Friday, February 1, 2008


I was haunted by the idea that I remembered her wrong, and somehow I was wrong about everything.

This line of Kelvin’s, and Rheya’s lines below, are the crux of the Soderbergh’s 2002 Solaris, starring George Clooney and Natascha McElhone. The movie is about identity, and makes us think about how well we know those around us. I can do no better than quote Ebert’s review to elaborate this point:

...Kelvin gets back not his dead wife, but a being who incorporates all he knows about his dead wife, and nothing else, and starts over from there. She has no secrets because he did not know her secrets. If she is suicidal, it is because he thought she was. The deep irony here is that all of our relationships in the real world are exactly like that, even without the benefit of Solaris. We do not know the actual other person. What we know is the sum of everything we think we know about them. Even empathy is perhaps of no use; we think it helps us understand how other people feel, but maybe it only tells us how we would feel, if we were them.

And there’s the other side of that coin: that is, are we more who we think we are, or who other people think we are? The individualist in me reacts immediately that I obviously know myself better than other people know me. After all, I’m inside my own head, and no one else is. No one can tell me who I am, dammit.

But, in some cases, how other people see us is how we are. If everyone thinks I’m bald, but I refuse to accept it, I’m still bald. I am, by the way, and I like it.

This is a trivial example of a more profound idea: we need to pay some attention to what other people – especially our loved ones – tell us about ourselves, because they might be right. Maybe you think you are a whimsical joker, but your coworkers think you’re rather bitter and sarcastic. Maybe your dry humor is coming across as dull cynicism. Maybe you like being precise, but your spouse thinks you’re nit-picky. If you want your loved ones and friends to know who you are, check every now and then that what they think of you matches what you think of you.

Tarkovski’s 3-hour, 1972 Solyaris is fantastic, but a little tiring in a Russian-movie kind of way. The original book, by Stanislaw Lem, is a good read, but gets bogged down at times in pseudo-scientific explanations. Don’t get me wrong; I like them all, but Soderbergh’s is my favorite rendering – it seems the distilled essence of the story. The film is absorbing and the soundtrack hypnotic. I have no idea why this movie isn’t generally rated higher. I suspect that many of its viewers are unsuspecting dummies looking for a space blaster movie, and are peeved at getting an evenly paced, thoughtful movie instead.

Trivia: I learned from William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (good book!) that Tarkovski filmed a Solyaris scene in the Roppongi district of Tokyo because the highway system looked so futuristic (in 1972). The cars in this scene are supposed to be driving themselves. If you look carefully, you can see Japanese highway signs. Incredibly, someone has posted the whole 4-minute highway scene on youtube. Sometimes I just love the Internet.

IMDB: Solaris, Solyaris
Amazon: Solaris – book and soundtrack
Ebert’s reviews of the 1972 Solaris and the 2002 Solaris


tofu-powered art-chick said...

I am thinking that I think to much about how I really am and if the thinking of others is more accurate than my own thoughts. I think I will give up such thinking for Lent. I think I will look at your blog and think about you and think about what you must think of yourself based on all your thoughts. If you get a lot of comments, I can think about what others think of you, and then I can think about them and wonder if they are truly as clever in real life as they think they are virtually.

Rob S. said...

I've only seen the Soderbergh version, and I left it only moderately satisfied. But ever since then, I've thought about the movie, forgetting more and more details along the way. I've been meaning to see it again -- it exerts a much greater pull on me than movies I've left happier.