Friday, 16 March 2012

STALKER - Andrei Tarkovsky

Andrei Tarkovsky – Stalker –  seen at the Cinema – The Star and Shadow: a volunteer led cinema in Newcastle (4/3/12) :

‘My discovery of Tarkovsky’s first film was like a miracle. Suddenly, I found myself standing at the door of a room, the keys of which had, until then, never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease. I felt encouraged and stimulated: someone was expressing what I had always wanted to say without knowing how. Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.’
                                                                                                - Ingmar Bergman

9pm on a Sunday evening is perhaps not the optimum timing for a slow, 3 hour Russian epic…but then, when is? Made in 1979, following the more fragmented Mirror, Stalker clocks in at 161 minutes of pure, undiluted, vision. The story (loosely adapted from the novel Roadside Picnic, written by Arkady and Boris Strugatski), takes place in the parched sepia/monochrome tones of a dystopian future. However, the sci-fi element is repressed in favour of a more meditative and allegorical feel (no special effects, no space, no aliens…and little in the way of a delivered dramatic climax). A character, named the ‘Stalker’, leads two other men (given the names of the ‘Writer’ and the ‘Professor’) out of the bleak and crumbling setting of general urban decay – into a terrain of fields, flourishing flora and rivers. He is showing them the way to the ‘Zone’. The ‘Zone’, in a nod to the film’s original sci-fi roots, is a dangerous landscape in which some unspecified civilization has left the ominous ‘Room’. The ‘Room’ (in keeping with monosyllabic mystery) is meant to grant the innermost desires of whoever enters it. The creation of the ‘Zone’ (and its ‘Room’) led to the vocation of the ‘Stalker’, a figure chosen to guide people to the ‘Room’. The ‘Stalker’ is shrouded in unspecified religious connotations; a man weathered by sorrow and repentance driven by a faith in his role and purpose to facilitate this ambiguous pilgrimage.

 So, in short (a phrase alien to such a film) it’s not exactly a film committed to audience enjoyment. Tarkovsky famously said: ‘I am only interested in the views of two people: one is called Bresson and one called Bergman’. Subsequently Stalker is low on explosions…sex scenes…fights…and, well, any sort of kinetic energy. But it is, without a doubt a monumental achievement that manages to readjust attention spans into a near hypnotic state, in which concepts of time relax and magnify to create a viewing experience that mirrors the arduous journey of the film’s protagonists. Granted I had moments of exasperated boredom, moments in which I was silently urging Tarkovsky to call upon shock, or visit the sort of surrealism that punctuates Mirror. However, ultimately this is a film that manages to resist short-term aesthetic temptations in order to live with the viewer, breathe, roam and open up, suggesting a cinematic landscape beyond the film’s parameters. This is not simply a film you watch, leave and move on from. It is an investment and a challenge, yet despite its demanding nature, it offers also some of the most beautiful shots I’ve ever seen in a film. Shots that are made all the more powerful through their startling juxtaposition to the slow, almost mundane wandering that occupy the rest of the film. The last shot of the film, without giving anything away, manages to effortlessly conjure a sense of magic, peace and mystery that really stands as a testament to Tarkovsky’s deeply poetic feel for a single take’s development.

 The mention of poetry, rather than embodying a romanticised exaggeration of indulgent, anal dwelling, Russian reverence…is instead very relevant (honest!). Andrei’s father was a poet, and Andrei himself often considered giving up film to pursue writing, conceding that conceiving the film and the early stages of its contemplation gave him far more pleasure than actually making the film. This comes through, not only in the use of poetry in his films, but in the weighty pondering of the script. Along their journey, finding less than convenient spots to chat (casually sprawled across boggy mud, or lying in puddles, puddles of such devastating scale and miserable gravitas that they could only be Russian…these are no pavement dwelling Western puddles, or the sort of puddle that might ruin your day or prove a disheartening, trouser endangering, shoe invading dampness…these are puddles that soak the very soul! Puddles that seep into bones and gradually erode the ability to smile with the rippled history of years of oppression: literally the worst kind of puddles) the dialogue ranges across notions of art, suffering and inspiration. 

