I was having trouble sleeping early this morning, so I put on Tarkovsky’s Mirror. I tend to seek out his movies when I’m sleepless; as poetic dreamscapes, they flow better over a mind that’s a little too fatigued to insist on logic.
Dreams are a priority of late. With more time at home to grapple with their subconscious and an abundance of fresh trauma to process, people are reporting that their dreams have become unusually compelling, sometimes lucid, kaleidoscopic with symbols, frequently Technicolor. Essentially, we’re all living in a Tarkovsky film at the moment, where the days blur together and the specter of our mortality looms more vividly. We are collectively mourning ways of living we took for granted, which spins out its own subsequent manifestations of childhood nostalgia and imprints interpretations on things which seemed too trivial to parse in the Time Before. Mirror is the last dream of a dying man, filled with memories that are buttressed by facts he couldn’t possibly have known for sure. Its scenes glow with light, blind with flame, and drip with water, moving between color and grayscale almost imperceptibly. Tarkovsky is the original quarantine dreamer.
When I watch Mirror, I feel that I am old again, I am young again, that I have never been born, that I am already dead. These are the feelings I chase in my own fiction; they’re the reason I write. I like Tarkovsky.
Tarkovsky is one of a few filmmakers who can ease into such a dreamspace believably, and with harrowing grandeur decades before CGI. (Critics often note the influence of Bruegel.) And a significant part of what makes this particular work especially impressive is that he did not have endless resources at his disposal: Mirror was created with a pre-portioned allotment of film and its release was dependent on the approval of the state. It was a magic trick, like that unbelievable whip of wind that serpentines up the summer green hillside as the doctor takes his leave—the actor pauses to look back toward the camera, as if to wonder if we saw it too.
Watching it in those foggy blue hours of early morning, I thought about how the levitating, fair-haired, heart-broken, moody mother of Mirror is in many ways the same mother of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, a film which is perhaps an homage, perhaps an echo, perhaps an interpretation of its predecessor.
Most critical comparison of Tarkovsky and Malick tends to reasonably conclude that Malick’s work is beautiful and relevant, but ultimately a bit inferior. Of course one influenced the other, but they retain significant independence from one another, too, because they originate from such distinct cultural experiences.
(Maybe. I quit watching Malick films after Tree of Life. I tried. But a lot of what he’s done since has felt fairly hollow to me, which might be the ultimate answer to the question of how much he owes Tarkovsky.)
Still, what Malick takes from Tarkovsky is both inspiring and irritating, different and derivative. For both artists, war is a prominent theme. Both came of age in times of war, but only one of them lived with it on his own soil. In Mirror, the long shadows of war achieve deeper saturation in the context of the many conflicts and struggles that came to typify Soviet life, whereas in Tree of Life war presents a stark contrast to the idyllic, summery aesthetics of the American dream.
Both position themselves at the midpoint of the twentieth century, looking backward with an adult’s awareness of how a child’s experiences are felt and remembered. Mirror is shot in such a way that it invites our indentification with it; Tree of Life is far more specific to one man’s experience, inviting us to observe it.
I feel that Tarkovsky is the one who manages to make the feeling of being old and young, long dead and newly born, truly universal to any viewer. The final, legendary shot of Mirror, as it pulls us back from the dream and into the darkness, is both a literal experience of waking and an emotional experience of relinquishing one’s childhood. It is a sensation that belongs to everyone, and yet belongs deeply and intimately to the poet alone.
He did it without the benefit of longevity; Malick had his threescore and ten to draw upon for Tree of Life.
Malick makes his study of childhood and memory more romantic, more personal, and in doing so, makes it a little less real for people who can’t relate to the upbringing he depicts. In Mirror, people are depicted as both who they are remembered to be and who they actually become; there are memories which are troubling, which offer no sense of what meaning they may contain. Tree of Life shows us only people as they are remembered, reinforced by visions of an afterlife in which we are reunited in the context of how we wish to be seen, not necessarily how others saw us, backlit by our most treasured memories.
Mirror is thus less wistful and ultimately far more devastating. We are all old. And we are all young. And ultimately what lives in the mind and heart is ours alone, what means everything to us also means nothing. Tree of Life is gorged with beauty, insists that all of this, while inexplicable, is also profound.
