Although I got the novel as a Christmas present, I only read Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation after seeing Alex Garland’s movie adaptation, finishing it last weekend. There are some adaptations that ruin the original for you, but that’s rarely been a major problem for me: if a story is enjoyable primarily because of what happens next, I usually don’t feel all that much of a need to read it in the first place. If there are interesting characters or ideas, if the prose is evocative and atmospheric – generally, if it’s the storytelling itself that makes the story thrilling or funny or generally engaging rather than what happens next – then I’m definitely up for experiencing a story more than once.


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Le retour du sous titre

You know what’s almost as bad as not having any subtitles in a series of films filled by mumbling Yorkshiremen? (Note that in the meantime a friend’s lent me the German edition of Red Riding, which features subtitles along with the English audio track. Blessings upon their Teutonic heads!) Buying a DVD that advertises, right on the back, subtitles in every language under the sun, or at least in English, German, French, Russian and a fair number of other languages – but then the actual DVD bears little resemblance with what’s promised on the box.

Other than featuring Andrei Tarkovsky’s enigmatic Stalker, that is. I’ve been interested in the film for, oh, about 15 years now, ever since a friend mentioned to me that it’s one of his favourite movies. My interest was piqued even more when I played the Stalker games, although they’re based less on the movie than on the novel Roadside Picnic (and ironically, while the games are relatively thoughtful, they still look like an ’80s action movie next to Tarkovsky’s film). I ordered the DVD on ages ago – precisely because the edition promised subtitles in lots of different languages – but only got around to seeing the film now.

First impression: man, my French sucks. I was never very good at it, but after letting what ability I had rust for 15 years I understood perhaps 40% of what was being said. (Or rather, 40% of the subtitles; I understood even less of the Russian dialogue, although I did understand “бутерброд”!)

Second impression: even if I understand fairly little and the film is extremely slow – there’s something eminently compelling to Tarkovsky’s style. Even more than Solaris (which suffered somewhat from being set in an outdated future, the fate of so much sci-fi) Stalker is hypnotic… and gorgeous to look at. It is atmospheric without going for any of the predictable tools of atmospheric film makers. The world of Stalker is ominous and eerie, yet at the same time naturalistic, creating an effect I haven’t seen in any other film. There’s something almost documentary in its visuals, yet there’s a dream-like quality – and it’s this seeming contradiction, this tension, that is utterly fascinating.

More than that, perhaps it helps to see the film in a language I don’t fully understand. Films that are put in the ‘art film’ box tend to have a certain portentous, somewhat affectated quality to them; as much as I like Bergman, for instance, a number of his films have a certain self-aware heaviness that can be more alienating than is necessary. Perhaps Tarkovsky’s work has this same quality if the viewer understands the dialogues enough to realise that they’re unintelligible – but my impression was that while the world and themes of the film are portentous, the characters feel real. Not 100% and not all the time, but they’re more than just vehicles for themes.

In the end, though, I can really only judge Stalker as a visual experience until I’ve rewatched it (after a French refresher, perhaps), and on those terms alone it’s well worth seeing. Even if there’s a relative scarcity of Ukranian mercenaries, radioactive mutants and frantic gunfights.

But if I get my hands on the people responsible for that mendacious DVD edition, je m’occupe de vos miches à la médiévale!

The man whose career could survive a moustache

I’ve never seen the first film version of Solaris. I have a fairly high tolerance for slow movies, but I’ve never dared to test this tolerance on Tarkovsky’s film. (Personally, I blame Russian Ark, a slow Russian film that I found offensively boring.) However, being a Steven Soderbergh fan, I’ve seen – and enjoyed – his version* several times now. I love its elliptic quality. The film isn’t willfully confusing, but neither does it believe in making everythign absolutely clear – which, more often than not, I find utterly boring and just a tad offensive. I enjoy having to use my brain at least a bit when watching a movie, I like having to put in an effort to get something out of a book or film, because in the end you tend to get more out of such books and films.

It’s also one of the first films that show George Clooney’s acting range. He’s not perfect, and there are one or two scenes that stretch his abilities perhaps a bit too much; but then, what is the convincing way to react when you’re millions of miles away from Earth and wake up to find your dead wife in bed next to you?

(Beware: the excerpt above is 9+ minutes long, but it highlights the film’s beautiful cinematography and its wonderful, hypnotic score.)

Before Solaris, I thought that Clooney was best at the Cary Grant type of role, as he does so well in Out of Sight and Ocean’s 11. To my knowledge, Solaris was the first time he didn’t put in a movie star performance, where he wasn’t suave and glamorous (much like Brad Pitt in Babel). And after that, he showed that he could pull it off convincingly in Syriana and in his lovely little performance in God Night, and Good Luck, his second directing stint. I admire his willingness to put the film and the other actors first. There are few stars with his charisma that succeed as well at letting others dominate the screen when it’s right for the film. And there are few stars that are as willing to make a complete fool of themselves when the movie requires it.

Tom Selleck called. He wants his ’stache back.

And to conclude this Clooney love-fest: if you haven’t seen his first directing stint, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, do so. It’s an intriguing, clever, highly entertaining film – and it’s got a wonderful sight gag that puts George’s mates Matt and Brad to perfect use. Talk about lead actors who can take a back seat, literally!

*I honestly wouldn’t call Soderbergh’s Solaris a remake, just as no production of Hamlet post-1603 is a remake of the original staging.