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Kino Korner February 20, 2003
One Of Us Is Wrong
By Mark Ames Browse author Email


I've never gone out on a limb or exposed my hard-earned reputation to such total destruction as I will this issue. The reason is that I was tasked to review Steven Soderbergh's newest film, Solaris, which is new to Moscow this week.

It seemed like an easy target for a butchering. I've never liked anything Soderbergh has ever done. No, that's putting it too mildly. I've loathed, on a sub-atomic level, everything Soderbergh has ever done.

Well, okay, actually I've only watched one of his films, Traffic, and it was, if I may substitute one pejorative for the torrent that would otherwise flow, the perfectly odious late 90s middlebrow movie: fake hard-hitting, pretending to pull no punches on a painful subject while in fact taking a totally conservative, cowardly stance, a false, wrong, evil, complete cop-out on an evil that is the slavery of our time: the war on drugs. I wished I could get those two hours back in my life, but instead, I spent hours and days and weeks afterwards nursing my anger, remembering that film, vowing never to forgive Soderbergh.

The other movies he's done - Sex, Lies and Videotape, Kafka, that Internet one, the Jlo one...I never saw them and I believe I am all the better for it. For our purposes, Soderberg seemed a shoe-in for a three-Mark David Chapman "kill the director" stalker icon no matter what movie he brought to Moscow.

My prejudice seemed all the more valid considering his latest choice for a subject, a remake of the Tarkovsky torture-yawner Solaris, based on the 1961 sci-fi novel by some uppity Polack named Stanislaw Lem.

I've never read the novel, but I did see Tarkovsky's Solaris years ago, during the peak of my Russophilia, when to even criticize a Russian artist struck me as treason. Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood and Andrei Rublyov were both amazing movies. But Solaris...When I first saw it I thought I must be missing something. Because it was the slowest goddamn movie I'd ever seen, and it wasn't giving me anything for the pain it was causing.

In the 60s and 70s, Europeans decided that film should be High Art and therefore as unwatchable as Beckett's Trilogy was unreadable. We can forgive them now, but we can also admit that the overwhelming majority of it was crap and torture and we don't have to like it. Solaris is such a movie.

But I was afraid then of saying that Tarkovsky's Solaris was a complete failure because it bored the backed-up shit out of me. All those old men talking. Long lingering shots of water dripping on leaves. It felt like being a nursing home.

Getting back to Soderbergh's Solaris...uh, I not only liked it, I thought it was incredible. I had no idea that the bitch had any talent, really. But he performed the most merciful act an artist could achieve: he extracted what was interesting about Tarkovsky's script and style, and perhaps some from the novel, reinterpreted it through 2003, audience-conscious Hollywood eyes, free of the intimidation that most artiste-type American directors might feel in the face of High European Cinema. In short, he made Tarkovsky's film not only watchable, but much, much better. It is a clean heroin high, which is the highest compliment I can imagine giving to a former rogue director like Soderbergh.

And fuck you if you don't have the guts to agree with me.

The pace is calm, quiet, absorbing without overdoing the Europeanness of it all. The Solaris planet, the sound it gives off, is beautiful in a way few movies of that genre are. You almost have to go back to Blade Runner. The soundtrack is calibrated well, hypnotic. Clooney is surprisingly good, and I don't like the guy. He's got the kind of face - the face of the Rock Hudstone cartoon character in the Flintsones - that should have gone extinct about 50 years ago. Yet he's really good. The female lead is a fine actress but a bit too manly-jawed for my tastes. The scene where Clooney puts his wife in the pod and fires her off is done perfectly, when a lesser talent could have easily overdone it.

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