This review of Geoff Dyer’s Zona appeared in the Irish Times.
ANDREI TARKOVSKY’S Stalker (1979) is a film that’s easy to precis and hard to describe. In this wittily personal and digressive account of it, Geoff Dyer declares himself allergic to having a film (or more predictably its narrative arc) sketched out before he has seen it; of all movies, Stalker is among the least amenable to breathless recommendation via plot summary.
What actually happens? In a dismal land that might be the director’s native Russia, the mysterious Stalker of the title leads two other men – known only as Writer and Professor – into a heavily guarded, ruinous territory, the Zone, where it is said their deepest desires will be made real. They wander about, by turns bickering and melancholic, until they enter a room where it seems the fabled wish-fulfilment might occur. Apparently it doesn’t. They leave the Zone again – though we’re not sure how, given the perils faced getting in there.
All of which is quite inadequate, because the proper question to ask someone who has seen Stalker – who has been, as it were, inside the Zone and lived for two and three-quarter hours on what Dyer calls Tarkovsky-time – is not what happened but how it has marked them. So seductive are the rhythms (and, yes, longueurs) of the film, so arresting but ambiguous its imagery, so vast its metaphysical purview but precise its attention to matter, that it can seem in retrospect more an atmosphere than an artefact. It’s as if viewers emerge with Zone goggles on: I know of only a handful of films of which I can truly assert the cliche that they changed the way I saw the world. Hardly a day goes by without my being reminded of this film. Whether it’s a gust of wind among branches, a luxurious clump of weeds, desolate railway sidings or the back of a stranger’s head, the universe offers up frequent small Tarkovsky moments.
How does an artist insinuate himself into our everyday like that? According to Dyer, whose book begins as a shot-by-shot analysis of Stalker and soon drifts into something more ambitious and vagrant, it is partly a matter of sheer concentration. The Zone is on one level a hokey sci-fi conceit. (The film was shot at two abandoned power stations in Estonia, but they were benign hydroelectric installations, and Tarkovsky blurs the postnuclear resonance of the Zone by suggesting its weird properties are the result of a meteor strike.) But the place is also a topographic excuse for simply looking very closely at things. As Dyer has it, “We are in another world that is no more than this world perceived with unprecedented attentiveness.” What is true for the questing trio is also true for the viewer: Stalker demands an intensity and duration of looking that is properly entranced.
Or not. Perhaps we’re simply bored. By Stalker and his associates’ philosophical maundering, by their protracted slumping into stagnant pools and undergrowth, by the camera’s hypnotic attention to rusted bits of infrastructure and enigmatic junk: decayed tanks and machine guns, sluices and drains full of old syringes, unlikely waterlogged reproductions of panels from the Ghent Altarpiece. As Dyer notes, the world of Stalker is sopping wet; after a while it seems the whole film is taking place under water, and in slow motion. Close-ups and tableaux that look at first like still images are, as Dyer also spots, always minutely in motion, “as if the film were breathing”. The slowness is paradoxically one of the reasons the Zone seems so alive, as though the doleful and patient landscape is possessed of a “slumbering sentience”.
If that makes Tarkovsky’s film sound like a fairy tale, well, yes, there is an elemental animism at work – at times almost comically so, as in the case of a vacant building that seems to speak to Writer. Dyer, quite correctly I think, is not so keen on the overt archetypes that Stalker deploys, nor very taken with the film’s more obvious religiosity. Certain keepers of the Tarkovsky flame (he died in 1986) will insist that this film is thoroughly theological in import, but while the director himself could be sincere about the sacred in his work, his belief was touched with irony: Writer mocks Stalker’s messianic ambitions by fashioning a crown of thorns. For Dyer the film is much more about earthly (if complex, over-reaching) desires, including the desire for art – the Zone, he writes, is nothing other than cinema itself.
As a reader (too dry a word) of Stalker , Dyer rarely, if ever, puts a foot wrong; he has loved the film since its release, in his 20s, and now he is right to suggest that it is in part about middle age and the fading of dreams as much as their urgency or persistence. Zona is also very funny, treating as it does of the author’s own deepest desires – tales of missed threesomes and failing to jump on the property ladder – and even those of his parents (more meat, apparently). One can forgive his assertion that cinema no longer means for him what it did when he first saw Stalker, because the corollary is that some images are so intense that they continue to shape us throughout our lives and can never be bettered.
What’s less endearing in this volume is Dyer’s recourse at times to a merely facetious, blokeish register that he has played with in previous essays and fiction but that here starts to strain somewhat. So Jean-Luc Godard (admittedly, the opinion is also that of Mick Jagger, who had to work with him) is bluntly “a twat”, and Tarkovsky’s 1983 film Nostalghia is adjudged “so far up itself”. At such moments you wonder if Dyer is afraid of his own seriousness, maybe even afraid of his profoundest ambitions as a writer and critic, in a way the twentysomething Tarkovsky fan would never have dreamed. But at its frequent best, Zona doesn’t baulk at the difficulty, even pretension, of its miraculous subject.