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02.24.12

Geoff Dyer Takes on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Film ‘Stalker’ in ‘Zona’

The peripatetic Dyer nimbly explores Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, a film that has obsessed the author since he first saw it 30 years ago.

Somewhere are places where we have really been,
dear spaces
Of our deeds and faces, scenes we remember
As unchanging because there we changed.
                            Auden

If, as Jack Kerouac would have it, a writer need be above all else a great companion, then the highest accomplishment for a scribe is accompanying his reader on that toughest of trips, the spiritual quest. Guiding, comforting, and counseling them—on a road trip, Jack was probably thinking, or a domestic flight, we might add—to hell and back is the ultimate challenge and responsibility for storytellers.             

As readers, we ride shotgun to the great ones as they drive us into the breach narrating the tour and pointing out all the nice sights along the way. We adhere to their chosen path, digressing only in daydream, usually when lured away by an inviting association with our own lives back on page 48. But when, as writers, we slide across the bench seat to take the wheel—in this metaphor writing ought to be an old Chrysler 300, don’t you think?—we can veer off in any direction, rebelling against our heroes, forgetting everything they taught us, and pretending to discover paths they’d led us down years before.            

But beginning perhaps with Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme, though, a meditation on the men lost in the mud of World War I, this driver/shotgun distinction gets a bit fuzzy. Over the course of his 15 books (almost necessarily described as genre-busting), Dyer has described, from the driver’s seat, his experiences in the position of the rider (quite literally, on his road trip through Flanders), as an apprentice (to Berger, Lawrence, Camus, and Fitzgerald), and student (of jazz and photography). Or, to put it in a typically Dyeresque chain: we the reader are following him the writer as he describes his time as a reader following so-and-so the writer.

“The idea of a road movie is almost tautologous in that all movies are—or should be—journeys, it’s just that some of them are so tedious you’d rather be on a bus from Oxford to London,” Dyer writes in Zona, his summary of and “an expansion on” Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker. “Stalker is a literal journey that is also a journey into cinematic space and—in tandem—time.” Of his very first viewing (which he pinpoints on Sunday, February 8, 1981), Dyer writes, “it was not a case of love at first sight.” Tarkovsky’s plodding road movie and stentorian tones left him “slightly bored and unmoved.” Amazingly (or not, if you are at all familiar with his work), this boredom gave unto a kind of fixation, then an obsession. “Since then the desire to see it again—and again and again—has never gone away,” he writes. So, he decided, “I thought I’d … try to articulate both the film’s persistent mystery and my abiding gratitude to it.”            

In the film, adapted by the Strugatsky brothers from their sci-fi noir novel Roadside Picnic, a hard-boiled guide takes two paying customers, Writer and Professor, on an illicit trip into the proscribed Zone, where a meteorite may or may not have landed, where physics are often disobeyed by mysterious forces, and where entry into a specific room will make your deepest wish come true. Explaining his protagonist in the afterword for the new translation of his book (out on IPG this summer), Boris Strugatsky says that he and his brother Arkady conceived of these “Stalkers,” as “prospectors revered as wizards.” Like Mexican coyotes, then, and Kerouac’s companion, they shepherd their clients across borders, protected on high by Hermes, the god of travelers, thieves, and writers.             

Our Stalker Dyer is at his hyperbolic best, pointing out several of “the greatest sequences in cinema,” postulating meanings, reflecting, reflecting on his own reflecting, and ferrying us through the fraught history of the production (aside from possibly being poisoned unto the point of cancer while shooting, we learn, Tarkovsky had a coronary, went through three DPs, and had to reshoot much of the film ruined by an exposure catastrophe). Like Gavin Lambert’s book about Lindsay Anderson, or Dyer’s book about Lawrence, Zona is much more about the pupil/writer than it is the teacher/subject. But it’s also about the subject. Upon entry into the Zone, the Stalker on screen begins telling the story of his mentor who first opened his eyes to the mysteries of the place, “opened his eyes the way Tarkovsky has opened our eyes,” Dyer says. It quickly develops that Dyer is back at his hero worship and the brilliance of this summary device reveals itself to be something greater, the ideal forum for his triple-helix style—his mentor wrestling, signature self-reflexivity, and novelistic nonfiction (a trait that James Wood measures in others on the “Dyer scale”)—to reach their apogee.

