Glasgow’s retrospective this year was ‘Are We There Yet? A Retrospective of the Future’ and amongst the many Hollywood films selected for this strand, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker stood out as something different. I don’t think I saw Stalker when it arrived in the UK, but I knew something about the film. I was therefore surprised that a 162 minute film which has baffled audiences for 40 years should attract a nearly full house in GFT1 (260 seats taken according to Festival co-director Allan Hunter). Admittedly this was a free show, like all the morning shows in the retrospective, but even so the turnout was impressive.
The starting point for Stalker was a novel, originally titled Roadside Picnic, by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. There are numerous stories about the production of the film but most point towards Tarkovsky’s decision to use the novel only as ‘inspiration’ rather than to adapt it ‘faithfully’, although I think some have argued it is quite close to the novel (which I haven’t read). In addition, reported problems with the filmstock used and a dispute with the original cinematographer meant that Tarkovsky re-shot much of the film and there is a credit part-way through the Curzon DCP which announces ‘Part 2’ and therefore, I think, the new material.
If you haven’t seen the film, the narrative starts from the premise that after some kind of major incident (which in the novel is an alien visitation which the aliens treat ‘like a picnic’) an area of land is cordoned off and access is denied to the public. This is ‘the Zone’. A group of individuals have spent time trying to find ways into the Zone and these people are known as ‘Stalkers’. The narrative opens with a Stalker (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy) leaving his wife and child at home and meeting two men, the ‘Professor’ (Nikolay Grinko) and a ‘Writer’ (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) who will pay him to lead them into the Zone. Why do they want to go there? The local legend is that at the centre of the Zone is a building with a room in which anyone who enters successfully is able to have any wish granted. The Stalker tells them that the Zone is very difficult to navigate and that only he and his few fellows know the pathways and how to find them. He refers to the most famous Stalker who was known as ‘Porcupine’.
The film is divided into sections marked by the use of colour filters or distinctive palettes. The opening in the house of the Stalker and the bar where he meets his two customers is presented in a yellowish sepia, many of the scenes indoors/underground in the ‘Zone’ have a palette primarily of greys, contrasting with outdoor sequences in full colour dominated by the greens of vegetation. The final sequences set back near the Stalker’s home are perhaps again yellowish sepia. (I’m confused here since the many stills online don’t always match what I think I saw in Glasgow.) The film is presented in Academy ratio and there are two types of colour stock used as well as black and white according to IMdB.
Stalker has been described in many ways but like all films labelled as ‘science fiction’ it is about ‘now’ rather than anything futuristic. The film seemed to me to be primarily concerned with living in the USSR. This in turn requires entering a number of philosophical debates about how to survive in the society and what it is that keeps people going. We do find out what the Professor and the Writer are seeking but several questions are unanswered by the narrative. The most obvious is why the Stalker hasn’t entered the room and obtained his own wish – which might be for money to support his family or for a cure for the affliction which means his daughter has difficulty walking.
I should point out that I found the film very heavy going. Partly that might be because I was feeling under the weather anyway with a heavy cold but I think I stayed alert throughout the running time. However, I am now finding it difficult to remember some parts of the narrative. I saw my first three Tarkovsky films on release in UK cinemas, Solaris (1972), Andrei Rublev (1973) and Mirror (1980) and not only did I enjoy them but I found myself moved by them in different ways. When I watched Tarkovsky’s début film Ivan’s Childhood (1962) some years later on video, I was similarly knocked out. Why then did I not respond to Stalker? I don’t know. I was impressed by the camerawork and some of the ‘action sequences’ such as the initial breaking into the Zone, the walk across it and some of the sequences inside the buildings, but for some reason I wasn’t engaged. I wasn’t sure what to make of the opening and closing sequences with the Stalker and his wife and daughter. It may be that I just couldn’t tune into the religious and and more broadly philosophical questions – though these are also present in various ways in some of the earlier films. More likely, is that the narrative itself is much more abstract and though it isn’t difficult to see some of the links to a critique of Soviet society, I tend to enjoy narratives that are more materially, more sociologically grounded (or in the case of Solaris, couched in more specific generic structures).
