Thursday, May 08, 2008

The New Talkies in Portland, 5/3/08: Solaris

Around the same time that Andrei Tarkovsky was planning his cinematic riposte to Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a former telephone cable layer named Venedikt Erofeyev was struggling to publish Moscow to the End of the Line, the prose poetic odyssey of a heavily boozed telephone cable layer on a train ride from the capital to the outlying town of Petushki. David Abel & Leo Daedalus created a multilayered commentary on narrative, meaning, spiritual longing, and political oppression by brilliantly speaking Erofeyev’s lines through a key character in Tarkovsky’s film.

The scene they chose was appropriately one of the most “down to earth” in Solaris: the “film within a film within a film” where Kris Kelvin watches old footage of Berton, the cosmonaut who preceded him into space some years earlier, being interrogated by a panel of scientists curious to determine the truth of what he saw. The footage is black-and-white, and the examination room is hung with giant posters of figures resembling Lenin and Marx. It’s hard not to read into the scene Tarkovsky’s frustration with Soviet censorship, and Berton’s nervous hesitations in the face of the experts’ questions bore a strong resemblance to Larkin’s Joan of Arc. In both pieces, the presumption of truth came off as a means to bludgeon the different into compliance, while uncertainty, aporia, and doubt became heroic.

Leo Daedalus gave a hilarious range of voices to Berton’s interrogators, who began by declaring themselves members of an unnamed “Institute” that aims to make sure films are “good, but not too good.” They’ve called in Berton as a dialogue specialist to dumb down some of their recent product and confirm that the scripts are orthodox. But once Berton begins talking, out comes a rambling catalog of drinks and misdirections as Erofeyev’s narrator details an inebriated trip across Moscow in which he managed to miss seeing the Kremlin. The idea that you could travel through the capital and not see the metonym for Soviet power has its own political implications that nicely underscore Tarkovsky’s. But Berton’s disjointed narrative also turned to metaphysical questions about the state of being human, “superhuman,” or “anti-human” (depending on how much and what you’ve had to drink) that played wryly against Tarkovsky’s own liturgical aesthetic. Tarkovsky’s Berton looks serious and shattered, traumatized by a supernatural experience that the scientists don’t want to acknowledge he’s had. David Abel miraculously succeeded in synching up phrases from the English translation of Erofeyev’s text with the actor's Russian lip movements, so that Berton’s gestures became exactly those of a puzzled alcoholic trying to reconstruct what it is he did the night before.

As the piece goes on, the interrogators are gradually drawn into Berton’s idiosyncratic story, until their questions turn into expressions of genuine curiosity (“Sherry. Did you have any sherry?”). Eventually, the account of the various bridges, stations and drinks downed between them comes to seem like a metaphor for narrative itself, the interrogators insisting on linear progress—the fastest route, the easiest transfers—with Berton as the champion of divagation: “If you want to go right, go right,” Abel says for him at one point. “I’m not asking you to do anything.” Given the context of the scene—and the politically fraught implications of the film-telling form, where the benshi "takes control" of the movie by speaking for someone else—“not asking” amounts to an ethical imperative. In the center of the scene, Berton shows the panel a film of what he saw in his transcendent moment on the surface of Solaris. Turns out there's no Kremlin up there, either.

1 comment:

konrad said...

The piece also seems to delightfully pivot on this one sentence, uttered first about one of the Institute's films by the chief interrogator and moments later by the interrogee, Burton, about the Kremlin, "I didn't see it myself."