Throughout the imperiled production, and, indeed, his later career, it seems, “Tarkovsky may have seen himself as a Stalker—a persecuted martyr taking us on voyages into a Zone where ultimate truths are revealed.” Not surprisingly, given the elements (brooding auteur, noir template, gulag-y setting), the darker shades of emotion predominate. Though the source material has a zanier energy—think Drive, written by Philip K. Dick—the Stalker on screen has more in common with his melancholic ancestors from John Huston’s films. A minute into the movie he rebuts his nagging wife by saying that “everywhere is a prison.” “A good answer,” Dyer writes, “but a bad sign, relationship-wise.” A good line.

Though he tries to defend it—and, to be fair, it is not lacking in merits—Stalker is all but unwatchable to us now.

And there are many more of those to be found on that score not far from where Tarkovsky shot Stalker, outside Tallinn, Estonia, where Sergei Dovlatov served as a prison guard in the so-called gulag archipelago. In Dovlatov’s memoir, called, of course, The Zone, he writes of “the suspicious similarity of characteristics between guards and prisoners or, speaking in the broadest terms, between ‘prison’ and ‘freedom.’” For Dovlatov, “this was the main thing I learnt. It’s too bad that literature is written to no end. Otherwise I would have said that my book was written for the sake of that truth.” But, ignoring the obvious irony, and despite what he describes as “one single, soulless world extended on either side of the restricted areas,” Dovlatov is possessed of an immense soul and a crackling sense of humor. Good traits for a stalker, especially considering you wouldn’t need one of these writer/shaman/guides to take you to Sandals Puerto Rico. The Zone where we’re headed is more like Vieques, and someone could get hurt (or, we are warned, bored interminably).

So let us consider this Zone. It is a kind of hell, but not the spiraling inferno the Stalker Virgil led Dante through, but a sodden, sloppy Tartarus. Here there are strange changes in electromagnetic forces, obstacles, illusions, and concentrations of gravity that can crush you like a bug. But, like the boredom that can induce thrills, the place of agony can also provide ecstasy, and the Zone can also be a paradise. Stalker positively revels in his arrival there. Writer, however, “is one of those people who could wake up in a paradise but wouldn’t know he was there unless he found something to grumble about.” So writes the writer who couldn’t find an ounce of unfettered happiness in Rome or Paris or the Greek isles in Out of Sheer Rage.

But all those thorny obstacles presented by the Zone could be protecting a precious fruit. As Professor explains to Writer, soon after the meteorite fell or didn’t fall, “rumors began to circulate that within the Zone there was another place (in any magical realm there is always a deeper recess of chamber of more powerful magic) where your wishes could come true.” In Roadside Picnic, this genie device is called the Golden Sphere. Whether it actually works or not, the summons to dig deep within yourself is journey enough for our sopping wet heroes. “The purpose of coming here,” Dyer writes, of the Room, and of writing the book about it, “was to get to the point where that question could be asked of oneself rather than someone else.”

Once you’ve done that, you see that actually those big desires and hopes, your deepest wishes, turned out not to be so deep at all, that actually, even to consider life and writing in terms of a single wish is absurd, that there are numerous wishes and numerous books to be written… more rooms to be built, more beer to be drunk. You wonder if you wouldn’t have been better off summarizing a different film, Where Eagles Dare, say, or writing a different book, about tennis perhaps. There is no room, or at least this one, this room, wasn’t it. And so one sets off again, trying to find another.  

That’s actually a really lovely description of the process by which he has scattered books all over the store, making it maddening to just look for any old title (and makes writing about him feel like his opening forays into the book about Lawrence, when you always just need the book you do not have). Years after the movie, Tarkovsky too would claim that there was no Zone, that Stalker invented it. “The Zone is the Zone,” he said, “it’s life, and as he makes his way across it a man may break down or he may come through.”            

