Stardust in Chaos

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Andrei Tarkovsky is one of the most influential and significant artists of twentieth century cinema. He was uncompromising with his art, which he used to explore fundamental questions about human existence, the mosaic of reality pieced together by memories,dreams, and lived experiences. Modern art, he believed, had become a consumerist and prosthetic mass culture, setting up artificial barriers in humanity’s search for meaning.

It was only natural that his most widely received work, Solaris (1972), was a response to Stanly Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968) which he found as ‘cold and sterile’. Both works are about human forays into the space and contact with alien intelligences that interact and transform human consciousness. Although both works offer insightful perspectives on where humanity is headed and where it is coming from, the approaches are radically different. Kubrick and Tarkovsky use long sequences to draw us into a subjective reality; however what each of these artists shows us, or not, is reflective of their outlook and philosophy. One can see the differences coming out in two of the most widely discussed sequences, which are thematically almost similar.

The star gate sequence in 2001

The highway sequence in Solaris

In 2001 an astronaut is pulled into a vortex of light while he is on his way to investigate an alien black monolith, that has been found in orbit around Jupiter, revealed as one among the possibly many alien signposts keeping track of the advancement of human civilization. He races at a presumably great speed across space and time. The sequence is hallucinatory and psychedelic, haunting in a very visceral manner. In Solaris, we see an aged cosmonaut, who has been certified crazy after his expeditions over the Solaris Ocean ( In Solaris humanity has come in contact with Solaris, a body of water deep in space, with cognitive abilities on its own) driving languidly through a modern city's streets. We see him in a very reflective mood, oblivious to the traffic and his son who demands attention. The music, keeping in line with Tarkovsky’s aesthetics is just the city whispering in its ambient sound. It is set firmly on earth, inside a ‘living’ and ‘breathing’ city (the establishing shot at the end shouts this out to us) unlike the other that is set in the outer space, closer to Jupiter. The latter is not a visually arresting sequence but one that is absolutely unforgiving, ethereal and cerebral at the same time. If one were to consider the timing of the two sequences within their respective narratives, while the star gate sequence is a prelude to the grand ending, the other one, comes in the beginning as an indicator of the meditative rumination that the work is. This is the point of departure between Tarkovsky and Kubrick. Both films are journeys of humanity, to find answers for questions it is not sure about, but Tarkovsky rejects Kubrick’s and almost all of western science fiction’s narratives of technological advancement as 'progress' and focuses his attention on the questions that humanity should ask itself about itself. He rejects that 'what' for the 'why' and turns his lens inwards.

Solaris tells the story of Kris Kelvin, a psychologist who is sent to the Solaris space station to determine whether the mission is worth continuing or not. For a film about space exploration, Tarkovsky does not show us the journey and the space is just a brief visitor coming in for one scene that serves as an establishing shot. Upon reaching the station Kris finds out that the Solaris Ocean responds to the X-ray probes from the space station and in turn probes the consciousness of its inmates as a response. It also has the ability to materialize what it finds in these subconscious depths. Kris is confronted with a materialization of his long lost wife Khari who had killed herself. Solaris is indeed a great work of art for its depth and visionary outlook on the fragility of human condition ( material and emotional) that it is almost childish to try and appreciate or decipher it in words. Tarkovsky creates environments and spaces that are inhabited by his subjects, human and otherwise. The distinctions between his subjects and their environments are obscured, the camera is unattached and what we see are characters and objects entering into the frame and leaving it when their time is due. The opening scene of Solaris has Kris taking a walk through his father’s yard. The scene opens with close-ups of nature, continuing onto Kris, standing, observing. The camera gives him as much attention as reeds dancing underwater or leaves wet with the morning dew. We see him framed as a part of all the vegetation around him which is just as much a character as himself.

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The hubris of a space station that Kris encounters is also framed in a similar way, albeit internally. The confined spaces and the disorganization of the space station that we see Kris maneuvering through is illustrative of the emotional and physical violence the station has witnessed.

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Kris brings with him objects he find emotional value in, evocative ones, associated with his cherished memories and unfulfilled desires. Tarkovsky’s cinema is called cinema of time as anyone who would have had their share of him would vouch for. His films do not follow time as chronological successions of the present. As mentioned earlier, he creates environments where the visible and not visible are equally important, where the past is preserved and co-exists with the passing present through memories contained in objects, through actions that are suggestive, through words that are not spoken, pauses and the lingering camera.

“We don't want to conquer space at all. We want to expand Earth endlessly. We don't want other worlds; we want a mirror. We seek contact and will never achieve it. We are in the foolish position of a man striving for a goal he fears and doesn't want. Man needs man!”