There are many, many pieces written about Stalker from eminent film critics and scholars to auteur fans. There are also many attempts to explain the narrative. Stalker has become one of those films that are endlessly argued over. You can easily find many of these on YouTube and through simple searches. Perhaps I need to watch it again – or perhaps I should seek out his last two films? I’m pleased Glasgow screened it and I’m glad I saw it in what is now considered a large cinema. Here’s the trailer for a recent restoration of Stalker:
Anglophone Canadian films are quite difficult to find in the UK (as distinct from Québécois films) so finding them in a festival is always a bonus. This title promised to offer some light relief from the heavier diet of arthouse fare in the rest of the programme. It was described in the brochure as an SF-romcom and that’s indeed what it turned out to be. It isn’t heavy on the science but the scenario does provide a slightly different take on the romcom, though there are one or two elements shared with the Tamil blockbuster Endhiran (2010) and various US time travel narratives.
James (Jonas Chernick) has long been obsessed with his own ideas for time travel, so much so that he has never properly developed a relationship with his fellow researcher Courtney (Cleopatra Coleman) and he still needs his wild younger sister Meredith (Tommie-Amber Pirie) to keep his daily life on track. He and Courtney work as researchers at a facility headed by Dr. Rowley (Frances Conroy). James believes he is close to a breakthrough in creating time travel technology but several other deadlines/crisis points are looming and both Meredith and Courtney are likely to abandon him if he doesn’t take action. At this point he is abducted by an older man masquerading as a taxi driver. He is shocked to discover this is his future self ‘Jimmy’ (as played by Daniel Stern who has a lot of fun with this role).
When James meets ‘Jimmy’, the science behind the idea of time travel gradually gets lost. Though there is some resemblance between the characters, Jimmy is taller and his facial features slightly ‘pulled out’ – apparently as a result of time travel. More significantly, Jimmy is a livelier, more mischievous and more cynical character than James. What does he want? He certainly wants to stay around for a while and he meets and charms Courtney. He also has the answers to the questions James has been struggling over, but he isn’t going to provide them just yet. In fact he may be trying to stop James making the discovery at all. His message for James seems to be ‘learn to live a little’. Everything finally depends on a new deadline. Dr. Rowley announces a funded scholarship which will send Courtney to Switzerland (cue race to the airport in best romcom style?) Meanwhile, James discovers that Dr. Rowley has a vital piece of kit she has been keeping secret. But will Jimmy try to stop him accessing it?
The problem for Anglo Canadian filmmakers is that they inhabit a world dominated by Hollywood film and TV programmes. Hollywood makes many films and TV series in Canada and Canadians watch a lot of US TV programming – it’s a coloniser-colonised situation. It’s a world I don’t really know and therefore it is interesting to read some of the North American reviews of this film. Cleopatra Coleman is Australian and Daniel Stern is American but still there is something about the film that makes it feel ‘Canadian’. It appears to have been shot in Sudbury, Ontario and there is that calm openness with just the hint of possible weirdness that means it isn’t likely to be American. I enjoyed the film. At times it is quite funny and I liked the characters. The narrative has some warmth and the script by Chernick and director Jeremy LaLonde avoids some of the pitfalls of the genre. Daniel Stern gives the film its energy and Cleopatra Coleman is a joy. I doubt it will ever appear in the UK but perhaps on Amazon or Netflix?
Little Joe was funded by a range of European public funding agencies and is now distributed in the UK by the British Film Institute. Its profile within the European film world is based on its Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s previous Cannes screenings and its Cannes 2019 Best Actor prize for Emily Beecham. But apart from a handful of critics, the film audience has not taken to it – at the time of writing it has a 5.9 score on IMDb. I think the problem is that the film falls into a contemporary bear-trap – the sense for audiences that an arthouse director is making a genre film but not carrying through the expectations they have for that specific genre. It’s a different version of the problem which also affects The Lighthouse.
‘Little Joe’ is the name given by a senior ‘plant breeder’ to a new plant she has created as part of a project to develop a house plant that will produce excessive amounts of pollen and a very distinctive smell. The project team believe that inhaling the smell will be calming and will promote ‘happiness’ – thus tying in to the latest ‘wellness’ craze, though nobody mentions that in a film shot in 2018. The plant name refers to Alice Woodard’s son, Joe a young teenager who she fears she may be neglecting. As well as the central narrative about the plant, a parallel narrative explores Alice’s relationship with Joe (she is a single parent, her estranged (?) husband lives out in the wilds, in the fells). Alice is visiting a psychotherapist (Lindsay Duncan) to deal with her anxieties about parenting.
