Stalker

(Andrei Tarkovsky, USSR, 1979): It begins almost as a joke. Three men, a Writer, a Professor and a hired guide known as the Stalker, enter a bar. They’re downing a few final quaffs of courage before heading somewhere. We’re not sure where this somewhere is at this point or why it might require such fortification first thing in the morning, but one thing is beyond dispute: the place the men are seeking to escape from is awful. Damp, grey, dripping and post-industrial in the sense of no industry any more. It seems a world done and dusted for everything and everyone except bureaucrats and bartenders, where all hope has been so long since abandoned the very idea is something of a joke — the only joke that walking-into-a-bar setup can muster up under the circumstances. No one is laughing.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Anatoli and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic may conform unmistakably to the director’s signature vision of the cinema as a portal to the soul — where form is always at the mercy of suggesting worlds below and beyond the manifest surface — but it’s also noteworthy as the only entry in the filmmaker’s otherwise strenuously challenging oeuvre that has accrued something of a cult following. Despite the fact it takes us to a place where nothing certain can be known, all markers of plot, reason and even consciousness itself dissolve into a kind of elemental cauldron of mystical gumbo, Stalker has a way of luring in the uninitiated unlike just about any other Tarkovsky movie. It could be that the premise of a cinematic journey to a magic place is simply irresistible, or perhaps that the movie’s emphasis on gradual and incremental transitions — from real to mystical, black and white to colour, words to thoughts, and body to spirit — is here leant a seductive power it lacks in just about all of the poet-filmmaker’s other works. The doorway leading into that dank bar is at least a door: one can go through it and take one’s time acclimatizing to the new surroundings, as uninviting and uncomfortable as they clearly are. You can decide if you want to go along with this trio of dour-looking pilgrims or not, but the very fact you know nothing more or less than they do — except for Stalker, who’s clearly in the business of taking curious pilgrims to the other side — makes it more likely you’ll be willing to follow along. We’re being invited to discover the mysteries of this place called ‘The Zone’ — a heavily guarded area generated by some vaguely suggested astrological event in the past — along with the Writer and Professor, and in tandem with them. It’s like a finding a door in a huge wall of brick and concrete: a passage to help you inside. Much as I am predisposed, most of Tarkovsky’s other films offer no such concession to beginners, the curious or the casually interested. They’re all walls and no doors.

It also helps that there’s such a strong, if ultimately misleading, generic foundation to the tale: science fiction, as both movie and literary form, trades more baldly in leaps of faith than most other genres, and this invitation to the unknown is therefore more likely to be accepted than if it presented itself elsewhere, say a crime caper in which these three guys are hooking up to pull a job before high-tailing it to somewhere there isn’t quite so much dripping. With Solaris, Tarkovsky’s celebrated but — for Tarkovsky, anyway — disappointing adaptation of Stanislaw Lem, the idea of a sentient interplanetary entity feeding on people’s memories compromised its universal spiritual resonance by getting overly dressed up in conventional generic drag. Tarkovsky apparently hated the sets, costumes and overall Soviet Star Trek vibe the movie called for, and one way of understanding Stalker — at least as a Tarkovsky vehicle — is in reaction to the earlier science fiction excursion. While both films concern themselves with the core Tarkovskian concern with the existence of the soul as an extension and/or expression of the ‘natural’ world, Stalker provided not only the means to a gradual immersion into the mystic, but a way to render the boundaries between inner and outer landscapes nearly invisible. In one of the movie’s most startling and subtle passages, the three travellers venture deeper into the forbidden Zone — which is only entered following the closest thing one ever gets in Tarkovsky to an action sequence — only to arrive there in colour. Up to that point, the movie — shot in colour but printed in black and white — has felt not so much lacking in colour but entirely bled of it. That this intimation of life beyond the surface of things comes following one of all cinema’s greatest sequences of travelling into the unknown — wherein we maintain focus on the travellers’ faces while the landscape passes in a wall of blur — only lends it that much more mysterious potency. For one thing, the seams are entirely invisible. (Tarkovsky fans know this is one of the director’s most supreme cinematic skills: creating effects that feel like miracles.) And not since Dorothy opened the door in Munchkinland The Wizard of Oz has the emergence of colour felt quite so apt or miraculous.

Once in the Zone, the three men are subject to its as-yet-unrevealed laws and powers, and one way of knowing you’re definitely not in Kansas — or Minsk, or wherever — any more is that the same tendency to shift form and dissolve boundaries is everywhere. The Zone may look like a strangely idyllic combination of war zone, abandoned industrial park or evacuated site of a nuclear accident (along with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster conspired to lend an even more powerful prophetic juju to Stalker), but there’s also something rather unnervingly placid about the place. It’s like suspecting Walden Pond is harbouring alligators or the e-coli bacteria. Though we can’t see what exactly there is to be spooked about, we’re spooked nevertheless: it may be in the almost ambient sounds of water, wind and three men breathing; or perhaps the remarkably geological faces of the three lead actors (and Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy as the Stalker, Nikoly Grinko as the Professor, and Tarkovsky stalwart Anatoliy Solonitsyn as the Writer). Or perhaps it’s the fact that the Stalker finds himself on high, jumpy alert once they’ve arrived in the Zone and the only way to get around — forget ever getting back out — is by throwing nuts and bolts wrapped in slingshots in front of you and hoping nothing happens. We hear stories of people getting lost and worse in the Zone, and we learn the area has been strictly forbidden ever since the state discovered there was something seriously fucked up going on in there. There are fields of military wreckage and debris all around, and — strangely peaceful and lovely as they look — they suggest this place of infinite stillness and quiet best not be fucked with. Besides, the longer one spends there the more likely one’s own boundaries will start to dissolve, as though consciousness itself is what the Zone feeds on and draws power from. Soon the men will find themselves not only inexplicably transported through time and space to points they thought they’d already passed, but accepting such shifts as given here in the Zone. This is a place that clearly asserts its own reality upon those who enter it, and so convincingly that it’s just accepted. After experiencing no shortage of strangeness and difficulty starting their trek toward ‘The Room’ — the heart of the Zone, and a place that promises the fulfillment of one’s deepest wishes — the trio lie down in variously sodden patches of earth and begin to practically merge with the mud, sewage and general flow of elements that comprise the Zone.

