…our small country has seen the birth of a miracle – the Zone.
My last post, on Gravity, became less a recommendation to see that film (though you should – it’s very good) and more a plea to see this one – Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker from 1979. It’s been said that sci-fi reflects humanity’s fears for the future or even for the present – something like Neil Blomkamp’s District 9, for example, deals with fears around immigration, while Danny Boyle’s Sunshine reflects contemporary anxieties about environmental damage. But sci-fi is a versatile genre, and it can do more than this; as a genre which examines the interplay of humanity and space, technology and ‘the unknown’, it is uniquely well placed to interrogate huge questions about human development and evolution. Gravity tinkers around with these ideas, but bends them towards a typically Hollywood focus on the individual (it’s not humanity who evolves; it’s just Dr Stone.) Tarkovsky, on the other hand, like Kubrick before him in 2001: A Space Odyssey, tackles them directly and at a profound level. (Well, as directly as he ever tackles anything.)
The story is based on a novella, Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The story, or maybe the film, also spawned a (really good) series of PC games called S.T.A.L.K.E.R. All three iterations of the story are worth investigating, particularly given that none of them are remotely similar to any of the others. Tarkovsky has borrowed ideas and character names from the novel (indeed, the screenplay for the film was written by the Strugatsky brothers, authors of the original novella) – most obviously, the Zone, the mysterious location at the heart of the story, and the eponymous Stalker – but the film diverges hugely from the book in terms of tone, subject matter and theme. It is very much Tarkovsky’s own work, and it is also entirely in keeping with the rest of his work.
The film’s plot is simplicity itself. We start with an interview which explains that ‘our small country’ has possibly been struck by a meteorite, or visited by aliens. Whatever happened, it left a ‘miracle’ in its wake – an area where apparently laws of physics no longer apply. Various mystical objects are found there and most famous of all is ‘the room’ which is reputed to grant wishes. Either because of the powerful objects to be found in the Zone, or because of the extreme danger there, entry is prohibited and the place is heavily guarded. A stalker is a man (always a man – Reynard Seifert points out that ‘…the Zone is a male place… where man journeys to contemplate his alienation’) who guides curious travellers into the Zone and, ultimately, to the Room. In the film, the Stalker guides two other men – the Writer and the Professor – against the wishes of his wife.
The character of the Stalker himself is one of the biggest changes from the novella. There, he was a hard-bitten character called Red Schuhart, a drinker, fighter and wheeler-dealer. In Tarkovsky’s film, he has changed into a much gentler, more introspective and anxious character. Alexander Kaidanovsky was only 33 when he played the role, but he looks much older; when we see how he lives, the kind of a man he is and what he does to make money, this is entirely appropriate. He acts as a physical and spiritual guide for the men; in ways, they all act for guides for each other, but Stalker is the most knowledgeable, the most open to learning, the most aware of the power and beauties and danger of the Zone. Put simply, he is the one who best understands life, and he has come to his knowledge, it seems, through experience rather than art (the Writer) or science (the Professor.) Unlike the others, he is a spiritual being, a mystic; he knows how to behave in the Zone, with a sort of mix of respect and gratitude, but he struggles to communicate this knowledge to others, especially the deeply cynical Writer, and he barely seems to understand his own understanding.
What, then, is ‘The Zone’? The Stalker, writes Matthew Pridham, ‘regards the Zone as an oasis in his gritty, down-trodden life, as a salvation from the position of non-entity in which he finds himself in the city.’ It is, perhaps, heaven to him; a place which can grant all wishes but must be treated with respect and which must be earned. This is a common idea in sci-fi – a place (usually outer space) which functions as an alternative to Earth or quotidian reality. In Gravity, we see George Clooney’s veteran astronaut explain to Sandra Bullock’s rookie how he understands the attraction of space as an escape from Earth and daily responsibility; the idea is the same, but on a more basic level. Stalker can be read in many ways; given the context, it’s fairly common to see it as a Christian, and thus anti-Soviet, film: Mark Le Fanu writes that ‘The film, it is clear, is in favour of belief and of what goes with belief: piety, watchfulness, self-abnegation.’ Even if we don’t read it as specifically Christian, it is certainly spiritual, and the Room itself – demanding, as it does, that the entrant be deeply aware of his own desires – is a powerful symbol of self-knowledge and self-interest, both deeply anti-Communist ideas. We hear the cautionary tale of another Stalker, nicknamed Porcupine, who is destroyed by his own lack of self-knowledge; he did not realise what his own deepest desires were. It is perhaps unsurprising that Tarkovsky had a strained relationship with the Soviet authorities (rumours persist that he was actually murdered by them) and that Stalker was the last film he made in the Soviet Union.
Aesthetically, the film is stunning. The opening scenes of the Stalker’s home, of everyday life outside the Zone, are all shot in sepia with a film grain almost rich enough to touch. Dreary, depressing, and beautiful. Colour enters the frame when we go into the Zone (Geoff Dyer suggests offhand that the film is Tarkovsky’s take on The Wizard of Oz. This is actually not so ridiculous a suggestion as it might appear!)
A huge part of Tarkovsky’s aesthetic is the slow pace of his films – in Stalker, he averages more than a minute a shot and this is very typical of his work. Long takes are fairly conventional of this type of philosophical sci-fi – we see it in both A Space Odyssey and, to a lesser extent, in Gravity. Time, including the pace of editing, was of enormous importance to Tarkovsky – in his book, called Sculpting in Time, he wrote that “The dominant, all-powerful factor of the film image is rhythm, expressing the course of time within the frame.” Where other directors might consider cinematography or plot or character the defining features of their cinema, for Tarkovsky it is the manipulation of narrative time. The film has a truly poetic lyricism, largely due to the long takes –Eugene Izraylit points out that this in itself can be seen as a subversive act given the context of the time, writing that ‘His poetic interpretation of reality is as far away from social realist filmmaking as anyone ever dared to go in the former Soviet Union.’
Ingmar Bergman said that ‘…Tarkovsky for me is the greatest [director], the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.’ That captures well what to expect from a Tarkovsky film, and it gives some indication of Tarkovsky’s stature; he is one of the greatest directors ever, and this is perhaps his finest film.