Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

My Solaris Problem or, Then and Now

In the beginning there was Solaris, the film by Andrei Tarkovsky, and it was good. I’d never even seen it on the big screen, the only way any film by Tarkovsky should be seen, so I’d never had the opportunity, as I’d had with Nostalghia, or Andrei Rublev, to submit to the full immersion in the optical-temporal distension of which he is the peculiar master and which his films demand. Nor had I read the Stanislav Lem novel. I merely accepted as given the occult genius of AT, wholly prepared to take on faith his agonistic cinema as something verging on mystical experience.

But that was then – sometime in the late 80s/early 90s – and now, in 2011, re-watching it as I prep my SF class for the fall, some small doubt has begun to creep in. Is this ghost story, this tale of spiritual affliction, a work of genius, or a lot of hokum? Or have I somewhere along the way lost my own faith and begun to mistrust Tarkovsky’s obsessions with the innocent rituals of childhood and his naïve nature mysticism, as Jameson has called it? What has changed?

For one thing, I’ve now read the Lem novel, which is very obviously brilliant, but more to the point, grounds the experience of Kelvin, the fraught psychologist, through a mordant, yet deeply intimate and humane, first-person narrative. The film’s abstractions don’t come close to it. Kelvin, in Tarkosky, is maddeningly opaque. For another – and this is more to the point – what once struck me as profound and enigmatic now seems closer to stilted and camp. Bad Bergman or Antonioni, or what Kael used to mock as "the sick soul of Europe" -- a stunningly insensitive remark to make about what, after all, is really a post-Auschwitz cinema. Profundity always runs the risk of seeming merely pretentious). Still, at the level of character, Solaris is inhabited by little more than strained silences and darting cryptic glances; everyone looks distraught, isolated, leeched of all discernible affect save exhaustion and alienation. At least this seems true of the first 2/3rds of the film. The final third, however, unexpectedly builds on much of that tedium; it accretes into a frisson of melancholy glory that marks Tarkovsky’s work at its most penetrating.

The sense of paralysis, of lassitude, of confusion and ambiguity, that seemed like spiritual values in themselves (or the necessary preconditions for them) is still there, conveyed, not through the denuded storyline, but by Tarkovsky’s elliptical style, the richness of his slow absorptive eye, that invests the most ordinary surfaces – the metallic sheen of the station, the worn leather of its couches – with the uncanny threat of some impossible meaning. Hari’s suicide and resurrection still contains an awesome power – all the pain of mortality exudes from her violent recovery from rigor mortis. Resurrection makes her both more vulnerable and even more lonely than she was before. And yet ... what’s missing is the deep, unbridgeable sense the novel gives of a Total and Alien Otherness that is the planet Solaris. Without that, the rest teeters on the edge of Cold War allegory, merely a moving story of the human overcoming the institution, of love triumphing over duty.

For the resolution to Kelvin’s dilemma is highly problematic: he retreats, unequivocally, into the limpid island of the past, undergoing a kind of regression that Tarkovsky orchestrates as transcendence. This does not signal rescue, but surrender. It's the defeat of mortal knowledge -- the awareness that some things can never be made right or whole again; that the bitter logic of life is not about innocence regained, but learning how to live with loss, with exile and failure. In Lem, the ending is ambiguous, haunted, as everything in the novel is. He refuses to quiet the ghost, choosing instead the more difficult commitment – to wait in abeyance for the possibility of redemption. Lem’s finale is truly messianic; Tarkovsky’s theologically overdetermined.

Soderbergh’s Solaris is a different creature altogether. As Steven Dillon observes in The Solaris Effect, rightly, I think, despite his disclaimer that he is adapting Lem, Soderbergh’s Solaris is really a remake of Tarkovsky. It’s a brilliant one, too, in many ways more satisfying than the original. I won’t dwell on it at length, but among its many virtues is its brevity. It compresses the dilated Russian version without sacrificing any of the enigmatic qualities of Lem’s story, which also compresses Kelvin’s backstory with Rheya to a series of strategically deployed, emotionally powerful snippets. The sentimental node of the dacha is erased, with no ill effects. (Of course, dilation and distension, what Tarkovsky refers to as “sculpting in time,” is the whole point of his cinematic philosophy. The camera becomes the aperture of duration: a mechanism that erases its mediation).

