Solaris (1972): The Consciousness of Love

A soliloquy of humanness.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s thought-provoking “Solaris” asks grappling questions: What does it mean to truly love someone? Is love something that happens in the conscious or the subconscious? Is it possible to experience love when we are actively seeking it out?

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The story follows Kris Kelvin, a psychologist that is emotionally struggling on Earth. He is sent to a space station that is in orbit above the fictional planet of Solaris, where three other cosmonauts have fallen into emotional crises. He goes to assess the situation, and in the process becomes entrapped in a similar psychological phenomena.

As the cosmonauts attempt to understand the planet’s nature, Kris finds his late wife, Hari, aboard the space station. Kris’s emotional crisis stems from interacting with his “wife,” and attempting to stay emotionally detached from her. And his efforts prove to be unsuccessful.

Both Kris and Harri react to their own existence aboard this space station, orbiting this strange planet.

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Although she may not be the real Hari, she appears to be; and Kris ends up loving her more than he loved his real wife. This points to something profound: sometimes we love our idealizations of a person more than the person themselves.

If we lose our memory, do we lose who we are? Is memory considered a physical aspect of existence?

Alternate poster for the film.

Alternate poster for the film.

While the purpose of orbiting the planet Solaris was to learn about the cosmos, the cosmonauts soon find out that the planet teaches them more about themselves…

One’s self-hood cannot be determined by isolation. It is determined by human recognition of existence. This is demonstrated as Hari persuades Kris to think of her as an independent person. When he does this, she becomes that very thing: independent. She begins developing a greater consciousness of pain, memory, and even love.

Does this mean that the human recognition of humanness is what gives us our humanness?

Can something so necessary to life—namely love—also harm life?

These are all questions Tarkovsky grapples with in this beautiful piece of Russian cinema.

Andrei Tarkovsky on the set of Solaris (1972).

Andrei Tarkovsky on the set of Solaris (1972).

Tarkovsky believed in love. He believed in a transcendental sort of love; one that transcends the far corners of the universe, that suspends time itself. And that’s what makes this film so intoxicating; when you lose yourself in this love, you find yourself.

Perhaps love can only be fully realized when the subconscious meets the conscious.

If it involves less than total giving, it is not love. It is impotent; for the moment it is nothing.
— Andrei Tarkovsky

Tarkovsky, as a devout Christian, believed that this paradigm also extended to humans’ relationship with God. With humans, to commit yourself to love someone so deeply, is one of the riskiest and scariest things a person can do in life. With God, we see a perfect example of unconditional, giving love that can never be replicated on the same level with human beings.

For any love to succeed, you have to allow yourself to be changed by it. This is what true, unconditional love does: it is giving; thus enhancing yourself to a different state of existence. Even if it transports you to other worlds.

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Why I Took a Year to Make a 5 Minute Short Film


Last year, I directed a short film entitled Boy on the Track, based on “In Progress,” a book by Aliya McReynolds who also co-directed alongside me. The novel is a coming-of-age story about Atticus, who struggles with his demons of depression.

A lot of coming-of-age stories deal with the dark subject of depression, but after reading Aliya’s book, it was apparent that this was a story void of cliches and genre-expectations. It changed the way I thought about depression.

I have many reasons why I took a full year to create this 5-minute short film. To summarize them into three points, these are it.

1). Doubt and perfectionism.

Guess what? Number 1 isn’t a positive thing. Don’t worry, the other points are positive. But they all happened. And to be 100% honest, it was completely necessary. It was my first time directing. I was petrified. I had a lot to learn in a short amount of time. I even went through a season of questioning my qualifications for directing a film of this important nature…

What would the actors think of me? How are we going to shoot a VFX train sequence? What if this film ends up to be prime material for Hallmark?

Perfectionism and doubt aren’t necessarily good things, but good things can still come out of them. There comes a point when you use them as a crutch; a crutch because you are afraid what other people will think. You are afraid to put your art into the world. This happens because as artists, we put too much value on both our art and audiences.

Now don’t get me wrong—you should still give it 110%. You should try to be a perfectionist, and do your absolute best and learn in the process. But when you become a “perfectionist” out of fear…that is when it becomes toxic.

2). Doing the research and learning the process.

