Forty years on, the film continues to captivate and induct new members into its cult like following, writes Manan Kapoor
In his 1973 book, Anxieties of Influence, Harold Bloom wrote, “poetic influence need not make poets less original, as often it makes them more original.” One can say that it is impossible to emulate Andrei Tarkovsky, but year after year, filmmakers have tried. In fact, it is impossible to negate the Russian film-maker’s impact on art house cinema.
This can be taken into account when one watches a film by Aleksandr Sokurov, Andrey Zvyagintsev, or even Lars von Trier. Yet years later, no one has been able to quite replicate his cinematic genius in the true sense.
The purpose of Tarkovsky’s cinema is that it is a quest. One that seeks to arrive at the truth of the transient nature of human life. He uses beautiful scenery, layered stream of conscious narrative and his obsessive eye for detail to transform his ideas into cinematic poems.
In his career of 24 years, Tarkovsky directed 7 feature films. Like all good story tellers, Tarkovsky too was obsessed with the idea of layers. As a result, his films are fraught with multiple elaborate thoughts that cannot be comprehended in a single watch. Perhaps that is the true test of endurance for any art form. How much can you return to it, time after time. With Tarkovksy, once is never enough, therefore his cult endures.
It is worth noting, that Zerkalo, or The Mirror, released exactly at the mid-point in his career is his most complex film. The one that endures the most, inducting new members into its fan-club, even 42 years after its first release.
While discussing Tarkovsky’s films, one has to be cautious and think carefully, or risk missing out on the niceties that have grave consequences and implications. Watching his films is an engaging process, but writing about and decoding his films is a struggle. His films have a deep-rooted undercurrent that has to be interpreted. Which is precisely the reason that his films are abstract and meticulous. Zerkalo is an onslaught of beautiful imagery, transcendental atmosphere, information, and philosophising about the nature of existence, humanity, and time itself. Just like all of Tarkovsky’s films, Zerkalo warps time into a more fluid, amorphous, and dreamlike feeling that hypnotises the viewer into perceiving the density of time itself, rather than melting it away. While some get indulged in the characters as if it were them, others find solace in the memories of someone else.
The film has a non-narrative structure and a juxtaposition of images and sequences that insinuate towards the concepts of memories, consciousness, and dreams which can be compared to the visual works of, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad and Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. Yet, out of all the directors mentioned above, Tarkovsky is the most difficult directors to comprehend.
French philosopher Henri Bergson believed our memories are never forgotten. He said there are two kinds of memories, habitual, and pure recollection. Habitual memories are gathered and learnt, while pure recollections are stored within consciousness. He also suggested the possibility of a third kind of memory that is initiated “by the mind to summon up images from the past, in order to apply them to an immediate situation.” It is precisely the third kind that Tarkovsky explores in his film, Zerkalo.
Zerkalo, even after watching it three times, has on many levels, eluded me. It is a sweet struggle to understand, to make sense, and to fully grasp the film on a mental level. A struggle that has carried on for months because it is only partially satisfying to read about the movie, and its interpretations.
Tarkovsky wanted to write a novella about the post-war Soviet Russia. At some point, he abandoned this project and began thinking of recreating it on film. The first draft of the movie was “full of elegiac sadness and nostalgia for my childhood,” he said. It was called, A White, White Day. He felt that, his memories of that period soleley were not enough, he felt that if he added other people’s memories of the same time, he would develop a contrast between the two. Tarkovsky thought that the memories would perhaps contradict each other at some points, while at other instances, they would overlap.
He interviewed his mother for the same, and that’s where the idea for the most self-indulgent, narcissistic concept possible would come to life.
“As I began work on it, I found myself reflecting more and more that if you are serious about your work, then a film is not the next item in your career, it is an action which will affect the whole of your life. For I had made up my mind that in this film, for the first time, I would use the means of cinema to talk of all that was most precious to me, and do so directly, without playing any kinds of tricks.” Tarkovsky wrote. The film only has one partially noticeable shot of the man whose life is being described. His memories are intertwined with stock footage from the Second World War. The film has its roots in Tarkovsky’s elemental imagery of fire, water and earth.
The most famous scene from the movie, with the house on fire as water can be heard dripping slowly is perhaps among the most compelling shot in the history of cinema. Since there isn’t a particular structure or a timeline in the film, Tarkovsky moves back and forth through his memories. One of the central themes in the film is the inadequacy of memory.
While the characters have access to their memories, they do not have the essence of the past. And Tarkovsky has brought out this important aspect in the best way possible. There is no spatio-temporal consistency in the film. He shows us his parents’ troubled marriage, the nervousness of the wartime, the silences that grasped the nations after the war, as well as his own broken marriage. All through the movie, there are poems that are recited, and written by his father Arseni Tarkovsky. The first time one encounters a poem is during the initial scenes. It is perhaps one of the most intriguing shots, with the poem First Dates being recited in the background, while Tarkovsky exposes the characters and their thoughts through the words written by his father.
Zerkalo will remain a nonpareil experience, for its sole impact on the viewers and their experience of Tarkovsky’s past and its impact on his present. It is undeniably a reflection of the artist himself.
While mirrors play an important part in the film, the metaphorical mirror of memory encapsulates the characters and their experiences. The autobiographical film, is in many ways, Tarkovsky’s way of recounting the most personal elements of his life through memories, and he does so without any pretense