An Attempt at Universal Subjectivity: The importance of mirrors for self-consciousness, the importance of self-consciousness for cinema, and the importance of it all to Andrei Tarkovsky's Mirror.
Years ago I sat down to watch Andrei Rublev after having read some cursory remarks on the internet about this obscure Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky. Before I ever saw one of his films I had already bestowed upon Tarkovsky a mythical status as some Olympian champion of true art. The tendentiousness of the film (and my resulting bewilderment) actually served to further inflame my curiosity. I sensed, as Ingmar Bergman had said, that I was standing at the threshold of a door, the keys for which had never been given to me. Subsequently, the art of Tarkovsky has become an all-consuming quest lasting some three years now. What I have discovered is that while his films would grow progressively more surreal and elliptical, their intimacy intensifies. What many see as Tarkovsky's authoritarian refusal for comprehension is in fact a resolution to maintain fidelity to his own dreams and visions. For how else can one have a dialogue with another except through honesty? Tarkovsky's films, like a good friend, require time and understanding to get to know, but the resulting friendship roots itself deep.
In this essay I would like to qualify my own appreciation and that of others for his most "difficult" film, Mirror. Enjoying Tarkovsky's film is not just a chance occurrence, but the result of what I've come to see is a unique theoretical approach he takes to igniting audience subjectivity. I will use information pulled from various articles and books about Tarkovsky, but most significantly, I will rely on a documentary on mirrors and self perception and an essay on the role of self-perception in cinematic spectatorship to guide our analysis. These texts will help us to better understand the role of reflection and self-perception in cinema. Finally, using these as a theoretical foundation and relying heavily on structuralist film theory, I will argue that Tarkovsky's masterpiece Mirror is not intended to be purposefully confusing, but is in fact a radical attempt at being universally engrossing precisely by being so personal.
The Origins of Subjectivity
A baby lamb is put into a pen with another lamb. The two animals contentedly mingle and nuzzle up against each other. Then one is removed, leaving the baby alone. Almost instantly the baby lamb begins to cry out and runs in circles looking for his friend. A large mirror is then placed in the pen. Suddenly, another lamb has joined him once again. He snuggles up next to the mirror and sits down tranquilly. Apparently, his friend has returned. A human baby girl is now placed in front of a mirror. At first, like the lamb, she sees the image as another baby and tries to play with it. The image's exact copying of her movements finally beguiles the child, who realizes that it is not someone else. She then begins to look back and forth at her body and the body of the baby in the mirror. She starts rubbing her face. It begins to dawn on her that she is, in fact, looking at herself!
In 2003, Films for the Humanities and Sciences produced an educational video called Through the Looking Glass: The Mirror and the Self-Conscious. The video elucidates scrubby Scottish scientist Jim Anderson's research with animal self-consciousness and French child psychologist Anne Marie Fontaigne's research with infant self-consciousness. Both rely almost entirely on mirrors as a tool by which to provoke their subject's self-awareness. There is a marked difference between human and animal reactions to their reflections. Anderson finds that most animals do not recognize themselves in the mirror, but instead see the image as another animal. Dogs try to fight with their images, mistaking it for a rival. They eventually realize the futility of their attacks and retreat confused. The only animal seeming to possess any sort of ability to perceive itself in the mirror is the Patis monkey, one of which Anderson gets to use its reflection to guide its arm around a blind corner to grab a hidden raisin. Anderson's experiment is inconclusive in that it does not necessarily prove the monkey recognizes itself so much as it learns to correlate its movements with those in the mirror to attain a goal. Animals' self-consciousness, so far as Anderson's research concludes, is rooted in instincts for competition and survival. They can only understand the image in the mirror to the extent that it represents a similar animal, but never itself. The animals' concept of their relation to their environment stops here. Anne Marie Fontaigne's experiments with children, though, prove that human perception is much more advanced.
Fontaigne's research is done entirely in a university day-care facility where she observes the behavior of children over time. In the first months of life, babies put in front of mirrors have no clue that they are seeing themselves. Given that they have only barely begun to understand the delineations between self and other, they do not even react to the image. It is only another unintelligible mass of color in their vision. Fontaigne explains that in the interval from eighteen 18 months to around three years old, babies' interactions with other children begin to cement an understanding of their behavior verses that of others. These slightly older children react differently to the mirror. They now notice that the being in the mirror is imitating them, and it finally dawns on them that it is themselves. Some children are rather embarrassed and become reserved. Others are excited and begin to perform. These children are beginning to understand their "I."
