Documenting Time: Tarkovskij's Mirror and Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera

Tench Coxe, Columbia University

In Sculpting in Time, Andrej Tarkovskij goes into some detail about the difficulty of unifying the documentary footage and acted scenes in Mirror. Tarkovskij elaborates his own aesthetic agenda in contrast to the aesthetics of cinÈma vÈritÈ, or kinopravda. Tarkovskij thus seems to enter into a polemical dialogue with Dziga Vertov's principles of kinopravda and his editing strategies for "life caught unawares," especially in his film The Man with the Movie Camera.

Despite his intent to avoid methods such as Vertov's, Tarkovskij ultimately chose to include documentary newsreel footage in Mirror. Tarkovskij stresses that the documentary footage and acted scenes in the film are organically unified. The word "organic" underscores Tarkovskij's own aesthetic principles of the image, which brings together the lyrical and historical in a single image in cinematic time.

In a similar way, each shot of Vertov's film gives the viewer a "close-up of time," especially in the still frames that give the viewer more time to contemplate the image. Also, by adhering to his principle of "catching life unawares," Vertov allows the viewer to engage the film and read it according to his aesthetic principle of rejecting the effects of artistic drama in cinema. Yet numerous shots in The Man with the Movie Camera reveal the filmed subjects' reaction to being filmed: we thus receive an image of art in progress, art fully aware of what a cinematic image is.

Tarkovskij accomplishes a similar interplay between reality and the cinematic image in Mirror. The camera, like the camera and cameraman in The Man with the Movie Camera, becomes the principle subject, allowing the viewer into the interplay of historical and lyrical images. Both directors thus employ fragments of history--cinematic history--to reinforce the visual narrative as a series of images in time, just as they develop a viewer identification with the camera "eye." In Mirror, this identification ultimately orients the viewer in the way the perceiving subject--most often the camera and the accompanying voice-over narration--develops the narrative.

Using V. V. Ivanov's essay "Functions and Categories of Film Language" as well as analyzing the critical and cinematic works of Tarkovskij and Vertov, I will demonstrate in this essay how Tarkovskij fulfills his own aesthetic project while expanding on one of Vertov's modernist projects of decoding the text by baring the device. Tarkovskij shows us life as it is in multiple time frames.

The documentary program of Mirror represents not frozen history but the force of memory. Life as it is remains so, and does not simply represent life as it was.