Taking more time on this film allowed me to experience the aspects of production that I had no experience with before: casting, location-scouting, making shot lists, organizing a crew, sound-mixing, visual effects, and financing. So much of the time was spent researching each of these specific areas of production I was unfamiliar with. It was all new terrain.

Our first rehearsal for Boy on the Track with  Vinny Romano  and  Aliya McReynolds.

Our first rehearsal for Boy on the Track with Vinny Romano and Aliya McReynolds.

Filmmaking is the most collaborative art form. That means (as directors), you have to admit you don’t know everything and listen to what other people know and have experienced in different areas of production. That is something I definitely learned.

Official poster of  Boy on the Track.

Official poster of Boy on the Track.

Other people have previous experiences and insights that lend themselves to thinking about things in new ways, and changing the way you view something. That perspective is vital to have everywhere in life, and especially in a creative, collaborative setting.

At the end of the day, as a director, it’s important to listen to all contributions and advice towards the art that is being created. However, you may still choose to not use a suggestion that is made. And that is okay. Just know that the art will either succeed or suffer from every decision, and it’s important to be okay with that, regardless of the outcome.

3). If you create anything in life, treat it like it’s the last thing you do.

Life is short.

I tend to have a controversial perspective on this; many creatives say that it is more important to create as much art as possible, so much so that you keep creating and you learn a great deal, just by repeating your process of creating again and again.

I have trouble believing this. I see how that may be beneficial to learning certain skills, and trades. But when it comes to creating art, it’s important to take time to create something that is powerful, and of meaning.

The opening frame of the film.

The opening frame of the film.

I view it like this: If you have something important to say, say it once really loudly. When artists try to pump out as much art as possible, although they may be saying something important, they are saying it over and over again, very quietly. And it’s hard to get people to listen when that is the case.

However…when you create something of power and meaning, when you dedicate a piece of your existence to a certain story and message that you believe in, you have the opportunity to say something loudly. And the audience may choose to listen, if even for a moment.

First Reformed: A Reminder that Cinema is a Spiritual Art Form

The battle of hope and despair

First Reformed was a film of tumultuous dark moments, and deep silence. From the beginning of the film, we see two contrasting truths pitted against each other: hope and despair. See the trailer below.

The story presents Reverend Toller, a pastor of a dwindling congregation in upstate New York. He struggles with pains of the past (the tragic death of his son), and pains of the present (his current struggle with alcoholism causing health problems). The film begins with a journal:

I have decided to keep a journal. Not in a word program or digital file, but in longhand, writing every word out so that every inflection of penmanship, every word chosen, scratched out, revised, is recorded. To set down all my thoughts and the simple events of my day factually and without hiding anything. When writing about oneself, one should show no mercy. I will keep this diary for one year; 12 months. And at the end of that time, it will be destroyed.
— Rev. Toller, First Reformed

The journey of Reverend Toller is seen through his journal. He even says at one point: “…it is a form of prayer.” He uses the journal to wrestle with God, and to make sense of the world around him. The journal provides opportunity for us to enter into his tormented mind, and to empathize with his weakness and pain.

Reverend Toller goes to a congregant’s house, Michael and Mary, a soon to be expecting couple. Michael is pressuring Mary to abort their baby, out of fear of bringing the child into the world. However, Mary is adamantly opposed to the thought of abortion. Michael and Mary are essential characters to this film, as each of them represent the contrasting ideals of hope and despair. Michael, on one hand, is an extreme environmentalist that is so devout in his beliefs, he doesn’t want to bring life into this world; he represents despair. Mary on the other hand, has a hope. It’s no coincidence that Schrader named the character Mary, as Mary was the mother of Jesus, who sang in Luke 1:46 shortly after an angel just told her that she would be bearing the Messiah. Instead of collapsing under the weight of the responsibility and fear of this enormous event that would change the course of history, she chose to sing in Luke 1. She chose hope over despair.

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Writer/Director Paul Schraeder made this film as a personal testament to his background, as he grew up in a dutch reformed church. This film is an incredibly personal portrait. One of your first questions may be, what is this film saying about Christianity? It may be hard at first to read into what Schrader is trying to say, but let me offer my interpretation.

