Bloc Sci-Fi: “Solyaris”
For style guide’s sake, I will call this movie Solyaris while the supposedly misunderstood masterpiece by Steven Soderbergh will be Solaris, which I’ll write about in that Viola Davis retrospective that I’m too lazy to do. I also heard that it expands on the original’s love story.
Despite beginning by looking into a wide lake’s reeds, Solyaris is a breeze compared to Andrei Tarkovsky’s other work. Rublev is comprehensible and straightforward enough despite its three-hour running time, Stalker devastating in its showing of the longest non-magic tricks ever. It makes me feel like a young luddite not remembering anything plot wise from Zerkalo but do you? What probably makes me think that this movie is fast paced – clocking in at two hours and forty-six minutes – are the quick cuts in the sequence portraying a non-hostile interrogation of a man who has previously been to the space station near the titular planet. It also adds to this eerie aura because the witness can’t corroborate his testimony with video footage, subverting the ‘show, not tell’ adage and successfully heightening the mystery.
Yes, despite its big budget, it has cheap sets, a grievance I have in other classic movies, but that criticism tries to make the movie sound like it also features Gondry’s cardboard box aesthetic. I treated this lightly. The protagonist, Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), travels to a space station near a planet with strange magnetic waves, throwing rules of physics and even life off-kilter. Everything is grubby and made of plastic, buttons are unlabeled and look similar, other characters stuck in the station smoke and light candles and tobacco occasionally, there are master bedrooms and flammable books. But what makes the movie enigmatic is the resurfacing of Kelvin’s wife, either as wishful thinking or a gift from the planet. Mrs. Kelvin’s love towards her husband adds to her heart wrenching pleas to prove herself human to the space station’s men. Her conundrum can be seen as an allegory of prejudice but how can we sympathize when her existence crosses the boundaries that science irreverently crosses.
The romance in Tarkovsky, in my humble opinion, is enough and even surpasses its Western equal in the well-crafted but overrated 2001:A Space Odyssey. Solyaris will no longer be showing for now. But I hope that this post goes live just in time for the last movie featured in TIFF’s Attack the Bloc retrospective, Piotr Szulkin’s film rendition of the Golem story, screening at the Lightbox tonight at 9PM. Images via TIFF and cine y literatura.
20:10: The imitators edition
I stole this idea from Nathaniel Rogers. These are screen caps of the twentieth minute and tenth second of movies, many of which I can’t really expand on as he eloquently does. But really, this is posted because My VLC shuffle played The Kids are All Right and Shutter Island, which are already taken. [ETA; Also, I have not and will not put the names of the movies where these screen capscome from, for guessing reasons]
A rival painter observes, praises master yet talking behind the protagonist’s back.
“Excusez moi, numero two!” “HEY!”
“What happened?” “Oh, you didn’t hear…”
It’s not high school anymore. Friends dirty dancing in public…
He feels the pains of ‘adult sizing’ in a self-aware amusement park.
“…children, heaven bless them, they will look up to me and mind me…”
Los Angeles, night-time. The vandals rise and fall.
Traffic. No dialogue, obviously.
“Yeah, well, where is he? How come he takes a lousy stinkin’ job?”
At 3AM, a careless nursemaid tells the truth to a budding actor.
TIFF 100: Andrei Rublev
Andrei Tarkovsky‘s first film Andrei Rublev, like his later films, is known for his impressionistic environments inhabited by characters who exist as poetic entities. He’s also known for making movies with a long duration period. Both elements don’t make the best combination for me, but the film does have a lot of merits. Also, watch the film on the big screen if you can. The tenebrism and the close-ups look better in that format.
Nonetheless, the film for me doesn’t really start until three icon painters, Kirill (Ivan Lapikov), Danill (Nikolai Grinko), and Andrei (Anatoli Solonitsyn) set off and stop their rainy journey on a barn where a jester (Rolan Bykov) is performing for other townsfolk. His performance is physical, lively, lewd. The townsfolk repeat awatered down version of his song. Andrei stares and observes the jester like every other kid who didn’t know that staring is bad manners. He sees the man after the performance, tired but not necessarily in agony. He might even feel a camaraderie with the man, unappreciated for his talents that he exhausts himself for. Kirill steps in and says that the devil brought jesters into the world, although Andrei doesn’t show that he agrees with Kirill. The content of the jester’s song reached to some authorities, who have him arrested.