Fontaigne explains that the most fundamental factor in a child's development of self-awareness is a system of symbols by which to categorize perceived difference, in other words, language. A child that has yet to learn language is unable to delineate concepts like "arm" or "leg" because it has yet to connect the image of its body to their sensation of it. However, once a child begins to label the external world, he or she is able to recognize the image in the mirror as his or her Self. Particularly fascinating is the section of the video about the face. While children are able to look at their own hand, see it in the mirror, and thus identify it as their own, no person is capable of beholding his own face. Thus, the child recognizes everything in the mirror except this strange area attached to its torso. We watch as the children pull on their faces as they look in the mirror so that they can match the sensations with the reflected image . Fontaigne puts it beautifully when she explains that, "a child does not recognize himself but learns to know himself." This "mirror-phase" is the point at which human perception becomes unique.
Empathy with others is commonly thought to be the chief distinction between humans and animals. The narrator of Through a Looking Glass explains that following a child's realization of selfhood (or, subjecthood by which to exercise subjectivity) there arises the realization of others' distinct selves as well. Fontaigne's experiments go on to demonstrate that social emotions like empathy, guilt, embarrassment, etc. are self-conscious sentiments, i.e. they rely upon the acceptance of the subjectivity of others. It is thus only when a child overcomes the "primitive undifferentiation" of the Self and Other they can empathize . At this stage of development (around three years) children's play becomes more communal and cooperative. Freud's concept of the conscience, or super-ego, appears to be rather true in that its existence is dependent upon accepting other's existence as concurrent and perhaps in conflict with one's own.
In conclusion then, Anderson and Fontaigne's research proves that humanity's unique ability to employ language during the mirror-phase is the root from which springs our unique capacity for a consciousness superseding animal instinct. And this is where I would now like to turn to cinema, the grand, bedazzling mirror of our world. In particular, I will review and employ Vivian Sobchack's insightful essay Toward a Phenomenology of Nonfictional Film Experience , which will provide us with a clearer understanding of how the cinematic spectator perceives his or her Self in relation to the "mirror" that is the cinema.
"Every film is a fiction film." Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier
In her lengthy essay, Vivian Sobchack explains the three levels of cinematic reality and the degree to which each relies on audience subjectivity. According to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a theoretician from whom Sobchack borrows much, there are three type of cinema: fiction, documentary, and home-movie ("film-souvenir" as she calls it). Each maintains a different level of fidelity to reality and thus requires of the spectator different levels of subjective participation.
The fiction film term diagesis exists for a key reason: the fictional film has its own world. The diagesis is distinct from the actual world because the spectator knows the diagesis is staged. A fiction narrative, is then, theoretically, a unique and foreign "language." The necessary structuring of fictional narrative is the means by which the filmmaker teaches the audience the language of the film's world. Fictional film structure is thus predicated on the fact that the audience cannot empathize with an unknown reality, so by building and directing the spectator's understanding of the diagesis, the story elicits empathy. But it is a manufactured empathy. A synthetic, throw-away kind. Audiences may cry their eyes out when Maverick's buddy dies in Top Gun, but only because they are safe in the awareness that it is all just a movie. As regards the activation of audience subjectivity, then, fiction creates a ghost subject from which springs film-specific emotions. The audience therefore looks only to the film for emotional stimulation, relying much less on their own authentic memories. The screen in a fiction film is therefore the end site of the spectator's investigation into reality; it is an object.