Nearly 20 years ago, about another such Zone, Dyer wrote, “It was a high point in my life but it also felt similar: one of those moments that make your whole life seem worthwhile because it has led to this, this moment. Given a choice, I’d have happily lived my whole life over again quite happily, changing nothing.” In this story, “The Zone,” from Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, he is describing a euphoric moment at Burning Man (when he scribbled the Auden quote above onto a piece of paper and tacked it to the wooden effigy), brought on by the revelation that “giving is getting.” He quotes another note, quoting Anne Frank, “No one ever became poor through giving,” explaining the gift culture of the Temporary Autonomous Zone in Nevada. In his book The Gift, Lewis Hyde famously demonstrates how the erotic gift of literature—an idea passed from writer to reader and reader to reader—never diminishes the giver’s stores. Just as Stalker’s eyes were opened, Tarkovsky opened our eyes. 

Throughout the book we are being cautioned, by Dyer, and indirectly by Tarkovsky himself, not to ascribe symbolic meaning to the symbols in the film. In an allegorical movie about going to “the zone” to get to “the room” where all your wishes come true. I mean. But, thankfully, Dyer disobeys his hero and himself and gets all pondery, letting his inquisitiveness off the chain. Like the aliens in the Strugatskys’s book, who swerved off their path to have a roadside picnic on Earth (thus creating the Zone), Dyer is at his digressive best when stopping to consider something that captures his fancy. Upon quoting Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, Dyer tells us, in one of his extensive footnotes (which alone could be considered a book), that in the years since the meltdown, Chernobyl has become a kind of wildlife preserve. “Species not seen for centuries returned or were reintroduced: lynx, wild boar, wolf, Eurasian brown bear, European bison, eagle, owl, moose, beaver, Przewalski’s horse (whatever that is).” In these little pockets of wondering and reflection, life flourishes. They themselves become Zones, which, to continue the metaphor, the next generation of Stalkers will later forage through for their plunder. (To get all David Foster Wallace-fractal-y: each of these digressions, these Zones, contain a Zona for future writers, which then contains myriad others.) 

At one of these rest stops, inspired by the brief intermission in the movie, Dyer muses on intermissions.

With concerts and plays the intermission often proves a bit of dilemma. Yes, you can stretch your legs, but there’s nothing worse than scrumming for drinks at the bar only to find that by the time you’ve got your bottle of Grolsch (a drink you would never order in normal circumstances), the bell is ringing to tell you that the second part will begin in three minutes. How many times have you looked at your friends and your unfinished drinks and unanimously decided that, yes, the first half was great, but, frankly, we’ve had enough of that (the music, the play) and could do with a few more of these (lagers)?

Surely there is a rule about such an outward challenge to your readers to feel like they ought to scrap the book they're reading in lieu of some lagers. But, this is vintage Dyer: the straining to appreciate art and remain open and present, while attending to his better/baser instincts. In his classic essay on making a pilgrimage to sites special to Camus in Algeria, he writes, “Now that I am here I find myself straining toward an intensity of response I do not feel.” That straining, the desire to be moved, could be said to be the very core of Dyer’s work. It is perhaps what initially connected him to Berger, whose métier is, arguably, the watching and chronicling of his responses to stimuli.

We can almost see Dyer looking inward, studying his internal emotion-meter in his writing about the lightning field in New Mexico, about DeLillo, or the Somme, Varanasi, and Burning Man. His neck is always craned, ears pricked, waiting for cymbal splash of Art happening. He goes in search of it, and works harder at really feeling it than most of us. “We had excited discussions about this,” he tells us, “my friend Russell and I, about whether Stalker and his clients ever left the bar, whether they just stayed there, tripping their heads off on fly agaric mushrooms from Siberia.” The comedy and stoner’s straining for meaning is always present. And, when it is rewarded, as it so often is with rich associative memoir and creative criticism in Zona, we feel complicit, we celebrate the sensation at the end of all that straining, alongside with him.

In one aside, which is to say a side note within a three-page footnote, Dyer says Tarkovsky’s largely autobiographical film Mirror is “not a film about nothing, obviously (it could equally claim to be a film about everything), but one held uniquely together by the director’s style.” He is openly daring us to make the same observation about the book we hold in our hands. In the film, when asked about his work by Professor, Writer answers, “One should write about ‘absolutely nothing,’” Dyer writes. “So, a Flaubertian in his way.” Or a Dyer.

