Former People Film Podcast #1 – Tarkovsky’s Solaris

Transcription by P.H. Higgisn

Blog link: https://formerpeople.wordpress.com/2013/12/25/former-people-film-podcast-1-tarkovskys-solaris/

[Intro]

00:41 

Steven Michalkow
Hello everyone, and welcome to the first movie podcast co-production between Former People and Diet Soap. I am one of your hosts today, Steven Michalkow, one of the co-founding editors of Former People; I will be joined today by my co-editors C Derick Varn and Douglas Lain, and our first episode will be concerning Tarkovsky’s Solaris. A film somewhere between Science Fiction, Religion, and everything else in-between you’d like. So, let’s get started…

01:10 

Douglas Lain
Well, I’m reminded of an exchange between Tarkovsky and Stan Brakhage at the Telluride Film Festival in ’83. Well, Tarkovsky was made to endure a Stan Brakhage showing – he showed some of his films at the Festival – and Tarkovsky just couldn’t keep quiet during it. He just kept railing against what he was watching.

01:35 

S
Well, interestingly enough, the idea of Tarkovsky at a film festival, let alone Telluride already baffles the mind… So, to have him encounter Stan Brakhage, and then to sit through the movies saying things…

01:56 

D
But apparently, he didn’t just start talking during the films and rail against them, he kept talking about them for several days after. He couldn’t get them out of his mind. They went against what he was about in a lot of ways. The reason I wanted to bring it up is because I thought… Tarkovsky and Brakhage were… are considered these somewhat avant-garde filmmakers or experimental filmmakers, but Brakhage is much more so. And I thought that Tarkovsky’s reaction to Brakhage was telling when it came to trying to understand Tarkovsky’s films. At one point, apparently, according to Brakhage anyway, he kept saying things like “innovation is dangerous! You can’t just innovate the way you make a film willy-nilly like this! This is destructive!”

02:57 

C Derick Varn
Right. There’s a limit to how many colors you can put on a camera.

03:07 

D
Right. “It hurts the eye! Too many cuts!” that kind of thing.

03:09 

C
Too many cuts, too many colors.

03:11 

S
That is an interesting issue in placing what Solaris is as a film. Nominally speaking, it’s a Science Fiction/Arthouse film, yet it definitely feels less speculative in a weird way than its source material.

03:35 

D
Right. Well, you know, that was intentional.

S
Yup.

D
I’ve got some quotes from Tarkovsky about how he doesn’t like Science Fiction very much and he didn’t want to make a Science Fiction film. In fact, it’s much more Science Fictional than he would’ve wanted it to be.

03:55 

S
I remember hearing from him – and it may even be related – when he was thinking back on the movie he even said something as extreme to the effect of, that he thought all the actors were terrible or didn’t like most of them, except the actress who played Hari! Which maybe reveals why she’s the focus of the attention of the film. Kelvin is almost just a vehicle more than…

04:27 

D
He’s the Keanu Reeves of the film! So, we started off with just saying that Tarkovsky didn’t want to make a Science Fiction film originally; he saw it as exploring what it means to be human more than technology or what would be new. Although, I don’t know if those things are as opposed as Tarkovsky seems to think they are. But I’ve got this webpage up called “nostalghia.com”, which [Nostalghia] is one of his films, and there are some quotes from Andrei Tarkovsky on Solaris, and one of the things he says is that he saw the film as being about morality as much as it is about progress. And about what it would mean to make a new morality in the face of technological progress.

05:29 

S
It is interesting that he would say that. Especially when, in re-watching Solaris, the anti-“scientific,” [or] “technological” message isn’t even subtle, it’s blatant. Characters literally go around talking about a sense of inhumanity, about science, technology, and its inability to communicate certain notions of humanity. What was interesting about it – this might be a minor detail but maybe it is related – but when I was re-watching the film, as they’re going through the space station what’s interesting about it is how cluttered and dirty it feels. It’s almost like… in the same way you would imagine going into the badly kept apartment of a hipster. There’re tables on the floor, there’s little bits of this, that, and the other… But after you mentioned it, looking back I thought to myself like “Yes, it’s all technological bits,” sort of just scattered around and which leaves this sense of disheveled-ness. It’s an obvious contrast to both the beginning and the end of the film where the homestead of Kelvin’s … father, I believe? … Or maybe, I think it’s his own home as well. The flowing, for lack of a better term, reeds in the water; and water itself being a significant image in the film. What ties all this together… I would say, in an odd sense, instead of making a Science Fiction film, he made a religious film.

07:09 

D
Yeah, that I think is right. But there are some weird parts to the film that always struck me. There’s two things about Solaris that stay with me: first of all, there’s Hari and the actress who played her, and how compelling she is to watch and how beautiful she is, and how disturbing she is in the film; but before that, before he gets to the station, what I remember most is this long sequence of him just driving.

07:46 

S
Yes!

07:48 

D
On the interstate, I guess. Or on the…

07:51 

S
It’s a portion of Japan actually, where that was filmed. And what’s surprising – and maybe this is apocryphal, and I read it somewhere – that comes at about… would you say that comes at about 20 to 30 minutes into the film? 

D
Yeah

08:07 

S
What’s interesting, I think Tarkovsky said this, I hope it’s true – he says he almost intentionally makes the first 20 or 30 minutes of his films boring so that people will get frustrated and leave, and then at that 20 minute mark he does something very interesting for the sake of those who had the will to stay through.

08:27 

D
Right. Well, I mean, that seems kind of perverse, don’t you think? Why do that? Why punish your audience that way?

08:37 

S
It’s interesting… Let’s start from the premise that, if this is a religious film, maybe – and I think his background sort of justifies this – if this is a religious film, he is probably a religious filmmaker and probably an ascetic. By that I mean an ascetic as you would imagine sort of like in a religious sense: you take on certain burdens willingly as a means of achieving some greater end or illumination, and I think that may very well be the case. Rather than have a pure… titillation, shall we say? Or a pleasuring of the senses… There’s a certain demand for work on the part of Tarkovsky and the viewer. In a way that sort of “boredom” section might be a trial by fire, in a ways. Like, if you pay attention and go through this, and you’re willing to sit through it, you are going to get something later. I guess… I’ll turn the question on you: why would anyone want to do that?

09:57 

D
Well, I guess… Your explanation is convincing, or relatively convincing to me. I think the other thing I just wonder about is if it has to do with his relationship to technology? I mean, he has said in an interview that he didn’t want… like this film is the anti-2001 [A Space Odyssey], in his mind. Because 2001 put a lot of emphasis on the technology and getting that right, it’s a technically detailed rendering of what it takes to do to pull off space travel, and just all the machinery, and also kind of the splendor of space travel is there, even though it’s kind of muted and boring at the same time, even in Kubrick’s film. But he didn’t want any part of that, and he said he wanted to film the process of getting to the space station the same way you would film the process of getting on a tram, it’s just something you did. It’s incidental. But then he has this long sequence of basically a tram! I mean, it’s not a tram, it’s a car, but it’s mundane. Even at that point, and certainly now, it’s not anything impressive or beautiful or interesting to watch; so, I thought that somehow he was maybe wanting to reinforce that the travel itself, and the technology behind it, was not to be emphasized, or focused on, it was not going to be glamorous… It was a trial, but not a wonder.

