Stalker, hard case cinema, and losing it at the pictures
Around two and a half hours from now, precisely one hundred and sixty one minutes, it will be done.
At last he will have watched Stalker from start to finish. The Russian director Andre Tarkovsky’s notoriously difficult cosmic voyage. This celebrated work of slow cinema from the late Soviet era: dense compound of art-house movie, speculative fiction, and the motion picture as spiritual quest, Stalker, screen time lasting – repeat it – one hundred and sixty one stretched-out minutes – all this, finally, will be his after so many years.
Through the mid nineteen sixties to the mid nineteen eighties, Andre Tarkovsky was world cinema’s lion of long lugubrious movies. Stalker is Tarkovsky’s fifth feature-length drama and is considered his finest. ‘Every single frame,’ reports Cate Blanchett, ‘is burned into my retina.’ (Actors.)
Somehow Stalker’s always escaped him. Never before has he found the staying power to see the film through to the final credits. Today this will change. With the rain outside, no work or definite plans, at last this elusive, demanding movie, mysterious fable of man and metaphysics will be entirely seen, watched, possibly even absorbed, but definitely struck off his cultural bucket list, so fibrous and whole grain.
He can’t claim he doesn’t understand what he’s getting into. He’s been circling Stalker for so many years that the wait time has rolled over into decades. This is a movie he knows well but just hasn’t seen it all yet. Twice before he attempted, only to bale, bought the ticket but crashed. So, there is this. Plus, he’s read all the Stalker chapters from Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky’s soupy guide to film-making. And not only that but also this, only a couple of years ago he read Zona, Geoff Dyer’s droll discursive book-long account of watching and surviving Stalker. He’s put in plenty of prep work and knows Stalker’s plot-line all too well…
In an unidentified country that might be mistook for the former Soviet Union, three men travel to a remote zone where, it is said, an alien visitation made a miracle. Inside the Zone sits a room where human dreams are actualised and whatever you desire comes true.
Ever since the alien visitation, the Zone has been sealed off by the government. With access restricted, the Zone is shrouded in secrecy and rumour. A journey across the surrounding wilderness and onwards to the site is forbidden and risky, requiring the specialist knowledge of a small band of local guides known as ‘stalkers’.
Two men, a writer and a scientist called the Professor, hire the services of a middle-aged stalker who lives in a crooked wooden house that rattles and shakes. Despite his wife’s exhortations to stay home this time, the visibly haunted Stalker – a man with a face that says not only is there a devil, but the devil walks among us – agrees to become guide for the Writer and Professor. He prepares to lead them through and beyond an encircling quarantined hinterland of post industrial decay and onwards across a beautiful terrain of lethal wetlands, before descending into an eerie network of tunnels leading them to the miracle Room.
Will the expedition party arrive safely to their destination? What perilous man-traps left by the aliens await them on this ride of a lifetime? And will enlightenment spring in the Room of Desires? With its slow pacing and extended continuous shots, Stalker is cinema’s most glacial cliffhanger.
Losing It in the Dark
By the time of his early death in Paris in 1986, aged only 54, Tarkovsky had compiled a magnificent seven of high-achieving art movies. Each of Tarkovsky’s films is weighty, contemplative, breathtaking and difficult – sometimes perhaps more difficult to make sense of than a film ought to be. And not a single comedy.
Released in 1979, the same year as Apocalypse Now, another long-form movie about some twitchy guys plunging into the deep, dark heart of the unknown, Stalker is probably no more demanding than the director’s Andre Rublev, his stately three hour biographical drama concerning a fifteenth century Russian painter. Or the drifty Nostalgia, dreamily tracking a melancholy homesick film-maker across central Italy in the rain. There was also the testing, say mind-bending, Solaris, a tale of death and delusion in outer space, similarly clocking in at close to one hundred and eighty minutes.
All these Tarkovsky films he has seen, and other Tarkovskies too. Solaris he’s watched at least twice and he has Nostalgia on DVD. It’s upstairs on the DVD rack as a known possibility that he could run up and grab at any given moment and bring down to play all over again – no problem.
