How tragic Russians gave American cinema its joyby Mark Cousins / January 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
It’s not every day that a big Hollywood star and one of its hottest directors remake a Soviet metaphysical masterpiece of the 1970s. Solaris, starring George Clooney, directed by Stephen Soderbergh and adapted from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film of the same name, has opened in the US to neither highbrow nor lowbrow acclaim. The film’s final reel in particular has been the subject of much head scratching, as it’s sort of a happy ending but sort of not.
Solaris will no doubt be equally scrutinised when it opens here in January, but the ambiguity of its ending raises broader questions. The biggest box office hits in Soviet and Russian cinema have always been tragedies, yet when they are shown in the US, they often have tagged-on happy endings. Nothing surprising in that, you might say. US cinema has conquered the world by being feelgood. Look at Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, a splendid work of digital-gothic, ruined in its closing moments when Tom Cruise touches his pregnant wife’s stomach.
In fact, the history of US cinema’s optimism is more complex than this suggests. The American film noirs which influenced Minority Report were visually and tonally dark. Gone with the Wind has a very unhappy ending. Titanic, the biggest US box office hit of all time, is a tragedy (of sorts). Within a few years of Tarkovsky’s original Solaris, Martin Scorsese made an equally bleak anti-musical-New York, New York-whose centrepiece was an exuberant dance routine called “Happy Endings”-a homage to Judy Garland production numbers of the 1940s and 1950s. In an astonishing sign of the film world’s 1970s ambivalence about utopia, “Happy Endings” was cut from the film. The spirit of Judy Garland, it seemed, would not wash.
In the same year, 1977, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall carried the ironic line, “In the movies you should try to have happy endings, because life so rarely does.” Polanski was closer to the spirit of the times when he had Faye Dunaway, the innocent victim in Chinatown, shot through the eye at the end of the film.
Last scenes are so crucial in America that some stock market speculators judge the US mood by the prevailing endings of big movies. But what’s even more remarkable is the influence of Russian film, working across a great cultural divide, on the cult of the ending. There are happy endings in Soviet and Russian films too, of…