Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972)

4.5*

Solaris was the first film that introduced me to cinema as a true art form. The late Roger Ebert, in his December 2014 review of the film, said:

The films of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky are more like environments than entertainments.

Environments, not entertainments. This apt statement helped me realise what it was that I found so compelling about the two Tarkovsky films I’ve seen to date, the other being Stalker.

It lies in the atmosphere Tarkovsky forges – an atmosphere which lingers for long after the rolling credits end. Solaris left me feeling utterly perplexed, and yet, without sounding hyperbolic, after a few viewings and sufficient musing, it has become part of my psychological makeup, forming a piece of that complex, layered lens through which each of us, individually, see the world. 

What does it mean to really know another, to really love another? Is such a feat even possible?

These are some of the questions Solaris grapples with, despite its categorisation as a work of science fiction (a categorisation imposed solely by media outlets, and one that Tarkovsky himself vehemently opposed).

The film is adapted from a novella of the same name, by Polish author Stanislaw Lem, which concerns humanity’s attempts at uncovering the mysteries of the distant planet Solaris, the study of which has long eluded scholars and scientists. This field of study has come to be known as Solaristics. The planet is covered by an enormous, ‘conscious’ ocean, that keeps forming its surface into bizarre shapes. On the space station orbiting Solaris, the astronauts are exhibiting increasingly odd behaviour. Dr. Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, is sent up to the space station to investigate the goings-on and report on the astronauts’ mental states, in order for a decision to be made on whether the mission should be aborted or not.

Kris arrives on the space station to find one crew member dead, and the remaining two deeply disturbed by the events on the station. It transpires that when X-ray probes were used to investigate Solaris’ ocean, the planet replied with probes of its own, entering the minds of the astronauts and bringing to life some of their memories, in the form of ‘Guests’. It is the manifestation of Kris’ dead ex-wife, Hari, and their ensuing relationship on the space station, that is the central subject of Tarkovsky’s film.

The duplicate of Hari that appears is exact in every way, save for one thing – she lacks all of her memories. Her being also seems to be limited to what Kris remembers of her, a theme that plays out through the whole film. She wants to know more of herself – she questions Kris about her past, and upon learning that the real Hari committed suicide, attempts to also do so (only to regenerate immediately – it turns out that this duplicate Hari cannot be killed). Her presence begs the question – is she any less real than the original Hari? Or, to an extent, is she just as real? Sure, we know that her presence is only made possible through the ocean’s eerie capabilities, but the very nature of our relationships with others, particularly romantic partners, is examined here.

For aren’t our ideas about those we claim to know and love precisely those – ideas? And, more than ideas about them, are they not, in actual fact, ideas about ourselves? The new Hari is but a collection of the notions and memories Kris has of her. She is, essentially, a projection of his desire, a point made clear through her confusion and total lack of knowledge of who she is. 

Romantic love, for good or for bad, has long been regarded (in Western traditions, in any case) as something of a spiritual force, something in which there lies immense power for change, growth, and the realisation of goodness. But in this potential, there is also room for great failure. To a certain degree, the relationship between Kris and Hari can be interpreted as a series of recurrences on the failings of love. At one point, Kris dwells on whether he loves the new Hari more than the original Hari. Kris creates her as something he can love, as lovers often do, and as something that can love him. He also creates her as something through which he can absolve himself of his guilt at his role in the original Hari’s suicide on Earth. Though their ‘reunion’ on Solaris might initially seem magical, mystical, romantic, their love on the space station fails, over and over, with Hari eventually convincing the other astronauts to destroy her for good.

The irony being performed becomes apparent here. Humanity seeks other worlds to explore, to enhance its knowledge of the unknown and the unfamiliar, as in the case of the scientists studying Solaris. But Solaris hides its face, and instead projects back to the scientists their own memories and struggles, forcing them to look inward, as opposed to outward. Kris goes on the mission with the aim of investigating the effects of Solaris, but ends up spending his time on the space station introspectively confronting his past.

We don’t want other worlds, we want mirrors,

Gibarian, one of the astronauts, says at one point.