11:48 

S
That’s interesting to compare the two. I have sort of a long story of really thinking about this question. So, I encountered the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum back in the days when I was a UC student, and the issue of Tarkovsky and 2001 came up, and he was sort of opposed to this idea of setting them in contrast together, he thought that was a sort of cold war type of advertising for the film and didn’t mean much… But then I mentioned to him, to his face, the quote that you mentioned to me! And he sort of went “hm… okay…” and then sort of walked away and preferred not to have listened to me. But I think that does sort of raise some interesting questions there. Thinking back on 2001, 2001 in my mind is a film in which the central character in Mankind a such; and the narrative is about the progression of Man by means of this sort of metaphoric obelisk. You know, jumping forward in some form of human development. So, you know, you go from not knowing how to make tools, you learn how to make tools! So, obviously, everything between learning how to make the first tool and the encounter with another sentient life form is basically one step, you can compress it all. So, the progress, then, is from the Humanity… from one sort of existence to a higher form of existence, which, in my mind, makes the meaning of the Starchild pretty comprehensible in that narrative. So, if Tarkovsky is the anti-2001, what does that then mean? In a way, Stanley Kubrick’s film is, I would argue, fairly optimistic. Largely in the sense that there is almost teleological progress going on: man is evolving to a sort of higher and higher state. The mechanism by which he does that – sort of metaphorically represented by the obelisk and visualized on-screen – is science, is technology, it’s that ability to spawn a new form of existence through that mechanism. Whereas Tarkovsky, and I think rightly, says… It’s much more conservative in the sense that his conception of humanity is almost looking backwards, and it’s something which the film sort of suggests needs to be protected against this development that you may get through Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Now, whether or not he read 2001 that way I don’t know, but I do feel pretty comfortable with the idea that he was anxious about this development, and it sort of manifests itself… Again, the emphasis on Hari in [Tarkovsky’s] Solaris story, as opposed to Lem’s book which is more about the difficulty between communicating between two lifeforms and how it can develop in worrisome ways…

15:09 

D
Can I read something from this website that Tarkovsky says, that maybe illustrates or supports what you’re saying? He says, “I think the point is that humanity at each stage of its, let’s call it “technological,” development must fight against a kind of spiritual entropy, dispersion of moral values. On the one hand it tries to liberate itself from all morality, on the other — it tries to create one. This dilemma becomes the source, both in individual lives and in the life of society in general, of unusually dramatically charged situations. This dramatic liberation and at the same time the search for the spiritual ideal will last until humanity achieves a stage of development where it will be able to dedicate itself solely to moral problems. A stage at which man will attain absolute external freedom, let’s call it social freedom, where he won’t have to worry about his daily bread anymore, about a roof over his head, about securing his children’s future; where he will be able to go deep inside himself with the same energy he previously devoted to external freedom. For me what happened on the space station between Hari and Kelvin is simply a question of man’s relation toward his own conscience.”

16:25 

S
And I think that’s absolutely apparent in the film. This is an inward-looking story. So, in fact, it raises the whole question of what Hari really, in some sense, is. I think the film is fairly explicit that she is a manifestation of this reflection of Kelvin’s consciousness in some way, but it raises the question, like, why is this conscious entity – the planet Solaris – creating her? And what is Kelvin discovering from that? In the book you definitely get the sense the planet is attempting some form of communication; whereas, in Tarkovsky it’s almost like the planet is – it feels, at the very least – little more than a mechanism for him to have an internal conversation.

17:21 

D
Yeah, well, in Tarkovsky’s movie the planet reacts, I kind of think, in the same way [that] your unconscious mind might react to you. It brings forward things from your unconscious, but it doesn’t have… there’s no intentionality, no consciousness of its own, you know? It’s purely kind of an unconscious mechanism.

17:48

S
Yeah, I mean, I think that is fair. It’s not even just, like, what he thinks about when he thinks about his wife – it’s what he doesn’t know he’s thinking about his wife when he thinks about his wife!

18:03 

D
Yeah, exactly, it’s all the things that he won’t let himself think about her, or that he can’t think about his wife, as well. Brought into reality, but without any type of intentionality. If the planet was really trying to communicate it might analyze his unconscious and react like a therapist or a psychoanalyst or something, and bring him something that will help him understand, not only himself, but also this other consciousness, right? And be a way of communicating! An example of where that happens, not as great a film, but Contact: you have a character who kind of becomes a Starchild, or travels to visit an alien species – whether she travels physically or just mentally, it’s not clear, I don’t remember – but she ends up having to talk to her father, and it’s her father and her mental understanding of her father; but there’s also this alien presence that’s using her memories and feelings to talk to try to talk to her about something that has nothing to do with any of that. And that’s just not there at all in Solaris. And it makes Solaris, I think, a much better picture, a much better movie! Because something truly alien wouldn’t have the kind of agency that we think of as agency, maybe. You know? Or that’s how we conceive of the aliens: it’s almost without an agency.

19:34 

S
Yeah, it’s true. It’s almost as if… In the film there’s an acknowledgment of some form of consciousness on the planet, but it’s almost like an unknown object. Like, yes, we’ll nominally say it has consciousness, but we know so little about what it is it’s effectively just a phenomenon more than anything else. I think the closest that the planet does get to actually almost acting in that role of the therapist is the ending itself, right? I mean, it – even though I think the phrase is kind of childish, I’ll say to the listeners “spoiler alert” – the land formations are growing on the planet right when the time when Snaut – which is I think the Polish equivalent for “snow,” which is what the character’s name should have been – is caught speaking to Kris, and basically the question of whether or not to go back to Earth comes up. Kris goes into what appears, at first, to be the Earth, to his own home; an element of surrealism comes in, it’s raining inside the house and not outside; we fade away and its basically one of the islands on Solaris. So, it’s sort of like… one raises the question: did the planet, in some sense, give Kris a space to live in a sort of form of the Earth which could only exist in this particular place in space and time?

21:12 

D
Right, so I guess at the end… God turns out to be conscious after all, you know? There is a Father in heaven…

21:22 

S
Yeah, exactly. I mean, it’s no surprise to me, then, even though for a long time our object of interest – or at least Kris’s object of interest – is Hari; but at the end of the film Hari, in a multi-faceted, enigmatic kind of way, turns into his mother and the final image is him kneeling at the feet of his father. Again, with the image of rain, almost like the question of baptismal imagery, we’ve encountered the Holy Family, you know? Solaris is the Holy Spirit, you know? And then we’ve got a full-package deal!

22:08 

D
Yeah, you’ve got the trinity there. So, yeah, okay… there it is. At this point, I guess I want to go back to something I was talking to you about at the beginning, which is Stan Brakhage and the reaction that Tarkovsky had to meeting this truly idiosyncratic and experimental filmmaker. A truly independent filmmaker. He [Brakhage] became very angry in the late 70s and 80s with the way the word “independent” was being co-opted by Hollywood, you know? Anyone who didn’t actually work for the studios I guess was an independent filmmaker, even if they did ultimately work for the studios they would sometimes call themselves “independent filmmakers.” And he’s this guy whose films were made on 8mm on a camera he kept in a shoebox! So… And he did things like, towards the end of his life he was making films where he would literally paint on the individual cells of the film to try and create images and things like that…

23:16 

S
Right, I was aware of that. If we want to be unacknowledged shills for a certain DVD company, the Criterion Collection actually does have both Solaris and the collection of Brackhage’s films, and I think that’s how I first encountered those later films with the paint, literally painting right on the negative.

23:39 

D
I had a friend who was a fan of Stan Brakhage back when I was in high school, so I’ve known about him for a while, but I never was able to really watch a full Stan Brakhage film. It was just too much for me at that point, you know? … But later on, in the 90s I actually found Dog Star Man on videotape and it was actually in a little video store, a little video-rental store, independent one; and they had stocked it in the Science Fiction section. [Laughs] Because it was called Dog Star Man! It must be a Science Fiction film!

