Friday, March 29, 2013

Film Review: Solaris for Rabelais Magazine

By Olivia Maria Hărşan

An article I wrote for the La Trobe University magazine, Rabelais. Published in the 2013 second edition.


By Olivia Maria Hărşan

The infamous race to space affair between the Soviet Union and the United States not only provoked the launching of rockets at the height of Cold War tensions, but also the boom of the sci-fi genre within novels, comic books, television series and films. It was during this time, that cultural theories belonging to philosophical and literary thought were increasing at a rate equivalent to scientific advancements.

Eight years prior to what has become the most remembered space expedition, the Apollo 11 moon landing of 1969, the Polish writer, Stanislaw Lem published a multifaceted novel called Solaris (1961). The story has since inspired three adaptations, all of which, according to Lem, fail to delve entirely into the essence of the realm of Solaris as depicted in the book. It is rare that an author will give their blessing to a visual interpretation of their writing, as though they opt to completely disregard the reality that a film could never manifest as a direct copy – word for word and image for image – of a book. Nevertheless, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) is a remarkable accomplishment, maybe not so much as an interpretation of the text, but certainly notable for its artistic aesthetics and philosophical undertones.

The plot follows the mental degeneration of a group of scientists while aboard the space station Solaris. The psychologist, Dr. Kris Kelvin, is asked to regain order on board after a series of strange occurrences are reported. Kelvin arrives to a state of chaos – objects scattered across the corridors while the scientists demonstrate odd behaviour, responding vaguely to Kelvin’s inquiries. What is at the centre of the madness is the morbid appearance of Kelvin’s deceased wife, Hari. Throughout the film, the existence of Hari as an entity that relies on Kelvin’s presence to survive is examined and weighed according to the principles of human supremacy. The remaining two scientists, Dr. Snaut and Dr. Sartorius assess Hari’s lack of worth as a reproduction while Kelvin strives to defend his wife. The story of Solaris thus establishes the notion of existential crisis – the questioning of the meaning of life and its value via the backstory of Kelvin’s tragic loss.

The richness of Tarkovsky’s symbolic representation is often discussed in reference to his oeuvre. Solaris, like most if not all of his films, is comprised of conceptual elements, which ultimately warps the viewer’s perception. For instance, during the beginning of Kelvin’s hallucinations, a woman dressed in a negligee drifts across the rooms of the spaceship, her bracelet jingling as she walks.  She leads Kelvin to the dead body of his friend, Gibarian and then disappears. The bell-like sound of her bracelet is reminiscent of a thurible (a metal censer in which incense is burned during religious services). Tarkovsky continues the religious allegory by placing an Orthodox icon on the mantelpiece in Kelvin’s room. Tarkovsky thus formulates a mix between science and religion, distorting the line between organic, logical evidence and manufactured beliefs.

Religion becomes juxtaposed with references to existentialism and the underlying theme of science. At one point, Kelvin engages in philosophical conversation with the two other inhabitants of the spaceship, the sceptical, Dr. Snaut and the more contemplative Dr. Sartorius.  The camera follows the characters as they move around the library debating whether or not Kelvin’s wife, Hari, is human or a duplicate. At this point, Hari begins to cry revealing an obvious signal of her ability to feel and respond emotionally. It is in this scene that Tarkovsky has presented eloquently the connection between reality, as we know it, and extra-terrestrial existence –an idea explored from two perspectives, of philosophy and of science.

Apart from the striking visual qualities, Solaris employs an impressive soundtrack that deserves its own extensive analysis. The film begins in the serene countryside and cuts to a futuristic metropolis as it tracks a video call between Kelvin’s father and an old friend. The sound here fluctuates between the peaceful diegetic sounds of a rural landscape to the transgressive noise of an industrial city tunnel. Later, the eerie presence of Hari is placed against an ominous score reminiscent of an unnerving psychological thriller – something that extends to the unconventional filming techniques. Panoramas, invasive zooming, unusual angles and other experimental frames frequent the film, effectively supporting the psychological mind-warping factor and recalling the essence of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).

