Andrei Tarkovsky

USSR, 1974


Review by Rich Watts

Posted on 11 May 2005

Source Artificial Eye DVD

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The start of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror is remarkable: a teenage boy suffering from a stutter spits out words towards a powerful matriarch as she tries to manipulate the boy’s karma to rid him of his speech impediment. Set in black and white, the boy’s attempts to communicate are rendered impotent by his oral processes. Ultimately, what is conveyed to his audience is nothing but small, discrete fragments—pieces of a whole that remain unintelligible to all but the boy.

Although remarkable in itself, the opening unfortunately captures the essence of the 100 minutes that follow, in which Tarkovsky relays fragments of personal experience at the audience with the intention of creating a cohesive whole. Far from composing an expansive mosaic, Tarkovsky succeeds only in distancing himself from his audience. For all his considerable efforts, each fragment is beyond the reach of the viewer.

My main criticism of Tarkovsky has always been this unnecessary imposition of distance. In creating his films, Tarkovsky clearly has an idea he wishes to convey, be it the history of his own country through personal experience or the human capacity to accommodate loss. But to convey this idea, Tarkovsky imbues every possible detail with meaning, and by doing so runs the risk of leaving his audience out in the cold.

It is worth recalling Albert Camus’ idea of the Absurd. His notion of the Absurd was the state of being in an absence of religious faith, and that this absence means that death effectively renders the process of life meaningless. In the introduction to the Everyman edition of Camus’ collected works, David Bellos continues:

Only a god could make human actions meaningful in an absolute sense, and as there was no god, actions have no ‘ultimate’ meaning.

But what does this concept lead to? Bellos suggests:

If the world were not at all [A]bsurd, in Camus’ sense, then things in general and acts in particular would be endowed irrevocably with ‘meaning’. And that would make the world a very strange and inhuman place indeed. Every cup of tea, broken shoelace, premature death, and outbreak of slaughter would be ‘meaningful’, that is to say fully explicable in terms of higher order, and thus necessary. Under such conditions, human life […] would surely seem quite futile, since no matter what a person did, it would fit in with a higher scheme by the very fact of having been done.

Thus, a world imbued with meaning seems rather more absurd than the one Camus suggests. This world, however, is precisely the one Tarkovsky creates in Mirror.

For example, it is recorded that filming on Mirror was unable to continue for two days because Tarkovsky and his production designer couldn’t decide on what plant should grow in the garden during a key shot. It would take an extremely attentive viewer to even notice the eventual choice of plant, quite aside from interpreting its meaning in the context of the film as a whole. As such, the plant is absurd. For me, such ‘meaningful’ pedanticism hinders the overall rhythm of Mirror, a trait that characterises Tarkovsky’s decidedly abbreviated canon. Such perfectionism is an instinct demonstrated by Stanley Kubrick too—another director I can’t help but feel somewhat excluded by and who produced relatively few films over the length of his career. Tarkovsky and Kubrick appear to be directors of a similar style, standing on either side of the art-house / commercial film divide.

It should be noted that Tarkovsky’s photography – like Kubrick’s – is exquisite. Indeed, the main satisfaction this viewer derives from his films is the steady flow of remarkable shots. And yet, the critical reverence which maintains Tarkovsky’s reputation suggests the fault lies not with the director but instead with me. That is a charge I’m willing to accept, so long as it is reasonable to suggest Tarkovsky caters for a sort of intellectual posturing that only a few truly find attractive. After all, Ingmar Bergman was wont to attach great allegorical and metaphorical weight to his films but not at the expense of alienating his audience.

Intriguingly, to return to Mirror’s opening sequence, the boom’s shadow occasionally appears in the upper-left corner of the screen—a small piece of reality creeping into Tarkovsky’s fictional and absurd edifice. In my mind, I can’t help but imagine the director on the other end of that boom, grandiloquently chuckling to himself as he sets out to construct a labyrinth in which his audience will grope and stumble. In ensuring his elevated status as artist remains impregnable, Tarkovsky’s Mirror results in an overwhelming mixture of reality, memory and dream—an impenetrable mingling of past, present and future that this disenchanted viewer is disinclined to navigate.

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