“It’s just in us all, this film,” said poet and essayist Susan Howe at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s recent Print Screen event. The film Howe was referring to was Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece of memory, The Mirror, which screened after Howe read a passage based on the film from her newly released book, The Quarry.
For some who arrived early, it was already too late; the screening sold out quickly. Outside of the Walter Reade Theater, my friend gave his extra ticket to a man who was looking for Gertrude Stein, though it is unknown if the gentleman ever made it into the screening. Inside, the line snaked around as those lucky enough to have tickets waited for the doors to open.
During her introduction, Howe gave context to her relationship with the film. She first encountered The Mirror in 1993 when she was asked to contribute an essay to Stanley Cavell and Charles Warren’s anthology of broadly defined nonfiction films, Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film.
“It opened a new world,” said Howe on Tarkovsky’s use of documentary footage. The resulting essay, “Sorting Facts; or Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker,” took two years to write and included a section dedicated to The Mirror, which Howe described as the heart.
“Somehow I was just in an emotional state where Mirror just overwhelmed me,” recalled Howe. The year before Howe was approached to write her essay, her husband, sculptor David von Schlegell, passed away. During WWII, David was a bomber pilot. “He didn’t talk much about it, but it affected everything,” said Howe. Additionally, her own father left to fight in the war from the time she was five until she was nine. Even today, however, the film resonates with Howe on an intimate, albeit different, level: “Something now about this moment with refugees and the family clinging together and fleeing, I simply couldn’t have imagined history repeating itself the way it was when I saw it as a child unfolding on newsreels in theaters.”
Centered on the newsreel sequences intercut into The Mirror, Howe ran imagery of her late husband through “Sorting Facts,” blending, as Tarkovsky does, the personal, fictional, and historical. Towards the end of the essay, Howe evokes the voice of Tarkovsky’s father by including a line of his poetry from the film. In this way, Howe’s essay becomes, like The Mirror, polyphonic, elevating the essay to a discourse within itself.
Rather than focusing on the evolution of narrative or plot, The Mirror presents a multi-leveled world that suggests coexistence not in linear time, but in space. For example, an unknown woman appears and disappears after giving orders, leaving nothing but an evaporating ring of condensation on the table. She is indeed real, as evidenced by the ring, but she only exists in that space to the young boy who saw her, dividing the boy’s world into two presents. Similarly, as is noted in Howe’s essay, flamenco music plays over a newsreel, highlighting the unsettling, contradictory fact that while great distress occurs, there is simultaneously entertainment. In this way, time does not stop for suffering, but rather suffering coexists with daily life.
Formally, Howe’s concrete poetry and poetic essays reflect Tarkovsky’s use of space. Howe began her career as a painter, which informs much of how she uses the actual shape of text on a page to emote or suggest meaning — long breaks of blank space to imply breathing, lines of jagged text to imitate violence, reversed words to indicate erasure. Here, the way that Howe arranges words matters more than any meaning that the word may signify. Howe’s use of quotation also finds its mirror in Tarkovsky as a way of mixing mediums. Specifically in relation to The Mirror and “Sorting Facts,” both Tarkovsky and Howe use the newsreels and poetry of Tarkovsky’s father to add texture to their work.
“In the end, it’s a kind of benediction. There is something sacred about this film, made in the Soviet Union, and it’s like a psalm,” said Howe before reading her essay. Perhaps because the film cannot be reduced to a singular meaning or maybe because it uses dream-logic, the viewer has the space to map on their own perspective while remaining fastened to history through the archival footage. After the screening, a few patrons chatted about the difficulty of reading the subtitles on the screen, but I couldn’t help but think that the inability to read some words only added to the film’s demand to read the image instead.
The Film Society’s next Print Screen event will be held December 10th at 7 PM. Garth Risk Hallberg, whose new novel, City on Fire, debuted recently to critical acclaim, will introduce John Cassavetes’ Gloria, followed by a discussion and book signing.