Book Review: Mark Bould’s “Solaris”

“By rights, I should not like Tarkovsky,” writes Bould in his introduction’s opening line, “This realization has taken a mere three decades to percolate.” And percolate he does, through the remainder of the book he goes back and forth from praising Tarkovsky’s film-making genius to pointing out character flaws and inconsistencies, notably of Tarkovsky’s dislike of SciFi and his blatant misogyny. We see Bould struggle on the page, sorting out his conflicting feelings towards the director, unable to shake the man from the art. This aspect is the book’s greatest strength as it pulls no punches and doesn’t treat its subject matter with a fanboy tint. While there are moments where Bould devolves to a pile of “name drops,” on the whole we are given a front row seat to an analysis as complex as the director it focuses on.

Bould quotes Tarkovsky in the book’s first section, stating “I don’t like science fiction, as I don’t like to escape life.” Surprising words coming from the man who directed three of the best SciFi films ever made (I might be biased). Yet Bould illuminates why Tarkovsky might’ve thought of this while still (seemingly) obsessed with the genre, pointing out that in his dairies that Tarkovsky saw SciFi as a “hypercommercial gesture,” although Bould admits to not understanding Tarkovsky’s logic in believe so. However, he does try by exploring Tarkovsky’s “temperamental kinship” with Stanisław Lem, writer of the novel Solaris. Similar to Tarkovsky, Lem also disliked SciFi yet a majority of his creative output is considered as such. For the two men, SciFi was an exploration into “mankind’s destiny,” Bould quoting Lem, “[exploring] the meaning of life in the cosmos … [bringing] forth a deluge of answers for key questions of every reasoning being [but] in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred it fulfills its task with stupidity.” So, much like Lem, Bould surmises that Tarkovsky saw SciFi as the most palatable way of showcasing the existential questions he often asks in his work while keeping with the “realist” terms Tarkovsky seeks out (no better time to question one’s existence than the time your dead wife physically manifests on your spaceship). Additionally, in terms of genre, as Bould also observes, Tarkovsky wanted his work to be interpreted on its own merits and not held to cliche standards that a genre film would. “What is Bresson's genre? He doesn't have one,” writes Tarkovsky in Sculpting in Time, “Bresson is Bresson. He is a genre in himself. Antonioni, Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Dovzhenko, Vigo, Mizoguchi, Bunuel — each is identified with himself. The very concept of genre is as cold as the tomb.”

“Subscribing to the crudest of biological determinism and sexual binaries,” Bloud writes, “[Tarkovsky] insists that ‘the woman is totally different from the man’ and, because of her unique nature, she ‘can’t exist independently of the man’ without becoming ‘no longer natural.’” Bould continues further by stating the significance of Hari killing herself (twice) once she “begins the demonstrate her independence from Kelvin,” and that at least in Soderbergh’s Solaris, the Hari character “points out that she is only suicidal because that is how Kelvin remembers her.” Admittedly, the latter, Soderbergh explanation was my initial interpretation of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, yet, until reading Bould’s book, I wasn’t aware of Tarkovsky’s misogyny. Considering how personal Tarkovsky’s films are, to the point of being nearly autobiographical in the case of “Mirror,” it makes sense that such sexist aspects of Tarkovsky’s character would seep into his films, making it near-impossible to dismiss the director’s sexism while interpreting the art. Such an assertion would certainly make Tarkovsky furious, as he stated in Sculpting in Time, “I had the greatest difficulty in explaining to people that there is no hidden, coded meaning in [Mirror], nothing beyond the desire to tell the truth. …I was disappointed in my turn. Such was the reaction of the opposition party in the audience; as for my own colleagues, they launched a bitter attack on me, accusing me of immodesty, of wanting to make a film about myself.” While Bould makes it clear that Tarkovsky doesn’t cover up his character flaws, it’s evident that he would’ve preferred them overlooked in the larger scope of his films. Unfortunately, Bould makes a strong point that separating the film and the person directing is impossible and, therefore, cements the misogyny in its roots.

Pepered along with Bould’s strongest arguments are his fatal flaw, as he seems determined to name drop as many films as he can throughout book. While most is to convey comparison between those films and a facet of Solaris he’s discussing, Bould tends lack any further detail other than merely mentioning the name. For example, on page sixty Bould discusses the change in astethetic for scifi films, “With Solaris, Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (1973) and John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974), the look of the future began to change, to become more beat-up and more likely to break down.” He then immediately segways to Star Wars, Alien and Bladerunner, giving details into their relation to Solaris, but gives no further observations into how the two former films played into his observation. I found this to distract from Bould’s comments because, while he might make a fantastic remark about similar attributes between Bladerunner and Solaris, my mind is still trying to connect Solaris with Dark Star. There are certain instances when such references are accompanied with photos, aiding to the understanding of the reference but, more often than not, they’re just there with the hope that the reader knows enough film history to not get lost. While these BFI monographs are geared toward film lovers, of which I consider myself, even I require specificity to aide in my comprehension. At times it feels as though he’s trying to reach a word limit by plopping these references without regard to their overall context to his ideas. Ultimately, I feel there were too many of them and while I evenly sorted out what Bould was getting at, felt a more casual reader would’ve just stopped reading or just skipped to the next section.

On the whole, Bould’s Solaris is a solid recommendation. It certainly has its flaws but the light it sheds on Solaris and Tarkovsky himself are so insightful that one can overlook them. I certainly enjoyed it and found it to complement Tarkovsky’s Sculpting In Time in a very thought provoking way. However, as the man himself wrote, “A book read by a thousand different people is a thousand different books.”