• The Clone Returns Home: Solaris-ishness . . .

    By Michael Atkinson

    In Tempo di viaggio (1983), the doodle Andrei Tarkovsky and Tonino Guerra made for Italian TV as they prepped Nostalghia, the great struggling Russian answers a question about genre films by saying that his Solaris (1972) is “not so good,” essentially because it is science fiction, because it is a genre film. You can easily understand why Tarkovsky felt this way, given his topos and metaphysical concerns, but what’s shocking is how little the filmmaker apparently understood about his own film, and about the purpose of science fiction in general. The key to the genre is its functionality as metaphor—if it’s merely space opera (Star Wars or the new Star Trek or whatever), then it’s kiddie stuff, and as close to real science fiction, as it’s evolved, as the old Buck Rogers serials. Real science fiction, the only genre defined by ideas, is closer to satire than to fantasy or horror: its battery of metaphors is used as speculation and commentary about the present, hyperbolically exploding whatever mitigations might couch an issue in real life, so we can see the fallout rain down. (In ideas begins morality, and pulpist Edmund Crispin was only the first to note that science fiction is “the last refuge for the morality tale.”) The critic who got this best was the late Brit writer Philip Strick, whose modest but electrically philosophical 1976 volume Science Fiction Movies was an epiphany for me as a movie-struck tween.

    Solaris is a science fiction movie about love and grief and responsibility, and how those quantities mutate with time, and Tarkovsky himself might be the only person to have ever dismissed it as just a genre film. The young Japanese filmmaker Kanji Nakajima certainly couldn’t, as his new film, The Clone Returns Home (2008), playing at the New York Asian Film Festival next week, is essentially an homage to Solaris, in its themes and conjured enigmas, and even its imagery. But Nakajima’s strategy is inside out. Instead of our perspective aligning with a man whose suicide-dead wife returns and reignites the immolation of their marriage, we walk with an astronaut who tragically lost a twin brother when he was young, and who consents to cloning treatment as insurance against deep-space accidents. Thus the dead twin is reborn, kind of; when the astronaut is killed, the clone is awoken, into a state of loss, and impulsively begins a cross-country odyssey off the grid, searching for the other self/twin he cannot locate in himself. Then a second clone is produced and woken . . .

    Nakajima is all about finding the poetry in the sci-fi, and The Clone Returns Home is closer to Solaris—closer to its replicated identities and unattainable verisimilitude—than Solaris is to that old Star Trek episode “Shore Leave” (which critic David Thomson claims to prefer), or to Duncan Jones’s new Moon (2009), another riff on the theme. The Japanese film’s tone is pensive, Tarkovskian even, and the filmmaker knows when to lunge for those coup de grâce images: the dead spaceman seen from Earth, floating in a blue sky; the anticlone protesters grimly holding portraits of their late-but-cloned loved ones; the clone collapsing after carrying the space-suited corpse (or empty space suit, depending on which perspective we’re experiencing), only to have the suit groggily sit up, pick up his “brother,” and continue the march.

    Science fiction tropes like “body snatcher” films have often utilized the interpersonal anxiety psychopathologically manifested as Capgras syndrome (the delusion that someone has been replaced by an identical impostor)—an acute and inexhaustible project, it seems to me—but in these two films, we get something more, well, spiritual: dramatic images and constructs that ask about the meaning of love (fraternal and romantic), if the object of our ardor is somehow different but somehow exactly the same, if there are two or three or more versions, indistinguishable and yet as separate as versions of ourselves in our memories. Which is, of course, what the symbologies boil down to: memory and its tenuous rescue of the past, just as Tarkovsky’s film ends in a dream of childhood home and parental immortality.

7 comments

  • By Marc Walkow
    June 17, 2009
    11:48 PM

    Terrific to see mention of THE CLONE RETURNS HOME here! I was very impressed by the film when I saw it last fall in Tokyo, and am very happy that we're able to bring it to NY audiences, particularly to folks who love SOLARIS, too. The film is very much a self-conscious homage, and a real rarity coming from Japan, where much bigger-budgeted, less contemplative, more gadget-loving science fiction films are pretty much all there is.
    Reply
  • By nicholas
    June 18, 2009
    01:04 PM