But Stalker always loomed largest as the Everest of challenging Tarkovsky movies. It squats there large, implacable, unignorable. But unlike tall mountains, you don’t just go hire some some climbing gear and start scaling Stalker simply because it exists. He knows from personal experience that you only tackle Stalker when properly practice-ready. As a reckless twentysomething, just a self-taught rookie really, with a fistful of immobilising Antonioni flicks under his belt (Jeanne Dielman and La Maman et la Putain too), he foolishly considered himself a hard case cineaste ready for anything.
Back then, not only had he sat through several austere Robert Bresson movies, including the allegory of the miserable life of a donkey, there was also that long hot summer night, inside a roasting BFI without aircon and his mouth inflamed with raging toothache. All of this after a difficult day’s work circulating files in his lowly government job. But still he endured Four Nights of a Dreamer, Bresson’s slow, slow suicide drama. He remembers his throbbing mouth and the weight of the drowsy heat, and him sitting through it, almost expiring, but thinking, you are doing this, yes, you are doing this, you are a resilient film guy good for all grades of cinema.
His repetition compulsion for arthouse pain well established, and having studied Time Out for next week’s film listings, he took himself across London on his day off, to Ladbroke Grove, for an afternoon screening of Stalker. Where he encountered failure in Row H in under an hour. Chewed up and spat back out onto the street, he retired injured, sloping off for a consolation pint at local pub legend The Ship.
Over ten years passed. Stalker remained in the deep background. Until one optimistic spring afternoon in Vauxhall. He was supposed to be watching porn as research for a book; but bunked off and rented Stalker as he bid to right the wrong of a decade previous – only to fail once again. (He resumed with the porno.)
Defeated a second time round, he might have left it at failure, with a soothing interior voice whispering, buddy, some things aren’t meant to be. Hannah Arendt observed that an integrated psyche can’t have a conversation with itself. Did she mean inner convos like this though, an internal squabbling, to and fro in the countdown to today’s big screening? Some movies aren’t meant to happen? Bullshit, says the go-for-it guy beating the drum from the hippocampus. You make things happen. But maybe we’re not all built that way, replies his inner nebbish in the half light of his pre-fontal cortex. And yet, No, I want this! I need to scale Stalker. It’s time. Only last week, Stalker popped up unexpectedly in a book podcast. The writer Michael Bracewell was supposed to be talking up his new novel, but wandered off track raving about the greatness of Tarkovsky and Stalker, its last forty minutes uniquely ‘pulverising’.
When he woke this morning to see the rain in the road, he knew it was time to be pulverised too and give himself over to this challenging movie. Who cares if you don’t understand all of it. Remember Ehrfurcht, Kaput. Remember, as he settles onto the sofa and fires-up the beloved big screen. Keep Ehrfurcht in mind, Kaput, German for the cultural value of things we don’t understand. Be clear that today Stalker’s not something he finally ‘gets’. Or, once again, something that he fails to ‘get’. Now that he is amply mid-life he no longer fears but welcomes that which lives on the far side of comprehension. Planes and ships and things may go sailing over his head. And although he dislikes himself when his mind wanders at the movies, considering inattention a character flaw, the dread of tedium is behind him. He will handle Stalker third time around. He may even value the next one hundred and sixty one minutes. If he can stay awake.
This is the real Stalker challenge: old droopy eyes. Sleep, his lead adversary, looms on the horizon. Same as it ever was. As he arranges and re-arranges today’s movie snacks across the perspex side table, sets his phone to airplane, sips meditatively on a lime and soda, involved in the process of mentally buckling in, he reminds himself to watch out for the harbingers. Beware the prolonged passages of mental stillness foreshadowing consciousness’s fatal drift into dormerville. You must stand up – if, when, as your eyes start to go down. He repeats his excellent advice out loud – Stand up!
Great plan. But can Kaput stick to it? (Another cliffhanger.)
Confessions of a Film Buff
It is a life-long perplexity: him and culture vs sleep. For a so-called movie nut, much vaunted arthouse disciple, you certainly sleep lots at the cinema. Are you not embarrassed?
Why does he nod out so easily?
First thing to say is that falling asleep mid movie is infuriating. Second thing, falling asleep mid movie is bliss.
It’s infuriating when he swore so many times it would never happen again, only to have it happen again. To be wasting time in this way. (You had all last night to sleep.) To be gone away, when you love films, your head lolling, face in a slump, as the screen stares back impassively. But then again, going hazy when you’re not supposed to. Drifting into a semi sleep mid-movie. These easeful seductions can be as gorgeous as a warm bath under the influence. Do we really consider such luxury simply wasting time?
