"Since the cinema is, after all, an art, then it cannot be expected to be 'easy to understand’. Nobody demands that of the other arts…I see no point at all in mass-appeal…

"A myth has come into being that I am inaccessible and incomprehensible. It would be impossible to establish oneself as an individual with anything to contribute without differentiating the audience."

—Andrei Tarkovsky

Mirror (Zerkalo) is pure unadulterated Andrei Tarkovsky, which is to say it is infuriatingly difficult to understand upon first viewing. Nonetheless, of all the Russian master’s films, it is Mirror, perhaps, that has the most to tell us about cinema as an art form, film as poetry, movies as dreams.

Like everything Tarkovsky, this is not accidental. Mirror, originally titled Confession, was the director’s fourth feature film after leaving the Institute of Cinematography, VKIG, in Moscow. As such, it represents the full flowering of his aesthetic. After fifteen years of filmmaking, Tarkovsky had become obsessed with the idea of creating a film in the same fashion a novel is created, that is to say as the work of one man, the equivalent of all the other forms of artistic expression.

More than anything else, I believe, what this means is that the director realized he had to have the same freedom to experiment, to improvise, to go down one dead-end street after another—just like a painter or a writer and certainly a poet must—in order to seduce, cajole, and ultimately celebrate his muse. He also had to somehow streamline the diversity-on-the-hoof that is a motion picture crew into a sort of collective consciousness. It is fortunate for the future of cinema that the director was working in the Soviet Union, where state-sponsored motion pictures were the norm, for as we all know, movies cost more than pens, more than brushes and paints, and an artist’s failure, certainly, is oft writ large. Indeed, in the American system, if you fail big enough you never work again.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s entire career is informed by the necessity of overcoming failure. His first professional film, the wildly successful Ivan’s Childhood, was largely reshot, after both Tarkovsky and, significantly, Creative Section No. I under the Director-General of Mosfim, decided the original director's work was not satisfactory. His second film, Andrei Rublyov endured a ten year series of hardships. The original script was dangerously pared down by the Soviet when the projected budget grew astronomical. The film itself, an epic Cinemascope production encompassing a quarter century of Russian history, took a whole year to shoot, another year to edit, and when it was first released, Tarkovsky was accused of NOT delivering the film he had promised.

The bureaucracy giveth, and the bureaucracy taketh away. The Communist movie-production dance was difficult to learn, and harder to master. But by the time Mirror was conceived in 1968, Tarkovsky was Soviet Cinema’s Golden Boy. Almost single-handedly he had put Communist film on the world map. They gave Tarkovsky permission to shoot his "experimental" film, though on a miniscule budget. Nonetheless, it was hoped that he could produce something like another Solaris, his third film, the brilliant transformation of Stanislaw Lem’s science fiction novel that challenged Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey for trippiest late-60’s meditation on man’s future in the cosmos.

Someone, somewhere deep in the cinema section of the Soviet Politbureau, must have scratched his head and wondered what is he doing this time? Someone must have wondered (quietly) what the acknowledged master was about. The problem was, the master wasn’t quite sure himself. He knew he wanted to make a film about his mother. And he thought it might be interesting if he made a movie that was more like a television show, insofar as it borrowed some of its techniques from that medium, which was beginning to enjoy great success in the Soviet Union in those days.

Tarkovsky proposed a sort of documentary which consisted of interviews with his mother, Maria Ivanova Vishnyakova, a well-known actress, regarding topics of contemporary interest—Vietnam, space exploration, drugs—as well as more personal questions, rather as a psychiatrist might study his patient.

Tarkovsky further expanded upon this idea by formulating staged sequences from his own childhood, which he intended to intercut with relevant newsreel footage, thus producing an extremely personal "document" of the age.

Amazingly, he intended to have his mother be interviewed by a psychoanalyst in the presence of three hidden cameras. (I have a crazy Russian friend. He, too, would probably consider this a pretty good idea. It may be an aspect of the Russian character that escapes me, but no matter, mom and the hidden cameras never got past the script stage.) It should be obvious to all of us that now, thirty years later, ubiquitous cameras are commonplace—on the web and in your local parking lot. Goes to show you what a visionary the man was.

