Friday, November 06, 2015

Stalker (1979)

USSR, 163 minutes
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Writers: Arkadiy Strugatskiy, Boris Strugatskiy, Andrei Tarkovsky
Photography: Aleksandr Knyazhinskiy, Georgi Rerberg, Leonid Kalashnikov
Music: Eduard Artemev
Editor: Lyudmila Feyginova
Cast: Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy, Anatoliy Solonitsyn, Nikolay Grinko, Alisa Freyndlikh

Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's attempts at science fiction tended to falter from apparent basic misunderstandings of the genre—the high concepts of these stories are presented with such a light hand they are almost impossible to discern. In Stalker, something has happened to Earth, somewhere on the Eurasian land mass. An early note tells us it's not known what it was—a meteor strike or an invasion by a superior alien civilization are the two suggestions. The result is "a miracle": the Zone. Initially, armies were sent into the Zone, but were never heard from again. Now a militarized border has been erected around its perimeter, and no one is allowed in.

"Stalkers" have to sneak in through a no man's land of tanks, barbed wire, and machine gun fire. Stalkers have specialized skills that enable them to traverse the Zone and guide people to a room, where the innermost desires of those entering it come true. Yes, you heard me right. Another way that Tarkovsky seems to misunderstand science fiction, or use it so differently as to be alien, is by turning his geographies into soft dreamy places of externalized human psychology—remember that Solaris is about a planet that vivifies the people who dwell in the unconscious of its inhabitants. Even the plot point about the room in Stalker is handled obliquely, emerging late and talked about as if we already understood. The saving grace, and the point where people may begin to feel differently, because they may see no saving grace here, is the singularity of Tarkovsky and his visions. Whether or not he is consorting successfully with science fiction, he conveys the moods well. Never mind that too close consideration of the concepts may disturb the concentration, with ridicule.

One interesting binary Tarkovsky uses is that scenes outside the Zone are shot in a rich brown sepia, whose impossibly high contrasts only deepen in the bordering regions, alternating with a lush glowing forest green spectrum of full color inside the Zone. Can this really be a reference to The Wizard of Oz, with a freight train and machine gun fire taking the transitional role of the tornado? It seems possible. The words "Oz" and "Zone" have obvious affinities, for example. But "zone" likely has many other meanings for Tarkovsky as well, starting with the overlapping zones of Soviet, U.S., and British influence and control in Central Europe immediately following World War II, which also forms the setting for Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Tarkovsky himself may have lived close to those zones, certainly knew the chaos of them, may even have suspected some of the ecstasies.

The Zone in Stalker is stunningly beautiful, once we arrive there, with the Stalker of the title (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy) leading two characters, known as The Writer (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) and The Professor (Nikolay Grinko), to the room. Yes, you heard me right. The Writer is a cynical wastrel who wants to check the Zone off his bucket list of seen-it-all. He even shows up for the clandestine meet with the Stalker with a beautiful chick in tow, trying to impress her because he is bored. The Professor is a grumpy scientist with a dangerous if incoherent secret agenda of his own. So among other things, Stalker is a rich field for allegorical phantasms of a wide variety. Have at it.

The Zone is stunning beautiful, but also stunningly ridiculous. The Stalker leads the others about by tying lengths of fabric to heavy metal nuts and throwing them a few yards ahead at a time. The horror of the Zone, such as it is, seems to be that the landscape shifts and pivots about, often in response to thoughts, moods, and/or actions of the people in it. It's easy to get lost, in other words—and no one yet seems to know what happened to those armies that disappeared. But we see no signs of danger really. It just looks like a lovely forest for the most part. And it's actually hard to project much anxiety into the scenes, although that may not be what's intended. But the silliness of the evident tension in combination with flinging around those nuts-and-fabric starts to look more like deranged people who need supervision. It's hard not to laugh at it sometimes, in other words.

Just at the point where it appears a major plot development may occur, just outside the room in the Zone where the Stalker has brought the Writer and the Professor, instead nothing happens. Or nothing appears to happen. I'm not complaining about Tarkovsky's choices—really. He's clearly putting aesthetics first, and all too often action sequences are more deadening than anything found here. But I do feel the science fiction concepts, which are intriguing and have promise, are mostly left to rot on the vine. They deserved better. There's little sense of danger or risk, more of confusion. It's like trying to solve a puzzle, only the hardest questions will never be answered. What is this thing, the Zone? Why do they call it "a miracle"? The word has troubling religious connotations—has the world reverted to a new Dark Age? Why is the Zone so heavily guarded against people going in? I understand the best stories are designed to raise more questions than they answer, and there's no denying the bewitchments of the images that flash by here. But that's a lot of important questions that go unanswered.

1 comment:

  1. I saw this at the Cinema 21 in Portland in the early '80s. I was working graveyard at the time, 23 or thereabouts, never adjusted to those work hours, and dozed on and off through the whole thing. And, yet, it or something has stayed w/ me ever since as this dystopic nightmare where nature, lush, green, nature, not unlike a lot of the Willamette Valley in Oregon, has swallowed up, reclaimed, something dark and sinister in civilization. I remember expecting something to jump out of the bushes, but if it ever did it was while I was dozing. Instead, it's guys walking along some abandoned, overgrown railroad tracks and hanging out in some country house that is half observatory, half library contemplating the isolated hopelessness of humanity. Although, I might be merging this one w/ another Tarkovsky, both of which I saw in my days working the graveyard shift.