Kirill enters Theophanes the Greek‘s home. Kirill praises him and criticizes the man Theophanes has asked about – Andrei Rublyov. This is pretty much where I drool and bring up my art history background. Fifteenth century Russian icons were at the tail end on the Medieval chapter. All I knew about the era were Italians. Another impression I had of the Byzantine/Orthodox art was its rigidity, and that the image was more important. Obviously I wasn’t paying attention about the superstars of the era, which Theophanes has been and Andrei, at this part of the story, could potentially be. Anyway, Kirill’s main criticism of Andrei is that the latter didn’t seem to believe. Imparting his ‘opinion’ to the master, Kirill pleads for a public appointment to be the latter’s apprentice.
Theophanes hilariously – just to me – chooses the younger, more handsome Andrei instead, making Kirill really angry and denounces the monastery where they all live. Andrei then embarks on a second journey, the beginning of a new section in his life where he’ll see memorable sights and events along the way. These demonic moments eventually follow him through the town of Vladimir, where he’s commissioned. At least one does he take part in the lustful, violent world he only knows through theory, a Russia he hasn’t really been exposed to. He neither becomes lustful nor violent, but his experiences in this part of the plot posts the film’s real conundrum. Whether he’s passing through hell, passing through the real Russia, wondering how human beings can let a world become this degenerate and if all this exposure, participation and sympathy for evildoers makes someone a good or bad person. Tarkovsky doesn’t answer the questions more easily for us by depicting these devilish images with beauty, the long takes used to capture them letting his audience contemplate on moral dualities.
The Tatars raid Vladimir, and more than a decade later, many of the characters around Andrei have died, and those who haven’t are destroyed. The jester has little sense of humour left in him, and his bitter towards Andrei and accuses the latter of putting him in jail. He points out that Andrei has lost his looks, which isn’t Andrei’s biggest problem since Andrei has turned down work for a decade. The two are opposite a young bell maker’s son Boriska (Nikolay Burlyaev) trying to fill his father’s shoes, energizing the town in the process. Andrei observes the kid as he ha observed the jester in the past, as the audience wonders how the child’s efforts affect Andrei and his rusting talents.
I know this Slavic girl in college whom I like making fun of behind her back. I don’t know if it’s more insulting that everyone thought she was stupid or that I didn’t see her as stupid but instead, a person with a tragically clinical view of academia. We had a conversation on the bus once about David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, a movie that just came out at the TIFF 2007 and the first movie from that crop to be released in theatres. She said the rapes made her uncomfortable, for reasons more basic than what I can deduce from other things I know about her. Once in a while she reveals a point of vulnerability and closes back up again, in a way telling me either that I’ll never find out her secret or that she doesn’t have a wound in the first place.
Roger Ebert and Carina Chocano separately compared this movie to The Godfather, and they’re right in that both movies are about the second generation of gangsters and not the first, a typical focus point in post-classical gangster films. It’s been said about The Godfather that it’s about the sons or the daughters paying for their father’s sins, despite of how much the parents try to shield them, or how much the children try to legitimize themselves, and no matter how much the latter presents themselves as products of nurture, or society, instead of nature, of family. In Eastern Promises, however, the children ‘stray from the path I’ve set out for [them],’ as the patriarch Semyon says in dismay. The half-English Anna Ivanova (Naomi Watts) will not adopt her Uncle Stefan’s negrophobic, anti-miscegenation viewpoints. Semyon’s son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel) is a hotheaded SPOILER, closeted homosexual, doing away with those who whisper that truth. Kirill’s driver/undertaker Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) is a clawing his way to the top of the Russian mafia. The movie never lets us conclusively know how their different rebellions will help or hinder their characters, especially with Nikolai and his double life.
Speaking of double lives, the homoeroticism in the film, as shown specifically through Nikolai makes me think that Kirill couldn’t help it. Cronenberg depicts the gangster lifestyle itself as homoerotic. Kirill orders Nikolai to have sex with one of the prostitutes to prove his heterosexuality. The elders examine Nikolai and his symbolic tattoos, standing in front of them wearing only his underwear. The bathhouse death match. Kirill and Nikolai’s faces so close to each other, reminiscent of Viggo’s closeness to William Hurt in Cronenberg’s earlier work A History of Violence. I wonder if Nikolai is bisexual, or using himself to get to Kirill’s confidence, or if it’s compassion bursting through the hard surface he has to keep up for his job. It’s a fragmented interpretation of the character that doesn’t answer all the questions, and that actually makes him a more memorable character.
Yes, the movie had rapes and babies and a death match at the bathhouse, but there’s something anticlimactic about the movie, especially in the film’s denouement. And most of this is gonna sound like I’m shitting on Kirill/Vincent Cassel here. As a character who’s behind Semyon’s shadow, he’d be resentful and would hesitate in acting out his father’s orders. What does it say about me if I’m unconvinced that Kirill wouldn’t readily do to the baby Christine what Semyon has told him to do, or that I expected Christine to have a harder time than she did? Or that the sexual tension between Nikolai and Anna should have been left alone where it was before the last scenes? Or that I expected absolute evil from Nikolai?
