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Stalker

One person I know, who is not averse to ‘challenging cinema’, avows to never again watch a Tarkovsky film, even though I have suggested, somewhat facetiously, that Solaris is somewhat more accessible. The reason for that being the ‘impenetrable’ (their words, and, I’d argue, this couldn’t be further from the truth) nature of Stalker, Tarkovsky’s infamous, troubled work.

Troubled: because three of the crew (Tarkovsky, his wife Larissa and the lead actor Anatoly Solonitsyn) died relatively soon afterwards of bronchial cancer, the finger for such devastation pointed very feasibly at the chemical plant spewing poison into the river just upstream the two (one apparently half-functioning, the other abandoned) hydro-power plants where the film was shot on location in Estonia. Because of exceedingly strained relations between Tarkovsky and the first cinematographer, Georgy Rerberg. Because the original footage (which cost considerably more than the final version) was useless and had to be abandoned, forcing Tarkovsky to begin again. (Even this fact is rife with contradictory speculation. Did he hate the original footage and scrap it or was it unusable for other (damaged film stock) reasons? Happily, once the second set of reels were finalised, Tarkovsky was delighted and considered the result a vast improvement.) Because the script went through endless, fractious collaborative rewrites (the film was based on the novella Roadside Picnic – which is about post-alien visitation and the bizarrely dangerous residual conditions of the six ‘Visitation zones’ and was co-written with authors Boris and Arkady Strugatsky). You get the idea: this was a disastrous experience and a process heavy on the nightmares.

The resultant film, though, is a totally fascinating vindication (post-production tragedies respectfully omitted from such commentary) of such turmoil. Stalker slowly reveals a powerful magic as black as the stray dog that ominously wanders into the fray, by which point the film can mean anything you want it to, though you’ll probably err on the side of post-apocalyptic intellectualisation of life and death.

(I have not been exhaustive with the ‘plot’ of the film here, as this would bore anyone reading this to death, and as you really need to watch the film and slowly calibrate yourself to the deadened, dreamlike effect to understand it in any way, here is a hopefully useful encapsulation (that misses crucial matters, as everything here is crucial, but you get my drift).)

So we have (and before we open, another quick comment: the pacing of the film is slooooooow for a very good reason. As Tarkovsky has touched on, he wants to create a deliberately compromised ‘state’, whereby each image becomes a kind of ceremonial juxtaposed stage rather than a linear join. Every frame counts, basically) a slow zoom (sepia tones) into a penumbrously-lit room and bed within it, the room itself seeming to be in a seriously dilapidated, time-worn, ruinous state, and in which we find three people, father, mother and daughter. The father creeps out of the room (which looks post-flood uninhabitable and mold-cold), brushes his teeth in another distinctly insalubrious looking chamber of the abode, and, after a tense exchange with the following mother (‘You’ll go back to prison and I will be dead in the meantime’ – ‘You will have no zone!’) exits. To the juddering-clatter brought on by a passing train(?) the woman writhes on the putrid wooden floorboards. You forget that in 2010 the immediate easy conclusion to any cinematic ‘weirdness’ is often the lazily automatic ‘Are they all dead, then?’ Despite this, I confess that I could not elude the thought, ‘Are they all dead, then?’ But I did manage to discard the idea, for a short while.

We then revisit, with our ‘Stalker’, the age-filthied, carved rock walls of the bar seen during the strangely ominous opening credits (many parts of the film are loaded with a sense of dislocated dread that it’s hard to fathom as either being created as thus and manifestly so due to the environs/intentions or for entirely personal reasons). This being the preclusion of the voyage into the ‘Zone’ journeyed by ‘Stalker’, ‘Writer’ and ‘Professor’(physicist). Why those three? Well, how about renaming them ‘Doer’, ‘Speculator’ and ‘Sceptic’. Or perhaps ‘Believer’, ‘Open-minded investigator’ and ‘Fusty old curmudgeon that demands proof, dammit!’ Though it would be unfair to tag any as smirking naysayer: all are deeply troubled by the ‘Zone’ and all are compelled to go there. They are all in pursuit of the forbidden, as it were, regardless of ideological standpoints.

We overhear an empirical versus creative (the first of several) conversation among them centring on triangles. There is also the following comment from the writer. ‘If no-one in a hundred years will read me, why write?’ (An answer of sorts will arrive later.) All are nervous, none more so than the ‘Stalker’, whose presence the others need to negotiate a way into this mysterious location. They speak of the ‘Zone’ and are due to head towards it, this much is clear. We are never privy to why. Yes, we get talk of having ‘wishes come true’, but there never seems to be a sense of striving towards any quantifiable target. The journey itself, with its concomitant uncertainty, impels them.

Every move beyond the bar and towards their destination is an advancement into peril and, soon enough, they are evading a motorcyclist and timing their pursuit of a train which we can only assume is rattling towards the ‘Zone’. In the wake of the train they arrive at the floodlit glare of a checkpoint and are soon targeted by rifled sentries: they veer off in a rain of bullets, the reports hanging in the fogged air. ‘Can they catch us?’ ‘They fear it like the plague.’ ‘Fear what?’ (No response to this.)

