I have to confess that I would read with the greatest attention and interest—at some moments with distress, but at others with huge encouragement—the letters from people who had seen my films; during the years I was working in Russia these built up into an impressive and variegated collection of questions addressed to me or things which people were at a loss to understand.
In such way begins the prologue of Sculpting in Time, one of the pivotal writings of the Soviet director Andrej Tarkovsky, born precisely from his need to theorize the practical methods of his cinema. The most interesting revelation of this prologue is the amount of letters that Tarkovsky received after the release of his film The Mirror (1975), with the most disparate contents: there were people accusing the film, others who praised Tarkovsky’s personal style and those who didn’t understand anything. Here we have gathered some of the letters that have the most interesting points of attention.
A woman civil engineer wrote from Leningrad:
“I saw your film, The Mirror. I sat through to the end, despite the fact that after the first half hour I developed a severe headache as a result of my genuine efforts to analyse it, or just to have some idea of what was going on, of some connection between the characters and events and memories…. We poor cinema-goers see films that are good, bad, very bad, ordinary or highly original. But any of these one can understand, and be delighted or bored as the case may be; but this one?!…”
An equipment engineer from Kalinin was also terribly indignant:
“Half an hour ago I came out of The Mirror. Well!! … Comrade director! Have you seen it? I think there’s something unhealthy about it… I wish you every success in your work, but we don’t need films like that.”
Another engineer, this time from Sverdlovsk:
“How vulgar, what trash! Ugh, how revolting! Anyhow, I think your film’s a blank shot. It certainly didn’t reach the audience, which is all that matters …”
As we can see in this three letters from Russian engineers, the critical tones against Tarkovsky are drastic. The main fault that is attributed to the Director is to have created a product that doesn’t impact or involve the spectator, a movie which doesn’t entertain and needs a strong effort in order to understand it. This category of spectators didn’t want a work of contemporary art, but something usable at all levels, which doesn’t require anything but a simple vision.
But there wasn’t only criticism. Although it was also shocked by the film, there was another large part of the public showed to the director a childlike naivety, recognizing the director’s authority but still confessing their lack of understanding. Here are some examples.
A spectator of Leningrad:
“I’m sure, I’m not the first or the last to turn to you in bewilderment and ask you to help them make sense of Mirror. The episodes in themselves are really good, but how can one find what holds them together?”
A woman wrote from Leningrad:
“The film is so unlike anything I’ve ever seen that I don’t know how to go about it, how to appreciate either the form or the content. Can you explain? It’s not that I lack understanding of cinema generally .. . I saw your earlier films, Ivan’s Childhood and Audrey Rublyov. They were clear enough. But this is not. . . . Before the film is shown the audience should be given some sort of introduction. After seeing it one is left feeling cross with oneself for being so helpless and obtuse. With respect, Andrey, if you are not able to answer my letter in full, could you at least let me know where I could read something about the film? . . .’
And then there is another category of audience, the one that managed to reflect their soul in The Mirror. The movie as a mirror of the real life, a reflection of stories that really happened, able to revive what the spectators already experienced.
A woman wrote from Gorky:
“Thank you for The Mirror. My childhood was like that. . . . Only how did you know about it? ‘There was that wind, and the thunderstorm… “Galka, put the cat out,” cried my Grandmother… It was dark in the room… And the paraffin lamp went out, too, and the feeling of waiting for my mother to come back filled my entire soul… And how beautifully your film shows the awakening of a child’s consciousness, of this thought! And Lord, how true… we really don’t know our mothers’ faces. And how simple… You know, in that dark cinema, looking at a piece of canvas lit up by your talent, I felt for the first time in my life that I was not alone…”
A working woman from Novosibirsk wrote:
“II’ve seen your film four times in the last week. And I didn’t go simply to sec it, but in order to spend just a few hours living a real life with real artists and real people… Everything that torments me, everything I don’t have and that I long for, that makes me indignant, or sick, or suffocates me, everything that gives me a feeling of light and warmth, and by which I live, and everything that destroys me – it’s all there in your film, I see it as if in a mirror. For the first time ever a film has become something real for me, and that’s why I go to see it, I want to get right inside it, so that I can really be alive.’
The most touching letter is sent by a little girl who, after seeing the film, wrote directly to her mother, who forwarded it to Tarkovskij, surprising the director about how the girl managed to reach such a deep understanding. Her childhood is what frees the thought from negative meanings and manages to disclose the creative and communicative processes that led to the realization of The Mirror. The conclusions expressed by the girl are surprising, the ability to separate the emotional side (which has hit her most) from the less personal side (when she asks her mom if she saw the different approach). The poetics of image that allows you to overcome the incommunicability of the word. Up to the concept of metacinema, where the protagonist is no longer the little Aleksej but Tarkovskij himself, whor shows us the indissoluble uniqueness of time that gives us immortality.
“There’s another kind of language, another form of communication: by means of feeling, and images. That is the contact that stops people being separated from each other, that brings down barriers. Will, feeling, emotion – these remove obstacles from between people who otherwise stand on opposite sides of a mirror, on opposite
sides of a door… The frames of the screen move out, and the world which used to be partitioned off comes into us, becomes something real… And this doesn’t happen through little Alekséj, it’s Tarkovsky himself addressing the audience directly, as they sit on the other side of the screen. There’s no death, there is immortality. Time is one and undivided, as it says in one of the poems. “At the table are great-grandfathers and grandchildren…” Actually Mum, I’ve taken the film entirely from an emotional angle, but I’m sure there could be a different way of looking at it. What about you? Do write and tell me please…”