Making the Mortal Immortal
Ryland Walker Knight on The Mirror
We celebrated each moment of our feelings as
a revelation alone in all the world. You were lighter
and bolder than the wing of a bird
flying down the stairs two at a time
pure giddiness, leading me through moist lilac to
your domain beyond the looking glass.
When night fell I was favored.
The altar gates were opened and in the dark there
gleamed your nudity, and I slowly bowed. Awakening,
“Be blessed,” I said, and knew my blessing
to be bold for you still slept. The lilac
on the table stretched forth to touch your lids with heavenly blue
and your blue-tainted lids
were calm, and your hand was warm. Locked in crystal,
rivers pulsed, mountains smoked, seas glimmered. You held
a sphere of crystal in your hand and slept on a throne. And
— righteous Lord! — you were mine. You awakened
and transformed our mundane, human words. Then did
my throat fill with new power and give new meaning to “you”
which now meant “sovereign.” All was transformed, even such
simple things as basin, pitcher — when, like a sentinel,
layered, solid water lay between us. We were drawn
on and on where cities
built by magic parted
before us like mirages. Mint carpeted our way, birds
escorted us and fish swam upstream while the sky spread
out before us as Fate followed
in our wake like a madman brandishing a razor.
* * *
Each cut is an event, a moment not simply to collide images but also to layer the collage of the film: picture and sound, married and abutted, proffering new sights, new landscapes, new emotions and new realities in light. Andrei Tarkovksy’s The Mirror is full of such event-cuts, each defining or sensing the cohesive whole of the film, like its maker, as discrete moments hung together through time, however disparate and dispersed its instances, like his limbs, may seem. To whittle a life into a film, as Tarkovsky attempted, may be impossible. However, Mirror does not attempt a picture of an entire life: it offers metonymic moments of a life caught across a celluloid timeline. Mirror says we are each immortal, forever unbounded by the “robes of a skeleton” that “sheath” our bodies; therefore I find the defining edit of the film near its close when, abruptly, the narrator finally flies, unlocked and awakened, into the immortal, eternal life the film attempts to define and inhabit.
Fire and washes of light punctuate Mirror. A barn burns in the rain. Sun shines through a window prompting a precognitive order to open a door; as the door opens, the dark of the interior hallway is illuminated in a flash from above. A young girl holds a burning flint next to her hand and the screen fades to black. The narrator lets loose a bird and the film smash cuts to a sun-soaked field bled yellow above evergreens. This cut, from the bird escaping the narrator, the film’s frame, to the field, epitomizes the overlapping temporal spheres of memory and planes of reality Tarkovsky captures in Mirror.
Instead of simply reflecting, Tarkovsky’s Mirror refracts light through the prism of memory, itself a condensation of time. Each event—that is, each cut, each encounter, each memory flashed back or forward—in the film’s networked composite is skewed by the film’s narrator. This narrator is the camera, and the film. His face is never seen. We are denied an identifying reverse shot. We are simply presented with his point of view: the identification is our instantaneous assimilation. His disembodied voice, weathered and granular, presides over the whole body of the work. His body is the work: the film and the guiding frame of the film. Occasionally when reading poetry the voice-over registers differently than when heard talking to other characters from outside the frame, but it still sounds like the same man.
In fact, there are two voices: the poet-narrator is voiced by Arseni Tarkovsky, the director’s father, while the strictly first-person-narrator/character is voiced by Innokenti Smoktunovsky, the “first international Russian film star” (according to imdb.com), one of many point of view refractions. As identities merge in the film (father becomes son while mother becomes (ex-) wife and the son becomes his father in youth) they overlap in reality as well: the real father becomes the film star, and vice versa, incorporating their identities in the film, and its maker. Actors are reprised in different roles, dispersed across the film’s timeline. Their multiplied and simultaneous presence throughout the film (itself a series of memories and reflections) frames the film’s realities as connections arrayed by the time-bridging cuts. Mirror’s editing performs an odd alchemy of memory that proliferates identities as much as converges them. Like in a prism, or kaleidoscope, mirrors are everywhere in the film (adorning walls or registering in windows) forever multiplying realities and planes, forever furthering the refractive inward reflection, or meditation.
When the narrator throws the bird out of the frame, he (an extension of the film and metaphoric extension of Tarkovsky) throws himself out of his own film-narrative-present, collapsing Tarkovsky’s Venn-diagram construction of intuitive memory. However, a film cannot physically present all moments of time simultaneously, as the kind of idealized eternal return of immortality Mirror preaches of, or compile all the moments of a life, in the compact confines of a celluloid yarn. To compensate, Tarkovsky must rely on the rhymes and repetitions of his established tropes to trigger our own memories as we build the film, and bridge the timeline in our heads, collapsing the dialectic relationship between the screen and audience—which is the implied motive of its title. Just as we see the bird and the narrator in the field we see ourselves in the film—the first person point of view of the narrator becomes our point of view: in Mirror’s diffuse temporal sphere, past is present is future, each memory and each present moment of the narrator’s odd non-narrative—each forged image of the film—refracts its abutted, multiplied mirrors.