Perhaps he could understand his movie sleeps better. Plugged into the brains trust, aka the internet, he conducts some armchair research, putting it out there, the big question: Why do we fall asleep watching films?
Some folk on Reddit suggest the reason he sleeps is because he’s tired. And that tired’s always going to get you; especially if you are sat in a soft comfy chair in the dark.
Mike speaks of life-long difficulties with sleep: ’I have actually paid money to get into a theatre for the specific purpose of taking a nap.’ Not only once, but ‘on multiple occasions.’
‘I was a bit hungover when I saw Dunkirk,’ says Deleted. ‘Fell asleep, even with all that noise.’
I almost fell asleep during Godzilla (2014), says Bud. Whereas my friend actually fell asleep. I was 18 then.
Sleep scientist Philip Gehrman asserts that falling asleep in the movies, even if only now and then, is a tell-tale sign of a sleep deficit and possible sleep disorder: ‘if you’re well rested, you should be able to maintain wakefulness even in sedentary, quiet activities. People fall asleep in movies because they’re exhausted,’ Gehrman concludes.
He thinks of an ex from a long time ago who would elbow him at the cinema at the first sign of his wilting – a sharp dig to the upper ribs. He was usually the one urging they go see a film, only to check out half way through. She felt abandoned, she said. And after the film they wouldn’t be able to discuss what they just saw because he hadn’t seen all of it. Perhaps a second sharp dig in the ribs. Sometimes a third. As more online feedback rolls in, a couple of posters suggest that maybe he’s the wrong kind of guy for movies. That the issue could be he’s too committed to the Real. ’Narrative, as with small talk, is for lesser folk,’ writes a confident dude on True Film. ‘Because it’s not real, why bother paying attention? Enjoy your nap. And btw, do you have a high IQ?’ Is his movie sleeping saying something significant? Perhaps he is the wrong type to be watching in the dark. All those years, the sunk costs, and it was a big mistake. Who could accept such a proposition? One enigmatic poster called Freddie/Pie suggests perhaps he snoozes at the movies because he can’t stop thinking. Another that maybe he’s intellectually deficient. It’s suggested that not enough oxygen’s arriving to his brain on time due to having his head tipped back too far.
Perhaps the nodding off is neurological? ’You’re wired differently, mate.’ There’s speculation that this sleep habit indicates ADHD, that he’s a highly sensitive individual, easily overloaded by sensory stimuli, who thinks he loves films, but they are a neurological disturbance causing his brain to shut down, to block out the visual and aural chaos. He replies that he’s not the sensitive type, actually, and doubts it’s ADHD. To which an assertive poster replies, D.I.A.G.N.O.S.I.S.
Isn’t full attention a mirage for all we know? David Foster Wallace described deep mental absorption as like the human soul. Following the debacle with Adam and Eve, as humanity and God divided, the concept of a united self has persisted as a tantalising ideal that, like city night buses, barely ever arrives. In medieval times, monks got into the habit of praying through the wee small hours – seeking via uncluttered attentiveness communion with the divine. But distraction is intrinsically human and hard prayer won’t crowd out your teeming thoughts. Despite this long history of distraction, the current digital age is beset with the anxiety that we’ve never had it so bad with our screen-addled recessive brains. And none of what he’s just typed is wholly convincing. But he hasn’t had a close relationship with certainty since his twenties.
Returning to Reddit, two or three posters wonder if he’s depressed. Or it’s schizophrenic, is it? Repeatedly blurring movie fantasy and personal dream space is symptomatic of schizophrenia, some say. One poster speaks of a disappearing life, of an inability to be in the moment; while the great outdoors lobby suggest skipping Stalker and heading off for a nourishing walk in the woods. Getting towards the end of the thread now, Angie chips in with her five golden rules for not falling asleep at the pictures: ‘1. Only pay to see action/sci-fi/horror movies 2. Try to cat-nap during the afternoon if you are seeing an evening show. 3. Don’t go to anything starting later than 6pm. 4. Always buy a BIG popcorn as it takes nearly the whole movie to eat. 5. Always go with someone who will nudge you awake if you nod off. Good luck !!’
