Thursday, February 20, 2014

Solaris / Mirror

1972, TSPDT Rank #209

1974, TSPDT Rank #26

This will be a big post. I saw these two landmark Tarkovsky films over the past two days, during which time the new update of the 1,000 Greatest Films was unveiled. As Bill, the man behind the big list, stated in the intro to the new edition, this year's update isn't as monumental as last year's Sight and Sound influenced revision, but as always, some films came and some left - which put my current count just a few points behind what it was before the update. I'm still very close to being halfway - Solaris and Mirror bring my current count to 494 films out of the total 1,000. I decided to combine the two films into one post so that I could compare them with each other and some of Tarkovsky's other work without the risk of overlap.

For quite a long time, the only Tarkovsky films I had seen were Ivan's Childhood and Andrei Rublev. Then this past fall I had the chance to see a screening of the last existing English-subtitled 35mm print of Stalker at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis - which was a singular and indescribable experience. I had previously shyed away from seeing either Mirror or Stalker because I had heard that their DVD releases did not do justice to replicating the films' delicate colors and mesmerizing imagery, and I could tell how this could be the case while viewing the print of Stalker. The imagery was as fragile and nuanced as it was awe-inspiring, and the film felt almost unearthly in a way that was haunting and surreal. But as glad as I was that I had waited to watch the film in a proper presentation, the film had a profound enough effect on me that I knew I would have to seek out the rest of Tarkovsky's work. As I said, I had heard bad things about Kino's transfer of Mirror, but it didn't seem likely that lightning would strike twice - and it didn't seem worth waiting indefinitely for a cinema screening that might never materialize.

I actually watched Solaris first, as it had always been a film I was interested in seeing but had just never gotten around to. I would recommend this film wholeheartedly to anyone. The Criterion transfer is stunning, and the film is monumental and powerful like few films have ever come close to being. Unlike Stalker, it could be more legitmately classified as science-fiction - although it completely transcends the genre and resides in a league all its own. Made in the era of space exploration frenzy, Tarkovsky explores the human urge to conquer and understand areas of life and the universe which are completely removed from the realm of our comprehension. The mind-shattering abyss of the unknown and the human thirst for absolute knowledge casts an unescapable shadow over the characters in the film, and the end result constitutes a haunting gaze into the depths of the human soul which has rarely been portrayed as effectively on film. Like Stalker, it is a film that thrives on mystery, and Tarkovsky's ability to handle this sense of mystery with such grandeur and grace while sidestepping incoherence and heavy-handedness surely has a lot to do with his reputation as one of the world's greatest filmmakers.

Of course, Tarkovsky is also known for his sublime, otherwordly frame compositions - and Mirror is probably his most reknowned film from this aesthetic standpoint. This position is definitely deserved, but unfortunately my experience watching the Kino transfer of the film last night was a clear reminder of just how much of a factor the digital transfer of a film can play into its effectiveness. The picture quality is quite murky and overall pretty dull in the color department - so I could recognize the beauty of the images, but usually only by imagining what they might look like on film, or with a proper digital transfer. That being said, the mediocre transfer quality didn't ruin the film for me. The visual palette seemed to be similar to Stalker in a way (despite the stark differences in setting and atmosphere), which made it possible for me to visualize better versions of the images, but it still frustrated me from time to time when I could clearly recognize that I was watching a sub-par representation of a great film. But picture quality aside, the film itself is another work of cinematic wonder from Tarkovsky. Definitely his most personal film (that I've seen), and possibly his most complex - although it is quite a bit more concise than most of the other films of his that I've seen (i.e. Andrei Rublev, Solaris, Stalker). It's a quintessential example of the possiblities of cinema based around dreams and memories - probably the most viable alternative to narrative filmmaking that has ever been attempted, although mainstream viewers used to being spoon-fed their films still tend to harbor an attitude of intolerance and scorn toward films of this nature. Its structure and themes are enigmatic to say the least, but for my sensibilities, this made the film all the more rich and engrossing. It begins poetically, turning more political towards the middle, and becoming almost hallucinatory at the end - but it retains the smooth, flowing cadence of a dream throughout. I hope to see it again some day in a more suitable presentation - but I still am glad that I watched it, regardless, and look forward to Tarkovsky's two films from the 1980s, which I still have yet to see.

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