Tarkovsky and Malick share an incredible sense of photography, and their best films have become positively jewellike in radiant, painstaking restoration. Nature is the source code of poetry itself, so both filmmakers have sought their light at the most bewitching hours of day, have lingered prayerfully amid the strange timelessness of old trees and along the patient flow of steady rivers. Windblown grass, shadowed houses, half-closed doors, gauze-draped windows, steamy handprints fading; each filmmaker savors his own favorite ephemeral images.
There is, also, a sense of majesty in the irrelevant clutter of daily life. (An incidental shot that I love: the halls of the printing press in Mirror are littered with enormous, unspooling rolls of paper, as if left behind by some fleeing administrative giant. Malick speaks to the same thing in Tree of Life when Mr. O’Brien moves effortlessly through a staggering industrial jungle of deafening machinery.) Glass jars are resplendent with dried floral bouquets and a pair of turquoise earrings glances through a shot like neon in Mirror; pinned laundry moves like ballet dancers en barre and toys and delft-patterned dinner plates clatter across the frames of Tree of Life.
Not long ago, Criterion released an extended cut of Tree of Life, which I took in eagerly, expecting there to be even more splendid photographs, more prayerful abstractions, more sprawling musical cues. Instead, the added footage revealed that the film had once been far more cohesive, had a more traditional narrative, was more intentionally A Story. To me, this discovery was sort of disappointing. What made the theatrical release of Tree of Life so powerful was that it didn’t try to justify the recollections and meditations it offered. Nobody really needs more of any story that’s fundamentally about white, middle-class, mid-century Americans. What’s more fascinating is what everyone who didn’t live that story can find in common with its protagonists through the metaphysical collage of shared dreams and abstract recollection.
I think that’s what Tarkovsky did so brilliantly by using his father’s verse as the narration for Mirror—Arseny Tarkovsky’s poetry makes it feel innately personal without becoming so intimate that a viewer couldn’t contemplate their own childhood, their own mother, their own death. The last real sound in Mirror is a primal scream; this is us, this is all of us, this is everything, this is nothing. Culture frames our experience but does not define it.
The poetry of Mirror is layered simply with the score; Tarkovsky favored liturgical interstitials of Bach, a single Purcell aria. Tree of Life echoes Mirror a bit clumsily in this regard: it forgoes poetry for stream of consciousness musings from multiple narrators; it piles on cues from Brahms to Respighi and then adds a haunting but modern score by Desplat, as if it cannot settle on the ultimate tone for the piece (which is, incidentally, as appropriate as it is heavy handed). The result is still beautiful and haunting, but it’s more conscious, more willful, than Mirror.
Both films are wonderful and haunting in their own way. Both go deeply to a place where we’re all spending a lot of time right now, to that inner collage of memory, dream, emotion, and spirit. A collage from which we can generate art, but which itself is closed for viewing to anyone but our individual self.
Lately Mirror resonates more deeply with me because of its economy of verse and its emphasis on imagery, which is comforting when words (like “unprecendented”, ugh) are fast becoming meaningless with overuse. An image is enough right now. A dream is enough right now. The familiarity of its structure assures me that every generation beholds its wonders and horrors, that youth is as impermanent as old age, that nothing can be so beautiful as an experience which changes everything about us, whose ending is inevitable and yet still feels like a mystery.
When Mirror was first completed, Goskino USSR initially rejected it, claiming it was indecipherable. Then they abruptly released it, untouched, a few months later, and critics wondered if it had any place in the modern era. They assumed it would make more sense to viewers in a future time.
Tree of Life was also poorly received; after it was booed at Cannes, Sean Penn famously griped that he hadn’t understood anything he was doing in the film (not a surprising complaint from Sean Penn).
But both pictures have ultimately gone on to resonate deeply with viewers who surrendered their preconceptions, stopped fighting for interpretation, and simply let the films wash over them like music. It’s important, especially in times like these, to remember that art can and should be as confounding as life, that it floods through us with wisdom that is frequently unintelligible.
Mirror is now considered one of the greatest works in cinema. I am confident that one day, Tree of Life will join it. The meaning of these films, if you must derive one, is simple enough. Live through this time, and the beauty of it will be known to you eventually.
In lieu of a still, I picked one of my favorite Tarkovsky polaroids for the header image. Here are some more, as a chaser.