27/11/02 Film Essay # , , , , ,

Solaris (2002)

Solaris (2002)
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writers: Steven Soderbergh (screenplay), Stanislaw Lem (novel)
Stars: George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Ulrich Tukur


“If you’ve ever felt the daze of inconsolable despair after the loss of a loved one, go see Solaris. Solaris makes the invisible world of emotional pain visible. And while science fiction buffs may object, it may only be in the imaginary realm of outer space that a vision for resolving maddening grief and guilt can be explored.”

Linearity be damned in the realm of a man’s emotions after he loses his wife to suicide. Even, or perhaps especially when that man, Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is a psychologist who depends on putting feelings in perspective and can’t. Initially, Kelvin avoids thoughts and feelings about his wife’s suicide, going about the business of his practice as usual. In particular, he avoids reflecting on his own responsibility in what happened. But the simplest of self-inflicted wounds, cutting himself with a knife while making a salad, happens just as a phone call to make a visit to a space station orbiting a planet called Solaris comes in.

Emotionally, Kelvin had left his wife, Rhyea (Natascha McElhone) before she died. Once he had felt great ecstatic joy with her but as she began to display erratic moods, he let her slip away. Her suicide provokes a longing to restore what was lost, a return to what he once felt. Now an agony of depression more kaleidoscope than any story can contain flips through his unconscious. Memory of the past merges with visions of a future lost that cannot be held to earthly standards, seeming to have a self-consciousness of its own that is impossible but, nevertheless, true.

Kelvin gets a call to solve a mysterious problem occurring at a space station rotating around a far star, Solaris, where strange things are happening. Presumably, since a psychologist can make sense of things in the inner realm of the psyche where events slip between time zones and ordinary boundaries with ease, he could do so in outer space. It’s a small leap to the realization that Kelvin has never left his own psyche. After slicing his finger making a salad, he receives the ‘mythic call’, pulling him away from ordinary life to a quest for peace of mind. Kelvin’s conflict between despair and denial is not easily resolved because it arouses an implacable guilt. When guilt is not a feeling but a fact, it cannot be erased. It can only be transformed.

Once upon a time, the Greeks imagined descents into the underground to look at transcendental issues of life and death. Today, we visualize going into outer space to examine projections of life after life. Solaris is reminiscent of the brave descent of Orpheus into the underground to rescue his beloved Euridyce. In effect, Kelvin pursues Rheya after death in a realm known as Solaris. There, like Orpheus and Euridyce in the underground, Kelvin and Rheya experience an impossible reunion. And Kelvin, like Orpheus, seems to be given a choice to accept her death as final or to take her back with him. This is not a choice of the upper world of everyday matters but of the inner, limitless and merged world of the psyche.

Being drawn into an exploration of life after death, Kelvin goes to Solaris

where overlapping realms of inner and outer space are the norm. Seeking respite from guilt as well as longing for an impossible restoration of life with his beloved, Orpheus attempted to bring Euridyce back to the upper world. Similarly, Kelvin attempts to regain happiness with Rheya. The death of love often feels like the death of a loved one. In Solaris, the two are overlapped. When the ‘in love’ feeling disappeared, Kelvin withdrew from Rheya as if a death had occurred. His rejection shattered her, turning an emotional event into a real one. Kelvin needed something more than therapy to make this right within himself; he needed a spiritual revelation.

Science fiction or emotional healing? That is the question and not all viewers want their science fiction mixed with psychology — or vice versa. But Solaris is a rare gift to the viewer who wants a peek at the mysteries of the human psyche where time and space let go, suggesting possibilities far beyond logic.

In the beginning of Kelvin’s journey, as he arrives at the Solaris space station, he encounters the contents of his own mind’s eye as if they were as real as any ordinary reality. He is offered his dream come true. But the possibility of a full reunion with a Rheya who is alive but knows she’s dead is a form too terrifying, too threatening to the very structure of his sanity. He leaps back into the defense of denial and rejects her. Quite fantastically, he traps his image of Rheya into a space station transport pod and ejects her as a confection of his mind into outer space.

Of course, Rheya comes back. She’s already been coming back in his dreams and now she’s returning in what are often considered lucid dreams. Lucid dreaming can feel make people seem more real as an image than they are in real life. They take on special qualities not actual but virtual and, as such, virtually wish-fulfilling.