The film concludes in a somewhat ambiguous fashion. Kelvin returns back to earth but things are not as they seem. As he peers through the window of his father’s house, he notices that it is raining inside and yet his father seems oblivious to the matter. Perhaps Kelvin hoped that it was all a dream – the expedition and Hari’s death – only to find out the inevitable. Whether Solaris is predominantly about the impossible interaction between humans and non-humans or an effort to rationalize the meaning of reincarnation through a science vs. philosophy paradigm, it is ultimately a story about a man learning to accept the untimely death of his wife. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Women in Film: Nevéna Kókanova

By Olivia Maria Hărşan

Known as the 'First Lady of Bulgarian Cinema', Nevéna Kókanova began acting when she was 18 at the Yambol Theatre in Bulgaria. Appearing in over 30 pictures throughout the span of her career, Kókanova was lauded for mastering the expressive technique, revealing a deep sense of passion and strength on screen and captivating audiences. Perhaps she gained her craft as a consequence of her personal afflictions - her father was a political prisoner and this weighed heavily on her name. Today the Bulgarian beauty is most remembered for her role in Nikola Korabov's adaptation of Dimitar Dimov's novel of the same name, Tobacco/ Tyutyun (1962) - 1963 Official Selection Cannes Film Festival - and Vulo Radev's The Peach Thief (1964), the story of a forbidden love affair between a Serbian prisoner of war and a Colonel's wife. Kókanova died in her nation's capital of Sofia in 2000, leaving behind an impressive and influential example of female resilience and power.

Kókanova in Tobacco (1962)

Friday, March 22, 2013

Fashion in Film: Zbigniew Cybulski

By Olivia Maria Hărşan

The James Dean of Polish Cinema

"It is a well-known anecdote told by Wajda that Cybulski came to the set on the first day dressed in his own jeans, jacket, and dark sunglasses ... and insisted on playing in his own clothes, much against the script's historical accuracy" (Bingham 2011, p. 15).

Rising to fame through his notorious role as a resistance fighter in Andrzej Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds (1958), Zbigniew Cybulski remained in obscurity for the remainder of his short-lived acting career and untimely death. Apparently his role in Wajda's film was so impressive that he was constantly being measured against his character of Maciek and struggled to adapt to new personas. Today Cybulski is still referred to by critics as the Polish James Dean and compared to the likes of Marlon Brando and Marcello Mastroianni.

The wayfarer glasses and cigarette ... that timeless Beatnik look

Clad in a Brando-esque leather biker jacket 
A wool camel hued coat - a typical late 1950s Italian look a la Mastroianni 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Women in Film: Anca Damian

By Olivia Maria Hărşan

Anca Damian is a Romanian filmmaker born in 1962. She has been working in cinema for the past three decades but has only recently received recognition for her latest feature Crulic : The Path to Beyond (2011). Throughout the 1990s Damian's oeuvre was inclined towards documentaries and shorts, but it wasn't until 2008 that her role as director of photography extended to director, screenwriter and co-producer for the film Crossing Dates (2008). A couple of years later, Crulic became an international success, properly lauded for its perfect concoction of documentary and animation (see stills below). Romania was once known for it's brilliant school of animation, particularly throughout the 1950's and 60s when a graphic artist from Bucharest, Ion Popescu-Gopo stunned critics when he won the Palme d'Or at Cannes for his short, A Brief History (1957). Perhaps, Anca Damian has revived the tradition of animation in Romania, let us look forward to her next piece. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Visual Diary: Torrential Existentialism

By Olivia Maria Hărşan

Béla Tarr's 'Damnation' (1988)

Hungarian director Béla Tarr is an auteur, film poet, eccentric and a faveorite of the late American writer Susan Sontag. His earlier films are often cited as realist portrayals of the working class, but Damnation/Kárhozat demonstrated a shift towards a more philosophical side of visual storytelling. Although, Tarr is noted for his three year intervals between film projects, it is well worth the wait because the results are breathtaking. He completed his filmmaking saga with The Turin Horse/A torinói ló (2011) and has since retired from filmmaking. Sometimes artists have told all the stories they needed to tell.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Film Review: Marketa Lazarová for Rabelais Magazine

By Olivia Maria Hărşan

An article I wrote for the La Trobe University magazine, Rabelais. Published in the 2013 first edition.

The Czech masterpiece Marketa Lazarová and European cinema’s inclination towards medieval representations throughout the mid-20th century.

By Olivia Maria Hărşan

Once communism invaded Eastern Europe, symbolism became a highly mastered tool utilized by filmmakers who wanted to speak against ideals they found oppressive. Prior to this time, such silent titles as Haxan : Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922) and The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) were known for portraying the middle ages but it wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s that European cinema went through the interesting phase of re-inventing the historical epic genre. František Vláčil’s film Marketa Lazarová (1967) is a perfect example of the filmic experimentation that flourished as a result of contextual changes. The director effectively associates the motifs of Christianity, Paganism and death to the milieu of late-1960s Czechoslovakia. It is a film comprised of foreboding images that are metaphorically complex and therefore indicative of a multifaceted socio-political period.