24:24 

S
Depending on what time, you know, they figured “oh, Starman… Dog Star Man! Clearly a sequel!”

[Laughter]

24:30 

D
Exactly! So, I got it. I knew what it was, but I just imagined someone deciding to check out Dog Star Man, bringing it home, plopping that it, getting his popcorn out thinking he was going to watch some Star Trek-like or Starman-like film, and just watching this thing in 8mm with, you know, jump-cuts and all silent… just a shot of a tree again and again and again and again; and [them] just being like “aaahh! What am I watching!” Definitely want their money back! But the thing about Stan Brakhage is, he’s also a religious filmmaker, I think. But with a different religion.

25:15 

S
Yeah, explore that a little bit. I’m really curious to hear your take on that.

25:18 

D
He’s this kind of… Well, the most polluted way to put it, or the least charitable, would be that he’s a New Ager. But, you know, the sort of Gnostic type who’s looking inward to find his true vision and true connection to the divine through his own independent creative acts and his own vision. And also very much, in his earlier work before he started painting the film, he would rely on his Muse – his wife – to be the subject of his films, and his family. His relationship with Hari, let’s say – it’s not Hari, it’s his wife – but his relationship with the woman in his films is very different from Tarkovsky’s. Tarkovsky ultimately had to find God, the Man, at the end to be redeemed; and Brakhage was quite content to take the multiplicity of his “feminine” imagery and put it into his own order on film, and find the divine in that more “natural” relationship.  

26:39 

S
You know, what’s interesting about that – and I think Derick may be getting [back] on fairly soon, so we’ll chime in – but it’s again going back to the issue, I think, where the question is raised: what kind of religious filmmaker is Tarkovsky? And again, I don’t think it’s necessarily a political answer, but I would say he’s much more conservative than anyone else. We talk about the… even though it’s sort of metaphorical/representational, it’s still fairly concrete ideas of what God is, namely the Christian tradition: God the Father, the Holy Mother, the Holy Spirit, we talked about the Trinity… Whereas Brakhage, with his New Age Gnosticism, sort of threatened… well, maybe it’s not Brakhage’s intention to threaten that, but his mere presence may have produced some sort of anxiety in Tarkovsky. Now, admittedly, I’m probably projecting a lot onto Tarkovsky…

27:51 

D
I don’t think you are. Or at least that’s what Brakhage thought! There’s an interview with Brakhage where he talks about this and he definitely thought that… in the end, not only did Brakhage say that Tarkovsky watching his films, that Tarkovsky was very anxious and angry and was railing against his movies; but also, he was told that probably Brakhage’s work would influence Tarkovsky and that it was maybe a productive encounter and a productive anxiety for Tarkovsky. I don’t know if you can find it in any future work after ’83 or…

28:31 

S
Tarkovsky’s dead by…’86? I want to say?

28:35 

D
Yeah so… But in any case, if he had lived… he was definitely shaken and influenced by his encounter with Brakhage. 

28:46 

S
I would not be surprised if that were true. At the very least, if Tarkovsky wasn’t in a position – by virtue of how long he lived – to make that comparison, we at least have the opportunity to do so for him! Right?

29:05 

D
One thing I was going to say was if you wanted to imagine an alternative set of images that would maybe be a good depiction of the unconscious lifeforce that Solaris represents, you might do worse than take a Brakhage film and watch it. You know? There’s a spontaneity and the disassociated imagery, and the fluidity of Brakhage’s films work well as that kind of planet.

29:39 

C
I mean, when I was watching Solaris this morning, I actually noticed a lot of stuff that I hadn’t noticed before, some things I don’t know what I make of. The obvious hostility towards the city when Berton’s riding through the city, which is obviously somewhere in Japan. I happen to know that it was filmed in a particular neighborhood in Tokyo. But, you know, there’s the ominous, eerie, buzzy music… And even in the disheveled spaceship that you see little glimpses of things, like “oh look! There’s an Andrei Rublev icon for no real apparent reason!” And I really noticed that things I hadn’t noticed before, and maybe it was because, when we sat down to do this I watched it and Stalker… [maybe it was from] either going to watch it and Stalker simultaneously, or because I had recently read what Stanisław Lem had actually said about the movie, but I just noticed a lot more of it! And when you compare it to Brakhage, yeah, it seems much more conventional than you remember it being even though it’s very, very well made. Part of what makes Tarkovsky movies unconventional is just that they’re willing to be… I don’t know, obnoxiously slow? Which makes it sound like that’s not good but…

[Unintelligible question]

31:09

C
Yeah, it’s definitely… It’s definitely there. And I think it’s even a little bit in the softening of the ending. I know that in the ending, in Solaris the ending is pretty devastating, but the ending of the book is actually way more devastating than the ending of the movie.

31:30 

D
What is the ending of the book? I haven’t read the book. I’ve read some Lem, but not that.

31:36

C
He goes down to the surface, just like he does in the movie, there’s no island or anything mimicking his home. He goes down there and he doesn’t have any hope, he’s just going to try to merge with the intelligence of the planet.

31:51 

S
What’s interesting – maybe this is revealing about me – I don’t think any of either of those endings are devastatingly bleak. Doug and I were actually talking and it goes to the statement you just made that, to the degree to which we think of Tarkovsky as a religious filmmaker, and this is something of a religious experience, it reminds me of an ascetic in the sense that, if it’s brutally boring, it’s not because, you know, for its own sake. It’s almost like the exercise of fasting or putting yourself through some kind of pain-like experience as a means of evoking some sort of connection to something greater. And at the end I think Kelvin has found the Holy Trinity, right? Hari turns into his mother, he goes into his home with the rain inside, the father comes out and he kneels at the feet of the father. You know, like God has been found. And even with the book, if the book is heavily concerned with the communication between mankind and the entity, the attempt to merge with the entity is just the final attempt at making that communication, that connection happen. I think… I’m an odd person! Those are two positive endings in a way! For either…

33:17 

C
But I mean like… In Lem particularly it is clear, from both sides, that it was a failure. The merge is not possible because the world outside of humanity is so utterly alien that even when it tries to become human it’s devastating. And probably vice-versa. That’s why as the neutrino-mass becomes more and more human it keeps on sincerely killing itself, more or less. Because it also doesn’t understand itself as it becomes more human-like. You can get to this, by like… Dr. Snaut is I think way wiser… particularly in the book it’s obvious that he’s way wiser than the movie gives him credit for. The movie paints him kind of like a fool, I don’t think he’s meant to be read that way. And it sounds like I’m being really harsh on the movie, I just come in here and interrupt and talk about, “Oh God, Tarkovsky, he’s so Orthodox!” 

34:31 

S
Orthodox in a variety of ways!

34:33 

C
Yeah, but you know, it’s an emotionally devastating movie; it’s not depressing, that’s not what I mean. I agree with you: the movie, in particular, is not actually bleak, but it’s really disturbing. Like, the emotional resonance that it has. I think that’s really interesting. I think that’s really interesting for a lot of reasons! I mean, this is not the first filming of Solaris, there’s the 1969 Russian TV-Movie version.

D
Oh really?

35:15 

S

Yeah, there are three versions of the film.

35:17 

D
Oh wow! I didn’t know about the first one.

35:21 

S
I’m sorry, three versions of the book, but yes. I never saw it, but I am aware of its existence.