These mirrors act as frames—within the physical frame of the film as well as frames within framed memories. The amount of multivalent imagery is staggering. Mirror is convoluted to be sure, as one would expect from a labyrinth of memory, but, as a work of poetry premised on metaphors, coherence isn’t its main goal. The film is not a string of scenes, per se, but a thread of luminous moments of memory, each triggering and echoing one another, back and forth. Mirror’s best moments are poetic leaps through time, jumping between memories just as they are triggered by unique sights and sounds, like the layering of poems over images, which marries visual with literary literacy—stream-of-consciousness meets Cubism. Mirror wants to look at each affective event independently of its surrounding refractions but also all at once—to look through the prism but also see the prism as a whole. Angles cut light across an array to project a composite picture anew. Such is the leap of the smash cut from bird to field.
We are in a room whose opposite wall is a mosaic of mirrors, silver squares set at oblique angles to the camera as to only reflect pure light, not more images, with each pane housed in an ornate, handcrafted frame. The narrator is lying sick in bed, perhaps, it is guessed by his caretakers, because of a strep throat. His voice is failing, falling apart. As his present voice is disassembling, it prefigures (and echoes) the poet-narrator’s voice—an elderly rumble that, in its pouring out of words, links and forges images. According to the doctor present in the room, it may be a case of emotional disintegration caused by a recent loss: “A mother, wife or child dies suddenly and a person wastes away in a few days.” There are two women in the room, whom we have seen previously in the film as possible phantasms of the narrator’s relatives (or as his spiritual and hereditary caretakers). One informs the doctor, “But no one died in his family.” The doctor thinks aloud, offers, “There is his conscience, his memory,” which spurs the woman to ask, “What does memory have to do with it? Is he guilty of something?” The other woman quips, “He thinks he is.” Finally he speaks: “Leave me alone.” Memory is everything to him, to the film.
The narrator’s body is hidden from view at first behind a folding screen (another framing device, surrounded by the framed, framing mirrors on the wall). After the exchange recounted above, there is a cut to his bare-skinned torso with the camera already panning down his body along his right arm, along the bed. Next to his leg, just past his hand, a bird lays on its back, its right foot twitching. It, too, appears near death. The narrator takes the bird in his hand and says, “Everything will be alright.” He holds the bird, moves it around in his hand, shifting his arm, and says, again, “Everything will be—” before the camera jolts up, ever briefly away from the bed, to capture his opening hand as it enters the bottom of the frame, releasing the bird, which, appearing healed, flies up out of the frame: we cut—to a washed out horizon the frame bisected by an evergreen forest, separating the yellow-white glow of the sky above and the brown-and-green land below. The deathbed scene is gone, eclipsed by this new reality, this new landscape, this new sight—transcended, even, through the temporal bridge of the cut. Then, as the camera pans across the horizon, and the golden green begins to dominate the frame, we come to recognize the landscape as the pastoral country setting that opens the film and operates as its locus: the narrator’s grandfather’s house. All memory spurs on and on from here, and then back again and again. The narrator’s metaphorical death by way of a resurrected bird is a return, a transformation, a rebirth.
Mirror conflates the differing temporal planes of reality all at once, always, perpetuating life, making the mortal immortal. After the horizon shot becomes a long shot of the locus house, the camera zooms out and cranes down past a fence (which featured prominently in the first scene between the mother and a flattering, wandering doctor) to find the narrator’s mother and father laying in the plush green ground of nature’s carpet. The transformation of the cut links the narrator and the bird’s rebirth with this return to the past, equating the narrator with the land of the locus house, the house itself and his parents: he is present in them all. Then the father asks the mother, “Do you want a boy or a girl?” The mother smiles, flits her eyes about the frame, inhales and glances shortly into the camera’s lens (that is, the gaze of the narrator, and the frame of the film) before turning away from her husband and the camera (or her son and husband) to look back upon the house herself and we cut again—the house providing another event-cut transformation of time, of selves, of locations, of recognition.
Mirror’s subsequent finale presents one marvel of instantaneous collage editing after another, but the cut to the field that spurs the final, freefall to the past is the most impressive leap. The edit after mother looks away from the camera refracts a desire, or wish, into a premonition of herself tending her grandchildren and Mirror, like her, and like its narrator (its frame and its primary node), goes in both temporal directions at once. The resultant sight is her fictive future and her son’s fictive past as an uncanny composite in light, just as the bridge from the bird flying free (of the frame, of death, of continuous life itself) to the field of the past merges time. Edits part the discrete memories, yet, as parts of the whole, the memories are paired as sovereign mirages working in tandem, as one. This film exists as an idealized domain beyond time, beyond mortality. To watch Mirror is to step into it, and live unbounded in time, if briefly, until it ends.
* * *
I trust not premonitions and I fear not omens. I flee
not from slander nor poison. There is no death.
We are all immortal. All is immortal. Fear not
death at seventeen nor at seventy.
There is only reality and light.
There is neither dark nor death
in this, our world.
We have reached the beach and I
am one of those who pull the nets in when
immortality arrives in batches. Live
in a house and it will not crumble. I will summon
a century at will, enter
and build my house in it. That is why
your children and your wives all share my board, the table
serving forefather and grandson: the future is decided now.
[Poems by Arseni Tarkovsky, as read in Mirror on Kino International’s DVD release.]