The documentary image differs from the fictional only slightly, in this theoretical view. Documentaries are referential films through which audiences can view previously unknown aspects of their contemporaneous world. While one might not have any physical experience of, say, Hiroshima, the knowledge that it did actually happen requires that spectator dig into their personal stores of real-world empathy. The spectator and the documentary object share a common reality, and thus the capacity for authentic empathy - dormant during the fictional film experience - comes alive. Only partly, however. Simply because the documentary object existed somewhere does not mean the spectator had any personal experience of it. So, because of the spectator's presumed lack of direct relation to the material, the documentary filmmaker, like the fictional one, must impose an organizing structure. To use a linguistic metaphor, the spectator understands the words, but the filmmaker must give them a syntax. Documentary spectatorial empathy is therefore only slightly more personal than it would be with a fiction film because of the remoteness of the documentary film's world. The documentary film screen reflects onto the spectator abstract images of his their world, but film-souvenir, the final level of cinema reality, is the most intimately reflective.
Home-movies are uniquely mirror-like because they reflect back subjectivity directly. Home-movie images, unlike fiction and documentary, "do not serve as the 'end' or intentional object of our perceptual activity," but are instead only means to evoke our memories . In home-movies, the object is the subject! They therefore require no imposed construction for comprehension because the syntactical glue that gives them context resides precisely in the spectator himself. The experience of the film is completely personal so the resulting consciousness is at its most authentic.
In sum, Sobchack's essay builds on Anne Marie Fontaigne's declaration of the importance of language to self-awareness and empathy. Narrative films employ massive amounts of cinematic language to create the illusion of an Other with which to empathize. Home-movies, on the other hand, are like the mirrors in front of the baby; by reflecting the self, they underscore subjecthood. The cinematic screen is both a window to other worlds or a mirror for one's own.
The importance of mirrors, literally and figuratively, should now be quite clear. Reflections and images are how we understand our Selves and by way of this, the selves of others. A discussion of Andrei Tarkovsky's Mirror is now possible.
Layering the Realities of Cinema: Introduction to Mirror
"Bereft of memory, a person becomes the prisoner of an illusory existence; falling out of time he is unable to seize his own link with the outside world-in other words he is doomed to madness." Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time
Mirror is a film whose meaning will depend entirely on one's view of what constitutes reality. Tarkovsky claims to have simply made a film of his childhood memories and adult sentiments, but what arose was a theoretically elaborate confessional in which Tarkovsky intermingled re-enacted (or more, accurately, re-envisioned) history, fictional scenarios and documentary footage. The film cannot be categorized as clearly fiction, documentary, narrative, home movie or otherwise. The sum of its parts is a monolith of subjectivity that many claim is so personal and self-referential that it approaches incomprehensibility. For many, the film is a self-reflecting enigma, certainly not a mirror by which an audience can see themselves. On the contrary, using the points drawn from Through a Looking Glass and Phenomenology, I hope to reveal Tarkovsky's unique (though admittedly complex) attempt at actually stimulating audience empathy so as to actually cause them to feel along with him .
Mother's Face: Re-Envisioned Memories
"The camera... is a kind of two-way glass that retains a double function: it is a window that delivers the proflimic to an absent gaze and, at the same moment, a reflective surface that reintroduces us to ourselves." Michael Renov, from "Video Confessions" in The Subject of Documentary
The bulk of Mirror's diagesis is made up of elaborately re-created memories from Tarkovsky's past. He recreated his childhood home and family clothes from photographs, famously put off shooting for a year to allow a field of flowers to grow, and cast his own mother as... well, his mother. The film is nothing if not intensely personal. In a very real sense, it functioned as a home-movie for Tarkovsky and his family, albeit poeticized.
By Sobchack's definition, home-movies use the past to draw memory forward . The contents of home-movies are bits of the past but their visual archiving allows a person to evoke them at any time. Tarkovsky's film certainly worked similarly for his close friends and relatives who, upon seeing the film, reacted as if it were a home-movie . Mirror functions differently for Tarkovsky, though, and by implication, the audience. The film's episodes are Tarkovsky's memories thrown back onto the screen, not coming forth from it. His recovery of memory moves in the opposite direction then as it does with home-movies. Instead of the past producing the memory, now it is the memory which produces the past. Mirror is completely subjective in this way, despite Tarkovsky's claim to fidelity to some objective past. So, what we arrive at is the display of Tarkovsky's active subjectivity producing its dreams, and by this fact, the spectator, who is also a viewing subject, becomes his surrogate. Together they share the creation of memory. In sum, Mirror is more than home-footage for family and friends, it is Tarkovsky publicly exercising his subjecthood and joining the audience in producing meaning. Christian Metz claimed that cinema is a mirror that reflects everything but ourselves; Tarkovsky did not think so.
