Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"The Meaning of Life" (Monty Python, 1983) -- Solid Swan Song

The legendary Monty Python troupe exited the scene with a bang in this excellent movie. During their heyday in the late '60s/early '70s, this group of five brilliant comedians/thinkers established themselves as the world's premier entertainers. Sort of similar how the Beatles did in the '60s. After disbanding in 1974, the troupe continued their sporadic existence by occasionally banding together for an odd movie project. This movie was their fourth, and the last one, and, like the Beatles with their swan song "Abbey Road", the Pythons offered some of their best material as the final adieu.

Make no mistake -- this is mature Python, very jaded, very cynical. Still, the production in this movie rocks, and the guys never had more lavish scenography to play with. Of particular value is their Zulu War episode, which manages to create a larger-than-life impression.

Overall, a great movie containing some exquisite screenplay, comedic writing and acting, as well as a biting satire. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"Ikiru" (Akira Kurosawa, 1952) -- Insufferable

A squandered opportunity, Ikiru (To Live) is a shameful piece of otherwise mostly fascinating Japanese cinema from the '50s/early '60s. I've seen numerous obscure Japanese movies from that period that outshine, in every respect, this alleged 'masterpiece' by the largely overrated Akira Kurosawa. The lack of any subtlety in the movie script, as well as in the overly naive and comical overacting, is what makes this movie completely insufferable.

Spare yourself the agony and watch (and re-watch) Ozu's brilliant "Tokyo Story" (1953) instead.

Monday, October 20, 2008

"Solaris" (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972) -- Divine

Now we're entering the divine territory occupied by one and only Anrei Tarkovsky. This is the land of cinematic masterpieces, so everyone please bow before the God of cinematography.

But seriously, this movie is absolutely fantastic. At the same time, interestingly enough, it could be viewed as Tarkovsky's weakest effort. I suggest therefore that we first get all the perceived weaknesses of this movie out in the open, so that we could proceed to focus on what really makes this movie such a divine experience.

Essentially, Tarkovsky made only seven feature length movies in his career. Four of these movies are in the absolute top echelon of world cinematography, namely Rublyov (1966), Solaris (1972), Stalker (1979) and Sacrifice (1986). These four are actually on my Top 10 best movies of all time list. Of the four, Solaris is, without a trace of a doubt, Tarkovsky's less successful movie. There are many weaknesses plaguing this movie, some of which I'd like to explore here.

Solaris came into existence after long and arduous struggle Tarkovsky was forced to go through after his previous movie (Rublyov, 1966) got banned in the Soviet Russia. The period from 1966 to 1970 was a dry period for Andrei, since all his attempts to secure the approval and funding for his movie projects were summarily dismissed. He really wanted to make a soul searching movie that would explore issues, themes and concepts close to Andrei's heart, but the authorities didn't have any sympathies for these ideas, labeling them as being too 'personalist/obscurantist'.

These were, according to some anecdotal sources, Tarkovsky's 'hungry' years. Natalya Bondarchuk in a recent filmed interview recalls an incident when Andrei was invited to a sit down dinner, and how a piece of food accidentally fell out of his plate and onto the floor and how he quickly picked it up and placed in back on his plate and ate it.

In desperation, Tarkovsky reached out for a more 'objective' source, such as a very popular sci-fi novel Solaris by Stanislav Lem. He proposed to adopt that novel and turn it into a feature length movie. His hunch was proven to be correct, as the authorities not only approved the project, but also laced it with what was at that time an unusually decent budget. Rumor has it that Soviets wanted to offer an answer to Kubrick's famous quintesentia sci-fi (2001: A Space Odyssey, filmed in 1968), and decided to fund Tarkovsky's project on the grounds that it will be Eastern Bloc's answer to the Western cinematographic triumph.

Elated, Tarkovsky plunged into rewriting the script to his own liking. Originally, Andrei wanted the majority of events to occur on Earth. But, upon learning about these plans, Stanislav Lem, the original writer, flipped and issued a very caustic letter threatening to revoke his approval for the movie adaptation of his novel. This allegedly brought Tarkovsky to tears, as he confided in his crew members how the only thing he is capable of bringing them are misfortunes. Andrei started contemplating abandoning the project altogether, but later on reneged under the pressure and agreed to stay close to the original source.

