In Mirror there’s always something happening, and it’s usually surprising and strange.
As I’m watching Tarkovsky’s 1975 masterpiece Mirror on the TV in the bedroom, the sounds of Warner Bros cartoons are echoing through from the living room, where my partner Fiona is watching the amorous adventures of animated skunk Pepe le Pew on YouTube. And I hold back a pang of jealousy, because I’ve been taught to associate Tarkovsky with effort and Chuck Jones cartoons with relaxation. But this is wrong: my whole cinematic philosophy is based on an unreasoning insistence that there’s no difference between films in which a black lady cat gets a stripe painted down her back due to an improbable plot contrivance and is mistaken for a skunk, and films in which a series of images form a stream of consciousness/unconsciousness, taking us from an exercise in mesmerism to a rainstorm outside a print works, to a book containing a Leonardo drawing left on a table outside in a wood.
A man who sold movie posters told me at an impressionable age that he gave up seeing Tarkovsky films after Andrei Rublev, because his interest in films was an interest in enjoyment. I also require some form of pleasure in cinema, but in fact I find, as I belatedly get to some kind of tentative grips with Mirror, that Tarkovsky, though not enjoyable in entirely the same way as a skunk who sounds like Charles Boyer, offers rare and interesting pleasures.
First, Mirror isn’t long in the way that Solaris (the first Tarkovsky film I saw, pan-and-scanned on Channel 4 when I was a teenager) undeniably is. At a modest 100 minutes it’s about the length of 15 Pepe le Pew cartoons. And while it’s customary to call Tarkovsky’s films slow, this one isn’t slow in the way that The Sacrifice, my second Tarkovsky viewing experience, is slow. By that time, Tark (I call him Tark) had evolved an approach almost calculated to alienate a sensation-hungry teenage boy, filming dialogue scenes from too far away to see the actors’ faces, with a camera that moved too slowly to really offer a discernible sense of momentum or development. You became aware that the composition had changed in the way that you notice that the minute hand of a clock has moved. My teenage self wasn’t impressed by Tark’s five-minute opening tracking shot, since I calculated that his camera covered less ground in that time than Max Ophüls would get through in a whole reel.
But in Mirror there’s always something happening, and it’s usually surprising and strange. And Margharita Terekhova’s face is paid close attention by the camera, her baleful eyes fixing us and her unconsciously active mouth, chewing her own lips or twitching through smiles and frowns at double-speed, creating an effect just as hypnotic as those slightly slo-mo tracks down corridors in the printing plant.
And I was also noting the weird and possibly destructive influence the film had obviously exerted on other filmmakers. The child, backlit in a doorway by a blaze of orange, must have caught Spielberg’s eye because he used it in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A shot where Tarkovsky moves from a reflection of the window, opening on what seems to be a dry day, to the window itself, which reveals a rainstorm, as if an amount of time had passed (hours, days, years?) during that single shot, bending time in quite an Ophülsian way, might explain what’s usually thought of as a continuity error in Spielberg’s UFO epic, although if it’s a homage it’s a resolutely inexplicable and pointless one. And the oneiric, almost paranormal rainstorm that breaks out, advancing like an invisible monster across the landscape, reminded me of Lars von Trier’s Tarkovsky dedication on his ill-thought-out film Antichrist, which features, in one scene, an inane walnut downpour. And a palm print slowly fading from a shiny surface, and a child viewed from a window advancing into a rural landscape, made me suspect that Lynn Ramsay had based her entire film Ratcatcher on a series of pilfered moments from Mirror.
What all those filmmakers do succeed at, I suppose, is presenting their swipes with a level of confidence that inspires trust, which Tarkovsky also does with his own, original images. Rather than following the logic of cause-and-effect storytelling, or openly interpretable symbolism, he assembles sequences answerable only to his inner sense of cinematic beauty, whose meaning is irreducible and can only be got at by looking at what’s there, and listening to it. So he’s not a difficult filmmaker, really, but the light bulb will go off probably at the end, or after the end, and not from interrogating the action for meaning but by meditatively subjecting yourself to it.
There is stuff you can figure out. Since Mirror‘s protagonist is essentially an off-screen presence, talking to the actors from behind the camera, it’s a moment of revelation to spot the Andrei Rublev poster in his home and realise he’s Tarkovsky. Knowing that the poetry read on the soundtrack is written and read by Tarkovsky’s father only comes from reading up on the film afterwards, but I did manage to recognise the opening of Dante’s Divine Comedy in there, which helped me see the film as an artist’s journey through the imagery and personalities of their world, inner and outer life interweaving and blurring.
I think my teenage self might have liked Mirror, because he was impressed by technical feats, and the film is full of them. Tarkovsky likes long takes, and he likes the impression of things happening naturally, and the way he creates the latter effect, which might seem to be ruled out by the choreography of a long, complex camera move, is to do things so technically troublesome that the mind simply refuses to accept that they could have been engineered, so they must have just happened. A wind ripples the grass at just the right moment; and an unattended bottle rolls off a table of its own accord, in the middle of a long camera move that will reveal to us a building on fire. Like a magician, Tarkovsky deceives us by taking such an improbable amount of trouble to do something that we are forced to assume it must have been achieved some other way.
And it all follows the logic of sound and image and has a unique rhythm. Through Mirror, I feel like I’m coming to Tarkovsky for the first time, and am intrigued to return to the films that frustrated me when I was too immature to accept them.