The Stuttering Boy: The Object that Talks Back
Blackness. No credits, no titles. Suddenly an image appears of a boy with his back turned to the camera (we later learn his name is Ignat). He turns on a television. As static begins to emerge on the TV screen, he moves away and the camera zooms into the back of his head. Cut to a black and white image of another young boy in a doctor's office, presumably being filmed for the television Ignat is watching. This boy has a severe stuttering problem and is relying on a hypnotherapist to cure him. We watch as the doctor leads him through various forms of attention tests and finally into paralyzed hypnosis. At last, the doctor counts to three and demands the boy break free from his paralysis and "speak loudly and clearly, freely and easily, unafraid of your speech." The boy looks directly to the camera and proclaims "My name is..." Cut to the title screen, "Mirror" .
This highly suggestive opening is the key to another form of subject/object play in Mirror. This is the first of a handful of fictional scenes that serve as metaphors for Tarkovsky's struggle to confront his past. Ignat's watching of the TV is a metaphor for the audience. His contemporary gaze is ours as well as Tarkovsky's because both we and him are looking in and inspecting his past. The stuttering boy is thus a dumb puppet to the subjectivity of everyone watching, and symbolizes Tarkovsky's stunted memories. However, when the he looks into the camera and proclaims, "I can speak," things get complicated. A small summary of structuralism is necessary before I continue.
The philosophy of Structuralism is predicated on the following assumption: an essential reality behind the signified (i.e. all things assigned a name or "signifier") is unknowable. The signifiers we corporately assign to objects evidence an inability to reach outside of our perception to get at any "essential" nature of objects. In other words, human beings are imprisoned by their own subjectivity. "Reality" is only a concept, an illusion. Cinema is particularly susceptible to such criticism because its profound "similarity" to reality is perhaps the most mediated among arts. Documentary film and video has come under the dissection of theorists because the very word "documentary" implies imply a certain realness to the shot, irrespective of the cinematic apparatus's modification. In semiological terms, audiences seem to think documented objects can be perceived autonomous from their signifiers. Semiology would instead claim that the documentary image is only an index of reality, never reality itself, and thus, "it is the viewer's consciousness that finally determines what kind of cinematic object it is" . All of a sudden we find ourselves practically saying that filmed events are just as illusory as a fictional ones simply because we directed our gaze at them. They have become, again, the dumb puppets of our perception. So, how then does this apply to Mirror's opening scene?
The stuttering boy is the object of our gaze and that of Ignat's, thus he is signified. His stutter is a metaphor for his status as an object unable speak for itself from behind its signifier. However, when he looks straight at the camera, it is if he returns our gaze and assumes the power of articulation. The ethereal reality behind the signifier finally speaks for itself. Mirror's opening scene is a signal that the film's objects, hence Tarkovsky's, will join the audience in subjecthood. Almost miraculously the spectator is engaged in a dialogue of emotions and memory with the ghosts behind the movie screen. Tarkovsky attempts to personify his memories and grant them subjectivity! As Dr. Fontaigne clarified in Through the Looking Glass, it is only once a child acknowledges the existence of other children that it can empathize with them. Similarly, Tarkovsky's attempt to subjectify nearly everything opens up the chance for a massive array of unique and intriguing audience reactions.
An even more pronounced instance of this enlivening of the object happens in the middle of the film when where there is intercut several minutes of documentary footage from the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Each sequence contains a shot of a person staring right into the camera, except that rather than being fictional, these are real people. Let me explain the ramifications of this.