Solaris is no easy film to comprehend; indeed, certain scenes are doubtlessly bewildering and make us wonder what it is that Tarkovsky is trying to get across. Early on, we’re shown a continuous scene of a car driving over a highway. This scene lasts for eight minutes, and there’s zero dialogue. What are we being told? Tarkovsky actually addressed this in an interview, and whether or not it was said in jest, his explanation was certainly comical: he was using this scene to see which viewers would stick around, and which ones would leave the cinema theatre. It was included as a sort of test of patience, of commitment. Despite the cheekiness of this statement, if it’s true, it’s a testament to Tarkovsky’s utter devotion to his art, similar to his assertion of his view that in true cinematic art, music shouldn’t be necessary to convey feeling or emotion. Visual experience alone should dominate, and this conviction can be felt through the painstaking visual detail in the film, with everything right down to the paintings in the space station chosen to evoke the particular sensations of nostalgia, of reminiscence, of a bittersweet earthly yearning that is, rather than space or technology, the ultimate theme of the film.

Solaris is a film I’m certain I’ll watch for years to come, and hopefully uncover something new each time. Here’s a clip from the film, showing Kris and Hari levitating through the room in a brief period of zero gravity on the space station. For me, it’s one of the most hypnotic, enchanting scenes in all of cinema, and brilliantly sums up the phenomenal beauty and artistry of the film.

 

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Adelheid (František Vláčil, 1969)

4*

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Yesterday, a friend and I happened upon a tiny little Czech café in Hackney which, besides the excellent coffee, displayed a small collection of Czech films for sale. I picked up a copy of a film called Adelheid. The DVD was released by a company called Second Run, who restore eclectic and award-winning films from around the world. The cover looked vaguely intriguing; it was made by a director who, although well-known for the artistry of his films, has been largely overlooked. I’d never seen any Czech cinema before, and the DVD came with a little pamphlet with an essay by a Czech cinema expert talking about director František Vláčil’s emphasis on ‘film poetry’.

In a 1998 survey of Czech film critics, Vláčil’s film Marketa Lazarová was voted the best Czech film ever made. Vláčil even received a lifetime achievement award at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival the same year. But the reason for Vláčil’s lack of presence in general histories of cinema is, according to Hames, because he was not a member of the famous Czech 1960s New Wave, nor a product of the Prague Film School. He was rather more concerned with making films focussed on visual imagery, and Adelheid is no doubt exemplary of this aim.

With Adelheid, it seems Vláčil broke away from his previous works in two different ways: firstly, the film is in colour, and secondly, it’s not a historical epic. Watching the film as someone in completely new territory, it seemed to me to be much more of a meditation on human nature – and all the complexities, dangers, and distortions that comprise it.

But the film has undeniable historical value, too. It caused quite a stir upon release, apparently, for being the first film to address the Czech treatment of Sudeten Germans during the expulsions of the mid-1940s. It’s set in the aftermath of World War II, and tells the story of Viktor, a Czech airman returned from service in the RAF, who is given the responsibility of managing a large estate on the Czech-German border, formerly owned by a Nazi. The daughter of the Nazi, the eponymous Adelheid, is assigned to him as a servant. Her grasp of Czech is limited (or perhaps she is pretending – we never truly know), as is Viktor’s command of German. Thus, the majority of the storytelling is done through the camera alone – through following the characters in their movements, and observing them in their stillness.

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The slowness ceases to be tedious, and soon becomes poetic. Shut away from the outside world and confined to the dark, vast house (whose vastness we never really get a sense of, as the shots tend to be close-up, almost claustrophobic in their framing), we too are trapped with Viktor and Adelheid. I found the cinematography compelling. The lack of verbal communication means that the growing (and mostly wordless) attraction and romance between the two characters is expressed through seeing, and through looking. The film is obsessed with observation. At first, it’s mostly Viktor who observes. He watches Adelheid as she washes the floor, her waist slightly exposed. He spies on her through binoculars, chopping wood. But she too, returns his gaze. It’s hard to tell what she’s thinking – is it defiance, or desire? She seems to enjoy cooking and caring for him, but at other times she recoils from him. When a German woman brings the news that her father, the Nazi to whom the estate belonged to, has died, she breaks down and rebuffs Viktor’s attempts to comfort her.

