Film Follies, Subtitle Subversive

Subtitle Subversives-Solaris

If you looked at a Venn diagram of films I like and films I recognize to be great works of cinema the two circles would largely overlap. Sure there would be quite a few films I like that I recognize are not great cinema but there would only be a tiny sliver of films I recognize as being excellent pieces of filmmaking that I did not particularly enjoy. Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 masterwork Solaris is one of those rare films that falls into the latter category. Which is why I thought it would be perfect for this edition of Subtitle Subversives.
Based upon the 1961 book of the same name by Polish author Stanisław Lem, Solaris’ plot is straightforward enough. Kelvin, a psychologist, is sent to investigate strange goings-on at a research outpost in orbit above the ocean planet Solaris. What follows is anything but straightforward. The film becomes a brooding philosophical meditation on the nature of reality and what it means to be human. With a runtime of almost three hours, those meditations can be excruciating to sit through and this is why, for me at least, Solaris is not all that enjoyable. Shots linger too long. We get close-ups of lakes, vases, and people’s ears that despite the symbolism and emotions they invoke still feel superfluous. Honestly, I had to pause the film and get up and walk around a bit before coming back to it because it was just that damn slow.
So how can this be a great film you ask. Well, the thing of it is, Tarkovsky knows all this and he doesn’t care. He has so much contempt for the whims of his audience here that it becomes admirable. He made the film he set out to make and whether or not the people who watch it enjoy it is irrelevant. What matters is the art. And as arguably the greatest Russian director to ever live that is his prerogative. I say this as an admirer of his. I haven’t seen all of his films, but Stalker and Andrei Rublev are among my favorite movies ever made. But with Solaris, it feels like he went farther with his notion of cinema as an experience rather than an entertainment than in either of those two films. There is so much less story here and so much more feeling. Solaris is beautiful and haunting and will leave you to contemplate your place in the universe. I also think I might end up banging my head against a table if someone tried to force me to watch it again.
Just as that feeling perfectly encapsulates Tarkovsky’s style of filmmaking so too does this film reflect the Soviet era in which it was made. Yet again Soviet cinema takes a staple genre of western culture it deems to be silly and superficial, in this case science-fiction, and it strips it down to its core and turns it into a deeply thoughtful piece of art-house cinema. The trappings of the military space program and the practical nature of the character’s missions are unmistakably soviet while the soul of the film, its core philosophical underpinnings are timelessly Russian.
I know my praise for this film comes across as a bit schizophrenic. But that shouldn’t lessen your desire to sit down and watch this classic of Russian cinema. In fact, I feel like it should encourage you to seek it out even more so you can form your own opinion on the matter. And whatever that opinion may be I think you will agree that Solaris has rightly earned its place among the other films here at Subtitle Subversives.