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‘Twenty or more variants’ were all it took for Andrei Tarkovsky to piece together Mirror, his autobiographical magnum opus built atop the remains of his father’s translated poetry. In an elliptical, unbound sketch of remembrance and the fallibility of memory, Tarkovsky rewrites the rules of remembrance — or perhaps more accurately, restructures them in accordance with his own vision of surrealistic bliss.
The logic of poetry can be called an anti-logic if we are to consider its reaching toward a form that contains the greatest number of emotions, a seemingly paradoxical grail quest; of course, poetry is often delineated by airtight forms that have withstood the test of history. But in architecting a romantic vision of time, time passing, time elapsed, Tarkovsky inverts traditional storytelling, while explicitly forgoing any personally conceived relation to the avant-garde — despite Mirror’s arguably experimental poetics. “I realized that I generally came to recognize my own working principles through questioning established theory, through the urge to express my own understanding of the fundamental laws of this art form,” he describes in Sculpting in Time, his memoir on the process and art of filmmaking (available online for free at the Internet Archive). Cinema as memoir, then, is one take he takes, using his life as a frame of reference for the many dreamlike sequences that make up his creation.
Poetic linkage transcends any ‘linear, rigidly logical’ plot structure for Tarkovsky, an acolyte of truth, truth as beauty, truth as vision. Departing from the logic of traditional drama, he adopts a methodology of poetic reasoning, believing this to be “closer to the laws by which thought develops, and thus to life itself.” Comparing linear sequentiality to mathematical thought, he determines for himself that he prefers the “associative linking” of poetry for its emphasis on affect, in addition to reason. This emphasis on poetry becomes Tarkovsky’s way of engaging with life, his life philosophy. “So much, after all, remains in our thoughts and hearts as unrealized suggestion,” he bemoans. “And I am all for cinema being as close as possible to life — even if on occasion we have failed to see how beautiful life really is.”
The retroactive narration of his autobiography then starts with childhood. A family home, burning, burning in apocalyptic silence; a boy reciting his letters; his mother’s youth. Scenes of a distant meadow and a stranger walking through the grass to greet her, the wind rippling through the tall grasses as she sits on a fence, alone, observing his approach. “I felt all the time that for the film to be a success the texture of the scenery and the landscapes must fill me with definite memories and poetic associations,” Tarkovsky writes of his earlier film Ivan’s Childhood, and Mirror certainly accomplishes this feat through its deliberate linking of the holes of memory, creating a fabric out of patchwork pieces of the past. These ‘poetic articulations’ met much resistance during his time from the ‘film authorities’, though Tarkovsky has stood firm: “Memory,” he insists, “is something so complex that no list of all its attributes could define the totality of the impressions through which it affects us. Memory is a spiritual concept!”
Then again, scenes of his mother’s body levitating in mid-air, or a room raining from inside, are evocative only insofar as they seem like the surreal — a parallel reality of sorts, or an imaginative leap. The effect of Tarkovsky placing these scenes within ordinary scenes of daily life only serves to highlight the color he gives to early memory, and the way he makes it larger-than-life in the heft and weight of their remembrances: “The most beautiful memories are those of childhood. Of course memory has to be worked upon before it can become the basis of an artistic reconstruction of the past; and here it is important not to lose the particular emotional atmosphere… There’s an enormous difference, after all, between the way you remember the house in which you were born and which you haven’t seen for years, and the actual sight of the house after a prolonged absence.” After all, who can say they really know what their childhood was like? In its belatedness, its postmemory, Mirror gets down to the essence of things pieced together from a begotten past, its emphasis — like much of cinema — on time as subject. Making time, after time.