with the rest, but somehow part of what happened back there in the past? Here in Tarkovsky’s frame it waves to us all from the shores of the unconscious.
Only after we receive that sublime salutation are we allowed to leave the kitchen and pan left to the much-anticipated fire. When we finally do, we think we must be looking through a rain saturated window, at the backs of the children, noting its glow on their faces. It turns out we are actually gazing at a reflection in a mirror. We come to discover this as the camera moves on.
The real action is gradually brought front and center with a 180 pan, then we push-in through the front door. As we track right over the threshold, the filmmaker’s first unforgettable, mesmerizing vision of “The Mirror” wipes in from behind a ladder and some trees. Finally, what we’ve been hearing about and anticipating since the first shot in the kitchen is set before our eyes, spitting and roaring up there on-screen.
Tarkovsky’s movies are often criticized for being slow, but that’s only valid, for instance in this case, if you’ve missed everything between when mother and children slip out of the kitchen and the moment we finally get a look at what they went outside to see. When it does happen, what a delectable feast for the senses; all those snapping fangs of heat and slashing claws of flame, crouch in the calm, damp green like Rousseau’s beast.
We the audience are set upright again, metaphorically speaking. That bold, dramatic, visual statement is reassuring after the woozy, misty transition from the kitchen, yet the loss of a barn is not the point of the cinematic sequence. All the alternatively oriented images that accumulated and morphed on the way to the fire expose the real root preoccupation in Tarkovsky’s work.
Now, zoom out with me just long enough to appreciate the fresh vision, precocious daring, admirable craft, uncanny timing and impeccable collaboration required to pull off a bravura shot like that in a single take with no digital FX! This is why Tarkovsky is perhaps Russia’s greatest artist of the 20th century.
There’s a lot of second hand war footage in the second act of “The Mirror.” It puts some viewers off and may seem out of place at first. I think it effectively represents what kinds of things remain lodged in a war child’s mind. I find the content of the found footage emotionally earthshattering from a that point of view. It’s not only Tarkovsky’s originality in movie making, it’s his compassion that draws me to his films.
Tarkovsky would say the experience of the present is elusive, a slippery one where anything could yet develop. The past is certain, it is therefore more solid. Evidently even a sculptor of time seeks something substantial for his chisel.
Its difficult to talk or write about Tarkovsky and not grow tired of the sound of my own voice. Nevertheless, I will proceed next month…