In last month’s issue of Sight & Sound (November, 2015) Nick James details his relationship with the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky in line with the season of films he’s curated for the BFI. Though the article is chiefly surrounding Tarkovsky’s (vast) legacy, one aspect in particular caught my attention whilst reading. He refers to a scene from Tarkovsky’s 1975 film, Mirror, which partly accounted for his budding education as a cineaste – a scene where two characters meet, fall down, separate and then join through the elemental forces of a breeze in the grass. It’s a scene which epitomises the director on so many levels yet it was also surprising to find James discussing the scene with the strict adherence to Tarkovsky’s own reading, suggesting “This scene is not, or not quite, a pathetic fallacy in which weather represents human feelings.” (2015). The reasoning seems to come from Tarkovsky’s own writing upon the scene in his book Sculpting In Time (1986), though there is a slight underestimation of this level of aesthetic symbolism that calls out for greater depth.
The scene begins after the film’s opening of a young boy going through speech therapy. The contrast between the tones and colours of the film is extremely apparent as a scratchy, pre-existing form gives way to the more gentle tones of the natural landscape. A woman is sat smoking on a fence that leads to her house, watching for something (which turns out, in practice to be nothing). A man appears further down the field path and makes a turn by a tree upon seeing her, claiming to have lost his way. He is a doctor on his way to the nearby town. The pair briefly talk before the weight of his body on the fence upon which she sits breaks the beam. They fall. The man takes open pleasure in this (“It’s a pleasure to fall down with an attractive woman.”) and the woman frustrated brushes herself down. He leaves but, as he does, something stops him; some sort of realisation. He turns back to look at the woman and, as he does, a strong breeze rises up from nowhere, curls around the long grass and departs. He follows suit.
Tarkovsky’s desire to avoid the deeper meaning of scenes such as these comes from his background of poetry and the influence of his father, Arseny. As he suggests in frustrated tones, “I had great difficulty in explaining to people that there is no hidden, coded meaning in the film, nothing beyond the desire to tell the truth. Often my assurances provoked incredulity and disappointment.” (1986, p.133). To apply this reading to Tarkovsky’s general use of elemental and natural forces in his films, from dogs to water and fire, underestimates the power of his images and also the wonderful realisation of Tarkovsky’s own subjectivist approach to art surmised by his famous quote, “A book read by a 1000 different people is a thousand different books.” (1986, p.177). Mirror is so full of slipstreams to new and potential readings that it is almost deliberately conducive to this natural subjective variance.
What is it that is really happening within this scenario then? The poetics of the image are enough for Tarkovsky to be satisfied and, by his logic, the viewer that understands poetry should also be satisfied too. Yet, in the chapter on Mirror where he discusses this scene, Tarkovsky opts to open it with a quote from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924) about how the “significance” (i.e. the spiritual) is attained through the implication of wider and universal principles. If this is the director’s relation to cinema, then the breeze in the grass is far closer to “representing human feelings” than simply being aesthetic which is pretty much an inversion of the concept of the “pathetic fallacy”. The potentially negative reading suggests that human feeling are deeply immanent in the sense that we all feel them and are the pillars that allow empathy to be built (aspects that are on paper too solid for Tarkovsky’s cinema). Really though, emotions are transcendental in the sense that words and short-hand methods of communicating them only bring about the recollection of them as true representation is almost always beyond possible.
Also of interest is how Tarkovsky framed this sequence from a performance point of view. To prepare for the role, Tarkovsky did not tell Margarita Terekhova the ultimate outcome of her meeting with the doctor (Anatoly Solonitsyn). She plays the part in far more depth of character than is usual for cinema in that the meeting is very much “of the moment.” Tarkovsky therefore has to qualify this in some way and opts to use the landscape and its elementals as a way of expressing a form that only gradually solidifies as the film provides more and more hindsight: “The story was kept secret from her so that she would not react to it at some unconscious level of her mind, but would live through that moment exactly as my mother, her prototype, had once lived through it, with no foreknowledge of how her life would turn out.” (1986, p.141). As the breeze gently rolls over the tops of leaves, it feels as if the foreknowledge that Tarkovsky mentions passes over the characters and the actors; an inevitability whose entrapments they are, as yet, unaware of.
The presence of natural and elemental forces are therefore far from being just pathetic fallacy (or more accurately in this case, an inversion of it) in their use in Tarkovsky’s work (as both James and the director gently suggest) but an essential aspect that aids in the conveyance of feelings of both inevitability and ineffability. This isn’t to say that the breeze that encircles the doctor is necessarily something so tawdry as the realisation of his falling in love with the woman – it is far deeper than that as the visual is in essence both aesthetically simple and thematically abstract – but the breeze opens up the scene to the point where the viewer should be aware that something more has happened than simply a chance meeting between two strangers and the breaking of a fence. To use the doctor’s own words within the argument, the disassociation from inner realms manifesting through the natural objects in Tarkovsky’s films seem to be “…because we don’t trust the nature that’s inside of us.”.
The BFI’s Tarkovsky season, Mirroring Tarkovsky, continues throughout November.