But they are seemingly beyond a certain demarcation point that the antagonists fear: no-one follows them. Stray, distant gunfire punctuates any sense of safety and they find a four-wheeled cart on the tracks and head on through a bleak, disquieted landscape into an uninhabited industrial wasteland that soundlessly contains tyres, timber logs, plastic, travel-blurred indiscernible items. The emergent soundtrack at this point is ambient and mournful and there is a potent sense of exhilarating abandon: a point of no return and a hinterland of respite fringed one way by imminent death and, in the approaching distance, the allure of the ‘Zone’.

The ’Zone’ itself has retained a chemically-fecund sense of colour: there is ‘life’ here and a sense of pastoral reclamation (or lack of loss signified by the bled, iodine-hued world outside) and peculiar vitality. It is our world slightly askew and yet feels utterly alien. There is a sense of emptied calm, like a peacetime battleground a week after a particularly savage denouement, and yet: it feels imminently violent somehow, as though the residual ambience of a strange undertaking still thrums in the twisted tree limbs and occupies the abandoned car wreck sat beside strewn wood in too-green fields.

They move, carefully and uncertainly, along in a pre-conceived direction the ‘Stalker’ has clearly slavishly adhered to prior to this visit: indeed, deviations are proscribed by the ‘Stalker’ with dire warnings as to consequences. We move amidst and about battered, gutted buildings that contain unseen menace and an uncertain, unquestioned history. Water pools glisten in gouged pockets of mud and human detritus – jewellery, guns, coins – languish underwater, sit robbed of meaning atop wet mud. Odd conversations occur about ‘Porcupine’, who was ‘called teacher’ and ‘spoke to the people in the Zone – nobody could stop him’ but ‘something broke in him’ and he was ‘punished’. The writer at one point says ‘Give up your empiricism, professor. Miracles are outside empiricism.’ There is also reference to someone who ‘left the Zone and became fabulously rich’ but who ‘hung himself later’.

There is a then a key (for me, anyway) piece of dialogue that I chose to retain as emblematic of what Tarkovsky may have been striving for. Namely: ‘Man exists to create art – the only unselfish act.’

They venture further; through a tunnel they fear to approach and incrementally onwards into increasingly potent proximity to their hopefully exultant, intangible aim.  I will draw a veil over the plot at this point: here we have a piece of cinema art that, beyond the rudimentary descriptions, demands your immersion. Amidst the discarded syringes, pulsating embers, living, roiling earth, strange fixations, spectral dogs, turbulent undercurrents, psychokinesis and Chernobyl parallels this will hopefully set the scene, provide a backdrop with which to approach Stalker.

(As further testimony as to the otherworldly nature of Stalker, I could’ve sworn there were three examples of adress-to-camera demolition-of-the-fourth wall. Wikipedia and two other viewers of the film beg to differ and maintain there is just the one. Odd.)

But what would I gesture as to what Stalker may mean? Well. It’s about creation; the difficulty of making enough elbow room to create; the nagging futility that creation brings – the reflexive, self-critical nature of art against utilitarian or empirical solidity – and the incessant, restless interrogation of the self and the external that is exhausting, and to what end? It’s about stories, the nature of storytelling and the hardwired need for them. Is the zone a merely mythical and fabricated playground, or is it analogous with the journey every artist must make in order to create, jettisoning family, ideas about normality, fraught with danger and potentially devastating permutations? It’s about the imprisonment of ideas and the limits and potential of the mind. It’s about the need for and the impossibility of answers. It’s about existence and, well, most things under the highly unlikely sun. (The film prompts sentences like that. Honestly.)

Dr. Valentine Pillman, a character in Roadside Picnic, suggests that the title of the source novella refers to the following. “A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. Cars drive off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around… Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind… And of course, the usual mess—apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow.”

In other words: other people, places and things have the capacity to be endlessly mysterious. Underlying motivations for occurrences, behaviour and incidents are elusive, often most so to those carrying them out.

Tarkovsky seems to hint at the idea that the evolving mindset that creates the atomic bomb – the creative mindset – is as inevitable and inexorably confounding as the mindset that fashions a sonnet. (Is this what he’s driving at with the ‘we are here to create art’ part? That we are boundlessly creative and should therefore channel such restlessness into cultural artefacts as opposed to deadening ‘advancements’?) Things have been set in motion and all ends will nascently be found. Whoever enters the zone does so for very different reasons, with very different motivations, and that being careful what we wish for is not in our nature. We are inherently swayed more by curiosity than self-preservation.

