Sunday, June 15, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: The Mirror (1975)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #19

Very few filmmakers are masters of surrealism the way that Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky was. There are some, such as David Lynch or Luis Buñuel, who create dreamscapes that are consciously meant to be dreamlike. These filmmakers call attention to the flexible reality of their worlds, and the result can sometimes veer into the realm of nightmares. But Tarkovsky is more subtle in his surrealism. If Lynch makes films that feel like your most memorable dreams, then Tarkovsky's films feel like the dreams you don't always remember - the reality of the dream is close enough to actual reality to feel normal, but there's just the slightest bit off that distinguishes it in your memory.

Though Tarkovsky is today most remembered for his science-fiction epics such as Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979), The Mirror stands as his most surreal film, as well as his most personal. The film is formed of a non-linear exploration of the life of an unseen adult narrator, Alexi (Innokenty Smoktunovsky, in voice-over), as he ruminates on his own childhood and that of his son's, Ignat (both portrayed by Ignat Daniltsev), and on his mother Maria (Margarita Terekhova as young Maria, Maria Vishnyakova as elderly Maria). These scenes are sometimes stitched together with poems written and read by Tarkovsky's father, Arseny.

There's a reason that The Mirror has remained Tarkovsky's most challenging film: the enigma he creates is a lasting example of oneiric (dreamlike) filmmaking that proves emotionally powerful despite being narratively unconventional. There are three ways that Tarkovsky accomplishes this: disorientation of the narrative, disorientation of the cinematography, and re-orientation of perspective.

More after the jump.

The Mirror, as the plot description suggests, doesn't really have much in the way of "plot." Instead, it jumbles scenes, criss-crossing from Alexi's childhood before WWII to his time in the countryside during the war to his life (and Ignat's) after the war. Therefore, it's not an easy film to follow; in fact, the Soviet Union's state film committee, Goskino, rejected the the screenplay several times between 1968 and 1974, and wouldn't grant the final film an official premiere or wide release for being "incomprehensible." But by completely dismantling the film's linear narrative, Tarkovsky rearranges scenes to create an emotional collage that play like memories. More importantly, each scene's emotional beats flow into the next's, and the result is a film that is felt subconsciously more than it is deciphered consciously. The film reveals itself more on each viewing, as the emotional undercurrents become more familiar and meaningful.

Tarkovsky, working with cinematographer Georgi Rerberg, also makes the unusual decision to switch between black-and-white and color cinematography, often at random. There are scenes in each timeframe of the film that contain either color scheme, and a few even switch from one to the other mid-scene. It's a bold move that further complicates the film's temporality (time frame). By 1975, black-and-white cinematography had ceased being the status quo and instead had become a gimmick, often used by filmmakers to indicate that a scene was occurring in the past (similar to sepia tones). This variation was cinematic shorthand: black-and-white footage meant the scene was in the past, color footage meant the scene was contemporary.

But Tarkovsky doesn't utilize this shorthand in the conventional way. By switching back and forth between them at random, he disorients viewers of what's "real," what's "a memory," and what's "a dream," to the extent that any given scene could be any combination of those, including "all" or "none." The purpose of this is the same as the disorientation of the narrative: it divorces the audience from "real world" logic and forces them to acclimate to the logic of the film. In turn, this allows the film to make more of an emotional impact.

Tarkovsky's re-orientation of perspective may be the most interesting aspect of the film. The film rotates through the perspectives of three different characters: Alexi, Ignat, and, through his poetic interludes, Arseny. The entire film is seen through their eyes, but their scenes are not immediately distinguishable from each other. This applies even to Arseny, whose poems are sometimes overlaid onto images from the perspective of Alexi or Ignat. Similarly, Ignat is the only one of the three "protagonists" who appears corporeally onscreen; Alexi and Arseny are only voiceovers (though Alexi briefly appears in the film as a small child). Tarkovsky, by shifting perspectives fluidly, once again forces the audience to essentially abandon relating to a single character and instead absorb the film as it is presented.

The combination of these three elements in The Mirror create one of Tarkovsky's greatest cinematic feats. He demolishes the cinematic totems through which the audience consumes film - narrative, visual storytelling, and perspective - and forces the audience to engage with the film's thematic and emotional content directly. Perhaps more than any other director in history, Tarkovsky made a film that is at once deeply personal to himself and capable of feeling personal to the audience. There's a reason he ended up selecting "The Mirror" as the film's title; with a scope that's simultaneously individualistic and universal, any audience that gazes into it will see themselves reflected in it's sumptuous imagery.

On the next Sight & Sound Sunday: Shoah (1985)

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