Solaris: A Momentary Defiance of Gravity

Solaris: A Momentary Defiance of Gravity

I’m avoiding what is nowadays fashionably referred to as ‘spectacular.’ Although, I admit, the film will be in color.
     ––Andrei Tarkovsky 1

In part four of my exploration of poetic moments in film, we leave earth and the frenetic energy of Moulin Rouge; we leave the violent flashes of Raging Bull and the haunting lakeside kiss of Sunriseto float in space in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris.  The pace of this scene is slower, yet more fluid than the gliding camera work of Sunrise.  This time it’s not the film apparatus capturing the scene that appears to float, but the characters in the film that seem to float in space for “30 Seconds of Weightlessness.” 2
The story concerns a scientist, Kris Kelvin, who is sent to the planet Solaris to investigate the death of a crew member and to determine if the station should be shut down.  Shortly after Kris arrives on Solaris he learns that the planet’s ocean has the power to enter people’s minds and make their most painful memories real. Kelvin is soon confronted with an exact double of his wife, Hari––exact except for the fact that she doesn’t have a memory.  The real Hari had committed suicide while they were married.  Although Hari is devoted and loving to Kris, he is tortured by her presence as she repeatedly causes him to relive their relationship and her suicide.

The “magic center of Solaris” happens when the space station enters a momentary loss of gravity. 3 The scene is filled with memories that represent Kris’ longing for home, such as a candelabra with candles lit, a crystal chandelier, an open book of Don Quixote, and a painting of The Hunters in the Snow.4  The Hunters in the Snow contains, yet another, perhaps submerged group of memory paradigms as we see painted images from Earth: trees, dogs (echoing the image we saw earlier in the film of Kris, as a boy, holding a dog). The winter scene also echoes an earlier image of Kris in the snow. The objects that are floating are some of Tarkovsky’s favorite objects; this creates a personal connection for the director to the character’s longing for Earth and emotional unity.  Tarkovsky also dressed the space station set with objects that are not typically seen in a science fiction film.  This was a deliberate choice to avoid creating a technologically futuristic look for Solaris: “I’d like to film Solaris in such a way as to avoid inducing in the viewer a feeling of anything exotic. Technologically exotic that is.”5   By placing his favorite objects in the scene and allowing them the freedom to float, he has symbolically placed himself inside the moment and thereby expressed his own transcendent autonomy. Was Tarkovsky, like Kris, trapped?  Perhaps Kris’ desperate situation mirrors Tarkovky’s feelings of stifled creative freedom under the censors of the Soviet Union?  Like Kris, he is trapped inside a place in which there was no escape.  