Tarkovsky himself says: “In Stalker I make some sort of complete statement: namely that human love alone is – miraculously – proof against the blunt assertion that there is no hope for the world.” Whatever you make of this grandly enigmatic, at times stubbornly demanding film (or whatever it makes of you), it asks deeply uncomfortable, upsetting questions and forces you to provide tentative answers. Watching it is akin to making a pilgrimage to a mysterious locale and, once there, you find yourself faced with mirrors wherever you go. Though you know what’s behind. I suggest it’s more than worth having a look.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Mary Gilbert
    December 5, 2010 at 2:19 pm

    Phew! This is a fantastic review Lee with some really incisive analysis and memorable phrases. Your`loaded with a sense of dislocated dread’ is particularly apt I think. Though I’ve only seen Mirror and Solaris this description could be equally applied to the latter film which I found almost unbearably painful to watch. Mirror on the other hand is a bit more `approachable’ as it centres on a family and relationships or at least I think it does. It too contains some hauntingly beautiful images which I can bring to mind as I write. In my past incarnation as a Film Studies teacher I used to show the students an extract from Mirror as an example of non linear narration. Most of them found the imagery extraordinary though perhaps it would be less so today as so many music videos make use of surreal and dislocating imagery. I never showed the whole film – though perhaps I should have trusted the students more – because I was constantly aware of their low boredom threshhold and as you say Tarkovsky can be sloooow.
    I’ve always been aware that Stalker was a challenge I’ve avoided but I find the image you’ve included extremely compelling. However perhaps you need to be in the mood for a taxing film like Stalker in the way that you have to be in the mood for certain `difficult’ authors – it’s so much easier to pick up/watch something easier and a bit less gloomy. So it might well go on my TBW list for future reference when I’m in a post apocalyptic mood.
    I recall many years ago that Solaris was on BBC2 in a late night film spot. At that time there was always an introduction by some intellectual talking head who told you what to look out for, what was good about it etc. Anyway there was a youngish man ( and I really can’t remember who it was) who opined for several minutes about the power of Solaris and mentioned a series of memorable images to watch out for including the mysterious stone garden. We settled down to watch the film which I believe was about two hours long. After about fifteen minutes all the fascinating images which had been flagged up by the said pundit had appeared and gone and we became extremely suspicious that that was in fact all he’d watched plus an explanatory narrative crib which he’d pulled from the back of the video cassette.

    • December 6, 2010 at 9:48 am

      Well, thank you! And you were a film studies teacher – double bonus! Yes, Solaris seems to me thematically and metaphorically very similar to Stalker – I haven’t seen Mirror I’m afraid, though I will soon. I know what you’re driving it with the ‘unbearable to watch’ comment. It’s too much if you’re not in the right frame of mind. You don’t watch a Tarkovsky film unless you’re armed, in my experience, or you get a strafing. It’s heavy stuff – which I love – but there’s a time to watch. 1am, I tentatively propose!

      On your comment re: trusting your students. Yes, it’s tricky I’m sure. Watching something like Stalker alongside someone else – and therefore, inevitably, somewhat vicariously from their point of view – you get an idea as to how difficult – and what an ask – his films are. As a brief aside, I went to watch Spider a few years ago, and twenty minutes from the close in bustled a few unbeknownst ticket-dodgers who dived onto the front row en masse right in front of me. The interruption factor was leavened somewhat by their quick disorientation, which they did not keep quiet. ‘Wha’s ‘e doin’ there? Wha’s goin’ on? Wha’s this shit?’ Etc. It was worth having my attention punctured briefly. But it was also interesting because I was watching it through their eyes. I thought, ‘How many films, walked in on part-way through, would be as hateful as that?’ Can you imagine if I’d been watching Stalker and they’d roamed in unawares? I have enough trouble taking the flak from friends who accuse me of ‘wasting a good hour before I had to switch the thing off!’ Of course, people relish the opportunity to dismiss something that hasn’t been geared to them as well. They won’t compromise and move into the space between themselves and the screen, where most of the interesting stuff goes on. And yet they find Mulholland Drive accessible enough (‘Yeah but it’s Lynch! It’s quirky and funny!’) to by-pass the linear difficulties. It’s a big in-joke! This perception sweetens the pill.

      Music videos: Alan Parker said something interesting about them – in a nutshell, that any images in any order put to a soundtrack over a few minutes works. Whatever the juxtapositions. So if you have an audience that buys into that, you’d think they might be more open to experimental film. But no: they need the musical stimuli and attention-spans are truncated!

      I suppose I’m asking the question: if you can’t give yourself over to a film, particularly this one, suspend everything for the duration, and leave room for thought beyond the credits before passing judgement, should you watch it? It’s a big ask I know, but I do think there’s a serious issue with even cineaste appraisal of film. Namely: refusal to accept that part of a film’s life is beyond the viewing of it. I know, I am perhaps being a little Tarkovsky defensive here, but still…

      “After about fifteen minutes all the fascinating images which had been flagged up by the said pundit had appeared and gone and we became extremely suspicious that that was in fact all he’d watched plus an explanatory narrative crib which he’d pulled from the back of the video cassette.” – Oh yes! Sounds like a TV critic, that! Verbatim encapsulation cribbed and signposted point-of-interest flagged up. Soundbite cinema. He was probably doing his idea of purgatory before the daytime quiz-show opportunity arrived. Mind you, I reckon a lot of print critics barely watch a lot of the stuff – Peter Bradshaw at the Guardian seems to have an agenda he’s very much sticking to regardless, and I think Baz Bamigboye is on a salary from various films studios – every lame blockbuster is ‘A Must-See!’ I’ll stick with Philip French and Jonathan Romney!

      The difficult authors equation is right. Tarkovsky: the Joyce of cinema, perhaps?

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