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.