So we see that right from the outset, this movie was plagued by bad blood. Add to that the fact that Tarkovsky never cared for science fiction to begin with, and it may be easier to understand why is this movie riddled with half-baked and half-assed attitudes.

To exacerbate things even further, Tarkovsky, being a deep humanitarian, didn't care for machinery either, especially not for high-tech machinery. This resulted in a sci-fi movie that is supposedly taking place in the future where machines are nowhere to be seen. A major let down for any sci-fi fan, who typically thrive on high-tech gadgetry and who tend to appreciate machines more than they appreciate the company of fellow human beings (of course, I'm talking about sci-fi geeks here).

And so Solaris is this weird and odd sci-fi movie that does not cater to the sci-fi crowds. Most all lovers of the sci-fi genre thus typically get infuriated upon attempting to watch this movie. Where is the gadgetry, where is the shiny machinery outperforming human protagonists with its superior Artificial Intelligence? Tarkovsky refused to cater to these impulses. No wonder, because he had already condemned Kubrick's masterpiece as not being good, as missing the boat.

Tarkovsky had merely used the basic premise of the Solaris novel as an excuse, as a Trojan horse, that would let him imbue his own content into its empty shell. Thus the results of this sleigh of hand, out of necessity, ended up being half-baked. Had Tarkovsky been given free hands to make the movie he really wanted to, the ideas and states of mind expressed in this movie would have been articulated in a much more superior fashion.

The disdain Tarkovsky felt for the sci-fi genre is clearly visible in the movie itself. The most gorgeously shot scenes are either located on Earth, or in the library on the space station (the place where no high-tech gadgetry seems to be allowed). Any scene where there is no machinery visible in sight was done lovingly, with painstaking attention to even the slightest minutia. In contrast, all the scenes where Andrei was forced to film shiny metallic machinery have turned out cold, detached, non-riveting. Tarkovsky simply didn't know how to approach the artificial, as he is always and forever an artist who is only dedicated to the alive, to the organic, to moving, breathing processes.

But that was also by design. He really wanted to demonstrate how terrible love for the machinery is. Engineering, science, all these cerebral, intellectual activities always bring heartache and disaster. One needs to probe deeper, into the heart of the matter, and stay there, as that's where creative juices start flowing and the inhibitions and anxieties evaporate.

On to the brilliant aspects of this movie. Let's see -- where does one begin? Have you ever wondered how would it feel to experience heaven? Now you can experience it, if only you allow yourself to watch this movie very attentively. There are many scenes in Solaris that very clearly illustrate how would it feel to experience heaven. There are also many scenes in this movie that prepare you and lead you directly to this experience. This is something that you only get in the best of Tarkovsky's movies, and nowhere else. Once you actually go through this experience, you will understand why do we claim that Tarkovsky is the God of cinematography.

Also, have you ever wondered what place would this experience of heaven play in your life? Now, after watching this movie, you will know the answer to this question, providing that you wholeheartedly immerse yourself in it. Some protagonists in Solaris actually do go through the direct experience of how does it feel in heaven, they take you, the viewer, with them, and then emerge at the other end, richer in seeing where does that remarkable experience fit in their lives. You will be richer too, once you emerge at the other end of this fantastic movie.

Solaris will take you through the entire gamut of all these fundamental human experiences. There is a definitive journey through the purgatory portrayed in this movie. Also, a journey through hell is in there as well.

Finally, it shows you the irrevocable conflict between the Earth and the otherworldly realms (i.e. heaven, hell, purgatory, alien worlds, etc.) The strongest point of Solaris lies precisely in demonstrating how to reconcile these irreconcilable differences. The movie shows you how, teaches you how. Pay closer attention to the recurring imagery of fire burning in the snow. These are two irreconcilable principles -- fire and ice. You can't have both of these at the same time. Yet, they coexist peacefully and harmoniously. Not only that, but you realize, while watching this movie, how bewitching this experience (i.e. the realization that irreconcilable differences are actually harmonious), really is. Such experience has the power to propel you onto the higher ground of consciousness. This is what Tarkovsky was aiming at -- he wanted to lead you toward transcendence.

