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Cinema in Retrospect: "Mirror"

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 film, “Mirror,” is a call and response between a nation and people. “Mirror” depicts the national dilemma of the USSR’s emergence as a world power in the 20th century: how does the Soviet Union canonize its history and unify its bases, and what is its founding myth? Beyond the scope of the nation though, the film asks how families or individuals contextualize their lineages or lifespans. How much do systems hold over when power changes hands when nations dissolve or when parents separate? The film looks at both the vacuous demand for closure and the respective violent and repressive “solutions.” Is unity possible, or does it matter when the whole is so disparate? When does a nation become industrialized or educated? Who is part of a nation and what is the nation’s responsibility for them?

The film primarily follows the memories, experiences and of a fictional Russian man, Alexei. It is presented non-chronologically and discontinuously, slurring the past and present. The film jumps back and forth between three main time periods: pre-war 1930’s, war-time 1940’s, and post-war 1960’s-70’s.

In the first shot, a child turns on a television set, slowly backing away as the screen flickers to life with horizontal scanlines. Despite the TV’s vivacity, the camera tilts and pans away from it, keeping on the back of the boy’s head. Just as the boy stops, and his shadowy backside obscures the only other object in the frame – an unfocused bright window – the film inverts. The movie flips from color to black and white, from a male child to an adult woman, from sides of the subject, most importantly though, from in-movie reality to in-movie production. A female doctor talks with a stuttering male patient and offers to cure him with hypnosis. In the last shot––before the camera dollies in on the male subject––a boom microphone casts a detached shadow on the wall. The camera slowly zooms in as the male actor repeats back a sentence to demonstrate the margins of his improvement and glances twice at the camera. His sentence is abruptly cut off by a black screen with a large plain white title, “ЗЕРКАЛО – Mirror.”

Although the movie lacks a conventional narrative through-line, the opening sequence establishes the underlying thematic wiring within which it takes form. Through a conversation between perceived opposites, the film converges onto an elusory sense of meaning. Both the faceless child and the grayscale patient are the Soviet populace, each complementing the other. Turning on the TV is an engagement with fabrication out of a desire to graft meaning and purpose onto a listless reality. The boy sides with the orchestrated medium over his own anonymous autonomy. 

At several points throughout the film, “Mirror” draws attention to the impact barriers of entry have on a medium’s message. Rooms full of printing presses run at full speed, but the quantity of their output is only as its accessibility. Reams of archival information are eclipsed by a handful of illustrations. Through such, the film harkens back to Marshall McLuhan’s theory about the nature of communication: “the medium is the message.” The efficacy of propaganda is limited by education -- illiteracy restricts literary persuasion. However, further than commenting on the power of images over words, the film’s experimental juxtaposition of disparate images and atmospheres speaks to another side of the unique power of images over words. “Mirror” does not elucidate as much as it does evoke. Its images alone mean very little; through their prolonged combination they compose a complex oneiric construction. The value of its message comes not from holistic comprehension rather from wandering osmosis.

More than just shifting between images, the movie places a focus on the types of images being rotated through: color to black and white, dream to reality, present to past, etc. On a foundational level, the film is about a confrontation with the self, on a national, personal and auto-biographical level. The fluctuating nature of the images is an artifact of a quest for self-actualization. 

Tarkovsky’s use of his father’s poetry in the film folds into this as well. He becomes aligned with both the mother character and the Soviet Union, each struggling to carve their own path in the footsteps of giants. Each stage in the film’s contrasting structure documents a leg of this journey. By never committing to a unifying element, the film suggests that personal truth lies amidst polarized binaries. The realized self undulates between both stark reality and pliable dreamscape.

One of the film’s most prominent images is of a barn fiercely blazing, which first appears toward the beginning of the film as the camera glides out of the house. Up to this point, the camera movement has been largely meandering, maneuvering in almost a spectral manner. However, the singularity of the fire reappropriates the focus. The damp porch drips steadily, and the damp grass glimmers with a viridescent dew, yet the fire voraciously consumes. Its strength, however, also signifies its finitude; surrounded in a field of moisture, its existence is unmaintainable, it can only burn as bright as its fuel allows. For the moment, though, it remains singular and mesmerizing. Its existence is an anomaly as much as its fate is an inevitability.

The barn fire is significant beyond its visual spectacle. It lies at the center of the film’s style and subject, the charcoaled gate which bisects the past from the present. This sequence is later shown to be a childhood dream, a construction of the past immortalized in vibrant color. The memory of the fire outlasted the moment itself, its prolonged presence fanning its flames longer than any tree could provide. It is both the journey and destination of a self-reflexive inquisition. It is Russia’s Czarist past and Tarkovsky’s paternal debt. It is the existence and acceptance of trauma and mythology.

Contact columnist Henry Skalbeck at henry.skalbeck@richmond.edu.

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