Despair is a development of pride so great that it chooses one’s certitude rather than admit God is more creative than we are.
— Rev. Toller, "First Reformed"
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the silence of god in dark moments of life

Throughout the film, we see unnervingly silent moments. It’s awkward, unsettling, and we are unsure whether the story is about to take a horrifying turn. And in a sense, it does. The silence in the film points to something profound: where is God when all hope seems to be lost? Sometimes it feels like He is nowhere, even though He is everywhere.

My favorite shot of the film is shown below. I believe it illustrates that exact point:

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In one side of the frame, Toller is isolated and alone. He is secluding himself. But in the other side we see a much different story…This empty chair quite possibly represents God’s omnipresence. Toller is clearly wrestling with his belief that God is actually there with him, amidst his darkness. And not only does God seem to be absent, but he feels separated from Him. However, no matter what Toller feels, He is still there.

Once again, this is my analysis, I am not speaking objectively as if I know Schrader’s motifs and attributed meaning behind the mise en scene. But this is how I interpret this powerful narrative.

The Freedom of grace and hope

(SPOILERS BELOW)

By the end of the film, Toller’s darkness has fully manifested itself, into something that is unexpected and masqueraded as a just cause. He’s at the turning point of darkness, he has been taken over by his darkness. We see the true gruesome nature of what has been going on in his mind, for the first time manifested on the screen in front of us. He is about to attempt suicide.

Then we see Mary. She is the picture of hope that appears when Toller has hit rock bottom. Often times, it is the darkest moments of life, when hope makes a special appearance. Perhaps Toller did not understand what hope meant until now. However, Mary also represents Grace. Hope is one thing, but experiencing Grace, is a freeing thing. That is why the camera is rigid for the entire film, and for the first time, moves freely in the ending scene…He has experienced the freedom of Grace and Hope. (John 8:36)

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As we hear the faint singing of the old hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” he runs into Mary’s arms. He sees her, and despite how ugly the situation is, he doesn’t hesitate to run into her arms. They embrace each other. Toller, who has been totally secluded until now, experiences the freeing nature of Grace that transforms the soul. I believe this is what the scene is pointing to…

First Reformed is not an easy watch for the everyday cinema-goer. But it will make you think—it will challenge your faith—and it will ask the questions about hope, despair, evil, God’s presence, and faith, that will leave you pondering for weeks after viewing.

A Ghost Story: A Recollection of Memory and Legacy

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The places we've lived represent memory.

I've lived in the same house all my life. As a kid, I always wondered what it would be like to move away. But I never did. And by growing up in the same city, the concept of "home" has been forever engrained in me. Nearly all the memories of my life so far, can be connected in some way or another to my home.

I recently just watched David Lowery's amazing "A Ghost Story," and I was extremely moved by the nostalgic tone and the deep meaning behind it. (See the trailer below). 

The story is about a deceased husband (C), who comes back as a ghost to haunt his suburban home while his wife (M) copes with his loss.  From there, we are taken on a cosmic adventure through time, that explores mortality and what we leave behind as legacy.

 

Unescapable death is what causes us to grasp for legacy.

Everywhere we go, we leave some mark on existence as a whole. Every person we meet. Every decision we make. It's a terrifying thought, that everything you do makes an interminable mark on time itself.  Regardless of natural repercussions we leave on this planet, everyone wants to leave something meaningful before they die.  In one scene, there is a monologue by a house guest, played by Will Oldham, talking about existence and the universe. "A writer writes a novel, a songwriter writes a song, we do what we can to endure...We build our legacy piece by piece and maybe the whole world will remember you or maybe just a couple of people, but you do what you can to make sure you're still around after you're gone." This idea is somewhat birthed out of a naturalistic worldview, but it stands as a central theme in the film.

A writer writes a novel, a songwriter writes a song, we do what we can to endure
— Prognosticator, A Ghost Story (2017)
David Lowery and Casey Affleck on the set of "A Ghost Story."

David Lowery and Casey Affleck on the set of "A Ghost Story."

Powerful simplicity is one of the most amazing tools in filmmaking.

