Here’s This Thing: Solaris

Oh boy.

Here’s This Thing is a new weekly column where Rambler editors share their favorite obscure pop culture and explain what makes it so great. For the first week of the column, News Editor Rebecca Blankenship writes about avant-garde Soviet Filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris.

If I were to invite you over to watch a three-hour long Soviet science fiction epic by avant-garde director Anderi Tarkovsky, I hope you would regard that as an interesting invitation—if not, okay then, we’ll watch Star Wars, but don’t touch me. Sit, like, three feet away. Thanks.

Listen, Solaris (1972) is good. The pain of a thousand yearnings, good. The collision of that violent desire for love with the equally earnest hope you never have to look upon another starry-eyed nice-looking human because they betray you, every time, good. That tearing-inside feeling you can’t stand and can’t escape for long, if ever, good.

I’m going to tell you enough about it that this piece will serve as an interesting primer and supplement for the film; I’m not going to spoil it much, and I’m not going to give you any reason to feel like you’ve seen it, but hopefully you’ll watch it and later approach me in Carpenter to admit I did you a solid.

The premise is this: a hundred years have passed since the discovery of a planet called Solaris. This is in what Stanislaw Lem, the novelist whose book became this film, somewhat humorously calls “the glorious communist future.” Like today, a group of academics have become almost worryingly specialized, and together have named their new field “Solaristics.”

Photo of Stanislaw Lem
In probably an amphetamine fueled psychosis, Philip K. Dick once wrote the FBI accusing Stanislaw Lem (pictured) of being a communist committee. Photo by Aleksander Jalosinski (Fair Use).

The new planet is maddeningly enigmatic. Its atmosphere, its surface, its orbit—all of this is not only utterly unlike any other planet’s, it’s not even consistent. Things change on Solaris almost hourly, without any warning and without explanation. The logic of these changes is inscrutable, and the world government that funds the operation is ready to abort it. Then Solaris Station goes silent, and a man goes to check it out.

Derrida reminds us that form and content are the same, so we should observe that Andrei Tarkovsky, it’s not even a digression, is just a little off-balance delivering us this exposition. Although the latter film has much overlap with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the odd and surreal poetry of Solaris’s first shots recalls David Lynch’s introduction to Blue Velvet (1986). Smell the fog in the willow trees; there’s a horse somewhere. A bridge. The world is beautiful, truly peaceful, but lonely and just-sub-menacingly disjointed.

In his book on film, Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky says that “[t]hrough poetic connections feeling is heightened and the spectator is made more active.” All his films follow the same poetic pacing, the contemplative soaking in images; in his film Stalker (1979), there are only five cuts in the first eighteen minutes, and though Solaris is less radical, what Paul Schrader called the “transcendental style” persists. Each image is linked to the next through the logic of poetry and association: fresh shots flow in quasi-logical sequence, so that the film’s inmost feelings pour slow, viscous, and translucent like brown syrup, pure and unrefined.

There's blood on her mouth; he'll do it, too.
“If you still want to watch Star Wars, I’ll literally harm you,” he whispered. Photo from Solaris (1972).

The cuts are rare, but each one takes us deeper into some layer of the film’s Idea. Which through the floating, ever-calm camera that takes us all the way to Solaris Station, gradually unfurls itself: our memories are already also our future, and other people are not not us. Take a long coffee break this weekend, and let your spirit drift beyond: someone out there—maybe you—wants the pain of knowing you, for a while, and never forgetting you. Even when they want to.

                                         And I have felt 
A presence that disturbs me with the joy 
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime 
Of something far more deeply interfused, 
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, 
And the round ocean and the living air, 
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: 
A motion and a spirit, that impels 
All thinking things, all objects of all thought, 
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still 
A lover of the meadows and the woods 
And mountains; and of all that we behold 
From this green earth; of all the mighty world 
Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create, 
And what perceive.
                                    ­— William Wordsworth
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Rebecca Blankenship is the director of "The Moral Center: Chapter Two of the Poor People's Campaign," a documentary film scheduled for release this November. She has worked on the NPR-WEKU show "Eastern Standard," hosted by Tom Martin, and is The Rambler's News Editor. She is a senior at Transylvania University.