Saturday, January 14, 2012

Hunters in the Snow

Have you seen Solaris? No, not the George Clooney version. I mean the 1972 Soviet classic directed by the great Andrei Tarkovsky. You remember the story; Kris Kelvin, the troubled-looking gent in the still shot above, is sent to a space station to investigate a mission that has gone all pear-shaped. The scientists on the mission are supposed to be researching a watery, ocean planet called Solaris. But, their research has produced strange findings. When Kelvin arrives on the ship, he discovers that things have indeed gone awry. The ship is a mess, one of the scientists has killed himself and mysterious, unidentified visitors are seen and heard flitting through the corridors.

With his colleagues are cagey about these details, Kelvin awakens to find that his dead wife, Hari (who we seat seated on his lap above) has re-appeared. Is she purely a product of his imagination? A delusion? She is seemingly impervious to destruction; when she is wounded, she heals rapidly. When she is ejected from the ship, she just returns the following night. Kelvin comes to understand that she is a non-human replication of Hari harvested from his memory by the churning waters of Solaris and materialized from neutrinos.

At the same time, this non-human Hari—a hybrid fusion of Kelvin's memory and the sentient ocean—begins to gain self-conscious. Initially, Hari is unable to remember the past; she can't identify herself in a framed photograph that Kelvin brings from Earth. Slowly, she differentiates herself from the terrestrial Hari, who persists only in Kelvin's memory and his photographs, and she takes on a life of her own.

A very interesting visualization of this sentience then unfolds as we see Hari gazing upon the painting above: Jan Bruegel's Hunters in the Snow now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. A hunting party and a pack of hounds have entered the picture plane from the left as they descend snowy hillside toward a village. The pair of small lakes in the valley below have frozen solid. Silhouettes of skating adults and children flit across their surfaces. Craggy peaks sprout from the hillside beyond the pooled lakes as a single, darkened bird descends across the leaden sky.

Now, since Tarkovsky cuts between a shot of Hari looking at this image and a sequence of close-ups of the picture itself, we can infer that these shots offer us her point of view. The camera tracks slowly across the picture-plane, panning in and focuses upon specific, seductive details. And, as it does so, the film cuts to a scene of Kelvin as a boy playing in the snow—a scene from a film that Kelvin had previously shown to Hari. What we seem to be seeing, in other words, is this non-Hari's evolving capacity to make associations between perceptual data and mnemonic information. She says as much to Kelvin who calls her out of her reverie when she confesses that she has been "lost in my thoughts." If made from his mnemonic storehouse by Solaris's intervention, this hybrid non-Hari is beginning to take on a life of her own, to think for herself. If the scientists have been trying to study Solaris as Solaris has been trying to study them, it tempting to think of Hari's own consolidating consciousness as that frozen membrane of ice that separates the skaters from the chilly depths beneath. I'll need to come back to this topic later.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Bad Language

Dear Blogging:

I have been reading Mr. Bligh's Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty (Cambridge UP, 1994) over the past week or so, and I thought you might want to learn some more about it. I remember how much you like boats, after all!

Now, you remember the story of the mutiny on the Bounty, right? It's an ugly one. At the bidding of Royal Society President, Joseph Banks, and other power-brokers, William Bligh is commissioned to travel to Tahiti, acquire a cargo of germinating breadfruits and then transport them back to Jamaica where they will serve as a cheap and sustainable source of calories for the slaves working on British sugar plantations. Sadness of sweetness and all that.

Bligh is keen to make a quick passage from Britain to Tahiti and so he tries to sail south and west around Cape Horn. After weeks of grueling effort, this project goes completely pear-shaped, so he sails east. But, because of this delay, the Bounty arrives at Tahiti past the breadfruit's germinating season. Fearing that his vegetable cargo will all die on the journey, Bligh keeps the boat anchored in Tahiti's Matavai Bay for  five months.

While this was good for the breadfruit, it was even better for the crew who had a lusty time mixing it up with the Tahitian ladies. However, once they are back under sail and subjected to the rigors of life at sea, so the familiar story goes, the crew quickly lost patience with Bligh. A cruel, tactless disciplinarian, Bligh and his liberal use of the lash prompted the famous mutiny by Fletcher Christian who exiled Bligh and those faithful to him to a small launch. Christian eventually takes the Bounty off to Pitcairn island where he meets his end.

By Greg Dening's celebrated revision, this standard history misses much of the story. Rather than being a cruel sadist, Dening shows how Bligh was actually one of the least violent naval leaders in the British Pacific of his time. A sub-chapter and extensive quantitative data in the notes go to make the point that Bligh only flogged a fraction of the 20% of sailors on British ships in the Pacific who received a taste of the whip for their troubles. So, if it wasn't an excess of discipline that prompted the mutiny, what was it? Part of Dening's argument is that Bligh and his ship confused the boundaries of legitimate authority as eighteenth century sailors would have recognized it. If never capacious, the distinguishing exclusivity of the captain's private quarters aboard the Bounty were seriously compromised once colonized by Banks's breadfruits. Further, by serving as both commander and "purser" (or entrepreneurial outfitter) of the Bounty, Bligh split his loyalties. And while he might appear more humane in punishing with wicked insults instead of whips, Bligh's eponymous "bad language," Dening claims, critically undermined his standing as the kind of Enlightenment gentleman to whom the crew would implicitly give its allegiance.

Some of the book (I'll confess to you, dear Blogging) reads as a bit old fashioned in that early nineties sort of way with lots of self-conscious reflection on the craft of the historian and the polysemic nature of texts, etc. Much—or at least the chapter on the death of Capt. Cook on Hawaii—reads as a large piece of debt to the work of Marshall Sahlins. And I haven't yet reached the end. But, a good read nonetheless.

Love -

Sanford Sanchez