This film was so remarkable and emotional the first time I saw it. I absolutely loved the film's quiet nature, limited dialogue, and extremely long takes; even a 6 minute take where Rooney Mara is grieving by eating a full pie. Many people complained about this uncomfortably long scene, but I realized for someone who has lost someone so close to them, they must know what it's like to just sit there, by yourself, in the silence, just eating, and not doing anything else. It's not a romanticized grief that's shown in so many other films. It's just a haunting quiet stillness. The film is shot in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio with rounded corners, giving it a filmic vibe, as if it was shot on an old home film camera: adding even more to the nostalgia. Every scene in this film is filled with such strong, but subtle emotion. 

My favorite still from "A Ghost Story."

My favorite still from "A Ghost Story."

 

Leaving the ghost behind.

This shot represents perfectly the film as a whole. M is leaving her old house (and in the process, somewhat leaving the memory of her late husband). She's moving on with a mind stained by the memory of her husband that will forever be connected to that road, neighborhood, and house. This image of the ghost gazing at her driving away, possibly represents what she is viewing in her own mind. The film is so hauntingly emotional; it not only makes you question the brevity of life, but also think about the the people you love, and the very nature of time itself.

Why Going to the Movies Alone is a Lost Art

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I used to be afraid of going to the movies alone.

Okay, maybe not afraid. More "weirded out" would be the right term. For my whole life, I've loved film; it's my passion. But it wasn't until last December that I went alone for the first time to see the spectacular The Disaster Artist in a full theater. Needless to say, it was probably one of the best movie-going experiences of my life thus far. So why is it that we don't normally go to the movies alone? Obviously, there is the sociological aspect (or fear of being seen alone), but I've noticed there's more to this paradox than meets the eye...

 

People don't want to critically evaluate others' ideas and world-views.

This is a bold statement, but for a long time now, many people have thought of film as just mere entertainment. It's not. It is a vibrant platform for philosophy. Film (for the most part) represents world-views from all walks of life. It is an excellent portrayal of the human experience; even down to certain aspect ratios and 24fps (the way the human eye actually perceives reality). It really only becomes mere entertainment when it becomes mindless: the way most people like it. 

I recently watched a film by Brett Hayley entitled The Hero. In this film, Sam Elliot plays Lee, a dying, washed up Hollywood western star. In one scene, Lee is about to tell his friend Jeremy about a dream he had, until Jeremy shuts him down. He says, "It just doesn't interest me, man. Think about it. I mean, it's your dream." Lee's bushy mustache frowns at him until he says, "So what about movies? Do they interest you?" Jeremy immediately says, "Yeah, I love movies." And without a moment of hesitation, Lee says, "Movies are other people's dreams." Lee's friend, Jeremy, represents the vast majority of consumers; they are exactly that...they consume movies. I'm convinced that if a project has more producers, a bigger studio, and even a higher budget, it all contributes to less authenticity and more creative disability. The original concept dilutes to the producers'/studio's less-involved opinions and decisions. 

Movies are other people’s dreams
— Lee Hayden, The Hero (2017)

So how does this relate to the topic at hand? Many people don't want to critically evaluate others' stories, ideas, and world-views. They want to be presented with a straightforward, easy-to-swallow story that meets their expectations with plenty of clichés and a blissful ending. If you watch a limited release indie film, that is beloved by critics, (i.e. this year's You Were Never Really Here or First Reformed), I can promise you will be very uncomfortable by the slow pacing, and the haunting atmosphere of the films. But in the end, your jaw will be dropped and you will be left with some tough themes to analyze for yourself. 

 

When You Get Out of The Theater.

Let's say you go to see a movie with a group of friends. The movie ends. The credits roll. And now you're walking out to the parking lot. You are all talking about the movie; some of your friends liked it, you personally hated it, and everybody is chit-chattering about their opinions.

Now picture yourself at the movie alone. You exit the theater. You use the restroom (because let's be honest, who doesn't need to use the restroom at the end of a movie). Then you walk out to the parking lot, and now you're sitting in your car...in complete silence. It's just you and your raw thoughts that begin bubbling to the surface.  Nothing to influence or distract you from your original reaction.

 

I Dare You.

Go to the movies alone. Take your mind on a date. See a limited release or an indie film that you wouldn't normally see.

Take your mind on a date.

We are all lonely sometimes. But I've realized that going to the movies alone is not a lonely experience. Watching other people's dreams is hardly a lonely experience. It's an intimate experience. And that's what makes your seemingly lonesome trip to the movie theater worth it.