The events of Solaris begin to mirror the events on earth that Kelvin has not been able to face. For instance, his ejection of Rheya in the pod replicates his rejection of her on earth that led to their estrangement from one another in marriage and contributed to her death. She frightened him on earth after they married when she turned out not to be more than the stunning dreamgirl he married. Beneath the surface, Rheya was a woman with disturbing, disruptive emotions. The relationship died, their unborn child died and she died. Only after her death, Kelvin realizes that it was not his wife who fell from grace but his own idealism that betrayed him. Though it appears that he turns outward to Solaris, he actually turns inward for wisdom and healing.

At his wits end, Kelvin returns from Solaris, leaving Rheya to be an imaginary figure dwelling in another world. Deadened by irreparable loss, Kelvin is saved by a child reaching out to him symbolizing the miracle of healing that is the province of children. The mentality, vitality and enthusiasm of a child who faces a world unknown without even an slight understanding of courage provides a critical bridge for Kelvin to a connection with his wife not broken by time and place.

The connection with the child – finger to finger like the great painting of Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel – reinstates innocence, not as a solution but as a reminder of continuity that exists beyond physical form. Kelvin searches for a time that lies beyond rational. If this is too fantastical, there is the cucumber. Kelvin cuts himself slicing a cucumber for a salad. A physical wound heals, leaving scant evidence of it ever happening. What accounts for such a disappearance? It hints at a human healing without limits and without edges, dimensions beyond science suggested by a visionary reality explored in Solaris. “Any death shall have no dominion”, a quote from a Dylan Thomas’ poem used in the film, holds the Solaris promise. The poem is printed in full below, well deserving of a reading to feel the truth of Solaris.

On Orpheus’ ascent back to ordinary life with Euridyce following behind him, Orpheus succumbs to a feeling of elation — or insecurity. He looks back just once to be sure Euridyce is there, violating the one rule that assures her loss forever. And that is where ancient mythology left off; a projection of death as a final ending, a separation of one from another beyond repair.

In Solaris Kelvin steps forward into a world of possibility where the human form is mutable. His route may be no less painful than being bound to an understanding solely of the objective mind. His destination may be as unknown, suggested only by a faraway galaxy imagined as Solaris where realities merge and continuity reigns.

And Death Shall Have No Dominion – Dylan Thomas

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,

They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

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30/06/95 Film Essay # , , ,

Safe (1995)

Safe (1995)
Director: Todd Haynes
Writer: Todd Haynes
Stars: Julianne Moore, Xander Berkeley, Dean Norris


…”Living in the lap of luxury also means living with some of the most powerful chemicals ever concocted on earth. If you thought terrorism was a serious threat to your health and safety, take a look at Safe and prepare to do battle with a band of sneaky little murderers lurking in your couch, your carpet and your spray bottles, not to mention hair salons, highways and parking garages.”

It’s definitely easier to watch Erin Brockovich (2000) fight and win her case against big corporate polluters than it is to watch Julianne Moore wasting away from privileged housewife to a shadow of her former beautiful self and living in relative isolation in an Arizona desert. But they are they same story. Safe simply picks up the other side, the side of the victim rather than the victor. And, it could be argued, Safe tells the true, down to earth story with which we all can identify rather than the big fantasy story of triumphing against Goliath. Everyone I know is attempting to cut down on the chemicals coming into our lives on an every day basis. We shop organic, clean green and drive hybrid. And we feel like we’re fighting a losing battle.

I think Todd Haynes aimed his film at raising consciousness, filming a stylized, non-personal story meant to give you the creeps. The opening scenes feel more like the beginning of a mystery thriller than a study of a woman suffering the slow demise of a misunderstood illness. An unseen driver maneuvers a big black car into a darkened wealthy neighborhood at night, shines its headlights into the driveway of a large Tudor style home and slides silently through an electric gate. In the morning, a husband methodically makes love to a wife who sweetly pats him on the shoulder when he finishes his orgasm. Everything in place. Everything waiting for a disturbance. He leaves for work in an expensive suit while she clips flowers, waiting for a couch to be delivered to their mansion. It’s a picture of perfection, the ideal upscale life. Then the couch arrives, in black instead of teal and, symbolically, the murderer enters the house. The wife is the designated victim. Her husband, doctor and friends will stand aside like frozen bystanders on a sidewalk watching an old lady being pummeled by thugs stealing her purse.