35:26 

C
I haven’t seen it either, from what I can read it’s not terribly good, but Tarkovsky’s is the second Russian adaptation. And it’s interesting because he did it… Andrei Rublev, which a lot of people consider Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, or at least up there with Stalker and Solaris, was sort of in limbo when he started making Solaris. The Soviet censors weren’t releasing it, it was way too religious, it had had some serious controversy because he basically slaughtered a horse on-screen in that movie. And this is coming after that. He picks Lem because Lem is popular both in and outside of the USSR, the Soviet Government is not as hostile to Lem; you know, that’s all the background context for this movie. That’s really interesting. And Lem, I was reading, I found what Lem wrote about it – about the movie – and he seemed to say it was a brilliant film, but it was basically Dostoevsky, not Lem.

36:42 

S
Well, yes, actually if you have this little clip on the Criterion Blu-Ray of it, they do have an excerpt of, not just Lem talking about the film, but also Czesław Miłosz talking about it. And again, a very interesting dynamic: Miłosz really loved the book, really was interested in the interaction between humanity, human consciousness, and then this unknown consciousness; and his response was: “and then Tarkovsky made it Russian!” And by that he meant he really layered on thick the religious imagery; again, the reference to Dostoevsky I think more or less is appealing to that same idea. Not to mention the fact that… it’s very interesting, people think of Poland as the sort of ultra-religious country, very ultra-Catholic country, and in this actual interaction as expressed in Lem, Miłosz, and Tarkovsky is reflective of the debate between the Slavophiles – the Slavophiles are like “we’re Slavic Russian, very religious, very concerned with manifestations of humanity! The Poles, they’re freaking Catholics! Which means they’re not religious at all! They’re not concerned with this, that, and the other. They’re really the West trying to encroach upon us!” It’s funny how that dialogue sort of reproduces itself in how they think about [how] this book and this film kind of relate to each other.

38:17 

C
Yeah, it’s interesting. You know, Tarkovsky’s an odd… an odd man to deal with, in that regard. Obviously, he wasn’t totally shunned by the Soviet Censors, right? Or these movies wouldn’t exist. But he is obviously pulling from… I almost feel like what he does would make more sense coming out of Russia now than it did in 1971.

38:52 

S
Well, that raises the question: to what extent has Tarkovsky’s aesthetic created the contemporary Russian aesthetic?

39:02 

C
That would be way presumptuous since I think both are basically… it’s Eastern-Orthodox Christianity. I was just thinking about how the images are used emblematically and iconically in Tarkovsky. Particularly in this movie. The reason why they linger is to let some of their oddness and otherworldliness hit you, or to let their worldliness hit you. I mean, you think about the first 45 minutes of the movie when you have Kelvin at his – I believe that’s his dad’s house – and there’s also Berton there, and there’s just long lingering scenes. The first scene is watching a stream. And then, you know, you have the black-and-white scenes from the trial, where they’re talking to Berton about the younger Berton, about the four-meter baby and all that. And you have the Tokyo avant-garde music part…

40:11

D
Right, “the boring highway” is what I would call it.

40:16 

C
Yeah, I mean like… I was still trying to figure out, what is the significance of the city obviously being some sort of Asian city and not… You know, it could at first be China, but we’re talking China in 1970, so China doesn’t look like that. So, it’s obviously Tokyo. What’s the significance of that? There’s got to be something!

40:39 

S
Well, we were thinking about this. To the degree to which – again, Tarkovsky’s a religious filmmaker – in the film what I think you really pick up is the anti-technological, anti-science message, even to the point where the clutter around the station is just bits of technological equipment and wiring, scattered around almost like trash. Like, it’s literally interfering with the landscape. And compare that against the homestead at the beginning, sort of the pristine nature of Earth and preserving old ways of existence. Tokyo, well it’s not Tokyo, I forget what the name of the city is, it is a portion of urban Japan…

41:24 

C
It starts with an “a” and it’s actually a very specific neighborhood in Tokyo. Because I was like “where in Japan is that? Why is that in this movie? How far away are they?”

41:38 

S
In a way – I think you mentioned it obliquely – the cityscape, in a way, is a conscious landscape, much as the oceans of Solaris, albeit differently. With a different emphasis.

41:52 

C
Right, but I mean… It is just as disturbing as the oceans of Solaris. I was thinking about how this movie uses ambient music and it’s very… that music makes me think “is Berton’s car just going to blow up?!”

42:12 

S
Stalker uses a similar… music is very key in a lot of Tarkovsky. Stalker has a very interesting sequence where, well, many sequences where the music takes over. So, interesting… Doug what do you think about that? What role is music playing here?

42:29 

D
Oh, you know, I couldn’t… I don’t know. Been a while since I watched it, but I didn’t listen carefully to the music. I’m sitting here thinking about how influenced I am by a few critics… well, one: Zizek. So, I’m sitting here waiting for a moment to say “hey, do you know what Zizek says about Solaris?!” [laughs] But… have you heard what Zizek said about this movie?

43:00 

S
Hang on. Let me set that up Doug: Hey Doug! Didn’t Zizek say something interesting?

[Laughter]

43:05 

D
So screw this music stuff or whatever you guys were babbling about, let me talk about Zizek! Well he says… he wants to talk about Hari and how she represents… Well, first of all, for him the whole movie is about sexuality and the failure of sexual relationship – this Lacanian notion that there’s no such thing as a sexual relationship – and the failure of communication between humanity and the planet is the same as the failure of a sexual relationship between a man and a woman; and then Hari comes in as the woman who is not, or who has no identity outside of the fantasy of the man… he has this whole Lacanian critique and explanation of the movie. But I just want to ask: what do you guys think about the way women and nature are both represented in the film? And maybe tying it back to the cityscape and where the cityscape sits in that spectrum, because the technology and all of that, that’s man’s attempt to have this relationship, that’s all this masculine kind of penetrating, scientific imagery. Whereas, the flowing river and the planet, that’s the feminine side that we’re trying to communicate with and try to do something with. It’s the relationship between the conscious mind and the real objective world. Anyway, I’m just babbling now; but do you have a thought about Tarkovsky’s thoughts on what’s feminine and on nature?

44:55 

S
Well, if I really want to be a cruel bastard, Tarkovsky is manifesting a couple of tropes: women are either Madonnas or whores, right? Hari in many ways, in terms of Kelvin’s reaction to her, is the reaction to almost like – yes, she’s his wife, he loves her – but there’s a certain emphasis of the Holy Mother going on in this. Whereas the other men on the station really are more than just skeptical of this entity which is Hari. I mean, it’s almost aggressively against her.

45:34 

C
Yeah, I mean, at one point they try to convince Kelvin to perform an autopsy on her while she’s still alive. … Although, there’s a big difference between Snaut and Sartoris. If I was writing an essay it would be fascinating to try to document the different ways the three men interact. One thing that we know, at least for Sartoris, is that the ocean does not manifest as a female for him. I believe it’s a child. And while we can talk about the Holy Mother stuff, and there’s the image of the mother; there’s obviously the stepmother who’s crying for Kelvin at one point, but you don’t really understand why. There’s…

46:38 

D
Well… at the beginning of the movie, is that his mother? Or is that his aunt? Who’s there watching the film of the hearing…

46:50

C
I think that’s his father’s second wife.

46:53 

D
So, she comes in, there’s a couple things she does which are incidental, but which are interesting and speak of gender politics, to me. After they watch the old film she comes in and says, “so where are people going to sleep? Are you going to have them right next door to you? Are they going to be upstairs? What room are they going to be in?” And her husband is like, “you and your rooms can wait! There’s something much bigger than that right now!” and pushes her aside. And then she goes out and she helps a little boy overcome his fear of the horse in the stable. So, she’s constantly focused on the details of the moment, of the lived moment that they’re in, rather than any kind of conceptual or intellectual problem that they might be facing.