Over thirty years after its release, Czech film critics named Marketa Lazarová the best Czech film ever made, which is ironic considering the director is seldom mentioned in the nation’s cinema history. A native of Brno, František Vláčil studied art and aesthetics before collaborating on puppet and documentary filmmaking projects. However, it soon became clear to the future auteur that his passions resided in poetic imagery and experimental storytelling. His second feature film, Devil’s Trap (1962) is the first of what would become a series of historical films, including an adaptation of the novel Marketa Lazarová written in 1931 by the avant-garde author, Vladislav Vančura. Although the film is, more appropriately, an interpretation rather than an adaptation of the book – setting is not established in the novel as it is in the film – Vláčil’s reconstruction of Marketa Lazarová is justified through the use of unconventional storytelling akin to Vančura’s objective prose.

The story is not so much about the character of Marketa but rather, in pure Shakespearian style, focuses on a feud that erupts between two neighbouring clans, the Lazars and the Kozlík. Marketa’s father, Lazar, is a highway thief who crosses paths with Mikolas and his brother Adam as they attack a Saxon count. Lazar robs the deceased before the Kozlik brothers return to claim their loots. Mikolas allows Lazar to walk free, but not long after, Lazar attacks back and sends the Kozlik clan into a path of fury. At the centre of this feud is the strange love story of Marketa and Mikoláš, which acts as a subplot to the film. For most of the part, Marketa Lazarová is an account about the fight for authority. There are many scenes in which the characters use stones and blocks of wood to kill people that prove to be a threat or are merely in the way. Vlacil depicts an authentic representation of the Middle Ages when the struggle for power exceeded religious values and beliefs. The characters in the film are devout Christians but in the case of Lazar, for instance, use God as an excuse to lie, steal and kill.
Divided into two major parts with intervals in between, it is not difficult to recognize the director’s literary background. The visual aspects – camera angles, mise-en-scène, shades and tones– are nothing short of poetic. Vlacil combines the genre characteristics of a Germanic folklore with the mystique of Bohemian art and culture. The themes of Paganism and black magic are very much at the core of the story. Alexandra, the sister of Mikoláš, is a witch who barely engages in any dialogue throughout the film, but appears nude in a repetitive dream sequence, performing strange rituals with daggers and snakes. Wolves appear in various scenes as dark shadows, watching the characters, whom in turn refer to them as ‘beasts’, implying that they are a bad omen. Moreover, Vlacil hints at Ancient Greek mythology. In the second part of the film, a monk named Bernard, talks to his pet lamb and to himself as if he is insane. He appears a number of times, either in search of his lamb or to encourage the good in people. The character of Bernard is comparable to the chorus of an Ancient Greek play because he acts as a mediator, but also directs attention to Bacchic nuances, particularly in a scene where he holds the severed head of his lamb resembling Euripides’ character Agave when she carries the head of her son, Pentheus.

The visual compositions are unconventional for the time – obstructions in the foreground, fast panoramas, rapid zoom, Dutch angles – transform the meaning of what we see and challenges our perceptions of reality and the imagined. Moreover, the slanted frames and the constant shift of perspective evokes a bizarre atmosphere. The surreal images function as allegories for 1960s counterculture or what became known in 1968 Czechoslovakia as the ‘Prague Spring’ when the established authority – government and law enforcers – were intolerable towards the new generation of free-thinkers. The apocalyptic scene of a white horse – pure and innocent in nature – drowning in decrepit marshlands represents a sense of gloom and despair, perhaps hinting at the communist backdrop of the time. 

Reinforcing the metaphorical scenes is a haunting score composed by Zdeněk Liška. A key collaborator of the Czechoslovak New Wave, Liška presents a concoction of experimental sounds and resonant theatrical hymns. At one point an erratic xylophonic tune is entwined with the shouts and laughter of a mentally disabled villager, while the sound of what is interpreted as a church choir echoes through the film. It also must be stated that Theodor Pištěk’s costumes are unpretentious and accurate of the time and Bedřich Baťka’s cinematography is flawless.

Similar to Andrei Tarkovsky’s period drama Andrei Rublev (1966), Marketa Lazarová imports both political and humanistic issues of the present and conveys them through a mirror of the past. It is also a fairy tale oddly suggestive of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946) in terms of its visual elements but leaning more towards the themes and mood portrayed in Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960) and The Seventh Seal (1957). Thus, Marketa Lazarová is somewhat of a paradox as it is both supernatural and realist, and it is both a story of the past and of the present.