It is the innocence of Carol White (Julianne Moore) and the people around her that captures our attention. They have no idea that the exact things they cherish, work so hard for and cost so much money are full of intolerable chemicals, pesticides and poisons. Invisible pollutants surround Carol. Her maids conscientiously spray liberal amounts of cleaning chemicals on trays before serving hors d’oeuvres at a party. We gasp, beginning to realize how pervasive poisons are in our own homes. Most of us adjust – at least we think we do. But some, like Carol, are highly allergic and remind us that our immune systems may be working overtime. To my mind, people with allergies may be acting like canaries in a mineshaft, giving the rest of us advance notice of a dangerous condition not readily detectable with our own senses.

Carol is afflicted with a malady loosely referred to as ‘environmental illness’, thought psychosomatic by many since its cause is so elusive and its symptoms so idiosyncratic. But the attack on the immune system has clear debilitating effects, interfering with the ability to perform ordinary activities. Every day events leave Carol coughing, throwing up and gasping for breath. She becomes a pariah at a baby shower when she mysteriously collapses while holding a child on her lap. Her nose bleeds after getting her hair permed. Carol’s enjoyment of life gives way to a vapid, empty depression full of fear.

On a whim, she picks up a flyer at her gym advertising a talk about the toxic effects of fumes. As she starts to seek answers, she’s drawn into a world of other people on a quest for a cure. Sufferers on a path outside conventional medicine who are willing to take chances because their doctors are stumped, their spouses impatient. It’s not a world Carol is used to and she finds herself frightened of this ‘outsider’ take on life but, desperate for help, she trusts them. The allergist pokes her arm black and blue with substances until he induces a seizure. She finds comfort in his lack of fear about what’s happening to her, relieved to feel a cause and effect connection. And she follows his advice.

To survive, Carol – like others before her – retreats to a desert wellness center in hopes that she can clear the toxins from her body. She finds solace but not a cure in the out-of-the-way community of people who have had similar experiences. The leaders and residents may be accepting of her weakness but the center espouses an ideology that justifies the extreme measures they’re taking. There’s a lot of kindness, an array of explanations and considerable support to withdraw even further to ‘Safe houses’ built like incubator bubbles for premature babies on the property. Despite good intentions, the philosophy reinforces a feeling of hopelessness and offers no way out. She does not get stronger; she weakens.

It may be that breaking out of innocence will not turn around the breakdown of people’s immune systems. Safe leaves us with that feeling, possibly reflecting a dark hopelessness in people that leads to desperate measures of retreat. As we hear stories about how the pollutants from farming and manufacturing in the Midwest are running down the Mississippi River and turning the Gulf of Mexico into a cesspool, perhaps we think our demise is inevitable but far enough off in the future that we can play the role of bystander.

But, perhaps, if we see Carol as a canary – perhaps see Haynes’ whole film as a canary, we’ll be motivated instead to revamp the ventilation system in the mines. Give ourselves the fresh air, sweet water and wholesome earth we deserve even if it costs a lot of money. The diseases stemming from an insistence by a demanding and growing population for more perfect goods, flawless tomatoes and cheap energy aren’t waiting. They’re crying out for us to vamp it up, change our priorities and take responsibility. No one likes to be preachy but the old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” has never seemed more apt. Developing products with zero toxic side effects seems exactly what we want to be buying with our wealth. Otherwise, we’re stuffing our mattresses with killers. Revamping lifestyles and changing values without losing benefits may be a challenge. But, since no one has a solution for the repairing nature’s immunity system, the good idea is to prevent the breakdown in the first place.

In the Tenth Elegy, the famous poet, Rainier Maria Rilke may have been thinking forward to our times and warning us not to ignore our pain when he wrote:

But there, where they live in the valley, An elderly Lament responds to the youth as he asks:- We were once a great race, she says, a great race, we Laments Our fathers worked the mines up there in the mountains Sometimes amongst men you will find a piece of polished primeval pain or petrified slag from an ancient volcano. Yes, that came from there. We were rich.

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