A cheerful latecomer confidently recommends Ted Lasso as the antidote, ‘let’s see you fall asleep with that on.’ And finally, one charming man sends back fire and ire, excoriating movie sleepers as ‘blatantly’ passive aggressive. ‘You sleep as a way of sending a message you didn’t want to see a movie anyway’.
Okay. In his capacity of Original Poster, he rolls up the long thread offering thanks to his respondents, but wondering if his opening pitch was misguided in proposing movie sleeps as wrong, or a problem. Why not think of him and his fellow cinema snoozers as gifted sleepers in a large dark realm; dream expeditionaries ranging across adjacent states of consciousness. After all, reality will only take you so far. Movies, stories, sleeping, dreaming… getting your wires crossed now and then seems almost sensible.
We’re Going on a Zone Trip
Press Play and the film begins. Stalker opens in a rundown bar with two fluorescent ceiling lights. One of the lights is flickering on the brink. The bar is not a site of collective joy but a lifeless dive for lonesome barflies. The kind of boozer where strangers plot shady schemes that don’t go to plan as Stalker makes first contact with the Writer and the Professor who hire his services for a voyage into the Zone.
Stalker warns his clients that the only way to cross the Zone is his way. Inside the alien-infected territory, incomprehensible extraterrestrial matter lurks, and the straightest path is not necessarily the shortest because the natural laws of physics no longer apply. He repeats, with eyes possessed, that the travellers must at all times do exactly as Stalker says.
Everybody knows that warning movie characters is futile. Basic requirements you’d take seriously in real life must be ignored at the cinema as even common sense protagonists act the complete opposite of level-headed. But in a Tarkovsky film?
The trio pack up and quit town in the thick of night. As they travel outwards they dodge a half-hearted spurt of gunfire from the local military and hitch a ride on an empty goods train headed to the Zone. Hours later, at the outskirts, the expeditionaries quit the train and begin the long march across the sopping badlands bent under a drab sky.
Water is a recurring motif in Tarkovsky’s films: damp, wet, insistent deluge, rot, biblical pluvial excess, where the rain it never ends. Other repeat features are fire, mirrors, crumbling interiors, and women with long hair.
The trio cross a lowland terrain of boglands, grasslands, woodlands and peatlands as the camera observes from side on. Tarkovsky’s lens tracks slowly – this is not full-gas film making – as marshes and reed beds blend with wet fern woods and wildflower meadows. As they tramp in single file, the men discuss their reasons for visiting the Zone and what they hope to achieve in the Room of Desires. Stalker aspires to help lost souls. Writer seeks creative renewal. The Professor craves new scientific knowledge to help win him a Nobel prize.
(The Professor has brought a small backpack along and seems quite attached. We should probably pay more attention to his backpack.)
The Stalker screenplay is based on an adaptation by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky of Roadside Picnic, their science fiction novel of nineteen seventy two.
Roadside Picnic compares aliens visiting Earth to a bunch of day-trippers out for a drive in the country. Everyone loves a picnic, but even the careful drive-by traveller leaves a footprint. The Strugatskies envisage a small party of young people pulling off the road and driving into a meadow, where they eat sandwiches, have bottles of drink, smoke cigarettes, listen to music, take polaroids, maybe build a fire and put up a tent to stop over for the night. Next day, after the humans depart, the nervous animals, birds, and insects emerge from their hiding places to a scattering of used napkins, tin foil, fag butts, a scorched fire pit and some loose change that slipped from a trouser pocket. This strange tableau of inexplicable flotsam puts the wildlife in a spin. Humankind might experience a similar disorientation on returning to the site of an alien incursion.
Deeper on into the Zone, while there are no tangible alien leavings, the atmosphere crackles with an unseen presence. The Stalker continues to lead the way, stepping cautiously as if crossing a mine field. While the Writer appears skeptical of the guide’s repeat warnings of unseen dangers, the Professor is largely compliant.
As they progress, Stalker relays the tragic tale of a colleague called ‘Porcupine’, who travelled with his brother across the Zone and onwards into the Room of Desires. But Porcupine’s brother was destroyed by the experience. And then Porcupine went the same way. Soon after the duo returned from their visit, Porcupine’s brother obtained a large amount of money, just as he had wished for, but died suddenly, and shortly an inconsolable Porcupine hanged himself.
