The Hands of Bresson

Sundry observations on the art of cinema and world film culture

Folman v. Lem v. Tarkovsky

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Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir

Golden Globe nominee Ari Folman has had such success with Waltz with Bashir—an animated, dreamlike docu-memoir about the 1982 Lebanese war that’s on lots of year-end Top 10 lists—he’s decided to adopt a similar formal strategy for his next project. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the Israeli writer-director has acquired the rights to “The Futorological Congress,” a 1971 short story by Polish sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem, and plans to adapt the film himself. But there’s a twist: Folman says he wants the satirical tale, about a utopian world that turns out to be a glistening, drug-induced illusion, to begin as a live-action drama, then evolve into an animated realm, presumably in the same vein as this:

One wonders what Lem, a cerebral writer with a philosophical bent who’s often compared to Philip K. Dick, would make of Folman’s proposed project. (He died in 2006.) Perhaps best known to Western audiences for Solaris, the novel Andrei Tarkovsky adapted in 1972 and that inspired Steven Soderbergh’s own 2002 version, Lem was accustomed to seeing his fables worked up for film and television in Poland. But he was grandly disappointed in Tarkovsky’s vision, which he felt focused too heavily on the inner psychological conflicts of scientist Kris Kelvin and did not adequately adhere to the novel’s weighty cosmic ideas and Solaris-only setting. Tarkovsky, who worked with Lem on early versions of the screenplay, thought the writer had a poor understanding of cinema, and labored under the idea that a film should merely “reflect” literature.

“Film cannot follow a book slavishly,” he told an interviewer in 1972. “To follow in Lem’s footsteps would be performing a disservice to the author and to the book. I attempted to put on screen my own reader’s version of Solaris. In order to remain faithful to the author I had to deviate from the novel now and then in search of visual equivalents for certain themes. I needed the Earth for contrast … I wished to make the Earth an equivalent of something beautiful in the viewer’s mind. A subject of one’s longing.”

Tarkovsky’s version—which is more concerned with moral and spiritual problems rather than epistemological conundrums—certainly has its merits, even if the filmmaker himself was disappointed in the effort. His color-saturated natural imagery alone is gorgeous and haunting, even when it represents a nonexistent entity. Here, someone has taken a mesmerizing sequence of images of the Solaris ocean—a sentient vortex that reminds me of Yeats’s gyres—and paired them with music Jonny Greenwood composed for There Will Be Blood, to splendid effect:

Given his irreconcilable differences with Tarkovsky on the protocol for novel-to-film translation, it’s no big surprise that Lem never even bothered to see Soderbergh’s adaptation, starring George Clooney and Natascha McElhone. Yet that didn’t stop him from engaging in a bit of speculative film criticism at his official website shortly after the release of the film, which he crabbily alluded to as Love in Outer Space. He wrote: “The Soderbergh movie supposedly has a different, more optimistic finale. If this were the case, this would signify a concession to the stereotypes of American thinking regarding science fiction. It seems that these deep, concrete ruts of thinking cannot be avoided: either there is a happy ending or a space catastrophe.” Lem went on to say that he “only wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images.”

Sounds like an excellent description of the film Tarkovsky made! For all his visual acuity and brainy chutzpah, Lem just wasn’t much of a movie fan, I suppose. Somehow, I have a hard time imagining that this hard-to-please writer, who abandoned sci-fi in the ’80s for more Borgesian literary experiments and essays, would have been sanguine about an animated version of one of his better futuristic stories. But you never know.-


Written by eyemaster

January 31, 2009 at 7:08 pm

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