47:47 

C
The only time that you really see something different is when she starts crying when Kelvin is burning his research before he takes off. That scene… I’ve thought about this scene for a long time, because there’s flashbacks to Kelvin burning stuff at different points in his life. While he’s on Solaris too. But she’s crying there, and she also notices a picture of the mother, the first wife. And then, in that final dream sequence, before he goes off – we assume he goes off into the ocean – he also mentions that he doesn’t remember his mother’s older face anymore.

48:37 

S
Right, it’s a younger woman as the mother, yes.

48:41 

C
Yeah, I mean, the mother… so, we don’t know how she died; we know that she must have. There’s all these relationships to women, and there’s also relationships to children. There’s the boy who the woman, who we think is the stepmother, helps with the horse, who has this very intense relationship to Berton. We know that Berton had met an orphan child, we don’t know if that child [with the horse] is that orphan or his child; we know they have an intense relationship though, because during the creepy car scene in super-Japan that child’s got his head on Berton’s shoulders in a very… almost, like, maternal way? Like, [how] you would normally see children snuggle with a mother, he’s snuggling with Berton like a father. But Berton’s not looking at him, Berton’s starting off disgruntled into the city. And so, there’re also all these weird implied relationships to children, and these children aren’t defined. 

49:55 

D
Well I just look at that and I say… like the child on the plate’s surface – the four-meter infant on the planet’s surface – is slick like it was just born. He says, “like a newborn child,” even though it’s a more developed child than that. The children… I don’t know, children represent family to me, and it goes back to…

50:21 

C
Yeah, but they’re not having… The children’s relationship with the women, from what we see in the movie – with the exception of that first one – they’re just not there! When Kelvin has these memories of Hari and his mother, I don’t see those, you don’t see those women interacting with children in a way that you expect them to at all! What he remembers of his mother is her frowning, smoking a cigarette, watching himself and his father, I think, from far away. You don’t see any memories of Hari interacting with children either, and the only time with her acting like she’s dealing with children is actually when she’s dealing with Kelvin when Kelvin’s obviously losing his shit after Snaut’s birthday. And she’s like “here’s liquid nitrogen!”

51:15

S
Liquid oxygen…

51:17 

C
Liquid… I thought it was…? Okay. But anyway, something that freezes her insides so that when she returns, she has that crackly awfulness…

51:24 

D
Right… right… But I mean, this is about a failure to connect with the Other and to create a life. It’s about a failure to create that family, the balance; because the nuclear family is the solution – that we think is there, anyway – for how to relate to the Other, and it doesn’t work! Solaris is impenetrable! It’s not fitting together.

51:56 

S
I think this is also, again, interesting to think about the difference between Tarkovsky’s use of Solaris the planet, and Lem’s use of Solaris the planet. When the interaction happens in Lem’s book with Solaris the planet and the humans, they’re both attempting to communicate, to create a sense of intimacy, failure – disastrous failure – happens. Whereas in Tarkovsky the planet is there as a mechanism to allow Kelvin to really think about what he has either failed to achieve or what he wants to achieve. In Lem’s case, the interest is above and beyond humanity. Whereas in Tarkovsky’s case, it is the eternal human, end of story almost.

52:51 

D
Have you seen the new version of Solaris? The one that Steven Soderbergh made?

52:58 

S
I’ve been meaning to see it; I didn’t get a chance. I was wondering if the either of the two of you saw it.

53:02 

D
I saw it years ago, when it came out. I didn’t see it in the theater, but I saw it on DVD a couple of years later. It’s not very good… But I’m wondering if I’m remembering correctly – and I may not be – if there’s a question of them having a child in that movie? If part of their problem was that they couldn’t have a child?

53:33

S
I think that that’s right. I vaguely… I didn’t see the movie, but I may have seen parts on television, but I vaguely remember hearing about that.

53:44 

C
It’s not mentioned in the book. I feel like in the book the relationship between Hari and Kelvin’s important, but not nearly as important as it is in all the movies. Or at least in the two movies I’ve watched.

54:03 

D
So you did see the 2002 Soderbergh version?

54:06 

C
Yeah. I didn’t rewatch it for today, but I think I saw it first and then I went and watched the infinitely better one. I mean… Because this movie doesn’t go at all into why he said he didn’t love her the first time around. It doesn’t explain that; it just kind of blames him for her suicide because he didn’t love her, but it doesn’t go into why he didn’t or what was the complication, you don’t know that. 

54:42 

S
Here there is no “why.”

54:43 

C
Yeah, I mean it’s… you get the sense that Tarkovsky thinks that’s his original sin, sort of, but it doesn’t go into the explanation. I mean, the thing is, of course Soderbergh – and I’m not going to dismiss Soderbergh, I don’t think he’s a bad director – but of course Soderbergh’s going to add more narrative elements to it.

55:10

S
To give credit to Soderbergh, it’s hard to tell whether that Solaris is a product of his studio films or is a product of his experimental films. I’m actually willing to bet that, despite [Tarkovsky’s] Solaris, it is in fact more of a studio film he did for money. So, who knows how invested he was in the damn thing.

55:31

C
Wasn’t James Cameron involved in that project?

55:33

S
George Clooney… George Clooney plays Kelvin.

55:37 

C
No no, who’s the producer?

55:38 

S
Oh, you’re right. James Cameron is…

55:40 

C
That’s the thing: if James Cameron’s involved with it, you’re like, “oh, that’s not going to be right…”

[Laughter]

55:46 

S
To be fair to even James Cameron: as much as I hate him, he made Terminator 2.

55:51

C
Well, you know, I’m not saying James Cameron is an awful… although, for some weird reason all his movies start with “A” or “T”… [Laugher] Like, seriously, in a way that you think it has to be on purpose!

56:05

S
Not Pirhana 2!

56:08 

C
That’s like the one exception though! Terminator, Abyss… anyway… When I was watching this movie, the first thing I did think again was “hey, the way Tarkovsky uses color and saturation…” because when this movie you’re like “and now we’re in blue! And now we’re in regular old color again! And now we’re in black and white! Oh, no, we’re in blue!” It does remind me of stuff that  in the late 90s Soderbergh himself was doing? Like, the way Traffic changes color?

56:43 

S
Yeah, there are three primary colors in Traffic.

56:48 

C
And, you know, after Traffic you have the Michael-Bay-ization of film, and so those colors get overused and you don’t notice them. Everything is being filtered [now]. But I did think, like, “hey, Tarkovsky was doing that before Soderbergh or Michael Bay was! I forgot about that!”

57:05 

S
Actually, the first time I saw that, and it was almost, like, overbearing on top of something – even though I love it – was in Godard’s Contempt. At the beginning of Contempt when the writer and – hell, I’ll just call her Brigitte Bardot – when Brigitte Bardot and her are together it goes from blue to red to yellow, they go through the filters of the technicolor. I think he’s specifically trying to emphasize “oh this is a Technicolor film: look, there’s red! There’s yellow!”…

57:36 

C
But I don’t feel like Tarkovsky is doing that…

57:39 

S
No, I mean, let’s get into that. Because the visual imagery is really overwhelming in the film, and the images – for me – which really stand out, above and beyond the images in the space station, the images of the planet, it’s really the images of the “home.” The reeds, the plants in the water, which I think is actually referenced in Lars Van Trier’s Antichrist, there’s plenty of Tarkovsky references in that film…

58:11 

C
Don’t give [unintelligible] any credit for anything.

[Laughter]

58:19 

S
I mean, I’m just simply saying it’s there. You can hate Lars Van Trier all you want. So do I!

58:25 

C
And I will continue to do so!