In the Spanish footage, a young girl stares into the camera with a searing inquisitiveness. Her brutal, beyond-her-years look is a indictment of the audience's voyeuristic assumption that they are separate from her experience. By looking at the audience, she demands that they acknowledge her existence. In the World War II footage, a soviet soldier in close-up stares into the camera as hordes of screaming Maoists vie for attention behind him. Unlike the Spanish girl, his look is one of weariness, a muted plea for sympathy. Both he and the girl are "the site of [the viewer's] subjectivity deposited and reflected" . Whether or not the audience the audience has experience of the Russian, Chinese, or Spanish Republican revolutions, they can at least sympathize with these people for their visible predicaments. Thus, Tarkovsky appropriates the "home-footage" from far off peoples and makes it meaningful to the most remote audience, himself included. The fact that he managed to use documentary footage to such an evocative end is simply enthralling. It is a fascinating three-way dialogue between director, audience, and object, all of which have now been acknowledged to have their own subjectivity. This is the most profound way in which Tarkovsky creates a cinematic language that is different from the classical tradition but that nonetheless yearns for universality.
The Angry Spaniard: Framing our Subjectivity
A last technique that Tarkovsky uses to draw the audience into his world is what I call "subjectivity framing." It is a variant on the fiction filmmaking method of using establishment to cultivate audience empathy.
Just before the documentary sequences, there is a scene in which Fernando, a Spanish patriarch and family friend to the main characters, waxes on the athletic brilliance of matador Palomo Linares. His family wearily roll their eyes and he passionately demonstrates Linares's techniques as if they were the strokes of Michelangelo himself. Obviously, Fernando has a habit of such reveries. Suddenly, his daughter begins performing a traditional Spanish dance which he abruptly stops with a slap to her face. One can only surmise that he does so out of resentment for her casual, indeed disrespectful apprehension of his proud heritage. It is at this point that the aforementioned documentary footage begins, starting with the steady beat and clap of Spanish music over the shots of the Civil War.
Fernando serves two function here. First, he establishes a nationalist tone that lends the following war footage its sorrowful effect. The audience puts on Fernando's eyes, so to speak, and comprehends the footage within his nostalgic, patriotic context. Tarkovsky, having now evoked this nostalgic state of mind in the audience, then cuts in the footage of Russia. Audience empathy transfers to the Russians. So then, Tarkovsky ultimately uses Fernando as a bridge into his own subjectivity. Fernando "frames" our perception so that we follow Tarkovsky into his own nostalgic reverie, and his specifically Russian images become universally somber (when are Russian images ever not?)
Tarkovsky is not always so charitable with his history, however. A more psychoanalytic view of Fernando reveals just how.
Fernando's memories of Spain are, to use Freudian terminology, his unconscious desire for pre-Oedipal bliss condensed into stubborn patriotism. Spain is his history, his memory, his dream... in Metz's terms, his imaginary. The fact that the daughter would try to lay claim to it offends his sense of ownership of his identity, so he stops her. A similar interaction occurs later in which an old woman tells Ignat to read aloud a letter written by Pushkin in 1836 in which he proclaims his devotion to Mother Russia. As Ignat reads innocently the massively significant historical document, one senses that the woman made him do so simply for the purpose of emphasizing his incompetence. She teaches Ignat a little history while simultaneously condemning him for his incapacity to grasp it. Her authoritarian glare throughout the scene attests to this. When Ignat finishes the letter, she disappears, leaving him to feel his insignificance.
These scenes suggest that history belongs only to those who have experienced it. Fernando and the old woman represent a sense of national pride fired by its very exclusiveness. It would not be a stretch then to conclude that Tarkovsky feels the same, despite his many attempts at sharing his history for us. We - the audience - are the na´ve children. Tarkovsky has his ego like everyone else, and while he may try to share his world, a part of him wants to clutch it possessively to his breast.
Summary and Final Remarks
"Here we are talking about a master, an artist from whom I expect original but always profound thoughts, a serious dialogue with me, the viewer. But in this film no dialogue takes place, only a monologue, in which the author, not caring about an interlocutor, talks only to himself." M. M. Khudtsev, soviet critic .
"Tarkovsky's film is a cinematic confession, and a confession demands courage... but with deep regret I state, his film is for a narrow circle of people, well educated in cinematography." B. Metalnikov, soviet critic .
"My reason for writing is Mirror, a film I can't even talk about because I am living it. It's a great virtue to be able to listen and understand... That is, after all, a first principle of human relationships: the capacity to understand and forgive people their unintentional faults, their natural failures. If two people have been able to experience the same thing even once, they will be able to understand each other. Even if one lived in the era of the mammoth and the other in the age of electricity." From a letter to Tarkovsky written by a Leningrad factory worker .