However, this is not to say that there are not moments of absurd comedy. Having finally reached the dilapidated, half flooded building in which resides ‘The Room’, the philosophy of their journey, the seriousness of their fate and the decaying grandeur of the building are all punctured by the unexpected ringing of a telephone. This intrusion of the pedestrian phone call manages to dispel the mystic spell of over 2 hours of solemnity with a shrill reminder, each man is inherently ridiculous. We are all ridiculous, silly, misguided, puddle ridden, stumbling examples of inadequacy. Like the characters in Stalker, we are all keen to peek above our own moronic mortal meanderings and glimpse some sort of meaning, to transcend, to find our innermost desires. What Stalker , so impressively articulates, is that it is that process of looking that defines us ,and compels us to live, not what is found or exists beyond our finding. Or, in laymen’s terms: aint the destination but the journey! After the gargantuan journey, ‘The Room’ pales from a beacon of promise to an anti-climax best left untouched, or an unknown too dangerous to enter, an infinity of possibilities that maybe, maybe should be destroyed?

A book has recently come out by Geoff Dyer, entitled ‘Zona’, which follows the film scene by scene- digressing in and out of the author’s memories, life and his views on the film. If you are at all interested in Stalker it is definitely worth a browse! What Dyer brilliantly achieves is a page turning book, of humour and wit, about a potentially over intellectualised and daunting film. Instead of pandering to a grovellingly verbose sense of Tarkovsky reverence, or using the film as an unwitting springboard for academic narcissism, he makes it, simply, a fun read! This in itself is a great achievement. However, I did find at times a mild disappointment at his unwillingness to expand on certain scenes in the film, seeming often too reliant upon the notion that Tarkovsky never intended his films to be interpreted symbolically…i.e. adopting a kind of ‘it is what it is’ attitude. In my opinion this hinders the book’s ability to communicate the film’s lasting power. That is being pretty pedantic though and, for a book about a single (and potentially inaccessible) film – it is a successfully entertaining, thoughtful and unique book. 


The Stalker’s wife gives a monologue near the end of the film. She turns to the camera and begins her story. Having calmed her broken, desperate and confused husband, she begins to explain the nature of their relationship. She seems grubby, ragged and tired, but desperate to maker her undying devotion known. Her speech is candid and directed at the camera, at the viewer, breaking the fourth wall in a way that seems closer to documentary than theatrics:

WIFE: You know your Mum was dead against it. You had already learned I expect, that he’s God’s fool… the whole neighbourhood was laughing at him…he was such a pitiful bungler…And Mum used to say ‘He’s a Stalker, a condemned man, always under arrest, and remember what sort oft children Stalkers have…’But what could I do?  I was sure I’d be fine with him – I knew, of course, that there’d be a lot of grief too, but bitter happiness is better than a depressing, grey life – or maybe I just told myself that afterwards. But he just came up to me and said ‘Come with me.’ And off I went. And I’ve not regretted it once. Not once! I’ve felt bad, I’ve felt terror, I’ve felt shame. But even so, I never had any regrets, nor envied others- that’s just how fate was, how life was, how we were. Even if our life were without grief, it wouldn’t be any better for it. It would be worse. Because it would also be without happiness, and without hope.’
                                                - taken from the screenplay, in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Collected Screenplays, trans. William Powell and Natasha Synessios (New York: Faber and Faber, 1999) ,p.415.

Tarkovsky later wrote, in response to this scene and the film’s end: ‘In Stalker I make a complete statement – namely, that human love is the miracle capable of withstanding any dry theorisation about the hopelessness of the world. This feeling is our common and incontrovertible positive possession. But we no longer know how to love…’
                                                - Cited by Natasha Synessios, in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Collected Screenplays, trans. William Powell and Natasha Synessios (New York: Faber and Faber, 1999) ,p.379.

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