Mainstream movies focus on pleasure. Sentimentality, jolts of fright, the momentum of action, the relief of laughter. They deal in escapism. They assail you with regulated thrills. Movies are clockwork mechanisms, relatively easy to engineer. And they typically steer clear of any troubling metaphysics that often result from looking at human life. Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Reggio and Fricke’s Koyaanisqatsi share at least one thing in common: neither is that type of movie. They were both engineered for a different purpose, to unnerve, i.e. to freak you out intellectually.
Koyaanisqatsi is the artiest of art films, exemplifying Andre Bazin’s term “montage of attraction”, leaning on no other narrative tools. As Bazin describes in “What is Cinema?”, “montage by attraction… may be roughly defined as the reenforcing of the meaning of one image by association with another image not necessarily part of the same episode”. The montage of Koyaanisqatsi consists of slow motion and time-lapse shots of urban landscapes colliding against the immense canyons of the Four Corners and other natural wonders, accompanied by an incessant Phillip Glass score, creating a hallucinatory and purgatorial view of our world. Koyaanisqatsi is a city symphony about North America, but an America as a stand-in for Dante’s Inferno.
Definitions of the Hopi word used for its title include “life of moral corruption and turmoil”, or perhaps corrupted existence, or chaotic existence. “Crazy life”. “Life in turmoil”. The film opens with a cave pictograph of an alien visitation, followed by the fire of a space shuttle launch, then moves on to the savagery of nature: volcanic activity, desert dunes, massive cloud formations, oceanic chaos. But it’s the man-made, from industrial construction to the multitude of cars, bombs, military craft, and buildings, and buildings being demolished, to assembly lines of office workers, engineers and food, people churning through Grand Central Station, speeding cars turning into streaks of light at night, and big-wigged Las Vegas ladies, that the crazy life of the 20th century is rhapsodically portrayed. It all goes by in a fast 80 minutes. And it ends brutally, with an unedited stock shot of the 1962 Atlas-Centaur rocket exploding after liftoff and spinning, like a dancer, in a fiery free-fall, supplemented by Glass’ requiem mass “Prophecies”. This particular mission was un-manned, but after well-documented NASA failures it’s easy to picture manned. Put yourself in the place of a 12th century Hopi Native American Indian (known as “The Peaceful People” by the way), living on the Mogollon Rim escarpment, which sounds like it once was a very Edenic portion of Arizona, lost in thought, gazing at the sky, trying to imagine what a “crazy life”, an existence of corruption or nonsense, would look like. Human beings shooting themselves into space and falling back to Earth on fire, or, for that matter, any aspect of the New York portrayed in Koyaanisqatsi, might be it.
Or the space station of Solaris, too, positioned over a roiling, sentient alien ocean far from the green pastorals of Earth, either attacking, or trying to communicate with, the visitors above with corrupted visions. Solaris is a means for Tarkovsky to record his own haunted thoughts on the meaning of life. He steers straight for the metaphysical, building on the doubling tactic found in Hitchcock’s Vertigo where the existence, and murder, of multiple versions of a person make you question your own definition of what’s real. In this quasi-science fiction adaptation of a Lem novel (without an easily available, decent English translation yet), relying on fairly amateurish but sort of quaint special effects, Tarkovsky marries long, inert scenes with heavy passages of dialogue that all eventually coalesce into a kind of dazzling, glittering arabesque about love, memory, reality, and reasons for being. Solaris is actually a fun watch in the end. It’s not the opaque slog of The Mirror‘s memory palace, nor Stalker‘s talky allegorical journey through the decaying, and clearly toxic, infrastructure of the Soviet military industrial complex, two other Tarkovsky mystery boxes often cited as masterpieces that don’t provide much incentive to crack open. Solaris‘ narrative aims are straighter, and it also achieves a palpable horror, if a more intellectual than visceral one. As Kurosawa said of the film: “Sheer fearful emotion this film succeeds in conjuring up… It truly somehow provokes pure horror in our soul.” Lots of dangerous questions arise, like gangplanks cantilevered over oblivion. Tarkovsky doesn’t pretend there are any easy answers, although he lets his main character, Cosmonaut/Psychologist Kris Kelvin, accept a few for his own brittle sanity. “Don’t turn a scientific problem into a common love story” one of the smarter characters says, completely in vain, to Kelvin. Our hero, like a typical cinema-goer, ignores him and turns to what he knows.
It’s a simple warning also unheeded by many recent, potent, technically extraordinary but surprisingly sanctimonious sci-fi films, all determined to provide a semblance of closure. Nolan’s Interstellar immediately comes to mind, informed by rigorous scientific fact but ultimately built for a sentimental notion of the power of love. Or there’s Villeneuve’s Arrival, Cuarón’s Gravity and Chazelle’s First Man, breathtaking films that, in exploring interstellar travel, language and technology, open up a ton of potential lines of inquiry about the meaning of life but ultimately serve a singular purpose, to provide one character the grief counseling they so desperately need. Instead of allowing this big old universe of chaos, complexity and mystery to change everyone’s perceptions, these directors adhere to simple cornball themes rooted in pop psychology. On the other hand, in Andrei Rublev Tarkovsky has his characters quoting a bit of scripture: “In much wisdom there is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow”. So maybe Tarkovsky wouldn’t wish his dark thoughts to creep into the heads of the buzzy directors above. Like Tarkovsky’s Cosmonaut, better to be guided by their hearts and ignore the oblivion.
More: How The Qatsi Trilogy Gave RaMell Ross a New Way of Seeing, Cinema Sounds: Koyaanisqatsi, Koyaanisqatsi on YouTube, Watch Koyaanisqatsi in Reverse, Akira Kurosawa on watching Solaris with Andrei Tarkovsky, Solaris: Inner Space, Lost in Space: Tarkovsky’s Solaris, The Clone Returns Home: Solaris-ishness…, A Drop in the Ocean: One Scene from Solaris, On Both Page and Screen, Polish Master Stanislaw Lem Makes You Question Reality, Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong Bio-Pic Is an Accidental Right-Wing Fetish Object, Neither Right- Nor Left-wing, First Man Plants Its Flag in a Troubling Ambivalence