58:29 

S
But yeah, even in that… almost office scene! With the wood furniture and green carpet and the candelabra, the fantastic zero-G sequence, even though it’s really fake, but it’s still beautiful… 

58:48 

C
And why would they put candelabras when they’re doing the zero-G? And why doesn’t it catch anything on fire when you just have fire floating…? But… I’m going to ignore my art critic sense and be like, diegetically that makes no damn sense.

59:08 

S
Oh no, especially again because – and this will go into a question that I have later – it reminds me of, even though it’s not a great film, Event Horizon where they talked about fire in zero-G. All I could think was like, “that is not zero-G fire…” [laughs]

59:24 

C
Like, that’s just really pretty candelabras that apparently don’t catch anything on fire, even when they’re on the ground still burning! But, anyway, that’s a side-note. This film is marvelously strange in a lot of ways, and yet I agree with you Doug: when you compare it to something like Brakhage, or even to some other Russian directors, it’s a lot more conventional, maybe, in a traditional narrative/use-of-art sense than you’d think. Yeah, it’s interested in completely different things and it has no problem with everything being really slow and… you know… Tarkovsky can’t make a movie that’s less than two and a half hours I think. I don’t think it’s humanly possible. Because, you know, you watch two Tarkovsky films and you’re like “oh, there goes my day!” But yeah…

1:00:20 

D
I want to believe that you can make a narrative film that’s innovative in the way that Brakhage was aiming at being innovative! But, I’m not sure Tarkovsky is doing that. The reason I brought up Brakhage is, to me they’re interesting because they’re completely opposite views about what film was for, and what art was for, and what life ultimately was about! I mean, Tarkovsky has this very utopian vision, you know, of ultimately arriving at some sort of human Utopia where you can be focused on your spiritual development and get away from having to struggle for your everyday existence!

1:01:10

C
He’s uniquely Russian in that way. Like, there’s no capitalism in his religion.

1:01:18 

D
And Brakhage is all about ignoring the external problems and focusing… and shunning involvement with the social world. [For him it’s] not that you can get to a social world that allows you to develop, but that you just stand on your own two feet, go out into the woods, and film a tree a hundred different ways, film your wife giving birth. This very American kind of, independent kind of filmmaker.

1:01:50 

C
You know who I kind of think of, when I think of Tarkovsky? And people are going to think that I’m nuts. But… Andy Warhol. Who, you know, is… he’s Eastern Catholic, not Orthodox; but his spirituality is actually the same as Tarkovsky’s. And he does a lot of similar stuff, like “I’m going to linger on something for eight hours.” Even to extremes that Tarkovsky never does because Tarkovsky’s still making narrative movies [while] Warhol kind of isn’t.

1:02:25 

S
Not “kind of” isn’t. He isn’t period. There’s no ambiguity, nobody’s like “maybe there’s a story in Empire?” You know!

[laughter]

1:02:33 

D
Yeah, point made!

1:02:37 

C
But there are Warhol movies that do have narrative! A lot of the Edie Sedgwick movies have narratives, only barely. But the way that they linger on images and see images themselves as primarily important, and as being psychologically revealing, is interesting to me. And in that way, you kind of think of like… could you find a more different director from Stanislaw Lem? I don’t think images are super important in any of Lem’s work. You know, it’s highly philosophical, psychological sci-fi, but it’s not like… images don’t do anything…

1:03:22 

D
Let’s stay with that for a moment. Are you suggesting that there’s a romantic, anti-intellectual element to Tarkovsky? Where he’s trying to replace thought with these images that are emotionally loaded?

1:03:43 

C
I think it’s Orthodox anti-intellectualism. It’s just like… For example, the way that Dostoevsky always gets read as an existentialist? Even though that’s actually, probably the wrong way to read him? Like almost perfectly wrong! … Watching this movie now, and knowing what I know about Orthodox Christianity, like, this reeks of it in ways that I didn’t even notice when I watched this when I was twenty. And it’s not just the fact that there’s little icons and things, it’s… It’s almost like a self-conscious joke! What is it that Snaut says? “You’re acting like a second-rate Dostoevsky?” I think he says that to Kelvin directly.

1:04:46 

S
Almost the voice of Stanislaw Lem himself…

1:04:50 

C
And given that Tarkovsky and Lem had arguments about this, maybe that’s deliberate! 

1:04:58 

S
I think Tarkovsky did have Lem on at some point to discuss it, I know they did not get along in that interaction. But, to be fair, the comparison between the two does have a bias that we’re not immediately dealing with: that one writes and the other films. Admittedly, the emphasis of communication is going to be different to the point where it’s not a perfect one-to-one comparison, but it’s not entirely wrong either. I think this also relates, again, to the question [of] what type of film this is. So, nominally, it is a Science Fiction film by virtue of its subject matter. But, in a way – and, again, Former People has a dog in this fight based on our interests of what we like to publish – it certainly doesn’t fit comfortably in that [genre], does it? It fits very comfortably if you want to say “oh, this is a religious movie.” Like, okay! Easy peasy! But, again, do we feel comfortable saying this is a Science Fiction film?

1:06:08 

D
Well, I think we’d have to ask the question: what is our definition of Science Fiction? And does Lem have a monopoly on it? Can religion be shoehorned into Science Fiction? And is Science Fiction so opposed, ultimately, to religion? I’m not… if I ask any questions it seems like I’m saying “no” to that question! But I’m not sure that’s the right answer.

1:06:32

C
I would think it’s still a Science Fiction movie. I mean, Stalker is also. Stalker, in a way – and it’s another adaptation of a book, another Science Fiction book – but Stalker seems like it was chosen – and we’ll talk about it in another episode – as a sequel to Solaris. Like, a thematic sequel to Solaris. I think it’s pretty Science Fiction. I think if you can consider some of J.G. Ballard’s work Science Fiction, you know, like The Crystal World or something, then you can consider this…

1:07:14 

S
Again, I ask the question knowing full-well how I would answer it, which is yes, you can definitely say that. But in a way, the difficulty of thinking about genre in such a way is, do you think of genre as… it has to his certain goalposts in order to say “yes! It is!”…?

1:07:39 

C
Well, it has space!

1:07:40 

S
It has space! That’s what’s interesting; on the surface of everything it has everything to say Science Fiction: there’s a space station, it’s in space, there’s a planet with weird water which – even in the book – moves like muscle and tissue, you know? Everything about it suggests that we should say it’s Science Fiction, and yet the experience of it is not typical of Science Fiction. I actually have, though people like to separate them, my experience between Solaris and 2001 has a lot of similarities. More so than differences…

1:08:16 

C
Both really slow… They have giant babies in them…

[laughter]

1:08:22 

D
Hey, have you guys heard of this genre critic, or critic of the idea of genre maybe, Carolyn Miller?

1:08:33 

C
Yeah, I’ve heard of Carolyn Miller. But, to be honest, I haven’t read a lot of Carolyn Miller.

1:08:38

D
I haven’t read her either, but earlier today I was interviewed for a podcast called The Power Hour or something like that – a guy that listened to Diet Soap and had me on – and he is in graduate school, she’s his professor and they’re studying genre. Her take on genre is that you don’t look to define genre based on its content or its form… it’s doing something. It’s what is the piece aiming at doing; or what is its social action. And based on that you can put things into a genre that are really different. You can put a song and a movie into the same genre because they are aiming at the same social action.

1:09:26 

C
You can put a movie and an Orthodox icon in the same genre…

1:09:32 

S
But this raises a really great question then. Let’s accept that as the construct for coming up with the definition of genre: one, what would be the social action for Science Fiction as such? What’s the means by which we say, “this is Science Fiction because it’s doing this”? And that being said, what is Solaris doing? And where does it fit?