Seeing Clooney in this you realize that this was the film that enabled him to play the title role in Michael Clayton. There are very few leading men among American actors capable of conveying the moral fatigue and spiritual emptiness of midlife with such desolate austerity. As for Natascha Mcelhone (and here, reader, I yield to mere idolatry), I wish we saw more of her in major film roles, and not just because she possesses the most arresting face of any female actor of her generation.

Soderbergh’s Solaris, like Tarkovsky’s, is concerned with the sublime of memory – the dream of forgiveness, of redeeming one’s mistakes – in effect, the erasure of the very conditions that endow mortality with meaning. His ending, beautifully wrought (his signature play with temporal sequence is masterful here), nevertheless succumbs to the temptation, negated by Lem, of making over the donation of Solaris into a form of grace. The central idea of the novel – that of the failed god, the weak god who resides solely in matter – is beyond the imaginative capacity of either filmmaker. The final enigma goes begging.

The real Other, for both Tarkovksy and Soderbergh, is not the alien planet that invades the unconscious, but Woman. This resort to binaries is tiresome. Both versions -- and Lem's, too, for that matter -- cast Hari/Rheya as emotionally unstable and suicidal, while Kelvin is the rationalist par excellence (for all the good it does him). Following the hoariest of traditions, Rheya is introduced as "tricky" -- a seductress who may also be deeply disturbed. And indeed we learn later, in an awkward bit of backstory, that her mother suffered some form of schizophrenia.

As the insane muse Rheya becomes the via negativa, the opening of the way to the Beyond. Soderbergh makes this Langian trope explicit in the dinner party scene (one of K's flashbacks) where he and Gibarian debunk consciousness as epiphenomenal, a mere mathematical probability, overriding and silencing Rheya's impassioned defense of an informing Logos. The medium-range close up of her face as she falls silent is harrowing; her withdrawal from Kelvin becomes a metaphysical rebuke at this point while earning our sympathy. All this is recovered in the denouement, when Rheya becomes the rescuing angel of history, leading Kris to heaven/haven, even if it's only the eternal recurrence of the domestic same.

All three versions of Solaris cry out for a Lacanian reading: Woman as Symptom, Symptom as sinthome, the continual play of doubling & mirroring. Her phantomic status as the revenant of the Real exemplifies the crisis of the self, whose status can be read as a Symptom, an irreducible kernel or remnant of the trauma of the mirror stage.

As Zizek comments: "How do we account for patients who have, beyond any doubt, gone through their fantasy, who have obtained distance from the fantasy-framework of their reality, but whose key symptom still persists? Lacan tried to answer this challenge with the concept of the sinthome.... a certain signifying formation penetrated with enjoyment: it is a signifier as a bearer of jouis-sense, enjoyment-in-sense.... [H]ere is the radical ontological status of the symptom: symptom, conceived as sinthome, is literally our only substance, the only positive support of our being, the only point that gives any consistency to the subject... the way we "choose something instead of nothing".... That is why the final Lacanian definition of the end of the psychoanalytic process is identification with the symptom.".

In T's Solaris, the persistence of memory-as-symptom leads to some unintentionally parodic moments in which Kelvin tries to rid himself of this unwelcome -- clingy? -- lover. Poor Hari/Rheya, in both films, suffers some grotesque punishments at the hands of men. Her immortality becomes a source of horror -- a perversion of the Christic promise, or else the final expression of its logic.

Yet, as with Rachael in Blade Runner, she also proves herself more faithful to her own ontology; more fully human because she does not reject her doubt about who she is, but embraces the uncertainty. At the dramatic level, she grows, becomes more than she is, so that by the end her example leads Kelvin to an act of transcendent empathy. All the same, I like Lem's conclusion better -- it rejects the ease offered by theological solutions, opting to stay true to the complicated doubt of hope.

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