It’s only natural that the mirrors occur so often in the movies. Any item that for many centuries has been reflecting light in a way that preserves and reflects the original image is a precursor to the wonder of the movie camera itself.
The mirror is the Tropfest Signature Item at this year’s Tropfest, the world’s largest short film festival, and the 16 finalists screening this Sunday at Sydney’s Centennial Park will do extremely well to use a mirror as incisively as some of these famous examples do.
1) Taxi Driver
(Martin Scorsese, 1976)
“You talkin’ to me? Well I’m the only one here.” The monologue to mirror has long been a powerful force in the mirrors, concentrating the protagonist’s very essence into the recognition of what he’s truly saying. Paul Schrader’s screenplay didn’t specify what disturbed vigilante Travis Bickle would say, but Robert De Niro’s improvisation captured the unease and excitement to violence that Martin Scorsese’s picture would bring to the boil. See also: Edward Norton in Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour.
2) Raging Bull
(Martin Scorsese, 1980)
Watch the trailer
De Niro and Scorsese again, but the flipside to Taxi Driver: his boxing career far behind him, De Niro’s bulky former pugilist Jake La Motta sits in his dressing room, preparing for a nightclub routine. The lines he delivers are not his own, but Marlon Brando’s famous concession from Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. La Motta has nothing left of his own to articulate. See also: Mark Wahlberg in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights.
3) The Lady From Shanghai
(Orson Welles, 1947)
A funhouse’s hall of mirrors provide endless versions of an intractable film noir triangle at the climax of this 1947 classic. Suffused with the ending of filmmaker and leading man Orson Welles marriage to the movie’s star, Rita Hayworth, the furious shooting, shattering glass and unmoving figures is the psychosexual invocation of a marriage’s dissolution.
4) Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs
(David Hand, William Cottrell, Wilfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Pearce, Ben Sharpsteen, 1937)
It’s the most famous line about mirrors in cinematic history – “Mirror mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?” – and it’s been reference many a time (twice in 2012 alone), but never more menacingly than by the Evil Queen in Disney’s 1937 animation classic.
(Michael Mann, 1986)
Michael Mann’s bloody but stylised descent into a profiler’s hunt for a serial killer turns on the murders of The Tooth Fairy (Tom Noonan), who kills families in their bedrooms after studying their home movies and then arranges the bodies with glass in their eyes, so he sees his own murderous reflection in the deathly reflection.
(Alexandre Aja, 2008)
Everything else here too subtle? Well this is a movie with many demonic mirrors and Kiefer Sutherland shouting at them non-stop. Terrible, but nonetheless there is also a Mirrors 2.
7) Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone
(Christopher Columbus, 2001)
Daniel Radcliffe’s boy wizard discovers the Mirror of Erised (n.b.: that’s 'desire' spelt backwards), which has one of the classic movie mirror tropes: the revelation of what the mirror’s wielder truly desires. In this case it’s Harry’s slain parents.
8) Evil Dead II
(Sam Raimi, 1987)
Most of the time your reflection does exactly as you do, but occasionally it mocks your sanity and then tries to strangle you. For Bruce Campbell in Sam Raimi’s horror classic, it’s the latter.
(Steven Soderbergh, 1996)
At a commercial low point in his career future Hollywood heavyweight Steven Soderbergh made this experimental comedy, which includes a scene where his character, Fletcher Munson, uses an office bathroom mirror to make a series of contorted faces that reflect his self-loathing [Editor's note: I trust you'll agree this one's best expressed in .gif form, below]. Soderbergh would later use a still from this scene on the cover of his 2000 Richard Lester Book, Getting Away With It, proving he has no shame.
10) Duck Soup
(Leo McCarey, 1933)
In this Marx Brothers classic about a bankrupt country and an unlikely dictator, Harpo’s Pinky breaks the full length mirror in the room of Groucho’s Rufus T. Firefly and then has to pretend to be the latter’s reflection, complete with a surreal swap of positions that turns one into the other. See also: Jim Abrahams’ Big Business.
11) Fatal Attraction
(Adrian Lyne, 1987)
Mirror are a great source of movie frights, and there are few better than Anne Archer’s Beth wiping the steam from her bathroom mirror to reveal the implacable face of Glenn Close’s Alex, come seeking revenge on the family of the man she had a brief affair with.
12) Apocalypse Now
(Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
It was Martin Sheen’s 36th birthday, he was horribly drunk and on the set of a chaotic production that would almost claim his life – playing a broken Special Forces soldier for Francis Ford Coppola, Sheen literally destroys a mirror with his bare hands before collapsing. Cut.
13) Pulp Fiction
(Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
For some filmmakers the mirrored surface is the perfect tool for capturing powder usage, with white lines and the user’s reflection tied together for maximum effect. A young Quentin Tarantino with Uma Thurman gets it exactly right in Pulp Fiction.
14) Black Swan
There’s nothing like the lapsing of a reflection’s continuity to suggest the breakdown of a character’s mental state, and here it occurs in a fitting room where Natalie Portman’s striving ballerina Nina begins to realise that she’s literally not quite as together as she imagines.
15) X-Men: First Class
The one-way mirror allowing the occupant of an interrogation room to be studied by those on the other side of the glass is a longstanding police flick accessory, but in this supple mutant reboot January Jones’ Emma Frost turns the tables, using the character’s ability to transform her skin to diamonds to literally cut a round hole in the mirror side and converses with those nominally in control watching her.
16) Casino Royale
(Martin Campbell, 2006)
Daniel Craig, in his debut as James Bond, dons a new dinner jacket and admires himself in the hotel room mirror. Sometimes a mirror is just something a movie star uses to confirm that they look like a movie star.
Thinking of others?
Tell us your favourite examples.
Ways to watch Tropfest
Find out how the 16 Tropfest finalists interpret the TSI on Sunday December 7. Watch Tropfest on SBS 2 at 8.30pm or stream the broadcast live at www.sbs.com.au.tropfest.