What is Tarkovsky expecting you to transcend while watching Solaris? First of all, there is the quest for immortality that we're all eager to achieve. Once found, immortality frightens us. The movie shows how to transcend our foolish quest for the Holly Grail, for immortality, and how to lovingly embrace our gift of mortality.

The story line is simple: seeking contact with unknown, hypothetical alien living beings, humans organize expeditions to travel into the bottomless space. Once there, the explorers establish a space station orbiting a mysterious planet named Solaris. But there seems to be something irrational and inexplicable about the observed phenomena on the surface of that planet's ocean. Scientists attempt to probe the mystery, but even after 20 years of research, are nowhere closer to cracking the secrets of the unknown planet.

The movie begins on Earth, where psychologist Kris Kelvin is getting ready to travel to the remote space station orbiting Solaris. His mandate is to prepare the report outlining whether the mission to attempt to establish the first contact with hypothetical alien beings should be continued, or aborted. Reportedly, strange things have been happening aboard the space station, and Kris is planning to investigate in person.

In the movie, the trip to the space station is presented as a thinly veiled excuse to actually explore the otherworldly realms of alien space, hell, purgatory, and heaven. We're talking many of the haughty concepts and myths that have been occupying humanity since the dawn of time. Is there such a place as hell, heaven, purgatory, deep alien space? Kris Kelvin gets to experience all those myths. The brilliant thing about this movie is that, thanks to the magical cinematographic powers of Andrei Tarkovsky, Kris gets to take us, the viewers, with him.

If you get lucky to experience these secretive realms while watching Solaris, you will instantly realize that heaven etc. is not some place, or some concept, idea, or a feeling. It's merely a state of mind. This realization is brilliantly brought forward in this movie. You can, indeed, attain that state of mind where you will find yourself in heaven, in hell, in purgatory, etc. How do you get there? Simple -- you need to let go and learn to transcend. And the movie prepares the groundwork for you and teaches you how to do precisely that.

One of the strongest didactic effects this movie offers is in demonstrating how terrifying the much coveted concept of immortality actually is. Once you are able to grasp that, you are on your path to transcending your own limitations, which immediately opens the doors to higher realization. Which is -- reconciling irreconcilable opposites. Such as transience and eternity, familiarity and strangeness.

It is one thing to talk about these concepts (i.e. opposites), but quite another thing to experience them in person through the bewitching medium of Tarkovsky's cinematography.

The skillful means being employed in this movie spring form the half-baked idea culled from the original novel, namely that planet Solaris and its all encompassing ocean have some irrational and inexplicable powers to read the minds of the human visitors who are orbiting the planet. Once read, these thoughts can be used as 'blueprints' for Solaris to manufacture replicas, or clones, or copies and present them to the original thinker in all their materialized concreteness.

Now this idea is laughably flakey (especially the faux scientific mumbo-jumbo about neutrinos that are being stabilized by the planet's force field, and are thus being used as the building materials for the replicas). It's utter garbage, of course, and Tarkovsky is obviously disgusted by the 'dazzle the unwashed masses' stunt that Stanislav Lem attempted to pull, but he nevertheless plays along and uses this idiotic lore to slip in his presentation zeroing in on the mysteries of human heart, human soul, human innermost wishes.

Thus Kelvin's long dead wife, Hari, materializes in his room on the space station. Frightened, Kris decides to eliminate her by launching her into the space. But she returns. Gradually, he learns that the apparition of his dead wife is indestructible. In other words, she is immortal.

But instead of rejoicing, this fact terrifies both Kris and the replica of his dead wife. They realize, all the way down to the deepest core of their being, what a terrible arrangement immortality is.

It is at that point that the true lecture, the true realization begins to unravel. The couple now goes through hell. They experience utter loneliness, the futility of attempting to stay together, or to drift apart. They then claw their way out of the hell-hole by entering the purgatory where they face the other two humans on the orbiting station (cyberneticist Snaut and astro-biologist Sartorius). They also experience states of heaven, when they realize the importance of possessing human heart, the capacity to love unconditionally. The utterly fantastic thing about this movie is that we, as viewers, also get to experience all these states.