Like Freud’s eternal Rome in Civilization and Its Discontents, oft alluded to in Dyer’s work, the Zone is “a preservation in the sphere of the mind … in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one.” A writer’s mind. Put another way, “the Zone, for [Stalker],” writes Dyer, “is like Aboriginal Dreamtime: not a set of events that took place in the over-and-done-with past, but lurking in the permadepths of the present.” This probably suffices for a description of Tarkovsky’s taffy-pulled time—a deliberate pacing for which he has become famous, or infamous, depending how you look at it. As the director explains it, “If the regular length of a shot is increased, one becomes bored, but if you keep on making it longer, it piques your interest, and if you make it even longer, a new quality emerges, a special intensity of attention.”

Dyer calls this technique “trading space for time”—which is precisely what armies have done for time immemorial across Russia, retreating from Napoleon, Hitler, and whoever else—and he is ceding great swaths to us. Personal revelations, like his dream to sleep with two women at once or the great regret he didn’t get in on the real-estate ladder earlier, are made elegantly, and with the comic lilt we’ve come to expect from him. He is still playing his syntactic games that he has delighted in over the last two decades (“He said there is no going back, going back to a point he made earlier”; “he said he couldn’t take another step, stepping away from them”), but the prose is his most relaxed. What had been coiled taut in anaerobic tension in Rage and Yoga has unstacked and stretched out in the sun here. Or maybe his pacing is mirroring the subject.

Though he tries to defend it—and, to be fair, it is not lacking in merits—Stalker is all but unwatchable to us now. The thing about moving images is that they date at a rate far beyond the written word (look at movies from the ’70s and books from the ’20s for your proof). The lighting, mise en scène, and “effects” are all embarrassingly bad to our oversensitized eyes. The music makes you think you’re getting a $40 massage on Melrose, and the acting is as arch as a “Funny or Die” sketch. The film is also excruciatingly boring, which, I suspected before reading the book, was what drew Dyer to it.             

Because boredom has proved the great topic of the first decade of the 21st century (with entitlement, boredom’s prime mover, coming to the fore now), and, along with David Foster Wallace, Dyer is its greatest chronicler. Right off the bat, Writer, in the movie, begins a monologue on boredom. “Everything is hopelessly boring,” he says, and we’re off. Dyer imagines “the possibility of instant boredom—like instant coffee—as opposed to a feeling that has to unfold gradually, suffocatingly, over time.” Tell me that doesn’t happen to you 300 times a day.

But Dyer leads us through this tedium as both a fervent fan of the film (at one point he has to stop himself from making the claim that this, now this, now this, is the greatest sequence in cinema), and a confounded compulsive writing about something with so little in the way of salability. “So what kind of writer am I,” he writes, “reduced to writing a summary of a film?”

And then, answering himself, "I’m getting on with something, making progress, moving toward a Room of my own. If mankind was put on earth to create works of art [as Writer believes], then other people were put on earth to comment on those works, to say what they think of them. Not to judge objectively or critically assess these works but to articulate their feelings about them with as much precision as possible, without seeking to disguise the vagaries of their nature, their lapses of taste and the contingency of their own experiences, even if those feelings are confusion, uncertainty or—in this case—undiminished wonder. 

As opposed to Tarkovsky who “often felt frustrated by the control exercised by the state over his and others’ artistic freedom,” Dyer must contend with the “subtler kind of censorship and tyranny—that of the market.” He points out that this force would have made it “extremely unlikely that [Tarkovsky] could ever have obtained the permission (raised the funds) to make Mirror or Stalker.” But here he is, “summarizing the action of a film largely devoid of action” during the market economy of 2012. Well, thankfully, he does get all the way through the Zone to the Room where his greatest wish (even greater than the ménage a trois) is granted, and one imagines there is even “a little prize of some kind” not long in the offing as well.

Quoting Roland Barthes who was quoting Saint Remi, in “The Zone,” Dyer wrote, “Burn what you have worshipped, worship what you have burned.” For a stalker, or an artist, it is essential to step out of the shadow of you mentor. As a writer, Dyer commits this artistic patricide regularly and more elegantly than most. He does it by writing all the way up to his heroes, documenting his approach to their material, wrestling with them, and leaving this totemic memento at their feet. The mentorship is concluded along with the book and he is free to go off in search of new Rooms, and new Stalkers to take him there.