Hopefully one can now see that the significance of mirrors to cinematic spectatorship is enormous. Dr. Fontaigne's research with mirrors proves how fundamental our realization of subjectivity is to developing empathy. In addition, Vivian Sobchack's essay goes a step further by applying these concepts to cinema, where she quite helpfully explains that the extent to which a film plays to the spectator's subjectivity determines the amount of empathy the spectator can have. Home-movies evoke introspection, while narrative films rely on structuring devices to draw a constructed subjectivity outward. In either case, the goal is to evoke some sort of self-consciousness. I hope to have made clear that Tarkovsky's film Mirror amalgamates all of Sobchack's layers of cinema reality in the hopes of aligning audience subjectivity with his own; in other words, he attempts universality. Quite the opposite of the accusations he received of indulgence and narcissistic esotericism.
G.N. Chukrai, director of Ballad of a Soldier, was one of many who received Mirror defensively, if not outright antagonistically, claiming that, "if an artist has something to say, he doesn't put his thought into code" . Many have echoed such a point after watching the film for the first time (I was no exception). Like most audiences, Chukrai assumes that cinema ought to speak only one language, that of the socialist fiction narrative (which is essentially classical). Mirror's structure, like documentary and even home-movies, is far more malleable to audience interpretation. Its images are not meant to tell the audience something specific, but to evoke memory. Critics like Chukrai would be right to complain if the film's comprehensibility were limited only to those in the know, but I believe Tarkovsky can apprehend anyone's subjectivity so long as they have an open mind.
Mirror is not simply a high-brow experience meant for bourgeois elitists, "educated in cinematography." The above quotes are provided as proof of the film's success otherwise. The overwhelmingly negative response by the Soviet bureaucracy reveals their determination to homogenize culture under the auspices of mass-accessibility. Yet, as one can see, an average factory worker was enthralled by the film. In the first chapter of Tarkovsky's artistic confession Sculpting in Time, he shares such letters of praise, many of which came from such people for whom the film was a solemn evocation of bygone times. This makes an encouraging point: so long as an artist is sincere and values his or her audience, even the most seemingly esoteric art can transcend itself. It is no stretch to claim that, contrary to the remarks of Soviet puppet-critics, Mirror, by virtue of its specificity and intimate subject matter, is an example of a film for the masses. Tarkovsky created a landmark of deeply personal cinema, and for that it is revolutionary. ©2006 David Wishard :: email@example.com
References and Footnotes
 There seems to be a grand cosmic logic behind the fact that the headquarters of one's entire sense of being can only be viewed trough a mirror. In fact, according to Fontaigne, this is why people are embarrassed by watching videos of themselves. The camera's three-dimensional view shows us areas of our bodies we do not recognize from the mirror-images to which we are accustomed; "we don't recognize ourselves" as Fontaigne puts it.
 Metz, Christian. "The Imaginary Signifier." Film Theories. Ed. Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen and Leon Braudy. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. 733.
 Sobchack, Vivian. "Toward a Phenomenology of Non-fictional Film Experience." Collecting Visible Evidence, ed. Jane M. Gaines and Michael Renov. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. 241-254.
 Visible Evidence, 248.
 I would not assume to propose that simply because Mirror can be analyzed that it should work for everyone. Many deplore the film, but many adore it. My brief analysis here aims only at offering a possible theoretical explanation of how the film managed to work for those who "got it."
 For clarity's sake, let me make a point clear: the "subject" of which I will speak is, in the case of home-movies, the viewer/spectator recollecting his or her past. The "object" is the memory-image itself.
 Johnson, Vida T. and Pettrie, Graham. The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994. 114.
 To summarize the film any further would be pointless. My aim here is to offer proofs of the film's readability, not to actually read the film as in a critique or review.
 Visible Evidence, 251.
 Lippit, Akira Mizuta. Collecting Visible Evidence. 66. This quote was taken from an article on the social significance of x-ray images, but fit perfectly with my purposes.
 Sight and Sound. 93
 Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema, trans. Kitty Hunter-Blair (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986), 10.
 Marshall, Herbert. Sight and Sound. Vol 45, no 2. Spring 1976. p 93.