BFI Days Of Fear & Wonder SF Season – Solaris (1972)
So finally after our long and exhausting odyssey through distant and dystopian worlds we nervously colonize our final planet – Andrei Tarkovsky’s hellacious hymn Solaris. I always aim to crown the year with a genuine classic, so the opportunity to terraform two instincts with my final push on the BFI’s Days Of Fear & Wonder season was aligned in the celestial heavens. Any SF fan worth their silver hued spandex will eventually find themselves metaphysically wandering around that soviet-era space station, grappling with deep metaphysical mediations on consciousness, memory and the implacable intangibility of time. I’ve seen Solaris a couple of times over the years although no revisits have occurred during this alleged 21st century, so this big-screen transmogrification was quite an experience, despite the faded and slightly distracting embossed font English subtitles adorning the BFI print – there was more squinted reading during this three-hour picture than I anticipated. Tarkovsky is undoubtedly one of the greatest two dozen film-makers ever to have lived, his ascetic texts a Venn diagram of time, memory, mortality and the impact that these elusive concepts have upon the human condition, yet for me this is probably his most accessible work, although as a SF classic it’s not exactly exploding with logic muttering mechanoids, interstellar dog-fights and sexy green hued sub-orbital species. What it trades in is ideas, of concepts and queries of our uniquely human space in the cosmos, providing no easy answers to those infinitely impenetrable questions – Who are we? Why are we here? and sometimes in those darkest of moments just what is the fucking point?
Some brief context – as a Russian film made in the early 1970’s it’s a definitive cold war creation, one part political to two parts metaphysical, widely conflated as an ideological reaction to that other colossus of intellectual SF cinema that was propelled into orbit a mere four cycles earlier – an experimental Sputnik to Kubrick’s Dionysian Apollo. The plot is deceptively simple – psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is enlisted to travel to the distant aquatic world of Solaris and board a government space station hovering over a mysterious alien sea, regular contact has been lost with the modest crew and rumors abound of some uncanny phenomenon. Somehow, with a methodology beyond our human comprehension an entity has been plucking thoughts and memories from the mission staff and rendering them physical and corporeal, in Dr. Kelvin’s case a reanimation of his deceased wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) who committed suicide a few years earlier. Half-seen and barely remembered glimpses of the other station staff also materialize, but the emphasis focuses on Kelvin’s grief and uncertainty, a rational architect of the human mind facing an implacable oddity – death and impossible rebirth.
In the first movement of the film Kelvin pensively wanders through his rural garden grazed with the threat of an encroaching technical society. This pastoral Eden includes the trappings of modern society – vehicles, roads, and communication equipment – which sits uneasily with the quietly intransigent, simple agrarian beauty of the local flora and fauna. This is a common motif in Tarkovsky’s films, he likes forlorn figures listlessly wandering through ruined yet beautifully decaying landscapes, the mortal uncertain of its place among the eternal. Like 2001 the film is similarly bisected with intertitle cards which must have been a conscious reaction to the Odyssey, alongside a distinct sense of detached alienation in the urban as Kelvin (a comment on this chap-sticked chap? That’s cold) travels to the city in this acclaimed sequence;
That earthbound journey to the mission is Tarkovsky’s diametric riposte to the celebrated Stargate sequence of 2001, a film he legendarily dismissed as ideologically dead. He was withering in his view of our basic, intrinsic humanity and relations to society being reduced to a mere adolescent cog in the wider plan from our celestial forebears – that’s some communist, earthy agrarian belief in the power of the masses wrestling with the capitalist techno fetishism that 2001 celebrated. Forgive me a quick aside but I’ve recently assimilated a brilliant observation, some critic revisiting the 2001 re-release remarked that the intertitle signaling of our species evolution in the film has the next phase in evolution grammatically sentenced not after the celebrated bone/spaceship match-cut, but only when we embark on the Jupiter mission after we have conquered our local orbit and built these majestic machines, a subtle but crucial distinction. It amuses no end to read these opinions, the legendary egos of these cinema titans butting heads like the territorial displays of magnificent stags, each wielding their intellectual instincts across their interpretation of cinema culture.
Tarkovsky’s films are saturated in symbolism, circle and water motifs, the physical earth inexorably aligned with elemental forces which bind our human reality together. The rural is poised against the urban, the intellectual against the spiritual, a philosophy of constant icy curiosity. The editing and the way he covers scenes is just fascinating in comparison to the American model, rather than editing down eye-lines and utilizing the usual shot/reverse/shot paradigm Tarkovsky has his camera listing and pensively moving from characters in the scene, continually pondering, curiously querying the deeper fundamental wrestling with our place in the universe. This ambience is enhanced in the rather detached and unemotional performances of his actors, like 2001 this is a Siberian film from a contemporary standpoint. There are no great emotional conflicts or stand-offs despite the notion of a loved one returning to life and seeking answers, with a glacial pacing that requires a rather reflective mood to fully immerse yourself in.
The film was based on the cult novel by Stanislaw Lem, a writer I’ve not gotten around to although I think I might give him a shot this year. In its most oblique moment ‘Man needs man’ is asserted during the films most expository dialogue scene, where the scientists seems bored and nonplussed by the now routine supernatural phenomenon, prone to philosophizing over the cause rather than the effect. One directorial flourish I couldn’t quite crack was the colour gradiants utilized in the film, some of the memory scenes are golden-hued, in others the film oscillates between black and white then color (you can see that in that extract above), they seem rather arbitrary than narratively enforced, lacquering the film with an amber scented sense of mystery. Is the miraculous reproduction of Hari her soul reconstructed? She swiftly seeks the sweet embrace of oblivion when ‘she’ self actualizes her position in the world, just as the original imprint did. It night be the most oft-cited comment on the film but yes it is an internal journey, a SF mounted inquiry of the soul rather than yearning for the stars. What makes us human? Why does this simulacra of Hari (and this assersion is crucial and the lynchpin of the film) still have those memories indolent of Kelvin’s recognition and memory of ‘her’, so do we only reside in others memories after death? If all these worlds are yours then where is the penitent solution, especially considering the films final troubling suggestion that all is illusory and imaginary, and some questions can never be answered.
Tarkovsky is one of the all time great directors whose films demand an intellectual challenge to excavate, that aforementioned visual and thematic density mixed with his specifically austere pacing and style certainly don’t whet everyone’s appetite, but this documentary is a pretty good start. I quite enjoyed Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake which took a rather more direct and emotional approach to the same material, although Soderbergh has penitently washed his hands of the project and branded it a profound failure – seems a bit harsh. This is a fantastic piece on Solaris and it’s sister SF piece Stalker which I saw at the BFI shortly before I launched this blog, now there’s another challenging film which I hope to get around to some day. A quick aside – there is a whole slew of communist SF cinema which never penetrated the Iron Curtain during the cold war, much of it is still quite difficult to apprehend in the West but a slow thaw of releases and a 2011 BFI season are slowly bringing a glasnost to this neglected universe – I must rigorously inspect the credentials of this East German boxed-set. So that’s the end of another year and another fantastic BFI season, I’ve been mulling over what to start next year as an annual project and I think I’ve come up with a plan. Although I will be continuing the Fritz Lang season as I do enjoy the diversity of publishing reviews of films made before the 1970’s I think we need to turn our attention to another German tyrant whom, coincidently, I shall be witnessing in the flesh at an event over in Westminster – Werner Herzog. But let’s close the year with one of the most opaque and stimulating sequences I’ve seen this year, time, thought and memory suspended in the physical dimensions of this fleeting reality, whatever it ultimately means is irrelevant to its austere and mysterious beauty;