The genre narrative here is seen to belong to either horror or science fiction/speculative fiction and most critics and audiences seem to have assumed that this is a re-imagined version of the famous Body Snatchers novel (1955) by Jack Finney which has been adapted four times by Hollywood. Although I read this suggestion before I saw Little Joe, I forgot about it completely and instead thought about a range of other horror/SF narratives. Two Ira Levin novels sprang to mind, both of which later became Hollywood hits – Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Stepford Wives (1974). These may seem peculiar references but the key element is the fear that all of us feel when we think that somebody we know well still looks the same, but that they seem now to be somebody else. This sense of paranoia makes for a quiet but devastating psychological thriller. I was pleased to discover that the writer-director (with co-writer Géraldine Bajard) was aiming precisely for this:
. . . our concern was to create an atmosphere within the scenes that allows the audience to question the integrity of the characters involved.
We wanted to offer different ways of interpreting what is happening: the so-called changes in people can either be explained by their psychological state of mind, or by the pollen they have inhaled. Or alternatively, those ‘changes’ do not exist at all and are only imagined by Bella [the first of the breeders to notice something] or Alice. (from the Press Notes)
The issue for audiences here appears to be that, first, the narrative moves at a glacial pace and there isn’t as much ‘plot’ as we would expect from a genre horror/SF film and second that because we know the story we can predict the next event. I don’t buy this, partly because I’m quite happy to accept the arthouse approach. Hausner herself offers a conversation in the Press Notes with a neuroscientist to suggest that the basis of her narrative is at least plausible. Plants do contain chemicals which humans choose to ingest in various ways and which we accept as behaviour-changing and mood-altering (cannabis and nicotine are just two examples). The horror factor in this narrative is terrifying because the film doesn’t have a clear resolution. In all the Invasion of the Bodysnatcher films at least we know that the pod people are replacing humans. In this film we never know if it is actually dangerous to inhale the pollen. Have we changed? Or, because we are happy, do we just not notice?
My gripe with the film is not with the ideas, the arthouse pacing or the complex relationship to genre, but with the aesthetics of the film. The costumes are designed by the director’s sister Tanja who has worked on Jessica Hausner’s previous films and those of the Austrian auteur Ulrich Seidl. I found them ugly especially in their cut and in the clashing pastel shades designed for the overall colour palette of the film. But I can see that they help to create the sterile world of the plant breeders. They are matched by the camerawork of Martin Gschlacht and Hausner’s decision to use some of the avant-garde Japanese music of Teiji Ito (1932-1981). Ito is credited with melding traditional music from noh and kabuki theatrical forms with American avant-garde music. Hausner came across his work because of his collaborations with Maya Deren (who he married at the end of her life). This music has been one of the most disturbing/irritating aspects of the film for some audiences, especially those expecting a conventional horror/SF score (even though conventional scores for such genre films do sometimes use unusual musical forms). Finally, it is important to add to the aesthetic mix, the acting styles that Hausner has urged some of her well-known actors to adopt. I find it difficult to describe this style other than to say that it feels stilted and unnatural. I did wonder if any of it was associated with this being Hausner’s first film in English, but I would have expected the actors to have overcome any issues with the script. It must be deliberate and is most apparent in scenes which would otherwise carry emotional force such as those between Alice and Chris (Ben Whishaw) and between Alice and her son and his girlfriend.
There were times watching Little Joe when I was strongly reminded of Peter Strickland’s In Fabric. That film has the same sense of ‘timelessness’ – but it also has plenty of humour, violence, horror, sex and passion, all absent in Little Joe. I sound as if I am damning Little Joe, but actually I did find it intriguing and always interesting. I’m not sure why Emily Beecham won her acting award. Perhaps it was because she gave Jessica Hausner precisely the performance the director wanted? I do wonder if I’ve fallen into the trap of ‘seeing’ Alice only through a ‘male gaze’? It’s interesting that the three other female roles of the psychotherapist, the former lead plant breeder, Bella (Kerry Fox) and Joe’s girlfriend Selma (Jessie Mae Alonzo) are all characters with more vitality and emotion reflected in their costumes and acting than that of Alice.