Anyway, Tarkovsky had to shoot Solaris first, and he didn’t get back to his pet project until 1973, when it had begun to coalesce into the film we know today.

So to speak. In contrast to the structural integrity of his earlier films, Mirror, indeed, mirrors Tarkovsky’s evolved belief that:

"For me scenario is a fragile, living, ever-changing structure…a film is only made at the moment when work on it is finally completed. The script is the base from which one starts to explore; and for the entire time that I am working on a film I have the constant anxiety that perhaps nothing may come of it.

"As I began work on 'Mirror' I found myself reflecting more and more that if you are serious about your work, then a film is not merely 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 kind of tricks."

Mirror is at once a meditation on the director’s childhood, an autobiography of sorts, the story of two Russian generations (Tarkovsky’s and his parents’) told within the context of world history, and linked subjectively through memory, dreams, time and Art itself.

The film aims at reconstructing the lives of people that Tarkovsky loved dearly and knew well. He wanted to tell the story of one man’s pain upon reflection and ultimate realization that he cannot repay his family for all that they have given him. He feels he cannot love them enough in return. He is haunted by memory.

And memory, we all know, is difficult to structure. We remember when we don’t want to. We can’t remember when we try to. Our memories and their accuracy ebb and flow. And so it was that Tarkovsky’s process was engaged continuously with the idea of smelting the disparate manifestations of personal literary recollections and the movie-making machinery. He needed to somehow communicate to his crew that they must accept his idea as their own.

This was easier said than done. His director of photography, Vadim Yusov, the man who had photographed all of his films up to that point, refused to work on Mirror. He found the project immodest, vulgar, unduly personal. Of course, after the film was completed he admitted ruefully to the director: "I hate to have to say it, Andrei, but it is your best film."

Significantly, parts of the director’s early explorations of the subject matter found their way into the finished film. Tarkovsky’s own mother plays his mother as an old woman, his father, the poet Arseny Tarkovsky, reads his work, and the film opens with a stunning piece of documentary-type footage that appears, at first glance, to have nothing to do with the rest of the film, but which—like the opening of Andrei Rubylov—may very well be its entire point:

The documentary footage observes a young man who stutters. He is being brought out of an hypnotic trance by his therapist who intones—"You will speak loudly and clearly, freely and easily, unafraid of your voice and your speech."

Imagine the effect this must have had on a Soviet audience within memory of the Stalin years. Imagine the acknowledged metaphorical imperative, the necessity of true and free speech on the part of all artists, that is celebrated when the young man proclaims—"I can speak."

And thus Mirror transitions, to a bucolic episode in a field on the farm of Tarkovsky's youth. Scenes, images, memories, dreams, actual war footage of the Soviet Army—so stupendously produced that it looks like it was shot for the film—poems, conflicts, happiness, loss, ideas wash over each other in the ensuing nonlinear unfolding.

A man who is going to die very young remembers his life. Forty years in the middle of the 20th Century in the Soviet Union. How to synopsize a life? A culture? A sea-change in the history of the world? This is a task best left to an artist:

"Film-making, like any other artistic authorship, has to be subject first and foremost to inner demands, not to the outward demands of discipline and production, which, if too much store is set by them, only destroy the working rhythm. It is possible to move mountains when the people working together to realise the conception of the film, all with their different characters, temperaments, ages and life-histories, are united as one family and fired by a single passion. If a genuinely creative atmosphere can be built up in the team, then it ceases to matter who is responsible for any one idea: who thought of that way of doing a close-up, or panorama, who first devised a lighting contrast or camera-angle…the scene becomes a living structure, in which there is nothing forced and no hint of self-admiration."

—Andrei Tarkovsky
And the irony, of course, is that Tarkovsky’s personal journey through his past becomes everyone's journey through their present. It is impossible to view Mirror, you see, without seeing yourself in it, and that is Andrei Tarkovsky’s stupendous genius, his gift to the world. He is the cinematic equivalent of William Shakespeare, of that I am certain. And as film becomes more and more the medium of our age, as new poets find the tools close at hand, on their computers and in their minicams, and when they finally live life enough to realize they have something to say, I predict it will be to Andrei Tarkovsky that they look for inspiration and proof that Art, truly, is forever.

