Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Our New Reality: Tarkovsky and Bergman in the Time of Covid-19



Andrei Tarkovsky, Solaris (1972)

Each month, Francey Russell (Barnard/Columbia) will offer a philosophical reflection on film: a single film, a director, a technique, a genre, an author, etc. Plots will be discussed, hence spoilers. See all of the installments here.


On a night walk, I was trying to find the words to characterize our current suspended and hovering life, and thought of a scene that comes late in Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972). A psychologist, Kris Kelvin, is sent to space to assess a derailed mission. On the space station, Kelvin finds a recorded message warning him about imminent hallucinations that will be somehow connected with his conscience. He soon encounters his dead wife Hari, or her double, or his conscience, or his fantasy. This Hari (Hari 2) is not real, and Kelvin knows this: he cannot bring her back down to earth, to the world where they lived and where he still, in some sense, lives. But he also cannot fully accept the real unreality of this mirage wife, or make himself indifferent to her mirage suffering, or her mirage (second) suicide. After she dies again, she returns (Hari 3). What Kelvin must try to remember is that this is not real life, it is a fleeting and false iteration of life, an echo of reality ringing out in weightless space. But the longer he stays, the more it is that earth-life seems the echo, the unreal, the dream remembered as already forgotten.

Late in the nearly three-hour movie, another scientist, possibly mad, reminds Kelvin and Hari 3 that they should expect a few moments where the spacecraft loses gravity, though it’s nothing to be concerned about. They wait; there is a fast cut to an image of a boy facing away in the snow (a memory? on earth?). And then, they float. Everything lifts. A candle holder, with candles burning, hovers nearby; a book hangs open in the air. Kelvin begins to drift away from this his most recently revived wife, and then he curls back towards her like a tired child, eyes closed, trying to hold on. Bach’s “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” (“I call to you, Lord Jesus Christ”) begins to ache along with them, and the camera pans over Peter Bruegel the Elder’s 1565 The Hunters in the Snow, a painting of another human time and world (it appears again in Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, 1974, and in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, 2011).

I saw Solaris at the Music Box Theater in Chicago, now shuttered of course, but open for virtual cinema. After some slow and demanding hours, as Kelvin agonizes about how to live with his dream come true, the levitation scene is like coming up for air, like breaking the surface of the water from below, an offer of relief. The brief and total pause felt rich and generous. It is this film’s grace, for Kelvin, and for all earthlings trying to manage the weight of the past in the present, the distortions of wish, and our human capacity to experience an unbridgeable distance from what seems like the real real.

The other night as I tried to articulate the present, this scene of suspension from a movie I saw once in a crowded theater in another city years ago surfaced in mind, a memory of a movie and of a time in life, folded together. Stanley Cavell observes this capacity for intertwinement when he writes that we don’t have to involve ourselves in movies, “we involve the movies in us. They become further fragments of what happens to me, further cards in the shuffle of my memory, with no telling what place in the future.”

We are, now in May, months into life paused. With the shocks of early March over, we are meant to be living out ordinary life in (or in the direction of) our so-called “new reality.” There are daily assurances, nonspecific admonishments, that there is no going back, that the old world is gone. Whatever life will be, it won’t be what it was. But that new reality is not here. There can’t be a present without a fathomable future. And as we don’t have that yet, we wait; we float.

*      *      *      *      *

Last night I watched Winter Light (1963) for the first time since I was an undergraduate and didn’t quite have the concentration for Bergman. I saw his films, but my mind was always wandering. Winter Light is icy and desperate and spare, washed with blinding grey skies and country snow. It is shot in a nearly square aspect ratio, either cramping bodies together or framing a single human face like a solitary planet. Pastor Ericsson’s world is changing. He is not with God. Collapsing in front of the church organ, the Pastor mutters into Marta’s shoulder, a woman he pities and despises even as he grasps her body: “I had this fleeting hope that everything wouldn’t turn out to be illusions, dreams, and lies.” The film moves heavily through death and bitter conversation, and then finds a different energy, like a bow pulling tighter, as the Pastor prepares to give a now faithless service to his empty church. As he sits pensive and obstinate at his desk and the drunk organist begins to take his place, Marta kneels at the pews, the dark silhouette of her face outlined by sunlight, and prays: “If only we had some truth to believe in.” Everything holds still.

At this moment, for no reason at all, I broke away and reached for my phone—that familiar, contemporary, irrepressible spasm. As I stared at something (nothing) the film accelerated to its final whirling rhythm, and executed its stark, breathtaking conclusion, followed by its shatteringly abrupt cut to darkness. All of which unfolded just outside my diverted attention, until I was jolted back to awareness by the suddenly black screen. I had missed it. Of course, I could rewind to catch the scene—of course I did—but movies are temporal wholes not meant to be broken up. They take your time for the exact time they take. Winter Light’s denouement and Solaris’ levitation scene are such staggering achievements of form because the films have fully earned them, as deviations. Movies demand our full attention; they ask for it for hours. But the mind is a darting and wandering place these days.

Like Solaris, Winter Light is also about waiting and illusion, about life in suspension, tectonic disorientation. In both films some fundamental hold on the world—faith, gravity, time—is snapped; the ballast is lost. Both films end hovering, neither shows the next step.

Edited by Alex King


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