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It is these instances that remind us that outside of the internal, closed world of the huge estate, there are social and ideological forces at play. The faint hope that is conveyed through Viktor and Adelheid’s strange – yet somehow comforting – relationship, is shattered in these moments. Even the warm, languid scene where the two sit by the fire and Viktor talks of his childhood, seems comically simple now. We want for them to find solace in each other, but know that any affection that may subsist is doomed from the outset.

Indeed, when Adelheid’s brother returns, Viktor just about escapes death. But – despite Adelheid’s ‘betrayal’ (she was, undoubtedly, waiting for him), Viktor refuses to testify against her. “You’re all I have”, he tells her. Aided by a translator, he begs to know whether she ever truly cared for him or not. He asks: “Did you hate me all of the time?” She tells him no. She too, it turns out, was enamoured by little details she’d observed in him. He tells her she has no reason to worry, and that he’ll take care of her. This last display of hope, of vulnerability that Viktor exudes, makes the final act all the more heartbreaking. The darkness, remoteness, and relative safety of the mansion could not, ultimately, keep the wider context at bay.

It’s a complex film, no doubt. I’m not sure I’d quite use the term ‘love story’ to describe it. The romance aspect is never fully realised; it is quiet desperation, as opposed to burning desire, that for me, defined the relationship between the characters. They are both symbolic of the internal conflict between loyalty and the need for intimacy, and though the subtleties of their everyday interactions hint at the possibility for more, the characters are ultimately unable to move past their own walls and barriers. The score – music by Bach and Strauss – lends pathos to the caged, gloomy world of the mansion. The imagery, graceful and gentle, evokes a sense of longing, of silent despair; it is reflective of the minute, carefully observed instances that draw Viktor to Adelheid, the impulse to believe that amongst all the anguish and desolation of the war, there do, perhaps, exist small, modest moments of beauty and peace.

Cléo from 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962)

3*

Ugliness is a kind of death. As long as I’m alive, I’m beautiful.

This was my introduction to French New Wave cinema. Though it may, initially, appear to be a film about largely trivial events, Cléo from 5 to 7 is, I suppose, an exploration of the awareness of mortality, a complex, real-time portrait (though it’s actually only 90 minutes long, so Cléo from 5 to 6:30 would be more fitting) of a woman who has come to believe she is dying. Cléo wanders through the streets of ’60s Paris with her maid as she awaits the results of her biopsy, ambling from café to hat shop to movie theatre, biding her time with the piercing sense that all is soon to end.

The camera often cuts between Cléo’s perspective, and snippets of casual conversations between other Parisians sipping coffees in cafés, revealing trivial tidbits of their lives – lovers breaking up, friends discussing politics – deepening the theme of the film, and lending a sense of tragedy to Cléo’s fear of leaving no lasting impact on the world. There is an artfully executed long-take of Cleo singing one of her songs, ‘Sans Tois’, with lyrics depicting the conflict and anxiety she feels over death. The extreme, almost uncomfortably intimate close-up of her face forces us as the audience to confront her (and our own?) undeniable inner turmoil.

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It’s no surprise that director Agnès Varda was trained as a serious photographer – the composition of every frame is a treat for photography lovers, being perfect in its placement of characters in a scene. The unique artistic devices carry the film; indeed, rather than the dialogue or story arc, it’s these clever uses of the camera that form its very essence.

Contemporary Color (David Byrne, 2017)

4*

I saw this at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, as part of the Open City Documentary Festival. At the end of the screening, there was a Q&A with Bill and Turner Ross (the directors), during which one of the audience members described the experience of watching the film as feeling like she’d eaten a rainbow’. This is precisely what it was! The film is spectacular in the way that through its visual energy alone, it captivates viewers entirely.

