Monday, 1 April 2019

Andrei Tarkovsky: Dialogue on Science Fiction

Solaris (Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky)
Where 2001 examined the technological progress of man through a notably distant lens from its characters, Solaris devastatingly explores the inner psychology of its protagonist (scientist Kris Kelvin), who is tortured by phantom images of his dead wife aboard a spaceship hovering the Solaris ocean, which is argued to have the special ability to accommodate the most desperate human desires.
Where 2001 can be argued as having a relatively positive view towards progressing space travel and thus forwarding the Apollo agenda, Solaris is quite pessimistic towards human space travel. Where technology in 2001 is intended an awe-inspiring display of choreographed beauty, the technology of Solaris is decrepit and useless, and the halls of the spaceship act as largely abandoned canals of depression and defeat rather than a locale for progressive innovation... Space travel is viewed in Solaris as a largely futile, lonely, and unattractive venture. Human space exploration has not led to a final accomplishment here as much as it has simply come to a standstill...
                             – Landon Palmer:  Kubrick’s ‘2001’ vs. Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’

Solaris (1972) is arguably Tarkovsky’s most approachable film. While it is far from conventional in its story and structure, it stands centrally in relation to his other films: behind him were his impressive debut, Ivan's Childhood (1962), and his first epic masterpiece, Andrei Rublev (1966); ahead of him were the experimental, personal, Mirror (1975), Stalker, a philosophical, bleak work, and finally, two difficult, contemplative films made in exile, Nostalghia (1983) and The Sacrifice (1986). 

Tarkovsky had seen Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey and reportedly thought it unemotional and cold. Reports at the time suggested Tarkovsky’s film was a direct response to 2001. Tarkovsky undoubtedly uses more individual characters and the human drama is more central than in Kubrick’s film. Nonetheless, Tarkovsky’s film, while a reaction to Kubrick’s cannot hide its influence. Both films establish their narratives in a leisurely manner, with considerable time spent tracking around the space sets; both films employ a widescreen mise-en-scene approach that benefits from superior art direction; and both films generate an aura of mystery that begs for countless explanations. 

Unlike 2001, Solaris, on the other hand, is permeated with sadness, which grips the picture even before it departs from Earth. We watch the protagonist, a space psychologist called Kris Kelvin, gaze at underwater reeds as if they were a drowned woman's tresses in the sombre prologue. Kris, as played by Donatas Banionis, seems perpetually scarred, delayed by some unfathomable sadness. He will depart on a trip to the space station Solaris, a once-thriving experiment that has gone awry; it will be up to him to decide whether or not to shut down the research station. He prepares by watching a video from a scientific symposium regarding Solaris's problems.

Humans seem to be enslaved to equipment and television pictures, disconnected from the natural world around. At Solaris, Kris discovers a dilapidated space station that is empty save for two obsessed scientists while Kris's colleague has already committed suicide, leaving him a recorded warning about hallucinated visitors having "something to do with conscience." Kris's deceased wife, Hari, constantly materialises by his side. Whether she is a doppelganger, the embodiment of a decade's worth of grief-stricken memories, or a delusion, she is real to Kelvin. He has the ability to hold her and talk to her, and hence is the author of her existence. Tarkovsky expands this concept to all of our connections, both past and present, and questions their very existence. Do we adore the people around us, or do we adore our perceptions of them? How much access do we really have about someone, apart from our own mental colouring of their character? 

Tarkovsky often confronts us with such profoundly disturbing concepts, arguing that we may not be the centre of everything after all. Solaris is a picture that not only dazzles and confounds with its visual splendour and remarkable set design, but also with the thoughts that underpin each frame, exhibiting harrowing human concepts into a lifeless environment. 

Tarkovsky's experiments with pace, attempting to "discover Time inside Time," have his camera track up to the sleeping Kris, distorting the moment until we join his dream. In the film's beautiful closing scene, Kelvin returns to his parents in the picturesque country house home shown in the opening scenes – but this reassuring mirage is a huge duplicate manufactured by Solaris's planet-sized brain. Although it seems to be home, Kelvin will never be able to return. 

“The protagonists in Solaris were tormented by disappointments, and the path out we presented them was sufficiently illusory,” Tarkovsky subsequently wrote in his film biography Sculpting in Time. “It was in dreams that they discovered their own roots - those roots that permanently connect man to the Earth that gave birth to him. However, even such connections had become imaginary to them.”