The production, with its Austrian, British, German and French funding was shot mainly in Liverpool and North West England, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands (for the plant breeding). I have seen comments from critics complaining about ‘another Euro-pudding’ but I think the different locations add something to the ‘otherworldliness’ of the narrative. If you go in to Little Joe thinking that you will see a horror or SF genre film I expect you will be disappointed. You might enjoy it more as an art film exploring a specific set of ideas. I’m now going to try to watch Jessica Hausner’s earlier success Lourdes (Austria-France-Germany 2009) which has just popped up on MUBI in the UK. I’m expecting a similar arthouse approach but without the genre narratives.
This US-China co-production is a long, effects-heavy space adventure film with participation by Brad Pitt’s company Plan B and both a starring role and a production role for Pitt. There are 17 producers, co-producers and executive producers listed on the credits, including the director James Gray. That tells you quite a lot. In fact, questions about production and distribution are probably more interesting than the film itself unless you are a Brad Pitt fan (and even then I think your attention levels might drop). The film is distributed by Twentieth Century Fox in the UK and was originally a Fox Searchlight presentation. I couldn’t see anything announcing this was a Disney film and it must be one of the films already listed for a release when Disney bought Fox. Fox Searchlight was Fox’s niche brand focusing on slightly left-field or ‘smaller’ films and Ad Astra turns out to be a strange hybrid. The Chinese Bona Film Group were presumably looking for a science fiction blockbuster for Chinese distribution on IMAX screens whereas some of the US production partners seem to be from an American ‘Indie’ background and director James Gray is placed somewhere between ‘studio’ and ‘independent’ US cinema. I haven’t seen any of Gray’s previous films but I note that his debut feature Little Odessa (1994) won both a Silver Lion and the acting prize for Vanessa Redgrave at Venice.
The plot outline suggests a familiar American story about a father and son. Brad Pitt is Roy McBride, a USAF space pilot in the not too distant future who is sent on a mission to Neptune to investigate the possible source of ‘power surges’ which seem to be aimed at Earth and which threaten Earth’s security. The suggestion is that they may be connected to the disappearance several years ago of the Lima Project spacecraft and crew led by McBride’s father (Tommy Lee Jones). Roy had assumed that his father was dead and is committed to fulfilling his mission.
The narrative itself seems to be divided into sections which draw on familiar genre scenarios from various science fiction/space adventures. So Roy’s initial journey to the Moon and then Mars is reminiscent of 2001 with the addition of an action sequence and the introduction of elements of the paranoia thriller (has Roy been told ‘everything’ by the military top brass?). There are action sequences involving ‘space walks’ like those in Gravity and a short horror/thriller sequence. All these are presented with a Max Richter musical score complementing Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography. The film looks great and sounds great and all those VFX guys from around the world can be proud. Unfortunately the script by James Gray and his long-term collaborator Ethan Gross seemed to me to be very weak. I note that the IMDb plot summary includes this line: “His [Roy’s] journey will uncover secrets that challenge the nature of human existence and our place in the cosmos”. I must have missed when that happened.
The casting decisions on the film seem at first to square with calls for diversity and the most joyous moment in the film is a clip of the Nicholas Brothers dancing in Stormy Weather (1943). But the significant characters are really only Pitt and Jones and the supporting characters are mainly ‘American’. Ruth Negga and Liv Tyler are completely wasted by the script. I’ve seen at least one ad promoting ‘Brad Pitt and Liv Tyler’ as the stars and that is nonsense. The characters are also primarily American as if space exploration in the future will be still on a national basis. This gender/nationalism question makes me think of other science fiction films, including Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (UK-US 2007) – similarly a Fox Searchlight film but with much more imaginative casting. I found Sunshine to be much more entertaining, spoiled only by its overly religious ending. Religion seems to be everywhere in Ad Astra as well and that seems very American.
I also thought about Arrival, a film which I think has been under-rated and is the best sf film I’ve seen for some time. It seems to have something interesting to say and a real emotional heart. And it focuses on a woman. But like many of the most successful SF films, Arrival was based on a successful original short story. I couldn’t find any ideas as gripping in Ad Astra and I got the impression that the film’s funders thought that the spectacular elements of the film were more important than the ideas in the narrative.
I’m not a scientist and I don’t know much about astro-physics, but the science of Ad Astra seemed tosh. However, I have to admit that audiences seem to like this film, especially in the UK where after two weeks and a very small drop in takings it leads the international film market. I think this is a bad sign for the future of cinema.