In previous posts I have speculated about how difficult it must have been for filmmakers like Shepitko and Tarkovsky to make such outstanding films within the Soviet system. In his film, “Solaris,” which is the next one in our series, Tarkovsky simply vaulted right over their pointy little heads, eventually ascending to a sort of king of kings on the international scene. I’d venture to guess that, with successive films, he is not only proving his theories about sculpting time but also delivering what amounts to scathing rebuttal to the Soviet censors. The psychologist, Kris Kelvin stands in for all of them. He has the power to shut it all down. In Tarkovsky’s third film, Kelvin falls under the spell of the sublime even more than everyone else.
I should clarify here that it doesn’t seem as though Tarkovsky was much influenced by his critics. His retorts were formal, not personal. They changed nothing of the way he experimented and searched. His films are sincere acts of faith, self-sacrifice even. There’s nothing petty about them. He’s not messing with anybody’s head but his own.
In the opening shot a bright leaf floats through the frame on a current of crystal clear water. Note the sinuating moss carpet on the river floor. We’ve have seen the entire film right there. As soon as we become detached, the death process begins. We simply cannot exist apart from Earth. The leaf becomes the car floating through tunnels of earth, a space station floating over the ocean of a far off planet, space lovers experiencing weightlessness in its orbit, or those fleeting visitations from the past that manifest his deceased wife to spaceman Kelvin once he enters the orbit of Solaris.
Incidentally, it would seem to me a worthy expedition to explore how closely the ocean of Solaris resembles the motion picture screen. Equally fascinating is how, by causing Kelvin to have a love affair with a mental projection from his past, Tarkovsky lays bare his critics’ utter incapacity to get their heads out of their own asses.
These threads and more are woven into act one, but according to Tarkovsky’s theory of sculpting time, the feature of most importance dominates the first shot of the film, but it is also brilliantly articulated and intentionally enhanced by the one that follows. See if you can find the tiny bright leaf floating at top center of shot two. Water flows at the same speed the camera pans across the river’s face, so that we merge with its languid pace. One shot is static; relying on subject for motion, leaving us detached observers. The second one connects us with the velocity of the subject and absorbs us. We are of the Earth, synced up and attuned to Nature.
Tarkovsky invites us to peruse, closely, his cinematic proofs on the essence of nature, reality and perception. Watch a genius use a leaf, a horse, a child, some enraptured scientists, their spaceship and an enigmatic planet to float home his point. In an early episode, disgraced space-jock Burton will recount from memory the details of a past encounter with alien life on Solaris. After words, he will part ways with an old colleague and float downstream on heavily trafficked freeways, hurtling through tunnels with his brow in a furrow. The future in the form of a little boy drowses on his shoulder.
In his film, the tribulation that the filmmaker inflicts on his character Burton reflects the ordeal Tarkovsky was subjected to by Soviet snobs. The same types of minds that eventually drove her greatest artists away from the motherland, ground spaceman Burton in the first act of “Solaris”. This bit calls out the critics of “Andre Rublev.” They meddled with his first masterpiece even though it won the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes. Can you imagine how he felt making Solaris? The authorities shelved Rublev for nearly half a decade while they continuously tampered with the cut. No wonder, in his final film, “The Sacrifice,” Tarkovsky burns down a critics house.
Coming soon! Tarkovsky achieves the most poignant post-apocalyptic scenario ever put on screen in his fifth feature, “Stalker” (1977). We’re near the end of a yearlong examination of one man’s intentions to define and defend the sacred.