 

 

The story behind the idea of the film – told by the Ross brothers during the Q&A – is really quite lovely. Many years ago, a high school color guard contacted David Byrne (composer, artist, performer, etc.) to ask for permission to use one of his songs for a routine that the group was working on. Byrne wasn’t completely sure of what a color guard actually was, and set out to investigate. Turns out, he became enchanted.

Color guards can be found in most American colleges, high schools, and universities. They use various equipment, including flags, rifles, and sabres, along with dance, to enhance the music of the marching band show. Yet, they’ve since evolved into a separate activity known as winter guard, which is an indoor sport usually performed during the winter or spring, where the guard performs unaccompanied by the band, to a piece of pre-recorded music.

Byrne saw this as a kind of American folk art, a regional portrait, and thought up a concert event in which many different musical artists (including himself, Nelly Furtado, Ira Glass and Ad-Rock) would accompany color guard routines. The concerts took place on two evenings in Brooklyn, New York, in June 2015. The resulting film, Contemporary Color, records not only the concerts, but also the backstage buzz of the teenage performers working on a scale much larger and grander than ever before. The film is just as much an exploration of these kids’ emotional journies, and it’s clear that these color guards are a way for those who don’t fit into the traditional athletic and sporting scene of their school to be able to participate in something in their own right.

There were a few moments where I wondered if the film could perhaps do with a little more structure and narrative, but ultimately the visual experience was so dazzling that that ceased to matter. I thought it was spectacular.

 

 

 

Stoner (John Edward Williams, 1965)

5*

Stoner is a novel that really allows one to revel in the delights of language. So beautifully and movingly written, its sad descent into the forgotten depositories of literature is a shame. However, recently reissued by Vintage Classics, the novel is now being (rightfully) celebrated for its grace and elegance.

Stoner follows the life of the protagonist, William Stoner, from the age of 19 up until his death from cancer in old age. His life is not remarkable in a conventional sense: he enters the University of Missouri to study agriculture, later switches to literature, and then stays on and remains there as a teacher for the rest of his days. What is remarkable, though, is the startling poignancy of its prose; the way it slowly, softly – but surely – breaks the reader’s heart.

Very loosely juxtaposed against the events of World War II, the historical context of the novel heightens the intensity with which Stoner’s life is depicted. Two weeks after he receives his degree, Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist, and war breaks out over Europe. Stoner, however, doesn’t see the future as uncertain and obscure. He is to go on and do his doctorate, while teaching a seminar at the University:

He saw it, not as a flux of change and potentiality, but as a territory ahead that awaited his exploration. He saw it as the great University library, to which new wings might be built, to which new books might be added and from which old ones might be withdrawn, while its true nature remained essentially unchanged.

‘Reclaiming the significance of the individual life’, the prose draws our attention to aspects of life and of experience which are, despite what they might appear, inevitably filled with meaning and significance. The ease with which the novel reads makes it very hard to put down. Each paragraph contains delicate insight, uninhibited truth and subtle wit, and some passages left me so moved that they would murmur in my consciousness for hours after, compelling me to re-read them, and marvel once again at the beauty of the prose.

It’s a sad book – you’ll surely shed a few tears. But for me, what overrode the sadness was the notion that often, the inner life, the life of the mind, compensates for the outer. Quiet thought and silent reflection can carry just as much ‘meaning’ as actions on the outside. Stoner is a graceful reminder of the soundless conflicts, defeats and triumphs of the human race.

Lying (Sam Harris, 2011)

If you’re not familiar with Sam Harris, he’s great.

As well as being a public critic of religion and one of the major proponents of the New Atheism movement, he’s also a neuroscientist, philosopher, and blogger. He parts company with a lot of other atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens etc.) in that he’s interested in (and believes in) transformative spiritual experiences, and he writes and speaks about topics such as meditation (he spent a year in Asia studying meditation under Hindu and Buddhist teachers) and human consciousness fairly regularly. In fact, he has a new book coming out – ‘Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion’ – in September.