And as if that is not a monumental achievement in itself, another stupendous achievement comes to mind: it is well known in the anals of the history of human art that, while the depictions of hell abound throughout various civilizations, depictions of heaven, that extremely desirable place, are almost nowhere to be found. Many world religions have attempted to illustrate various stories and parables using techniques such a fresco painting, mosaics, etc. Still, most of these pictorial representations talk either about the prophets and saints as they led their lives here on Earth, or about some punishment that awaits the infidels. It gets extremely difficult to find any depiction, in any culture or religion, which would talk about the rewards that the faithful reap in heaven, or in paradise.

As far as I know, Tarkovsky is one of the rarest souls who did attempt to conjure up visions of heaven. That is no small feat, especially in the light of how scarce such attempts have been throughout history. Truly, Tarkovsky seems to be a remarkable genius.

There is just too many brilliant details in this long movie for us to carefully examine here. If we were to do so, this short essay would turn into a hefty book. There is hardly a shot in this movie that is not worth careful examination. Suffice it to say that the author had made sure that every detail gets plenty of attention. Every word uttered in this movie has its proper, carefully weighed place. The selection of actors is amazingly well aligned with the message Tarkovsky was trying to get across. The acting itself is also superb. So is the movie score, as well as all the sounds that make their appearance in this movie.

A lot of people tend to complain about the lack of explanation in movies such as this one. These are the people who seem stuck at the cerebral level, and who therefore view everything as an intellectual challenge. A movie, for them, is like a puzzle, a rebus they need to solve. If the rebus is unsolvable (such as in the case of Solaris), such people feel betrayed and will then complain bitterly.

Don't allow yourself to be caught in that ruinous game. There is no rebus to solve in this move, and there are no intellectual explanations that would satisfy your cerebral curiosity. The move goes much deeper, into the realm of abstract concepts and profound, overarching feelings. You must allow yourself to lower your intellectual guard and to surrender to the sweeping movement of this masterpiece. Only then will you be able to experience its greatness.

Let's now go down the list of my criteria (I claim these to be the qualities that make or break a movie); here is my score for Solaris:
  1. Optical impact: breathtakingly brilliant. Just the opening sequence alone, where the underwater plants are gently swaying in the current, is worth the price of the admission. The sharpness and the level of detail in almost every shot in this movie is superb. There are some instances of degradation, mostly in the black-and-white sequences, which make this movie a lesser optical masterpiece than some other movies by Tarkovsky, but overall, this movie is still optically head and shoulders above anything ever produced by any other director.
  2. Visual impact: superb. Camera work is stunningly beautiful. You could frame-freeze many shots, print them, and hang the prints in any museum. The pacing, the perfect camera angles, all these details amount to a very hypnotic viewing experience. Again, this is still sub par when compared to Stalker (1979), which is simply the out-of-this-world superior movie.
  3. Audio impact: excellent companion to the brooding, introspective mood of this movie. The choice of Bach for the underlying music score reinforces the timeless feel of this movie.
  4. Timing: so perfect that it leaves me speechless. Each and every scene is timed perfectly, to the millisecond. I couldn't find even a single instance of a scene in this movie where I felt that it drags on, or that it was cut too short.
  5. Acting: the casting is absolutely impeccable, as well as the delivery. Even the smallest episodic appearances of the numerous anonymous actors in the black-and-white briefing televised session is brilliantly cast and acted.
  6. Storyline: adapted from Lem's novel, the storyline takes smart liberties and subverts the overly scientific bent, pulling the story more toward the spiritual and religious journey (to which the original author had objected bitterly).
  7. Underlying philosophy: brilliantly unique. This is pure Tarkovsky, one of the greatest thinkers in history, going all the way into an unexplored territory. In this movie, he takes us further and deeper than pretty much any Western thinker ever did. Granted, this journey is not the easiest thing to follow, especially if you are a novice at exploring philosophical twists and turns, but it's definitely worth investing one's time in looking at these things with one's undivided attention. The payback for doing that is undeniably huge.
The true star that outshines everyone else in this movie is young Natalya Bondarchuk, whose superb acting is out of this world. With a few subdued gestures she was capable to create extremely deep feelings of longing, desperation and reconciliation. Other actors are also incredible, but Natalya truly outshines them all in this movie.

One final remark -- this movie must be watched in high definition, on a large screen. The beauty of the scenery is breathtaking, the camera work and the photography are stunning. Optically speaking, one of the best movies ever made.