As counterintuitive as it may be to the likes of Writer and Professor, they even abandon logic in favour of a (more bar-room appropriate) argument about art versus science, even while everything around them is revealing itself as perhaps sentient and omnipotent, and certainly not much interested in art versus science. Nearby, the Stalker has laid down face-first in a puddle, bliss washing over his face as a large black dog — who will appear, with increasing but unclear significance, until almost the very end of the movie. By the time this interlude of unchecked reverie has ended, we’ve either given up on the movie or we’re prepared for anything it plans to do next. The map that got us in here has been carried away on the flow of toxic whatever-that-was, and this ride drives itself. It is sleep that seems to be the primary facilitator in helping this transition along, just like the poppy field that stretches so verdantly between Dorothy’s expedition and Emerald City across the field.

Like SolarisStalker is interested in an alien entity that feeds on consciousness and takes strength from the essential human struggle of soul. In other words, an entity made up of some of our most fundamental philosophical, religious and moral problems, but which can only reveal its power to us if we fully surrender to it, which basically means accepting the loss of one’s own ego in the larger pool of something much larger, deeper and infinite. The soul, it is suggested, is not individual but universal, the very thing that all people share and holds them together. But this also means there’s very little stock to be put in matters like agency, reason or will. The Zone not only mocks and neutralizes them all, it requires that you surrender such things as a condition to enlightenment. No wonder everyone balks when it comes to entering the room to have those deepest wishes fulfilled. The Zone clearly knows us better than we can ever know ourselves without its illuminating intervention, and those wishes might very well be far more desperate and frightening than we ever imagined. No wonder everyone sits down — in a room filled with mini-sand dunes, slo-mo flying birds and pools so black they might be filled with fresh tar — when the Room is reached.

Stalker is never more powerful, mysterious or convincing than when it’s creating the conditions of surrender to the Zone. The journey inward and beyond is as haunting and effectively suggestive as almost anything Tarkovsky ever did or that science fiction movies have managed to replicate. When you think about it, there’s almost nothing more conventional or basic to the adventure in space than a journey into the unknown, except perhaps for a journey into the unknown that slyly sneaks back into our own deepest fears and desires. Outer space as inner space: so fundamental is the metaphor one has to wonder if science fiction itself wasn’t made necessary by our fundamental spiritual curiosity or need, or if the more alluring universe isn’t actually the one inside us. At bottom and most profoundly, science fiction is a way of pondering what we are and why we’re here.

I love Stalker as long as its in this mode of almost subliminal seduction. It draws me into a state of spiritual receptivity almost every time, and that’s no easy feat. (Nor does it mean I actually get more spiritual in the process. It simply makes me surrender to the possibility, and that’s miracle enough for me.) It also demonstrates what may be the most frequently remarked upon but ultimately somewhat mysterious aspect of Tarkovsky’s cinema: the messing with one’s sense of time itself. Time in Tarkovsky is capable of becoming a pliable substance, something bent and stretched to will. Here’s Geoff Dyer, in his book Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, on the role of the suggested uncanny in Tarkovsky in general and this move in particular: “We are in another world that is no more than this world perceived with unprecedented attentiveness. Landscapes like this had been seen before Tarkovsky but — I don’t know how else to put it — their beings had not been seen in this way. Tarkovsky reconfigures the world, brought this landscape — this way of seeing the world — into existence.” Isn’t this what God does? Or at least one idea of what art ought to do? And isn’t that then really the point: spiritual awakening is seeing the familiar as though never before. The artist isn’t God, but someone who strives — consciously or otherwise — to suggest the divine.

Later, when it gets to talking through its ideas and the men stand in miniature desert of a room lashing out at each other rather than face their own fear or bankruptcy, the movie loses me: no words spoken in the Zone will ever match the power of the cinematic strategy that got us there in the first place, and it must only be expected any attempt at explaining the Room’s wish-granting powers will not only wither and blow away in the face of what has hitherto only been suggested, but set us up for one of the most conventional expectations of all in science fiction: the ironic ‘surprise’ ending. Of course that’s not where the movie ultimately ends up — I admit I’m still unsure where exactly it does end up — but even the suggestion of such a conventional destination is proof of how powerful those conventions are. I think Tarkovsky returned to the genre with Stalker because he wanted to make the fantastic grow more organically from the observed world than the space-station-bound Solaris permitted. And he did, god knows. But he never does fully manage to shake off the clinging trappings of the genre cliche which, it must be eternally allowed, likely became cliche for a reason. There’s yet another way of considering this, of course. Could be the ending is the punchline to the joke about the three guys walking into a bar way, way, back in the beginning. You can travel to the hidden realm of infinite consciousness as far as you want, but there’s only so much reality you can leave behind. (Criterion)

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