We need Tarkovsky more than ever nowadays. His science fiction movies may seem quaint in the science-today where so many people are sucked into devices trying desperately to redefine their personas through the filter of social media apps. With that comes a loss in authenticity. One could argue Fassbinder was more prescient in this regard with his obscure sci-fi film World on a Wire (Fassbinder’s prophetic 1973 sci-fi work ‘World on a Wire’ finally sees theatrical release). However, if there is one thing Tarkovsky hasn’t lost is an authentic concern for humanity, be it how one reckons with existence or how one loves another. And his two most referenced sci-fi films, Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979), tangle with these philosophies with a confrontational tone that indeed remains incredibly relevant. They speak to something beyond persona or any idea of reality, be it cyber or IRL, but something essential and humanly authentic that speaks to our deepest desires.
Recent restorations of Solaris and Stalker, both of which are now playing in our South Florida are at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, beg for us to pause for a second from digital screens to look into the mirror of the silver screen. Judging from a recent Saturday afternoon screening of Solaris where one man laughed after the film’s moving finale and many grumbled, it’s time to discuss just where the value lies in these movies and what makes them highly regarded masterpieces of cinema, despite the fact that they don’t necessarily tell clear stories of conflict and resolution that most viewers expect from the movie going experience and actually treat genre trappings as tools that point to inner realities in us all.
To begin with, the films’ Russian writer-director Andrei Tarkovsky, was a man born of the more abstract side of literature and the arts. The son of a notable poet (Arseniy Tarkovsky, whose work appears in Stalker), Tarkovsky studied music before making his first movie in 1962, the much admired Ivan’s Childhood. It was an immediate success, and so began a short career of seven feature and three short films, culminating, in just over 20 years, with The Sacrifice in 1985. He died an exile in Paris, on Dec. 29, 1986, after a struggle with lung cancer.
It was 1972 when Solaris premiered at Cannes, where it won the Grand Jury Prize. What it’s about is sometimes hard to explain, for Tarkovsky works images as the great poets work words, evoking ineffable ideas that speak to humanity’s need for something beyond mere existence in the chaos of expectations, socially instituted standards and the like. In order to express something “beyond,” Tarkovsky uses elements of cinema in a manner that favors intuitiveness over logic in order to achieve a higher message that speaks to the mysteries that drive humanity’s quest for something spiritual. Therefore, he sees film as art. In his book, Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky wrote, “Art does not think logically or formulate a logic of behavior; it expresses its own postulate of faith.”
In simple terms, Solaris is about how a trio of cosmonauts coping with the power of a new planet called Solaris, which has the ability to manifest people from their memories on their space station. When psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is sent to investigate the state of affairs with the remaining members of the crew, his wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who had committed suicide 10 years earlier, appears in his room in tangible, flesh and blood form. She shows him a devotion that erases time between them. This troubles Kelvin so much that he puts her in a rocket and shoots her off into space. Still, there she is, in his room, once again, placing her shawl on the back of a chair, next to the first Hari’s shawl.
A series of scenes follow with Kelvin seeking to protect her, while the station’s only other cosmonauts, Dr. Sartorius (Anatoliy Solonitsyn), an astrobiologist, and Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet), a cybernetics expert, try reasoning with him in their own ways. Sartorius treats Hari with a cold indifference calling her a “thing.” Meanwhile, Snaut, who tries to explain that Solaris has a consciousness that can create illusions that are beyond illusions, treats Kelvin and Hari both with an empathy that speaks to the film’s essence of faith. But it is up to Kelvin alone to come to terms with something so powerful that it feels like a dream come true, though still too fragile to exist anywhere but in the confines of the space station.
As with Solaris, Stalker also features the manifestation of something from the subconscious of the characters. After Russia is struck by something believed to be a meteorite, it opens a sort of alternate dimension called The Zone, where no one ever returns from. The rumor is, The Zone contains a room “where your innermost, sincerest desire comes true,” which is of course, a double-edged sword. This is a story that focuses on the subconscious, and after all, what one says consciously is often in conflict with the subconscious. The government has made it illegal to enter The Zone. But even the threat of being shot dead on sight can’t stop those hoping to have their wishes granted. So there are guides called stalkers who work on the black market to take those who can pay past not only armed guards but the mystical traps that lie on the twisting path to this mythical room.
The stalker in this story is played by Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy. He is to guide a professor (Nikolay Grinko) and a writer (Solonitsyn, again). Early on, the characters are defined by their ideas of truth. For the professor, it’s definitive. Truth is what is proven. For the writer, truth is what you make of the mess of ideas and facts limited to your own perception. Stalker is full of Tarkovsky’s personal philosophies. At one point a character says, “Truth is born in argument.” In Sculpting in Time, the director wrote, “I entirely subscribe to the view that truth is reached through dispute.”