As much as Khari’s materialization is about unfulfilled desires it also raises questions about identity and the nature of existence. She is not just a materialization of Kris’s dead wife; she is self conscious, senses pain, is insecure and has her memories. However the scientists at the space station have found out that her body is not made of ‘living’ matter and they decide to call them guests. Tarkovsky is asking humanity to rethink its dominant conceptions about being human and being alive, about our existence in a vast and unforgiving space that couldn’t care less. It’s not just prophetic and profound but also deeply revealing of our inherent biases when one of the scientists exclaims: “We don't want to conquer space at all. We want to expand Earth endlessly. We don't want other worlds; we want a mirror. We seek contact and will never achieve it. We are in the foolish position of a man striving for a goal he fears and doesn't want. Man needs man!” Solaris is literally reflective, with scenes of Khari reconciling with her reflections in apperceptive acts. Her memories are incomplete and there are blank spaces, being a manifestation of Kris’s desire, she can only be his idea of her while being her own being.

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Kris is driven deeper into the labyrinth of his guilt after the second manifestation of Khari suicides thinking that he doesn’t love her enough. She becomes human enough to ponder about the worthlessness of her insignificance. The human fixation with redemption is another theme Solaris explores in depth. In the opening scenes at Kris’s dad’s house we see his father trying to bond with his son, trying to make up for lost time. The other father-son pair in this scene, Kris’s dad’s ex-cosmonaut friend and his son is a completely different pair. While wondering whether humanity will decipher the meaning of its only alien contact and absolve itself of its own solitude the cosmonaut completely ignores his son, ( this can be seen in the traffic sequence listed earlier) the simple irony of human existence. It is no wonder that Tarkovsky and Bergman had the highest regard for each other. Both were masters of their craft who used the cinematic medium to raise questions and shout at the silence of the universe. If one were to take quite a literal interpretation, the last scene of Solaris is an assertion of the same. Although Solaris was accepted by audiences widely, Tarkovsky was not happy with his work. He did not believe that he transcended the genre of Science Fiction and made a film that stands out on its own. This, he achieved with Stalker (1979) seven years later. Stalker is set in a bleak future, somber and gritty, where a person, referred to as the Stalker, guides two people, Writer, who wants inspiration to become a genius and Scientist, who claims he wants to win the Nobel prize, to a place called the Zone, believed to have had alien contact and containing a room where one’s innermost wishes come true.

Stalker is lyrical, transcendental and reflective, exploring the nature of desires, creativity and human existence, truly transcending genres. The Zone is a metaphor and a reality. Tarkovsky has outrightly rejected claims of using and including any kind of symbolism in his works. Talking about Zerkalo (1975) he said “I had the greatest difficulty in explaining to people that there is no hidden, coded meaning in the film, nothing beyond the desire to tell the truth. Often my assurances provoked incredulity and even disappointment. Some people evidently wanted more: they needed arcane symbols, secret meanings. They were not accustomed to the poetics of the cinema image. And I was disappointed in my turn. Such was the reaction of the opposition party in the audience; as for my own colleagues, they launched a bitter attack on me, accusing me of immodesty, of wanting to make a film about myself.” In the same vein Stalker is visual poetry it talks to us through images and not symbols. It was mentioned earlier that Tarkovsky’s cinema is cinema of time; it edges us out of our own lives, taking us into the zone of our own thoughts and desires. The Zone in Stalker is not a wish granting machine. The path to the Zone is fraught with traps, but they are not engineered contraptions, they are situations and emotions and phases that each individual has to go through, the struggle is entirely internal and human. There is a dog who is wandering throughout the Zone, wild and free, un mindful of its traps and dangers. Not everyone who takes the journey reaches the Zone safely and at the end of the journey you are not rewarded, the Zones shows you who you truly are and gives you what you truly desire, not what you think you want then and there. The helplessness and naivety of the human condition couldn’t be less poetically illustrated.

Although Solaris was accepted by audiences widely, Tarkovsky was not happy with his work. He did not beleive that he transcended the sci fi genre and made a film that stands out on its own.

The quest for truth and the object of desire in Stalker involve encounters with radical freedom. Stalker does not take his companions through the easy route and is almost unsure about the path as the others. He is not a prophetic figure who abides by revelations or divine grace. He has his own code of conduct that has been proven to work. He is a human being with all his fragility and doubts. There is a moment in the movie, when the Writer, after an argument with Stalker decides to go straight, through the easy path, and he is stopped meters away from the room by someone’s command. We don’t know if Writer imagined the same to not confront the reality of his desires or whether that was the Zone translating his mental blocks of insecurity at his own creative expression, such is life too.

As Žižek points out in his Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, when our desires materialize they become nightmares. Confronted with an absolute reality of wish fulfillment the desperately hopeless are drained of their emotional selves too. Tarkovsky places human desires and the thirst for knowledge (or truth) within the context of mortality. It is no wonder that the characters of Solaris and Stalker make references to Foust and the travelling Jew while confined to the solitude of space and the seclusion of the Zone. The ‘spirituality’ that permeates Tarkovsky’s work is deeply existential and transcendental demanding an awareness of the transience of our time here, on this world. As Carl Sagan put it, in no less beautiful words, the understanding that everything we see around is stardust in chaos suspended in a sunbeam, the universe trying to understand itself.