"'Mirror' was extremely difficult to edit: we had more than twenty different version in the cutting-room at one time. By "different" versions I do not mean differences in a splice here or there, but different structures, a different order for the episodes. The film was not holding together, it would not stand up on its two feet, it simply fell apart; there was no sense of wholeness, no internal cohesion, no solid logic. Then, suddenly, we decided, in desperation, to rearrange it one last time, and the film took shape before out eyes.

"It took me a long time to believe that the miracle had taken place.

"There are only about two hundred sequences in 'Mirror.' This is very little, considering that in a film of this length there are usually around five hundred. The reason for the small number of sequences in 'Mirror' is their actual length.

"When the cinema escapes from the power of money (I mean production costs), when they invent a way for the author of a work of art to capture reality with his own hands (paper and pen, canvas and paint, marble and chisel, "x" and the film-maker), then we shall see. Then film will become first among the arts, and its muse the queen of all the muses."

Andrei Tarkovsky

MIRROR (Zerkalo) (1974)

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Assistant Director: Larissa Tarkovskaya
Screenplay: Andrei Tarkovsky and Aleksandr Misharin
Photography: Georgy Rerberg (color and monochrome)
Editor: Ludmila Feyganova
Art Director: Nikolai Dvigubsky
Sets: A. Merkulov
Music: Eduard Artemyev; and extracts of Pergolesi, Purcell, J.S. Bach
Sound: Semyon Litvinov
Narrator: Innokenti Smoktunovsky
Poems by Arseny Tarkovsky, read by himself

Maria/Natalia: Margarita Terekhova (variously called Masha, Maria in pre-war sequences)
Ignat at 5: Philip Yankovsky
Ignat at 12/Alexei at 12: Ignat Daniltsev
Father: Oleg Yankovsky
Man at printers: Nikolai Grinko
Liza at printers: Alla Demidova
Military instructor: Yuri Nazarov
Doctor passer-by: Anatoly Solonitsin
Woman in Puskin letter scene: Tatiana Ogorodnikova
Alexei's mother, Maria, as an old woman: Maria Ivanovna Vishniakova (Tarkovskaya)
Nadezhda: Larissa Tarkovskaya

Also Known As:
Mirror, The (1975) (USA)
Sarke (1975) (Soviet Union: Georgian title)
White, White Day (1975) (English translation of working title)
úÅÒËÁÌÏ (1975) (Soviet Union: Russian title: original Cyrillic KOI8-R title)
Runtime: 108
Country: Soviet Union
Language: Russian / Spanish
Color: Black and White / Color
Sound Mix: Mono
Certification: Finland:K-12

Tarkovsky—Cinema as Poetry, trans. Natasha Ward, London: Faber and Faber, 1989
The films of Andrei Tarkovsky—A Visual Fugue, Vida T. Johnson and Graham Petrie,Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Sculpting in Time, Andrey Tarkovsky, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998

On Hollywood and filmmaking:

Below the Line

sex drugs and divorce

a little life, interrupted
  1. Hecho en Mejico
  2. Entrances
  3. Sam's Song
  4. Hemingway and Fortuna
  5. Hummingbird on the Left
  6. The Long and Drunken Afternoon
  7. Safe in the Lap of the Gods
  8. Quetzal Birds in Love
  9. Angela in Paradise
  10. And the machine ran backwards

a secondhand coffin
how to act
Right. Me and Herman Melville
Scylla and Charybdis Approximately
snowflakes and nylon

I could've kissed Orson Welles
the broken dreams of Orson Welles
the last time I saw Orson Welles
The Other Side of the Wind

Below the Line
completion bond
Film Editing
Film Editor
Final Cut Pro
forced development
HD Video
king of the queens
Kubrick polishes a turd
movies from space
Persistence of Vision
Sven Nykvist
Wilford Brimley

21 Grams
Andrei Rublyov
Apocalypse Now Redux
Ivan's Childhood
The Jazz Singer
The Sacrifice
We Were Soldiers
Wild Strawberries