Tarkovsky’s Solaris came out in 1972, which was the year I’d left Russia. It was not until a quarter of a century later that I watched the long and quaint film, and was strangely affected by it. I had always thought that nothing on the screen, if it was any good at all, could not be scribbled in a book or put on in the theater, and Solaris, based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, was a case in point.
Basically, several men stuck in a space station—it could easily have been a desert island, or an English country house, or a commodious elevator—have hallucinations, or visions, based on their lives. Well, that’s pretty much what imaginative literature has been all about since the beginning of time, and the film made this point very persuasively, I thought. I was myself at a weird juncture when I saw it, and all the roads stretching out before me seemed to lead to the past.
The film’s protagonists’ hallucinations, or visions, could only be as interesting to the audience, of course, as the lives that had prompted them. They had to be consistent with their whole personalities, because otherwise this would not have been literature—or film, or theater—but what the Italians so engagingly call casino, meaning bedlam, funny farm, a day in the nuthouse. As it happens, recently I came upon the 2002 remake of the film by somebody called Steven Soderbergh, and let me tell you: Che casino!
Now, I’m more of a misanthrope than I is a racist. As a Moscow friend of mine exclaimed on entering a pub in Belgravia where white young noisy drunks were watching football, “God, I never knew I hated the whites as much as I hate the blacks!” But the crazy thing about the Soderbergh remake was that even as the opening credits were rolling, I guessed that one of the people marooned in interstellar space would be black. Never figured, though, that she’d be a woman, and ugly as a frog at that.
Forget that it’s all from a book by a Polish author. Why couldn’t a Polack have thought of writing a Negro into his novel? He could, so I have no trouble with that. And forget that it was meant to be a bunch of menfolk stuck in that disused mineshaft of a space station. Couldn’t the Polack, with his knowledge of the Upper Silesian Basin, have heard the story of at least one female coal miner and been taken by it, with the result that the ugly frog later popped up in Solaris—all black with anthracite dust, incidentally? He could, so I have no serious trouble with that, either. But why? That’s what infuriates me. Why? Why?
Why should the heroine of the new Disney film about a princess, which opened in London at the end of January, be black? Think fairy tales, and if that’s bonkers enough for you, go right ahead. I prefer to think of the de Guermantes’ salon in Proust, remember?
The Guermantes were not only endowed with an exquisite quality of flesh, of hair, of transparency of gaze, but had a way of holding themselves, of walking, of bowing, of looking at one before they shook one’s hand, of shaking hands, which made them as different in all these respects from an ordinary member of fashionable society as he in turn was from a peasant in a smock.
As with the Solaris remake, The Princess and the Frog’s problem is not so much of plausibility as of substance. The title of princess can only belong to the wife or a female descendant of a prince (from Latin princeps), who, like all noblemen, was originally a warlord, primus inter pares and the first (Fürst is “prince” in German, in imitation of the Latin word) to grab hold (capere, to take) of something in battle, such as the scruff of an enemy’s neck, a flagstaff, a hillside. Now, I see no reason why a warlord must be a honky, but the misanthrope in me recoils violently at the thought of interracial romance, whose putative issue is the princess. We’ve all read Othello and remember how things ended.
Or else the princess’s mother was a Negress, too, but that smacks of racism. Even daring Soderbergh didn’t have the gall to man Lem’s space station with an all-female or all-black crew, so how can Disney, even given Old Walt’s famous equanimity and good humor in the face of rapid social and racial change, claim that all the world’s a stage with everybody in blackface?
And what about the frog? I sure hope it isn’t black, like the frog in Solaris, or else officers of the Metropolitan Police Race Relations Rapid Response Unit will arrive to shut down the London premiere before the little charmer has croaked out a single G-rated F-word.