    "what’s shocking is how little the filmmaker apparently understood about his own film, and about the purpose of science fiction in general." This is pretty insulting to Tarkovsky's intelligence, which I am surprised you don't have respect for after watching Tempo di viaggio. The rest of your article has interesting things to say about science fiction/genre theory and the various films you mention. But to begin with such an incorrect and condescending statement is going to put people off. And not in a cheeky Roland Barthes kind of way. http://www.criterion.com/images/btn_submit.gif
    Reply
  • By Travis Low
    June 19, 2009
    04:17 PM

    (to NICHOLAS): I disagree with your objection...I actually agree with what is said in the essay. From the stuff that I've read (Tarkovsky's book "Sculpting In Time", "Tarkovsky" [by Dunne, Sartre, Forster], and some other articles), I feel that Tarkovsky gave much too little credit to his own film (Solaris). This is not uncommon though, many artists feel that their original vision for a project didn't match the end result, thus they feel let down...not to mention that most (if not all) artist's have a self-consciousness about their art, they get very self critical, and they themselves are so intimately familiar with the material that seeing one's own work with a fresh set of eyes is next to impossible. Finally, in regards to Tarkovsky writing off the film (if even only subtly) as being an inferior film (or just inferior to other of his films)...I disagree entirely! I think that Solaris is an incredible film. One of Tarkovsky's best...and it is not simply a sci-fi film, it transcends the sci-fi genre in many ways.
    Reply
  • By Travis Low
    June 19, 2009
    05:06 PM

    I just had another thought... Check out this quote: (This is from Arturo Schwarz...see citation below): In a lecture he delivered in 1957 on “The Creative Act,” Duchamp declared, “We must then deny him [the artist] the state of consciousness on the aesthetic plane about what he is doing or why he is doing it.” And Jung confirms that “one can paint very complicated pictures without having the least idea of their real meaning.”* I think this statement about painters translates to all artists...including filmmakers. So I see no problem with Tarkovsky making something he didn't fully understand, I don't see it insulting in any way. As Jung would have it, an artist may not be conscious at all of what she/he is doing. I think that this idea probably lies within the broader coordinates of Jung's ideas about the archetypes in consciousness, a deeper understanding of Jung might also elucidate this quote a lot more, especially in this context. *Arturo Schwarz, ‘The Alchemist Stripped Bare in the Bachelor, Even’, in Anne d’Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine, eds., Marcel Duchamp (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1973), p. 84 Note: Schwarz is quoting from: ***Marcel Duchamp, “The Creative Act,” Art News (New York, vol. LVI, no. 4 (Summer 1957, contents incorrectly dated Summer 1956), p. 28 ***C.G. Jung, “A Study in the Process of Individuation” (1950), The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, p. 352. “The Collected Works...,” vol. IX, part I, (New York: Pantheon; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; 1953), p. 258]
    Reply
  • By Serdar
    June 22, 2009
    01:04 AM

    "Jung confirms that “one can paint very complicated pictures without having the least idea of their real meaning.”" This is akin to saying the less you know about cars, the better a driver you'll be.
    Reply
  • By Rx
    June 22, 2009
    08:10 AM

    "This is akin to saying the less you know about cars, the better a driver you’ll be. No, it isn't.
    Reply
  • By Travis Low
    June 23, 2009
    11:55 PM

    TO SERDAR: Yeah, I see no correlation between Jung's statement and what you just said! How are those similar? Anyway... I think you missed the point, and it is simply this: -When artists make things, it is possible for those things to resonate on more levels than the artist intended or even thought of. Jung's claim is that a great deal of the creative process is unconscious, and that the artist may not necessarily understand it all. Similarly, Duchamp sees that artist as a "mediumistic" being, and as noted in my previous post he even denies the artist "the state of consciousness on the aesthetic plane about what he is doing or why he is doing it." Indeed, there are infinite possible interpretations of a work after it has been made. The artist is not the only interpreter, and the artist is by no means the only authority on the work. The artist may not even be the dominant authority. The artist will certainly have their own unique interpretation. Different people will interpret it differently, and some may value it more or less, that seems very normal and natural to me. In this case, Tarkovsky didn't value Solaris as highly as others might (myself included, I think it is one of his best films). So be it, that is no insult to Tarkovsky, in fact I feel it is more of a compliment. It may all just come down to taste anyway, it isn't that Solaris is better or worse than any of his other films; I just happen to prefer it. Marcel Duchamp's very short essay "The Creative Act", it is very interesting. Very deceptively simple, much more complex than it first appears. Same goes for his other short writing "Apropos of 'Readymades'", which influences this viewpoint as well. A simple Google search will find both essays, they are very short, 1-2 pages long.
    Reply