Sunday, August 10, 2003


Watching Soderbergh's and Tarkovsky's Solaris back to back last night was a sharp indicator of just how far and how long 30 years has come to be.
I'm fairly shocked to find that I much prefer Soderbergh's remake - and not for the obvious technical reasons (it's a fairly faithful, if compressed - from 3 hrs to less than 2 - version of the 1972 original, replacing clunky old Russian fx with state-of-the-art digital) - but because Soderbergh has extracted from the still-tortuous narrative precisely the spiritual/psychological core that drives it (and indeed drives all of Tarkovsky's work). In reality, this secularisation (or perhaps agnosticisation would be more precise) of Tarkovsky's take on Lem's novella about the disturbing first contact between a sentient planet and the inhabitants of an orbital research station should drain it of meaning, but, curiously, it achieves the opposite. Soderbergh's Solaris is undeniably, and unusually, about something - it addresses fundamental questions about the nature of love, about its power for both redemption and (Lazarus-literally) resurrection. but this (Solaris II's) 'love' is, crucially, erotic - unburdened, that is, by the shame and the guilt and the sense of sin and sufferance and atonement incumbent on Christians in general and the congregation of the Russian Orthodox Catholic Church in particular.
Poor Andzrej never got past that - it's why he's a genius, after all, because he had to struggle with his personal demons in that historically fertile shitscape of cultural oppression characterised in the Brezhnev era of the CCCP by religious intolerance on the one hand, and international cultural brinkmanship on the other. The Mosfilm minders were perpetually engaged in censoring Tarkovsky's wilder flights of cinematographic fancy for fear that his multi-layered metaphors might transgress the humanist/rationalist party line (such as it was - it was forever being argued, never agreed - perhaps the only actual manifestation of the principle of permanent revolution that ever worked).Oddly, though, they let pass one of the best wet-T-shirt scenes in cinema history - Hari's revival after killing herself by drinking liquid oxygen. There are three thoughts on why they might have done this: a) it's alright because it falls into the high art s&m box - a secular version of that perennial gay icon - St Sebastian of the Hedgehogs - and as long as it looks painful, and there's blood coming out of her mouth and nose, then that's OK; b) they thought it might be medically instructive; and c) after two interminable hours of slow pans across ponds and still-lives and paintings, and ponderous philosophical conversations of the like of "perhaps we are here to perceive, for the first time, humans as a purpose for love" (hmm - it's got to sound better in Russian) - they'd all either dozed off or snuck out to the bar.
At its first Western release, Tarkovsky's film was hugely applauded - a more 'intelligent' 2001 - but, somehow, those plaudits seem to ring now more than a little of cultural élitism - a jaded and threatened intelligentsia (where are they now?) 'discovering' the exoticism of the paradoxical - a faraway culture in which the poetics of cinema still obtained - behind the iron curtain! The truth is that much of Tarkovsy's version seems, now, almost absurdly over-extended and self-indulgent - a historical quarry for the fine art student, but ass-numbingly tedious for all but the buffiest film buff.
In the end, both Tarkovsky's and Soderbergh's versions subscribe to the same myth - one of the most tenacious and therefore the most enduringly consolatory. Soderbergh's, ultimately, is no more credible, but strikes me as the more honest. (Plus you get a three-second flash of George's nekkid bum - not my thing, but hey.)

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