Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Night at the Movies

Where do you go to see art films? Is it basically Chicago, Boston, NYC and San Francisco plus the odd art museum? Hell, I'm just taking Frisco and Chicago for granted. I have never seen an art film in either of those places myself; I just imagine they are cosmopolitan enough to support art house movie theaters. At any rate I do not expect to see them where I live, but once a year, during the week long film festival at the end of April. I must add, however, that in recent years the pickings at the festival have been rather slim and as the market shrinks up and even festival films will need to be selected more and more as money makers and not as works of art, the pickings will only get slimmer. I do not have great expectations from this year's festival. So imagine my surprise when I take my weekly peak at the local theater's website and find they will be showing Carl Dreyer's Day of Wrath and Tarkovsky's Solaris all week. If I go Sunday, I can even catch both on the same day. This was a rare opportunity indeed, so I headed off to the theater for a night of cinema the likes of which I had not known since my days in Boston.

It did not go according to plan, not exactly anyway. First I found out that there was an error in the screening times posted on the website. Day of Wrath played earlier than it was scheduled and the only option I had at the time I arrived was Fritz Lang's M. Well I could have watched Two Lovers or some movie about a cake, but mainstream, quasi-art, Oscar-fodder was not exactly what got me out of the house that afternoon, so I went to see M – me and four other people, one of whom had no idea what he was there to see; I overheard him asking the cashier which movie they were showing was about WWII “or something” because he had to watch it for a class. So I watched M. I should mention that I watched a DVD of M in an effort to get back to my original question. I certainly do not fault the theater here, 35mm or even 16mm prints are very expensive and these days you would have to hire a person separate from your regular “projectionist” to run the machines. But I will say that it was a bit of a surprise to go to the movie theater to watch a pair of classic films only to find out that I would be watching DVDs that I own. The projection was okay though. It was crisp and sharp. The sound was not so good. M and Solaris are especially quiet films, and for much of the time I was hearing Two Lovers and/or the cake movie from the theaters below.

The conditions were not ideal. The financial situation is not good. The films are not films. Nobody is coming out to see them (there were four people in the theater to see Solaris). At least the films will always be the films. M is not an altogether bad movie. Certainly overrated by a great many film historians and theorists, but smarter than its later counterparts – junk like Psycho and Silence of the Lambs. It is a good study of mob mentality and moral ambiguity. Not a bad movie to show high school kids if you can get them past the fact that it is in black and white and in German.

And then I watched Solaris again. What a testament to Tarkovsky as an artist that even his least successful works are still full of surprises and nuance. Perhaps I had not noticed it before or I had simply forgotten how physical this movie is. Tarkovsky has a reputation for being quite heady and cold, and I was quite struck by the amount of physical contact in this film. There Snaut's frequent pats on the back and grasping of arms and shoulders – at one point he walks arm in arm with Kelvin and Hari while Kelvin wheres an open robe and quite explicit underpants. Kelvin's physicality often underpins the close contact of a given scene. He wears a variety of mesh shirts and often has the very short briefs. The contact between Hari and Kelvin is also quite more explicit than is typical of Tarkovsky. They kiss arms, hands; Hari puts Kris' fingers in her mouth. Kelvin buries his head into her lap repeatedly, an especially humiliating gesture if one is at all familiar with the generally held notion about Tarkovsky's misogyny. So significant is Kelvin's gesture of submission to Hari that it sparks the ire of Sartorius in the library scene. Is his fury just the result that Kris would lower himself to a non-human, or that Hari is a female, and moreover that Kris would not think twice about submitting himself to her in front of other people?

Also in this scene are the beginnings of what Robert Bird has dubbed the crucible of ideology. To argue multiple points of view is one of Tarkovsky's most important narrative devices. Contrary to what many critics may believe, Tarkovsky's films do not espouse positions about gender, religion, politics, or the nature of truth. His mature works pit several positions on these matters against one another, and in the end no one emerges victorious, nor does the narrative itself achieve any synthesis. Kris, Snaut, Sartorius and Hari each have a distinct point of view. None of them are right. None of them are wrong. This is a quite remarkable narrative achievement considering the rather clear-cut ideology of Andrei Rublyov. In many ways Rublyov is a better film than Solaris, but it remains less of a Tarkovsky film. One need only compare the trio of Snaut, Kelvin and Sartorius with Daniil, Andrei and Kiril. Andrei is clearly the “right” while Kiril is “wrong” and Daniil mediates between the two leaning toward Andrei spiritually and intellectually, but feeling a bit like Kiril emotionally. Who is “right” among the other three? Who wins in the end? The Solaris trio is much more like the Stalker trio, even going so far as to add a fourth – a woman who undercuts the very ontology of the subject the three men argue about.

It is quite advanced in many ways, but still probably Tarkovsky's weakest film. I would love to see a directors cut of it, one that didn't include all the sci-fi nonsense he was obligated to put in by the cultural authorities. All the shots of Solaris itself are so dated and distracting. And Donatas Banionis' acting job on Kris Kelvin. It is easy to see why Tarkovsky disliked working with Banionis and was apt to mention him when enumerating the reasons why he thought of Solaris as his worst film. But then most directors in the history of this medium should be happy to make a movie that equals Tarkovsky's worst.

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