The following conversation is from an interview by Naum Abramov with Andrei Tarkovsky that took place in 1970 while the great Russian director was working on his adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris. Initially billed in America as the Soviet Union’s reply to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), at first glance, both films share similar concerns in exploring mankind’s unsettled role in the universe and the consequences of detachment from his natural habitat. However, it’s evident that each film’s view on space, and mankind’s role within it, are quite different:

ABRAMOV: You’re working on a film adaptation of the science-fiction novel ‘Solaris’, by Stanislaw Lem. Lately, the science-fiction genre has attracted the interest of many prominent filmmakers. This seems to be an indication of how the genre answers some sort of inner need for contemporary viewers and filmmakers alike. Complex, intellectual-artistic content can be combined in one film with aspects of a purely entertaining spectacle directed toward the widest possible audience. I think this is especially true for the genre of science-fiction in cinema. Viewers of different levels of sophistication would appreciate different elements of these films; in some cases the philosophical content, in other cases, the strictly superficial, dramatic, exciting aspects of the plot.

In your opinion, what needs are satisfied in our time by the genre of science-fiction in cinema? Is it a desire to see the scientific and technological progress of humanity, incarnated in the vivid imagery of a contemporary film? Is it the expression of philosophical thought within the strange and thrilling context of a flight into space; the future of our planet; or the story of some brave, new invention? Maybe it’s the striving of the writer and filmmaker to study people’s character, our contemporary character, with the dramatic events dictated by the genre?

And finally, why have you turned to science-fiction, a genre which is so new to you?

TARKOVSKY: The questions you’re asking, as far as I understand, are connected on one hand with filmmaking and on the other hand with the viewer. But first, I want to explain why I decided to adapt Lem’s novel, Solaris. Whether or not my first two films are good or bad, they are, in the final analysis, both about the same thing. They are about the extreme manifestation of loyalty to a moral debt, the struggle for it, and faith in it – even to the extent of a personality crisis. They are about an individual armed with conviction, an individual with a sense of personal destiny, for whom catastrophe is an unbroken human souI.

I’m interested in a hero that goes on to the end despite everything. Because only such a person can claim victory. The dramatic form of my films is a token of my desire to express the struggle and the greatness of the human spirit. I think you can easily connect this concept with my previous films. Both Ivan and Andrei do everything against their own safety. The first physically, the second in a spiritual sense. Both of them in a search for an ideal, moral way of living.

As for Solaris, my decision to adapt it to the screen is not at all a result of some fondness for the genre. The main thing is that in Solaris, Lem presents a problem that is close to me: the problem of overcoming, of convictions, of moral transformation on the path of struggle within the limits of one’s own destiny. The depth and meaning of Lem’s novel are not at all dependent on the science-fiction genre, and it’s not enough to appreciate his novel simply for the genre.

The novel is not only about the human mind encountering the unknown, but it is also about the moral leap of a human being in relation to new discoveries in scientific knowledge. And overcoming the obstacles on this path leads to the painful birth of a new morality. This is the ‘price of progress’ that Kelvin pays in Solaris. And Kelvin’s price is the face to face encounter with the materializatron of his own conscience. But Kelvin doesn’t betray his moral position. Because betrayal in this situation means to remain at the former level, not even attempting to rise to a higher moral level. And Kelvin pays a tragic price for this step forward. The science-fiction genre creates the necessary premise for this connection between moral problems and the physiology of the human mind.

ABRAMOV: And nevertheless, even though you emphasize your indifference to the genre, you are resolving this philosophical problem which concerns you within the genre of science-fiction. lt seems to me that science-fiction creates such special conditions of cinematic representation for itself that it’s impossible just to shrug them off. The filmmaker encounters different intellectual and artistic capacities in a novel and a film. He deals with the cinematic incarnation on screen of what was created by the imagination of the author of a literary work, with the need to provide the fantastic with a plastic specificity.

These questions must have presented themselves to you.

TARKOVSKY: The complexity in adapting Solaris is an issue of film adaptations in general and secondarily an issue of science-fiction adaptations. These are the two fundamental issues of my current work. The first issue relates to the principles of a work of literature in general. Prose possesses the special characteristic that its imagery depends on the sensory experience of the reader. So, no matter how detailed this or that scene is developed, the reader, to the degree of his own experience, sees that which his own experience, character, bias, and tastes have prepared him to see. Even the most detailed descriptions in prose, in a way, will elude the control of the writer and the reader will perceive them subjectively.

In the literal, superficial sense, War and Peace is read and envisioned by thousands of readers; this makes it a thousand different books as a result of the differences in experience between the writer and the reader. In this significantly important aspect is the special relevance and ubiquity of literature – its democracy, if you will. In this is the guarantee of the reader’s co-creation. A writer subconsciously depends on an imaginative reader to see more and to see more clearly than the presented, laconic description. A reader can perceive even the most ruthless, naturalistic details with omission through his subjective, aesthetic filter. I would call this peculiarity of prosaic description to influence the reader ‘aesthetic adaptation’. Principally, it governs perception and the prose author invades the soul of the reader within the belly of this Trojan horse.