Lying is one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read. The premise is simple – lying, in most situations (even situations in which most of us would make exceptions), is bad. It’s bad for you, bad for those around you, bad for relationships, bad for the world. By way of many, many examples and anecdotes, Harris illustrates the destructive effects of lying. Some are funny, some heart-breaking, some surprising. It’s also quite a daring book – Harris doesn’t shy away from difficult cases, such as lying to a terminally ill child about dying, or lying to a murderer about his target’s whereabouts. It covers a broad range of ground, from white lies to life-changing lies, and there’s a Q&A section at the end dealing with readers’ questions.

Harris’ arguments really made me think. I thought that in such a small number of words (it’s really more of a long essay than a book), he did a fairly thorough job of convincing us that there aren’t many examples of seemingly virtuous lies that can easily escape scrutiny. Having said that, he’s not an absolutist in his stance. He is simply inviting us to think – to pay attention to what the truth is in every moment and to evaluate whether it’s really necessary or beneficial to deviate from it – rather than outright condemning all lies. The writing is also impeccably clear, and it’s not a difficult or challenging read, making it accessible to and enjoyable for most anyone who enjoys a mental workout, from time to time.

Yet, I did think that some of Harris’ arguments lacked a certain cultural awareness, if that’s what you’d call it. This is surprising, given that a lot of his work and engagements have seen him talking to people from rather orthodox, oppressive backgrounds. Having said that, the book is only around 50 (very small) pages or so, and its ambitions were probably more just to plant the seeds of thought as opposed to setting out the most detailed and comprehensive argument possible. Still, for me, the culture factor was too big not to address, simply as I thought it was just so relevant to a lot of his discussions. It made it seem like he was oblivious to the realities and situations of people less affluent, less free, with less opportunity, and less privileged generally. I don’t think Harris had to accommodate lots of space and time to this in the text, but just alluding to some of the limitations of his ideas might have made all the difference and, in my opinion, made it more of a credible read.

On the Road (Jack Kerouac, 1957)

2*

Feels kind of piddling to be writing an unfavourable review of a book as popular and generation-defining/culturally important as this one (especially since I didn’t finish it…). But here goes!

I never finished On the Road (I had 30 pages or so left). If I’ve started reading a novel I usually see it through, even if it kills me. But it felt like Jack Kerouac really didn’t care about me as a reader, and I felt completely excluded from the whole experience. I’ve been told this is one of those ‘marmite’ books, but I wanted to love it – I expected to love it, because I loved the idea. I recently spent some time in San Francisco just after graduating, and after seeing the Beat Museum, the Jack Kerouac alley with all those lovely quotes and poems from Beat-era literature engraved into the concrete, and the brilliantly quirky City Lights bookstore, I was enchanted by the energy of it all. So, I picked up a copy and began.

The story simply doesn’t go anywhere. It goes to lots of places, sure. It goes all the way across America, several times. I can see why so many love it – the excitement, the speed, the fleeting moments of pain, pleasure and madness – it’s a visceral read. But in between all the madness, there wasn’t enough to keep me going. The characters weren’t sympathetic, not individually anyway. Collectively, there was something relatable about their situation that spoke to the human condition, but I didn’t like them (with the exception of Sal, about whom I felt neutrally).

The book is filled with Americana, and I wasn’t too familiar with a fair few of the cultural references – which is likely the reason I didn’t connect with it as much as others may have. But besides that, it felt to me that these characters didn’t really stand for anything – except their own madness! That’s what it’s about, it’s been said – the immediacy of experience, and the uninhibited, free style of prose which was new for its time. There are some really beautiful sentences, some that hit you hard.

What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.

But ultimately my conception of Jack Kerouac became of somebody who never really grew past adolescence, and so wasn’t able to offer anything more to this story than just a bunch of guys moving from one city to the next, getting drunk…and then doing the same thing again, over and over.

Interestingly, I was speaking with a friend about On the Road, who said he thought that in the current age of online blogging etc., the book has far less appeal. I think its cultural impact, like many books’ I suppose, may very much have been just a product of its time.

But who knows – maybe I’ll try it again someday. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong frame of mind, perhaps. I find when you pick up a book expecting great things, it can often disappoint in one way or another.