1:09:54 

C
Okay, I can answer those things easily!

1:09:56 

D
O
kay, you go first.

1:09:57 

C
Alright. One: Science Fiction functions to add in some additional complication that is imaginable but not yet existent in our reality. Two: and what happens when you introduce that complication into reality, and how it mucks everything up. And if you take that as your working definition for what the function of Science Fiction does, [or] is… this definitely fits.

1:10:21 

S
Well, in a way, if that’s your definition of Science Fiction, I feel like Star Trek, in its idealized form, wouldn’t fit. Because it’s not… yes there is conflict, but it’s not about introducing something that mucks things up. In a way, it’s about introducing something that sets things right.

1:10:42 

C
By mucks things up I don’t mean, like, messes up society. It could fix it too.

1:10:46 

S
Okay.

1:10:48
C
There’s a critic, a Korean-American critic, who wrote a book called Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sheep? which sets out to come up with a critical theory of the narratology of Science Fiction. And she puts things in Science Fiction that even I’m like… “whaaat?” Side note: many years ago, I was a scholar on this particular Korean-American poet-novelist-artist, Teresa Hak Kyung Cha, who was murdered after her first successful book. And she wrote this really bizarre novel about the occupation of Korea and French Catholicism called Dictee, and this book [of genre criticism] puts that – because of its weird use of narrative and overlap – in the Science Fiction category. There’s not a space monster or anything; there’s some weird stuff with consciousness, but it doesn’t involve technology. Every other definition of Science Fiction I’ve ever read, this would not fit the criterion, it would just be an avant-garde novel. Obviously, people have realized the problem with the definition of Science Fiction. You know, from the late 1960s forward you have that problem. There’s a bunch of J.G. Ballard books that, except that they’re in the future, you’d have a hard time saying exactly what makes them Science Fiction. And this is before his mainstream literary turn.

1:12:35 

D
You know, for a while my wife was an Orthodox Christian. Eastern Orthodox Christian. And I got ahold of a book about Science Fiction written by an Orthodox Priest saying that it was basically the Devil’s work and it was this Secular Humanist religion. That it was directly competing with Christianity to try to define what the aim of life is, and to present an alternate vision of what the good like would be about as opposed to Christianity. So, the aim of Science Fiction was to present this vision of man as perfectible.

1:13:16

C
Was that Father Seraphim Rose?

1:13:19 

D
Yeah, I think it might have been.

1:13:21 

C
Yeah. It’s interesting because I don’t think – even in hyper-reactionary Russia – I don’t think any Russian would argue that. But, a convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity would.

1:13:35 

S
Actually, I will push back on you: yes, Eastern Orthodox Russians will respond that way. They respond, basically, to the degree to which your fiction posits technology as a catalyst for some sort of improvement, they will take issue with it. Especially the more Orthodox Russians. To the extent to which you can actually talk to an Old Believer, they will have that reaction…

1:14:06 

C
True, but… like, the Old Believers are like the non-Protestant version of the Amish.

1:14:14

S
Well, I use it as an extreme example, but there are a lot more people in the mainstream Orthodox who think that way.

1:14:21 

D
Well, my point [in] bringing this up was [that] I kind of liked that critique of Science Fiction and wanted to full-on embrace it. Like, okay, yeah! We’re not Christians! Science Fiction writers are not Christians, and we are presenting this vision of man as perfectible, and this is our alternate to Christianity about what life is about and what we should be doing. That would be my definition of Science Fiction that I would put forward, the one that the Eastern Orthodox put forward. This kind of secular religious vision about what we’re capable of as a species, and what we should be aiming at.

1:15:00

S
But what’s interesting then is that the timing of Solaris is really telling. Because that particular version of Science Fiction that you have, I would say is really accurate for the stuff that’s coming out of the 60s and the 50s. Once you get to the 70s, at least the late 60s going to the 70s, and then you get into the “cyberpunk era,” the anxiety manifests itself. Technology no longer… And not even just technology, let’s even just table that for a second. The perfectibility of humanity is no longer believed in as strongly as some of the more idealistic guys from the earlier genre…

1:15:44 

D
Right, so what do you do about the New Wave is kind of the question… Does that fit into the genre? What do you do about someone like Barry Malzberg, who wrote Beyond Apollo, which is about an astronaut who’s going insane! Or what do you do even with Stanislaw Lem’s book Solaris?

1:16:04

C
Or any of his books! I mean, like, he’s not anti-technology, but his books are basically… His entire career, I mean, even from the 50s it’s basically taking aim at an American vision of technology. If you read his long, long, long, long, long, long, nonfiction book that just got translated into English, Summa Technologiae – and he’s not even as cynical in that as he would be in later works – you feel like he’s aiming it at, like Isaac Asimov. So, in that sense, Lem would be totally in the same wheelhouse as Tarkovsky, and yet they’re completely different because Lem doesn’t give you God to feel good about. In his alternate vision of the universe you aren’t getting saved, the end.

1:17:00

D
Right, well. I guess I would just say that my way of trying to keep the New Wave or Lem or anybody of these guys in the Science Fiction genre, is to say that the Science Fiction genre is serious about the perfectibility of man, and therefore it demands that we have no illusions. And so, we end up having to go through nihilism or having to go through a certain kind of insanity in order to get to perfectibility.

1:17:31 

S
But I worry about, again, even if they may take the idea seriously, I think several authors come to the conclusion that there’s no hope… In a way Tarkovsky is different in that, you know, it’s not through science that you’re going to get it, you’re going to get it through God… I feel like… Who would be a good example? Philip K. Dick! Well, Philip K. Dick is too complicated, but at the end of his life he does sort of give you God.

1:18:13 

D
But God is also a Soviet satellite. The God he gives you is not exactly a loving redeemer…

1:18:23 

C
It is the opposite of the Orthodox God: it is the demiurge.

1:18:27 

D
Yeah that’s right! Well, he becomes… I think Philip K Dick ends up on the side of Stan Brakhage, just to name-drop like crazy and be self-referential at this point. He ends up being a gnostic, right? He ends up turning towards…

1:18:44 

C
Explicitly being a gnostic…

1:18:47 

D
Yeah, right.

1:18:49 

S
I was exactly going to go there, so I’m glad you did it before me.

1:18:52

C
Whereas Lem… Lem ends up being, not quite a nihilist, but not far from it. And Tarkovsky has painted Jesus. So, it’s interesting. You could throw other authors out there from this time period and also sort of mess up your criterion. We mention Ballard a lot, but he’s not the only one.

1:19:15 

S
Arguably William Burroughs can be thought of, in some ways, as writing something like Science Fiction. At times.

1:19:21 

D
Right.

1:19:21 

C
Interzone. Yeah, that’s pretty…

1:19:24 

D
Yeah, there you go! I’ve been published by Interzone Magazine which is a Science Fiction magazine in Britain. So… there you go.

1:19:32 

C
Yeah, I mean… And all of these people have reactions to things. I mean, another thing we’re not talking about here, both Lem and Tarkovsky – even though they’re both coming from completely different ends – have a skepticism about the Soviet Union. Lem’s partly in dialogue with Isaak Asmiov, but he’s also partly in dialogue with Stalin, and that’s not to be missed. Because Stalin’s whole thing is “man is perfectible and we can do it with science! Even though the science we’re going to use is completely bullshit!” And Lem’s like, “yeah… you’re going to do something…”

1:20:19

S
Well, the way you’ve expressed it reminds me… It seems like the critique, then – and this throws a lot of things up in the air – it seems like the critique is with the Enlightenment project, ultimately.

1:20:33 

D
Yeah.

