There seems to be very little I can possibly say about Andrei Tarkovsky that hasn’t already been written, far more eloquently and astutely by the likes of J. Hoberman, James Quandt and Chris Marker (who’s One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich will screen on the final Friday of our Tarkovsky retrospective, which starts this weekend). Just pick up a copy of 2008’s handsomely illustrated Tarkovsky and do a bit of leafing; or for a deeper plunge, try Robert Bird’s Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema. There’s plenty on the internet, of course, so try the indefatigable Canadian website nostalghia.com; here, I’ll just signpost a personal favorite in the series.
The Mirror (1975) may be Tarkovsky’s purest expression. Largely unencumbered by narrative, it dwells and drifts freely through poetry, memory, newsreels, landscapes, and climates (wind-blown spring feels hard-won after the horizon-blanketing snows of winter). A house burns in a forest. A girl levitates. A woman wanders among massive reams of paper in a seemingly abandoned factory. To call it dreamlike is far too simplistic given that Tarkovsky’s cinema, with its prevalence of lengthy, crawling takes, lingers in an enigmatic present tense. His shots don’t so much span space as they alter the viewer’s sense of duration (the tree may not only be a sign in Tarkovsky’s cosmology but also a concrete representation of time itself). The camera floats through expansive realms that are earthy—Marker notes Tarkovsky’s affinity for grounding his figures in vast stretches of land with little space afforded to the sky—and where time is somewhat elastic or at least porous. Just look at the way figures amble within the frame or the different planes of action unfurl in fugues of simultaneity. Tarkovsky’s protagonists don’t so much take center stage, commanding their destiny, as they glide through a potent, waterlogged world, slipping into visions or reminiscences, pondering their place, and slipping toward magnificently sublime ends. In The Mirror, this lead isn’t an on-camera presence as much as an in-camera consciousness. And after nearly two hours inhabiting it, these memories will be your own.