I am inclined to compare the cinematography of “Dersu Uzala” to a Hiroshige, but the film’s visuals come into their own, original being. Hiroshige would show us blossoms bordering the view, while other artwork and films about forests would show the vertical properties of the trees, blocking the sunlight. There are not a lot of animals shown in this film’s version of Siberia, but the two or three that show up do end up being like characters instead of just props.
Kurosawa is hailed as a master in black and white cinematography, but I am probably one of the daft ones who think that colour is his best friend. I like the films he made in the 70’s and 80’s compared to the dusty look his classic material. In this film, the trees crowd in and cozy up on the Russian surveyors and their eponymous Mongolian guide, although there is enough sunlight to make the footmen feel safe, for a while.
That’s the reason why I like this film – I don’t mind the good samurai versus bad samurai, but I love that nature can turn from pretty backdrop to harsh villain. The exact opposite of the crowded forests is the barren lakeside during winter, the object of Arseniev’s expedition. Getting lost from their colleagues, Dersu warns Arseniev to work fast and cut the grass before the sun disappears. The sunset looks just as menacing as the one that takes over the frame in “Lawrence of Arabia.” Arseniev faints a few times from exhaustion and cold and Dersu is there to save his life.
“Dersu Uzala” is not just a study of nature. The titular character is a great addition to great characters of colour in film, being more stern than your average Uncle Tom. It is also a study in friendship, and how friendships are more about the circumstances that begin them instead of the two parties involved. Just like friendships it is how some people are only fit for certain environments and certain times, and how the hostile forests and the urban order can do to those people.
Christopher Plummer Double Bill
(Always been partial to model-actresses. ph. secret)
During the first half of “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”, I asked myself “Where was this going,” “When is it gonna end.” Terry Gilliam films promise you a lot of fantasy but the first half shows in the aughties’ version of grunge – alcohol, London traffic, tattered costumes, all three revolving around the travelling circus, especially the immortal Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), the film’s troubled storyteller. He has lost control of his show, the world has lost interest in his stories. Add Tony (Heath Ledger) to the mix and his presence and suggestions add conflict to the other members of the cast-in-wagon (Andrew Garfield, for instance).
A part of ‘Parnassus” also feels like a perfume ad, Valentina (Lily Cole) floating in the air, her dress swirling, her arms reaching towards the oversized flowers and high-heeled shoes while Imaginarium Tony (Johnny Depp) dances with an elderly woman. That doesn’t mean I have a prejudice against this former model, it’s the other way around. Nonetheless, the occasionally frustrating glimpses in the imaginarium are a bit distant and CGI for me to look at it with wonder.
The Imaginarium Tonys (also Jude Law and Colin Farrell), despite being a part of the fantasy world, actually grounds the film. The most emotionally gripping parts of the film are when Tonys personal troubles follow him in the imaginarium. It would have been nice to see Heath in these parts because they’re the meatier part of the role, but the incorporation of four actors in one role is well done.
The film ends with Plummer being another beggar, the fantasy world gone. His old friend Percy (Verne Toryer, not a cameo) wonders if the beggar is the Great Doctor Parnassus. Is greatness compromised when life drags on?
I also caught “The Last Station” this past Wednesday, which was a little more even. The peaks and valleys of each character are charted in placed where you will know to find them. If I did not end up watching the film, it would be immortalised in my mind as the one where Countess Sofya Tolstaya (Helen Mirren) breaks plates and shoots a gun as shown in the trailers. It’s more than that, but there’s still some genre conventions within it. Got a problem with melodrama?
I wanna talk about the nuances in James MacAvoy as Valentin Bulgakov, the way MacAvoy is the best male crier in the industry, this time keeping himself still yet making the moment raw. How the film does not take his away from a shot when he goes from one emotion to another. How the other characters does not allow him to evolve from a spineless intellectual. How a beard does not make a man.
Helen Mirren also makes me doubt my choice as putting Gabourey Sidibe as my Oscar choice, although Sidibe is still number one. Sofya makes the characters around her listen to every word without making it look wink-wink nudge-nudge. You sympathize with her as extremist Tolstoyans like Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) try to take away her influence from her husband. Yet her last request to her husband to come home with her still sounds duplicitous.
We see the film in Bulgakov’s eyes. However, as much as all these characters tugging at each other is sometimes fun to watch, but I still wonder who is the centre in all this intrigue.