The shapeliest entry in J.K. Rowling’s boy-wiz chronicles, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, reminds us that all fictions contain an element of the arbitrary, and that fantasy is supreme in this respect: The elf is liberated from servitude once his master gives him an article of clothing. The basilisk’s gaze kills, but not if met through glass or water. Your father’s cloak (or by the same Tolkien, your uncle’s ring) makes you invisible, but don’t do it too often, because it unleashes X, or turns you into Y. Indeed, Hogwarts’ turbo-broomstick Quidditch game, at which Harry Potter excels, seems in its Byzantine rules an unconscious self-parody.
Along with such caprice, Borges identifies tedium as a common trait in literature, and though some of Chris Columbus’s second Potter film nods to the sort of character-building that children supposedly enjoy, Chamber‘s charm lies in the sheer visualization of Rowling’s weirder inventions: pots of shrivel-phizzed screaming treelets, Harry’s arm gone boneless from a bungled spell, a scolding letter from home that leaps to life as a yapping paper mouth. When Harry and pal Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint, an even more vivid name than “Ron Weasley”) miss the Hogwarts Express, the Weasley auto takes to the skies like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; an outbreak of pixies bears liposucked resemblance to the troublemakers in the Columbus-scripted Gremlins. The best allusion might be the hairiest: In a class devoted to turning animals into goblets, Ron ineptly renders his pet rat into a kissing cousin of Meret Oppenheim’s notorious fur-lined tea service. (That objet’s sexual interpretations are legion; what to make of this, in conjunction with young Weasley’s perpetually broken wand?)
Some of the book’s shortcomings cannot be remedied; in particular, the race/class struggle presented here is a stab at social conscience that feels more programmed than earned—with all respect to the Muggle (non-magical) population, it’s hard to sympathize with lily-white bookworm Hermione (Emma Watson), whose “mixed” blood is reviled by the so-much-mousse-he-must-be-evil Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton). Conversely, title-role-player Daniel Radcliffe has negligible charisma, surprising us only by how much his voice has changed since last year’s Sorcerer’s Stone. But the story’s anagrammatic revelation will prime youngsters for the similar eureka in Rosemary’s Baby, to say nothing of those in Les Vampires; and Kenneth Branagh cures to perfection the ham Gilderoy Lockhart, bestselling author and second-rate magician, who loves nothing more than to stand by a self-portrait of himself painting a self-portrait, all three representations working his audience.
In Chamber, Rowling uses Gilderoy to poke fun at her own unstoppable bestsellerdom, but even this can’t match the autocritical chutzpah of the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem: He kicked off A Perfect Vacuum, his 1971 collection of fictitious book reviews, with a stinging appraisal of something called A Perfect Vacuum. In the Polish Cultural Institute-sponsored “From the Mind of Stanislaw Lem,” four rarely screened films explore a worldview brimming with such reversals and contradictions, the overlapping realms of the real and the nearly so.
Lem is best known as the author of Solaris, the inspiration for Andrei Tarkovsky’s essential 1972 film and Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming remake. In that story, the alien world is one immense ocean, the ocean is a brain, and the brain may be our own. But with the exception of Marek Piestrak’s Test Pilot Pirx (1979), the retro’s titles find their conundrums here on earth. The Investigation (1973) is a defter Piestrak outing—a procedural that tries to explain the bizarre postmortem movements of corpses reposing in English countryside morgues but morphs into metaphysical puzzlements and a critique of policier conventions. (The more perplexing mystery might be why everyone at Scotland Yard only speaks Polish.)
Andrzej Wajda’s Lem-scripted Roly Poly (1968) is an adrenalized legal farce, set in a past or a future where suave surgeons walk around bare-chested in hospital and beatniks are out to make it rich via organ farming. When the famous race-car team of Fox and Fox crashes, only one of the brothers (the hilarious Bogumil Kobiela) survives, but which one? A percentage of his body parts were actually salvaged from his “deceased” brother—including the reproductive bits, which muddles the last will and testament (e.g., are his nephew and niece actually his children?). After a second accident and operation (this time encompassing a woman and a dog), the case threatens to snowball into a Slavic Jarndyce and Jarndyce. At the other end of the Lemiverse, Edward Zebrowski’s 1979 adaptation of Lem’s first novel, Hospital of the Transfiguration, is as sensitively structured as it is beautifully lit, the life and death of an insane asylum as seen through the eyes of Stefan, a capable if contemplative young psychiatrist. (With his high brow and fine, slightly pinched features, Piotr Dejmek is a dead ringer for the young Nabokov.) The story shares concerns with both Chekhov’s “Ward No. 6” and Kurosawa’s Red Beard, but here the illness contained within is dwarfed by that without: the growing reach of Nazi power. The inexorable Gestapo takeover hits so suddenly that the staff is rendered helpless; without warning, color drains from the frame, and Stefan’s retreat into a forest of death plays like the last reel of Throne of Blood.
Someone at the Polish Cultural Institute must be putting in serious overtime: Anthology features four films directed by Lem’s fellow novelist Tadeusz Konwicki. One of Konwicki’s translators said of his supple prose, “Only in fiction can there be tenses like this past future imperfect,” and the double threat’s 1971 film So Far and Yet So Near locates the tension in that tense. The film starts in abstraction (a biblically bearded figure floating sideways in a corroded empyrean), snaps into noir-terse focus when the protagonist utters, “In 86 minutes I will kill a man,” and then proceeds to collapse emotional and chronological time. The meta-movie construct creaks in spots, but otherwise the film startles with its walking dead, Buñuelian tableaux, and troop of sinister wicker men. A fever dream of a birthday party transpires in spasms of nightmare sex, eschatological ramblings, and brain-curdling lounge music.
By contrast, Konwicki’s 1958 debut, The Last Day of Summer, has an outward calm, its sharp black-and-white seascape underscored only by the roar of surf and the occasional fighter plane—though perhaps it’s time to worry when they begin to sound the same. A boyish man and an older, regret-laden woman meet, freed of names but not history, and frolic, feast, fight. Or is he just a phantom? If the existential purity of the sandy setting has been cheapened by a generation of clothing catalogs (not to mention residual Swept Away shudders), at least the final shot proves suitably cosmic: the bereft wading futilely into shelf after shelf of sea, an island of one, like the solipsistic artifact later embedded in the waters that conclude Tarkovsky’s Solaris.