Niall Anderson looks at a new book about Andrei Tarkovsky’s most mysterious film
Stalker doesn’t ask much of the viewer. It tells a clear, simple story. It’s not tricksy, obscure or up itself. Every scene seems perfectly calculated to either raise an interesting question or provide a more interesting answer. Its ending is a real ending (one of the most memorable in all cinema, in fact). So yes: Stalker is easy. All it asks is that you give it your complete and sincere attention for nearly three hours, preferably without blinking.
Even then, you might not get it. As Geoff Dyer writes in his new book, Zona, a garrulous and overamiable discussion of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film: ‘It was not a case of love at first sight: the first time I saw Stalker I was slightly bored and unmoved.’ With that confession out of the way, Dyer adds the sneaky coda: ‘But it was an experience I couldn’t shake off.’
Dyer’s response is typical enough, and it partly explains Stalker’s ambivalent reputation. It is a famous masterpiece, yes, but its influence seems to extend only as far as an individual viewer’s cranium. You don’t see many films that reference it, or any that really resemble it. Indeed, adding to the general atmosphere of mystery and legend surrounding the film, we nearly didn’t see Stalker itself in the first place. A rash of technical, professional and personal problems meant that Tarkovsky shot it three times before he was finished with it. (He even suffered a heart attack between versions two and three.)
Set in an unnamed republic at an unspecified, post-industrial point in time, Stalker sends its characters into a quarantined wasteland known as The Zone. Local legend has it that this wasteland is the exclusion belt created by a meteorite that fell several decades ago. Nobody in the film actually remembers this happening, but the military still patrol the perimeter of The Zone, shooting all trespassers on sight, so there must be something important in there. A further legend has it that within The Zone there is a room – called, in the uncompromising uppercase style of the film, The Room – which has the power to grant people’s deepest wishes. Midway through the film we hear the story of a man whose desires were gratified to such an extent that he committed suicide the next week. The problem with one’s deepest wishes, we infer, is that you may not actually know what they are until they come true.
Still, wherever there is mystery there are seekers, and where there are seekers there will be those who supply them with what they want. Hence, around The Zone, a trade has grown up of guerrilla tourguides who will take you to The Room and back for a fee. These men are known as Stalkers, and Stalker is the straightforward account of one such man and one such trip to The Room.
Our Stalker, played by Alexander Kaidanovsky, is a careworn man in his late thirties with an unhappy wife and a distant daughter. He is nameless (indeed, none of the film’s characters has a name). He is intense about his job to a degree that seems alternately frightening and ridiculous. The Zone is dangerous, he insists, and once in there his charges must obey his instructions to the letter. It would help everyone if the Stalker could explain to his charges exactly how The Zone is dangerous, but he can’t. It would also help if his instructions didn’t seem entirely arbitrary and made up on the spot. The Zone is different every time you enter it, he explains: a visitor can’t just do what he did the last time. So his charges just have to trust the Stalker – this downtrodden man whose sincerity may in fact be madness.
For long stretches, Stalker is taken up with people doing objectively silly things with no adequate justification: throwing mechanical cogs wrapped in tissue to test the ground ahead of them, walking through a sewer only to come out three feet from where they started, and above all refusing to go directly into The Room despite it being right there, about a hundred feet from where they entered The Zone. Tarkovsky shoots these apparent follies with a disinterested patience that may well exceed the viewer’s: the languid style seems at once like an absolute naturalism and a deliberate exercise in narrative frustration. Whatever each of us may want to get from a film, none of us wants to experience disinterest.
But here is precisely the genius of Stalker. Like its mysterious Room, it fills up with your desires. You may decide early on that the characters are on a wild goose chase, but you still want them to reach The Room – so you can find out for certain. You might, on the other hand, want to believe in The Zone as the only place in a grim fictional universe where hope survives. In which case, do you even want the characters to reach The Room? What if there’s nothing there?
It says something about Geoff Dyer’s responsiveness to Stalker that when he asks himself what he’d wish for if he made it to The Room, he plumps for a threesome with two ex-girlfriends. A four-page endnote follows up this revelation, explaining how on two occasions in the 1980s Dyer came very close to fulfilling his dream, only for stupidity or lack of nerve to get the better of him. (His two ex-girlfriends ended up getting together without him.) This is one of several points in Dyer’s book where he takes aim at the aura of self-important holiness that surrounds much Tarkovsky film criticism, only to end up twitting the reader instead.
But this is very much Dyer’s way. As in his book about DH Lawrence, Out Of Sheer Rage, Dyer has clearly done his homework and then some. But he wants you to know he’s done his homework just so he can feed it to the dog before your eyes. Dealing with a rowdy and unmethodical artist like Lawrence, this approach feels like a welcome fusing of spirits. Dealing with a cerebral formalist like Tarkovsky, it feels a bit snarky and even defensive – not because Tarkovsky couldn’t use a little lightening up, but because Dyer’s determined informality is unenlightening when applied to him.
Still, it’s difficult to imagine an English writer other than Dyer putting together a full-length book on a little-seen Soviet masterpiece about the existential fate of all mankind. It’s for this kind of unusual curiosity and reach that Dyer has gained a reputation, in certain quarters, as an intellectual polymath. What he really is, though, is a slightly wayward populariser: Bill Bryson by way of Danny The Drug Dealer – a wonk with a spliff. Zona is one of his less successful efforts, but it succeeded in getting me to watch Stalker again, if only to purge myself of Dyer’s genial pedantry and false charm. Compared to that, Stalker is easy.