The Mirror, Time and the Crystal-Image.

On the heels of last week’s lecture (ahem, 2 weeks ago now… awesome), I want to discuss the use of the long take in regards to the clips screened in class from Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror. I have seen this film a handful of times and even wrote papers on it in college, but I never made any mention or really paid any attention to the long take sequences before.  Besides the sheer technical and logistical achievements of these shots, the presence of long takes in The Mirror are an essential component of the film and directly relate to the affective response it elicits from the spectator. I thought it would be interesting to look at time pressure in the barn fire sequence (clip below) in conjunction with some of Gilles Deleuze’s ideas of the crystal-image in Cinema 2.

In this scene, Tarkovsky’s manipulates the mise-en-scene in such a way that both obstructs and reveals space through time and makes a conscious choice for action to occur both on and off-screen. In this sequence, camera decidedly does not follow the line of action, but instead operates at its own pace, taking time to observe moments that traditionally might be overlooked.  For the spectator, this experience can become an anxious one as he closely mediates the visual access he grants to the spectator. When the two children run from the table to watch the burning barn, the camera does not follow them but lingers on the empty table. After a few seconds, a bottle rolls off the table and falls to the ground. During this, the camera ever-so-slightly tracks backwards. The lack of cuts and the focus on minimal action work to create a smooth and slow rhythm. Following, the camera pans along a dark wall and fixes its focus on a mirror. In its reflection we see the children standing in the doorway to the porch, watching the fire. The camera then continues to pan left, catching and then following Klanya as he walks through the house onto the porch. When flames first become visible to the camera, trees obstruct them. The camera then tracks right, offering the spectator a clear view of the burning barn and its observers. From this point forward the camera remains in this fixed position. The shift from indoor to outdoor space becomes a sort of visual assault on the spectator. The scene begins with tight, dark indoor shots and, without a single cut, eventually reaches the deep focus shot of the fire outside. I would argue that this transition is one of the main sources of power in this scene. These binaries are never fully reconciled but coexist in a dialectical relationship through this long take. Each camera movement in the sequence is one piece of an assemblage that builds upon itself as it unfolds through time. Of the crystal-image, Deleuze claims that “[it] was not time, but we see time in the crystal” (81). This sequence highlights the capture and release of time pressure as the camera directs the spectator through space. What we are left with is a scene that uses these forces to create a palpable sense of indiscernibility that extracts tension and anxiety from its audience.

For Deleuze, the crystal-image is partially characterized by its indiscernibility between the actual and virtual as it continually oscillates between the two. He often qualifies crystals as instances in film that rely upon the use of mirrors and reflective surfaces. Although I wanted to avoid this argument, I realized I couldn’t as midway through this sequence, Tarkovsky uses a mirror to grant and mediate visual access to the space beyond the dark and tight confines of the house. This mirror becomes central to this scene in a few ways. The blurred vision of the fire through the mirror works in tandem with the long take to intentionally draw out indiscernability of a key event of this scene (the fire). Deleuze claims that “[i]n Bergsonian terms, the real object is reflected in a mirror-image as in the virtual object which, from its side and simultaneously, envelops or reflects the real: there is a ‘coalescence’ between the two” (68). The mirror mediates the viewer’s perception and presents an image that is neither translucent nor opaque. It acts as a crystal that continuously reflects the actual into the virtual and vice versa.  In this a crystal-image begins to form.

In addition, the juxtaposition of indoor and outdoor space along with the way these spaces are constricted and revealed in time and through the mirror creates a crystal-image. Deleuze states:

 We have seen how on the broader trajectories, perception and recollection, the real and the imaginary, the physical and the mental, or rather their images, continually followed each other, running behind each other and referring back to each other around a point of indiscernibility. But this point of indiscernibility is precisely constituted by the smallest circle, that is, the coalescence of the actual image and the virtual image, the image with two sides, actual and virtual at the same time. “ (69)

Once the camera reaches the exterior of the house it stops on the porch. This shot is one of deep focus where the viewer’s attention oscillates between three planes: the water drops falling off the awning of the porch, the characters in the field observing the barn and the barn itself engulfed in flames. The camera lingers on this final shot for a few seconds, echoing the beginning of the take. The deep focus shot with multiple planes of action exists in stark contrast to the dark and claustrophobic interior shots that precede it. The placement of characters between water and fire reoccurs in the following shot as Maria sits on the ledge of the well facing the barn and washes her face while her husband runs towards the flames. Twice in two minutes, Tarkovsky places his characters between the oppositional forces of fire and water. The amalgamation of these forces, the visual depth of the outdoor shot and the time-pressure leading up to this lead me to suggest that the outdoor space can come to represent the image of the virtual or imaginary and that there is an intentional distinction being made between both spaces. The muted and tight indoor space of the house (the actual) and the expansive outdoor space (the virtual) are linked through the mirror (which exists in the house but reflects the outdoor image), which becomes the crystal. The crystal-image comes to be the near fusion of the actual and the virtual – the creation of an image that at once has both an actual and virtual side that never fully converge but instead continually turn upon itself, creating indiscernability in both space and time.

As a stand-alone sequence it may be hard to agree with my thought process, but I think this argument has value when examining The Mirror as a whole – one that has a series of crystal-images that exist inside each other.

– Aïcha

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4 Responses to “The Mirror, Time and the Crystal-Image.”

  1. Saishigo Says:

    Beautiful post, Aïcha. Your comments here on Tarkovsky and THE MIRROR are even better than Deleuze’s on the same material. You are right too to suggest, if even only implicitly, that this film is a key to understanding Deleuze’s concept of the crystal-image.

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