1:20:35 

C
Although Lem still thinks the Enlightenment’s worth having, and Tarkovsky probably doesn’t. Like…

1:20:42 

D
I don’t know, can you really say that? Because Tarkovsky at least espouses this vision of social perfectibility.

1:20:51 

C
Yeah, but he does it… like, social perfectibility from the intermediation of Grace. Which is like the same social perfectibility that one finds in the Feudal system. Like, why does the Feudal system work? Because God’s Grace comes down and everybody has a role, and everybody’s happy…

1:21:08 

D
Yeah [laughs], right…

1:21:11 

C
I mean, like, we tend to forget people had Utopian notions before modern society. And Tarkovsky’s weird because he’s sort of got one leg in one world and one leg in the other. The context of the Soviet Union is really important, but also as a human being… why does he keep creating these religious sci-fi movies? He makes Andrei Rublev but he doesn’t make a whole lot of other… Like, his more religious movies aren’t directly about religion.

1:21:43

D
Yeah…

1:21:46

S
Well, it’s also like, even in America – even Star Trek is an example of this – you can get away with a lot more commentary through Science Fiction. I don’t know why, but apparently people find it… like it’s difficult to see that in Star Trek, you know, the aliens with blackface on the right side versus blackface on the left side: “oh it’s Science Fiction! I can’t tell what he’s doing!”

1:22:08 

C
Yeah, we can’t be obvious at all…

1:22:12 

D
Well, would you guys say that one of the things that Former People will have to grapple with as it goes forward is the paradox or contradiction between the need for some sort of religious sensibility and the desire for an Enlightenment kind of approach to life?

1:22:36 

S
I think it manifests in a couple of the things we’ve published, to be perfectly blunt…

1:22:41 

D
Say that again?

1:22:42 

S
I think it’s, whether or not the authors intended this directly, I think it manifests in a number of the stories we’ve published, and even in a couple I think we’ll be publishing as well.

1:22:53 

C
And a lot of the poetry too. Maybe that’s just me. Not to talk about my own poetry on a podcast about movies, but my own sensibility… you have to know religion – sadly, for my reading audience, and maybe why I don’t have much of one – to get a lot of what I’m talking about. Even though, you know, I’m a died-in-the-wool super materialist. Maybe even more than either of you are, which is saying something.

1:23:28 

D
Well, I don’t know. You’ve got to watch for me, because I’m not…

1:23:32

C
That’s true. You’re probably secretly a gnostic.

1:23:36 

D
Yeah, you’ve got to watch me.

1:23:40 

C
But, like, I’ve joked with Steven that I’m the most religious hyper-atheist I know. Other than the New Atheists, that’s a completely different religion! But I think Tarkovsky is interesting that he’s grappling in that space. We have Andrei Rublev icons in space, but we don’t really acknowledge them as being there. The camera acknowledges them, but none of the people do; and I think that’s kind of his attitude towards it, like, the spirituality is always going to be there. But you don’t name yourself after “Former People” if you don’t have an ambiguous relationship with spirituality.

1:24:31 

D
Well, I just thought it might be a good thing to say outright for this first podcast, that that’s going to be a recurring theme.

1:24:39 

C
I think so. When we talk about, when we do the issue on modern Russian writers from Nabokov to… you can’t not talk about religion! And it’s not just Christianity, it’s also a shit-ton of Buddhism in a lot of Russian writing; like, there’s a native form of Buddhism there. There’s a weird, like, Tibetan form in Siberia that’s been there as long as Christianity has. So, you know, you can’t get around that. And a lot of the moviemakers that I love have, let’s just say strange relationships to religion. That’s also true for Scorsese, who’s still some kind of Catholic.

1:25:31 

S
Well, remember the story with Scorsese: for a long time, he thought he was going to be a priest. It’s not an uncommon phenomenon amongst artists, I must say!

1:25:42 

C
Well, you say that, but I mentioned Warhol, and Warhol was devoutly religious. Which… when I discovered that as an adult it blew my mind. I was like, how are you doing cocaine with the Velvet Underground, and yet you were super, super, super Eastern Catholic?

1:26:01 

S
Actually, that explains why you would do such things with the Velvet Underground, in my mind! [Laughter] If anything, from my experience with Eastern Orthodoxy, their anger is generally directed towards mainstream Americana, more so than the periphery weirdos and flakes of Americana. You know?

1:26:28 

C
It’s interesting. I mentioned Father Seraphim Rose because there’s a bunch of people inspired by him who even Orthodox consider to be radically ultra-Orthodox. But there was this whole movement in the 80s and 90s of, like, “let’s become so punk that we become Orthodox monks!” There’s a book about it… forgot what it’s called. But a lot of punk rockers became that. You also see that in the history of, like, the Dada movement and some of the Communists who, at the end of their lives, freak out and become religious. I can’t even count the number of Communists in the USSR that, even before it became Russia, were like “and we found Jesus!”

1:27:21

D
Yeah, you’ve got the Surrealists doing the same thing.

1:27:27 

C
Well, Dali dies hyper-Catholic.

1:27:30

S
Yeah, Dali arguably dies a fascist sympathizer. At least a Franco sympathizer.

1:27:38

C
Well, yeah. It happens. But that’s not like… Dali’s not even remotely the first instance of that. This isn’t a political podcast, but as I like to point out to people: more than half of the early Italian Fascists were either anarchists or Marxists to start off with! And a lot of them didn’t see that there was even that big of a difference!

1:28:02 

S
I agree. Without getting too deep into the politics, it’s not even just the Italians who are like that. A lot of the Nazis were too.

1:28:10 

D
So… okay, going back to Solaris here, I guess I just want to end on the actual movie. Do you think that… Well, if you have anything you want to say about it! I guess I just wanted to say we should say something about the movie again.

1:28:33 

S
Fair point. Again, at the end of the day, with the film you sort of leave with the question… My response to the film isn’t so much “what do I think about it?” as, what do I feel about it? And my feeling towards the film is that it’s extremely impressive and fairly awe-inspiring. Despite, you know, certain oddities in the cheapness of certain production values at times…

1:29:05

C
Russia didn’t have a special effects budget really, apparently…

1:29:12 

S
It’s emotionally overwhelming at times. How many people can claim to have achieved that?

1:29:20 

D
Yeah. And I would say that, on the question of whether it’s Science Fiction and whether it fits into the genre as defined by Carolyn Miller – does it do what Science Fiction should do? – I would have to say it does. And I would say specifically by grappling with this need for redemption, or religious sensibility, as we encounter the unknown and as our technology brings us into situations which we would never have dreamed of. It’s doing that trek of what Science Fiction is all about, it’s helping us feel and think about the world we’re in.

1:30:08 

C
I feel like, even though this is very different from Lem, if I was to read… I have the same response to this movie that I have to reading a Gene Wolfe short story. You guys know Gene Wolfe, right? Also a sci-fi/fantasy/horror writer, also hyper-religious…

1:30:31
S
Lives outside Chicago, by the way!

1:30:34 

C
But every time I read one of his books, the entire world that I experience seems a little bit weirder to me. For at least a day. I’m just aware of things, and they seem stranger. And I feel the same whenever I watch a Tarkovsky film, particularly Solaris. For at least two hours afterward, I’m not just emotionally overwhelmed, I’m looking at the world in a slightly skewed way. So, whatever problems I might have with it, it’s definitely an effective movie. With the caveat that some of the stuff doesn’t age well and, frankly, looks silly. That emerging out of the sea at the end is like, [laughs]. But, still, it’s amazing that that movie is so emotionally powerful that even with that you’re haunted by it.

1:31:31 

[Outro]

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