This is in literature. But what about cinema? Where in cinema does a viewer have this freedom of choice? Each and every frame, every scene and episode, outwardly doesn’t even describe, but literally records actions, landscapes, character’s faces. And in this is the terrifying danger of not being accepted by the viewer. Because on film there is a very unambiguous designation of the concrete, against which the viewer’s personal, sensory experience rebels.

Some may argue that cinema is attractive because it’s really a source of what is exotic and unusual for a viewer. That isn’t quite right. Actually, it’s just the opposite. Cinema, in contrast to literature, is the filmmaker’s experience caught on film. And if this personal experience is really sincerely expressed then the viewer accepts the film.

I’ve noticed, from my own experience, if the external, emotional construction of images in a film are based on the filmmaker’s own memory, on the kinship of one’s personal experience with the fabric of the film, then the film will have the power to affect those who see it. If the director follows only the superficial, literal base of the film, for example the screenplay, even if in the most convincing, realistic, and conscientious manner, the viewer will be left unaffected.

Therefore, if you’re objectively incapable of influencing a viewer with his own experience, as in literature as I mentioned earlier, and you’re unable to achieve that in principle, then in cinema, you should sincerely tell about your own experience. That’s why even now when all half-literate people have learned to make movies, cinema remains an art form, which only a small number of directors have actually mastered, and they can be counted with the fingers of one hand. To remould a literary work into the frames of a film means to tell your version of the literary source, filtering it through yourself.

ABRAMOV: Where do you draw the line between a filmmaker’s interpretation and the original work? Isn’t there a danger of remoulding the literary work to the point of losing its original stylistics and visual structure?

TARKOVSKY: Working in science-fiction demands great subtlety and sincerity, especially if you’re talking about the issue of perspective. That’s why Lem is such a great science-fiction writer. You would understand what I mean if you read SolarisEden, and Return from the Stars.

In Eden, Lem tells about an expedition to a planet where the members of the expedition encounter a reality, the developmental laws of which they cannot comprehend. These laws slip away from understanding, like thoughts just forgotten. The air is filled with guesses and analogies, seen by the naked eye, but they can’t be caught. It’s a very specific, unnerving, and frustrating condition. And Lem does a brilliant job of expressing this condition. He describes in detail everything that the expedition encounters. But more than the detail, he describes what it is the people see, while not understanding what it means.

The same thing is in Return from the Stars. The protagonist returns from a flight to different galaxies. On earth, because of the differences in time (he has traveled at the speed of light), life has progressed through several generations. The returned astronaut walks through the city and doesn’t understand anything. Lem describes everything the astronaut encounters in extreme detail and despite this detailed description, we don’t understand anything either, along with the protagonist. These emotionally tense pieces express, for me, the quintessence of the author’s personal experience projected into the future.

ABRAMOV: The majority of directors of science-fiction movies think it necessary to impress the viewer’s imagination with the concrete details of everyday life on other worlds or the details of a spacecraft’s construction, which often crowd out the central idea of the film. I think Kubrick’s ‘Space Odyssey’ is guilty of that.

TARKOVSKY: For some reason, in all the science-fiction films I’ve seen, the filmmakers force the viewer to examine the details of the material structure of the future. More than that, sometimes, like Kubrick, they call their own films premonitions. It’s unbelievable! Let alone that 2001: A Space Odyssey is phoney on many points even for specialists.

For a true work of art, the fake must be eliminated. I would like to shoot Solaris in a way that the viewer would be unaware of any exoticism. Of course, I’m referring to the exoticism of technology.

For example, if one shoots a scene of passengers boarding a trolley, which, let’s say, we’d never seen before or known anything about, then we’d get something like Kubrick’s moon-landing scene. On the other hand, if one were to shoot a moon landing like a common trolley stop in a modern film, then everything would be as it should. That means to create psychologically, not an exotic but a real, everyday environment that would be conveyed to the viewer through the perception of the film’s characters. That’s why a detailed ‘examination’ of the technological processes of the future transforms the emotional foundation of a film, as a work of art, into a lifeless schema with only pretensions to truth.

Design is design. Painting is painting. And a film is a film. One should ‘separate the firmament from the waters’ and not engage in making comic books.

When cinema moves out from under the power of money, namely, the costs of production, when there will be a method for the author of a work of art to record reality as with a pen and paper, paints and canvas, chisel and marble, ‘X’ and the filmmaker, then we’ll see. Then cinema will be the foremost art and its muse the queen of all the others.

– Naum Abramov: Dialogue with Andrei Tarkovsky about Science-Fiction on the Screen. From Ekran, 1970-1971, 162-165. Translated from Russian by Jake Mahaffy and Yulia Mahaffy. In Tarkovsky Interviews. Edited by John Gianvito. University of Mississippi Press, 2006.


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