Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Victim of the Brain


Mrs Boyo has convinced me by sheer force of repetition that Solaris by Stanisław Lem is a work of fiction, not the diary of an intrepid Polish astronaut.

To reinforce the point she replaced my Coupling omnibus dvd with a film version of Solaris, directed by Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky. I have watched this film, all 170 minutes of it, and reached the following conclusions:

1. Whatever else they may have lacked, the Brezhnev-era Soviets were not short of film stock.

2. The Russians foresaw a future in which space exploration would be carried out in natural fibres, which puts them miles ahead of the Americans.

3. As established elsewhere, Russians don't know how to have a good time unless there's distilled potato and other people's countries involved.

4. Mr Tarkovsky was clearly an early master of the Kieślowski Gambit.

Named after the late Polish ennuier, the Gambit replaces plotting, pacing, action and characterisation with rapt vistas, unleaven religiosity and inconsequential dialogue, often delivered by women without any make-up. "Ah, sophisticated!" breathe Anglo-American film reviewers. "Mais où est Arnie?" ask Europe audiences.

Which brings me neatly to the US remake of Solaris. Hollywood is often accused of crudening the textures of European cinema with its abridged versions. The Vanishing, Les Diaboliques and the Second World War are indeed travesties of the European originals. But in the case of Solaris, I think Hollywood got it right.

Yes, Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall is the film Tarkovsky's Solaris could have become. The left-field Dutchman made his mark with gay porn classic The Royal Dutch Marine Corps and The Fourth Man, being the further adventures of Harry Lime, before heading west to achieve his career peak with Showgirls.

On the way there - somewhere over the Azores in terms of his creative flight path - Verhoeven turned his hand to Lem's slender volume and produced a bar of cinematic gold.

Total Recall corrects four fundamental flaws in Tarkovsky's version:

1. In Total Recall, Quaid imagines a dusky, kick-boxing lingerie model. In contrast to his wife - a blonde, kick-boxing lingerie model. The Kelvin character in Solaris dreams of his own wife - a sallow, undernourished, apparently dead homemaker from Perm.

2. In Total Recall, the planet is a real planet - Mars - and has nuclear reactors, mutants, prostitutes and more guns than a Beirut wedding party. The planet on Solaris looks like Dovey Junction and is inhabited by the said uncommunicative frump. And neither she nor the planet are real, from what I could gather.

3. In Total Recall, you have Arnie. Fair enough, Tarkovsky was in no position to hire the Governator in 1972, but he could at least have tried for someone who combines action with Arnie's light touch. Sir David Niven springs to mind.

4. In Total Recall, there's an early scene of Quaid going home from a construction site. This establishes the essential characters and plot. From then on, it's two-fisted, many-tentacled action, with added sleaze. And it also raises important issues about the environment, reality etc. In Solaris, there's a visit to the Kelvin family hut, and then it slows down drastically.

In a nutshell, compare the escalator fight scene in Total Recall with the traffic jam in Solaris. Now imagine what Kelvin would have done on the moving stairs, and how long Arnie would have waited before clearing the motorway with a nuclear-fuelled Humvee armed with laser-powered rocket-launchers. And he wouldn't have taken ten minutes to do it either.

Solaris is available in a subtitled, remastered DVD from the Criterion Collection at £14.86, with an informative article by Phillip Lopate. Total Recall is available pretty much every day at Casa Boyo on ITV2, with an excitable commentary by myself.

11 comments:

Ordovicius said...

Yup, you can't beat Dick for inspiring a Sci-Fi flick with lots of carnage. Or drugs, in the case of Scanner Darkly.

No Good Boyo said...

Scanner Darkly is the only Dick I've read, I must admit, and I enjoyed it greatly. I've often toyed with writing some Welsh sci-fi, in which hostile aliens land in Bethesda bent on conquest and send several chapters desperately trying to escape. During my brief editorship of Taffinfform news agency I wrote some copy about the Welsh manned space mission to Mars, which consisted of sending Shaky by there with little prospect of bringing him back, but James "Fucking" McCarthy - Iago Anffawd of Cymru Rouge fame, managed to lose it all on the Intern Net somewhere. You just can't get the cadres these days.

Ordovicius said...

Ive been writing my own Welsh Dick inspired sci-fi blogel HERE. Must get round to writing another paragraph this year...

Nwdls said...

Bravo boyo! Bravo!

Gorilla Bananas said...

Does Sharon Stone play the bogus wife who is cruelly slain in Total Recall? I think it was just before she became a star. The girl Arnie ends up with looked a bit Welsh to me, but I may have been dreaming.

M C Ward said...

Much as I am keen to opine, I have not watched either of the moving pictures analysed. I will, however, be plaigarising your opinions heavily when discussing popular culture at highbrow dinner engagements.

No Good Boyo said...

Ordo, nice stuff. What Welsh literature needs is more Lovecraftian weirdness. I thought Rachub would make a great setting for a "Shadow over Innsmouth" story. The locals could even act in the film version.

GB, it was indeed La Stone, in her best leotard performance to date. Arnie's ultimate squeeze is hereby awarded honorary Welshness.

Nwdls, diolch.

mc, be my guest. Beware that English-speaking Tarkovsky fans are like readers of Dostoyevsky, JK Rowling and Noam Chomsky. They have had a revelation, and don't brook critism.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

I would say that Tarkovsky's version is not that bad, albeit a bit too long. At least better than the Hollywood crap.

In fact, both have nothing to do with the book, which is worth reading. Available in Amazon, I believe.

No Good Boyo said...

The book is certain worth a look, Snoopy, if you can get past the long chunks of physics talk. My favourite parts of the Tarkovsky film are the Tokyo road scene and the amazing ending, both of which I hereby copy courtesy of our fellow Elders at YouTube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rswYl7RLRNE

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jorf-2o5YfU&feature=related

Ordovicius said...

. I thought Rachub would make a great setting for a "Shadow over Innsmouth" story. The locals could even act in the film version.

Indeed. My brother and I distributed leaflets for the [classified], though we were wise enough to do so only in broad daylight. An unusual place, with a warren of seemingly innocent back streets. After delivering leaflets door to door for an hour I discovered that I was back where I started! I also noticed that the locals spoke a strange Cthulhu-like dialect somewhat removed from Welsh as spoken in the Ogwen Valley.

No Good Boyo said...

Uncanny. Our fellow Welsh Sioba Siencyn spent his university years at Aberystwyth with the son of a Rachub man and Norwegian woman, or vice versa. Almost Lovecraftian in his own right, he was. I'll ask Sioba for further details and pass them on.