The scene is not technically complex nor is it directed in the same dazzling slant manner that I have described in Lurhman’s and Scorsese’s films.  He could have shot the film with special effects to create the kind of science fiction movie that everyone expects, but instead he chose to show the emotional story: “We need to put the characters in real, not exotic, scenery because it is only through the perception of the former by the characters in the film that it will become comprehensible to the viewer. That’s why detailed expositions of technological processes of the future destroy the emotional foundation of the film.”6  The “30 Seconds of Weightlessness” does not dazzle us with lightning effects, but rather, it surprises us with ease and lifts us with its beauty that quietly and gently unfolds the truth of Kris and Hari’s love, and, at the same time, is able to communicate transcendence.  Tarkovsky’s effects are there, but they’re quiet and subtle. Transcendence is achieved for the lovers, and transcendence is achieved for the film as art.  “Tarkovsky spent his career proving that cinema was an art form as important as every other art—a message that this scene brings home unmistakably.”7  Tarkovsky ensures the scene’s artistic legitimacy by including the accepted art form of painting, The Hunters in the Snow, and the accepted art form of classical music, a Bach prelude. The scene’s rhythm is another devise that is effective in achieving a feeling of transcendence. The scene begins in silence as we watch a close-up of a candelabra float off and ascend into the chandelier.  The soaring candelabra moves as in a ballet; it glides toward the chandelier until it passes out of view.  There is an anticipatory pause as we wait for the expected gentle colliding of the two objects.  The tingle of crystal is heard followed by a cut to Kris and Hari as they begin to levitate.  Their reactions are consistent with the rhythm; they do not jerk or flail their arms; they simply surrender to the gravity-free environment.  Once they levitate the Bach prelude is heard.  The meter of the prelude is consistent with the rhythm of the scene and appropriately accompanies the objects that float by.  In the foreground, an open book of Don Quixotedrifts past; it seems to soar by in double time, thereby adding a visual dynamic, yet remaining true to the rhythm. The couple embraces, while in the weightlessness their bodies slowly spin in unison passing before The Hunters in the Snow.  The camera slowly and smoothly pans into the painting, filling the screen with the images, and then we cut back on the embracing couple, who are clearly in love as they float.  The camera, once again pans across The Hunters in the Snow.  It meditates on the details in the painting and then returns to the lovers, who are now on the floor huddled together. Next to them is the candelabra lying on its side with the wicks still burning.  Tarkovsky takes the emotional connection of the lovers with their earthly objects.  It is followed by a quick cut to Kris as a young boy in the snow, warming himself by the fire, and juxtaposes that with a cut to a stark image of the Solaris’s ocean.  He holds the shot for forty-five seconds.  The beauty of this scene makes you feel as if you are also levitating.  Vida Johnson eloquently describes the transcendent feel of the scene: “The lovers transcend the boundaries of ordinary life to achieve complete, if brief, communion and understanding as Kris and Hari seem to do here.  Huddled, protected together and enveloped by these beautiful reminders of earth.  They seem, at last, to be content.”8   This film moment is, yet again, another example that can be characterized as vertical.  The scene can easily be separated from the film; it stands out from the narrative and soars on its own with lyrical beauty.  The “30 Seconds of Weightlessness” is a visual poem of transcendence that expresses multiple layers of meaning notably through rhythm and sound. “Then suddenly, in a moment of breathtaking beauty, Kelvin and Hari begin floating through the air, as a candelabra and books glide by them.  It is a moment of transcendence that illustrates the power of love and art to take us to another level. It’s a moment that seems to come out of nowhere and that transports us the way of music or a painting can.”9

            Spinning with Baz Lurhman’s Moulin Rouge, capturing a Life Magazine photo with Martin Scorses Raging Bull, gliding with Murnau’s Sunrise, and levitating with Tarkosky’s Solaris are poetic moments that endure because of their seemingly magical aesthetic.  They are eternal moments that affect us with their beauty and simplicity.  However, the simplicity is an illusion.  As we have discovered, these moments are filled with complexity; they are densely charged with many layers of poetic detail.  Because of each director’s slant storytelling, the layers of multidimensional complexity appear to magically fall in place. The seams that separate those layers flow together, and thus, density and clarity become one; the complexity appears invisible to the viewer.  What we are left with are vertical moments that are both profound and human, that lift us and transcend the story to take us somewhere breathless.  Like poetry, these moments ask us to return and to continue our involvement as we examine their layers.  These artistic moments are poetry in motion moving at twenty-four frames per second. 
–John David West

[1] Dr. Seweryn Kusmierczyk, quotes from The Tolstoy Complex. an Andrei Tarkovsky information site.
[2] “30 Seconds of Weightlessness”: title of the scene as listed on the Criterion DVD, chapter list of Solaris. Criterion Collection, special double-disc set. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky 1972.
[3] Roger Ebert, The Great Movies II, 424.
[4] The Hunters in the Snow: oil on wood painting by Pieter Bruegel (1565).
[5] Dr. Seweryn Kusmierczyk, quotes from The Tolstoy Complex. an Andrei Tarkovsky information site.
[6] Dr. Seweryn Kusmierczyk, quotes from The Tolstoy Complex. an Andrei Tarkovsky information site.
[7] Al Weisel, Weightlessness: Solaris, Defining Moments in Movies, (Casell Illustrated 2007) 476.
[8] Vida Johnson, Graham Petrie. “Commentary,” Disc 1. Solaris, Criterion Collection, special double-disc set. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky 1972.
[9] Al Weisel, Defining Moments in Movies, 475.

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