Each week I write something about Cinema’s use of poetry. Taken together, I believe it leads to a deeper understanding of both film and poems. This week it’s Andre Tarkovsky’s 1974film Mirror and his father, Arseny Tarkovsky’s poem ‘First Meetings” or “First Dates”.
I never watched this film until I decided to tackle it for this series– prompted by my friend, an expert in film and cinematography. I knew the name Tarkovsky – from watching Solaris so I knew he was an important Russian director but I did not know his father was one of Russia’s top poets. So I hope you come along with me in this exploration of “Mirror”,this amazing fusion of cinema and poetry. For both cinema and poetry lovers, this is an important film.
Firstly, this film is a poem. So what is a poem? Is it language sculpted to intensify feelings and ideas by crafting all the aspects of language – syntax, image, symbolism, rhythm and rhyme? I will let you decide. Cinema also has its own vast language, such as light, colour, frames to create the illusion of time moving, that can be used to intensify feelings and ideas rather simply narrate.
This film caused some controversy in the 1970’s with critiques saying it was incomprehensible. It is now regarded as one of the best films ever made. Mirror’s narrative – as far as it has one – is about Tarkovsky’s sense of what has created him, what he can never undo in himself and what formed his identity. The film is loosely biographical. The first poem “First Dates” by his father, Arseny Tarkovsky, is a love poem that may be about the decision his parent’s made to create a child. Spoken over the shots of a child spilling milk and a mother in tears, the poem reminds that we are made by moments that can not be undone.
Here is a link to that scene and the poem: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ItC7wDzemyc
The film shows the unfolding sense of Alexei’s (the narrator) biography through some key episodes in his life, linked withthe house he grew up in, his relationship with his mother, (both as a young woman and as an old woman), his relationship to his younger self and his son, and how this plays out with his relationship with his child’s mother. Tarkovsky uses the same actor to play double roles, e.g. his wife and mother, himself as a child and his son. His real mother plays Alexei’s mother as old woman, all of whichgives the film a poetically surreal sense of a man witness tohis own identity. The film uses his father’s poetry thought and makes good use of long takes, breath, sweeping shots of nature, rain and wind to highlight the tones of the poetry.
The images and use of his mother and father in the film highlight his creation, the choices his mother made to conceive him in the first place, the land itself as “Mother Russia”, the visceral quality of the earth. The film splices in old footage of WW2 Russian troops caked in mud, footage of revolution, next to dream like scenes in an old printing press, where his mother worked. There is a beautiful scene showing her rain soaked, rushing to correct a mistake she thought she made, to find the press had already run and no mistake was made. It is this scene where Tarkovsky introduced a quotefrom Dante’s Divine Comedy; “Midway upon the journey of our life…” as if to underline that the Narrator is imagining his mother’s thoughts on his creation, echoed later in the film’s final scene where Dante’s work is referenced again, making the link between people in search of themselves.
Tarkovsky wanted cinema to move away from linear narratives, (shot after shot telling a story through time), he wanted cinema to be more like poetry. He wrote a book called “Sculpting in Time” which talks about this in detail. He uses his father’s poetry and voice to link his ideas through the film. In some sense he asks if he was created by his father’s words, his mother’s body, their relationship and asks what then willhis son become? He explores all these relationships with images of burning buildings, his mother’s tears, his father’s poetry.
The poem that moved me most in the film is the first poem “First Dates”. Here we see a boy spill milk as he runs into a house, where his mother is watching him and as the poem unfolds, she cries as she looks out onto the land, presumably mourning the loss of her husband to the second world war. Thought the film there is the backdrop of men lost to war. The poem itself is lyrical and transformational. I read a number of translations of it as each have subtle differences. The sound of the poem in Russian is sonorous, sensual and rhythmic. The poem takes us through moments of love, how one moment with a beloved can be an ‘epiphany’ and how when someone you love refers to you, it can fuse with a feeling so much bigger then the simple word ‘you’ can convey. In the poem a sleeping lover is witnessed beside some “rain-soaked lilacs” and in the half lit serene scene the enormity of the poet’s feelings transform him, as his lover wakes the poet is in another world. He doesn’t know how this future will unfold. Some kind of decision has been made in his act of loving, and that is expansive and terrifying;
“It carried us I don’t know where.
Retreating before us, like some mirage,
Were cities, miraculously fair.
Under our feet the mint grass spread,
The birds were following our tread,
The fishes came to a river bend,
And to our eyes the sky was open.
Behind us our fate was groping,
Like an insane man with a razor in his hand.”