One can see Tarkovsky as a Taoist. Both these film emphasize the importance of nature. In Taoism, the only way to discover pure essence of being is to observe nature. This is apparent when Tarkovsky references haiku poetry in his book. “The reader of haikku [sic] has to be absorbed into it as into nature, to plunge in, lose himself in its depth, as in the cosmos where there is no bottom and no top.” The appreciation of nature has echoes of how these two poetic yet disorienting films work and entwine with nature.
Beyond its patient opening sequence featuring Kelvin in the woods near his father’s house in Solaris, there is a beautiful sequence in space featuring a montage that gives way to the pink and orange landscape of the planet, which in turn dissolves into Hari’s face during a slow zoom out. This would not have the power it does without the chilliness of space that is preceded by a long ride on an industrial highway that follows the time we spend with Kelvin taking in the trees and lake by his father’s house. The soundtrack is virtually silent. Some say the opening sequence is long, but it’s an important establishment of what is at stake. The film partly celebrates the importance of a return to nature in the face of technology that creates such terrible heartache. These are people who have lost touch with nature. They can hardly communicate with each other, much less cope with unresolved issues of their past. Kelvin is a man who is so bereft he has forgotten the rest of his family for a ghost. This is why he falls to his knees at his father’s feet, so dramatically, not to mention wordlessly, at the end of the film. It’s a man who has come to terms with his subconscious pain, which happened to have been made manifest. That the home of his father seems to be in the consciousness of the ocean of Solaris makes this literal.
Nature is also important in Stalker. The film features depictions of the world outside The Zone tinted in a sepia tone. These segments, which dominate the beginning and end of the film, look like unfinished paintings. Streaks of mud in the streets are like rough brushstrokes or roughly molded, still wet clay. It’s a place difficult for these people to get their footing — in one case quite literally. These are also people unfulfilled. No one is more aware of this than our Stalker, who has been to the rich, green lands of The Zone and back and is weighted by an existential sadness and worry so beautifully transmitted by Kaydanovskiy. After a brilliant sequence on a rail car, using only sound effects and a hard cut to the colorful land of The Zone, Stalker drops onto a bed of weeds, a tiny caterpillar squirming across one finger, as he embraces the land that has overgrown buildings and even tanks and weapons of war. It’s as if he is quenching an existential thirst for being.
The lushness of this world is also represented with a dream logic, as every cut in the film takes on a new profundity as the trio get closer to the room, following an unseen path that zigs and zags. “We construct it as if with our own minds,” says Stalker. “No one comes back the way they came.” In dreams, after all, you can’t double take anything. Try re-reading any kind of writing you might see in a dream or even looking at a clock more than once. It’s never the same. Just as in dreams, in The Zone there are no straight paths. You can only move “forward” in roundabout ways. Water is often associated with the unconscious, an idea also important in Solaris. Stalker, meanwhile, features an interesting pair of tracking sequences over water featuring objects like hypodermic needles, guns and maybe a lotto ticket, submerged in an almost literal representation of dreams.
This is but scratching the surfaces of these two movies. One can talk about the pathos of the relationship between Hari and Kelvin and the significance of the Stalker’s crippled daughter who is revealed to have an ability that transcends her disability. There’s also Tarkovsky’s simple cinematic techniques with sound, editing and camera work and its effect on transmitting an incredible amount of information while obscuring so much narrative. It shows an incredible faith in the openness he expects of the audience. He is not trying to make difficult movies. He’s trying to make movies that celebrate intuitiveness and taps into humanity’s need for spirituality. Here he is in nature talking about art and its tight connection with existentialism:
Some of what he says is key for finding the pleasures in these two films. As noted earlier, art to Tarkovsky is a means to spirituality. He dismisses the quest for knowledge as arriving at something concrete and conclusive as rather empty. “The more you know, the less you know,” he says. Even though he says he is agnostic, it makes him a more spiritual person than those who have made their mind up on what they might believe in. He implies that faith can be seen as the most concrete notion of “knowledge.” Indeed, faith plays a key role in Solaris and Stalker, from the ideas the films’ characters tangle with to the audience’s own quest for something beyond either simple movie entertainment produced for commercial gains or heavy movies motivated to stimulate the analytical intellect. There is something beyond these two that is more intangible yet more spiritually fulfilling. Faith, or the quest for it, is the key to Solaris and Stalker.
Solaris and Stalker are currently showing at the Coral Gables Art Cinema through Thursday, June 29. On Tuesday, June 27, at 7 p.m. across the street at Books & Books, join me and Miami Jewish Film Festival director Igor Shteyrenberg with Gables Cinema Associate Director Javier Chavez moderating a discussion of these two films. It’s free. For screening dates, visit this link.