Stalker says Porcupine’s suicide was driven by grief but also by guilt. That the Zone’s Room of Desires makes all human wishes come true, including unconscious or forgotten desires. Porcupine didn’t realise that deep within he carried traces of anger from when he was just a kid. That the aliens picked-up on a short-lived boyhood fury with Porcupine wishing his sibling dead; and the aliens made it so.
That Old Devil Refrain…
Watching from his deluxe sofa, he finds Stalker’s tale of Porcupine’s suicide cautionary but also difficult to get into. Although he recognises the weight of emotion onscreen, he finds he’s distracted by his ankles. Not Stalker’s, but his own ankles and how they fidget lots when he watches TV. It is a recurring trait and wishes it wasn’t so. His preference would be that the legs didn’t cross at all. Or at the very least they were still. He often arranges the ankles side by side, but finds they don’t keep to this position. Again he crosses and then uncrosses the ankles perched on the edge of the charcoal footstool and sighs audibly, detachedly observing the body’s capacity to act, something driving his limbs he can’t explain despite them being his legs.
Why the movement? Why at this precise moment? (Why did the pussy cat cross the road?) In the nineteen seventies, the glamorous left theorists Deleuze and Guattari proposed thinking differently on experience through breaking it into smaller units – into refrains, or more precisely, small blocks of existential refrains. Deleuze and Guattari claimed that experience disaggregated into tighter joined-up units, or habits, can then be re-assembled into a much larger concept of reality. That the habits which make up our way of being in the world, our way of dressing, of sitting down, or sitting up, of making coffee, or walking down the street – all of these micro events constitute ‘us’, and who we are. And if we wish to change how we exist in the world, these refrains should be tracked and our reality rebuilt from a molecular level.
Uncrossing his legs would be a start: his ankles stock-still while getting deeper into Stalker.
Do the Meaning
The French film-maker Claire Denis observes that life mostly puts the small stuff in the frame with all the big things in the background, and therefore her films do the same. But this isn’t Tarkovsky’s way. In Stalker, the big things are un-ignorably to the front. The male film-maker as profound and angsty artist was by Tarkovsky’s time already a cliche and makes ‘decoding’ Stalker a face-off between being serious but not so heavy it breaks.
Tarkovsky’s worldview hinges on a religious imperative. In its specific historic circumstance, Stalker might be read as anti-Soviet. But more broadly as anti-atheist – opposing materialist tendencies with a spiritual affinity that’s almost pre-modern. But this is not explicitly stated because the subject of religion was not acceptable to the Soviet film censor. ‘One writes fables in periods of oppression,’ observes Calvino.
As the expeditionary party continue across a mysterious physical terrain possessed by an unearthliness, he recognises the obvious – that Stalker, same as Solaris, leans on speculative fiction to explore Christian themes. Through the tortuous development of Stalker as a project, Tarkovsky’s diaries ponder ‘a most mysterious, imperceptible process’ continuing overtime ‘in the subconscious, crystallising on the walls of the soul’.
Stalker is a load-bearing religious allegory. Tarkovsky’s Stalker diary describes the film’s eponymous hero as not quite of this world. A glib viewer might feel tempted to tag Stalker’s lead as the film-maker’s ego projection. After all, in the build up to shooting his movie, Tarkovsky records several dreams concerned with escape. The early scenes of Stalker have a Cold War feel as the trio slip through the military cordon. And Stalker would turn out to be Tarkovsky’s final homeland movie as at last he escaped the Soviet censor by moving to the West to film in exile.
But interpreting Stalker feels arduous – studiously digging away at the manifest content for meanings buried below. In Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag writes that ’The modern style of interpretation excavates… and as it excavates, it destroys.’ He doesn’t dread destroying Stalker by digging too hard. That isn’t the issue. His issue concerns him taking the role of evaluator. Here is Tarkovsky, supremely talented film-maker, spiritual deep-thinking guy, with a considered complex cinematic weave of metaphor and allusion, and then there’s him the viewer, the flibbertigibbet passing through, who even if he pays close attention is likely to get the artist’s masterpiece confused and upside down.
Perhaps he’s best off not doing any thinking and let the art work just flow. Putting semiosis aside opens the field to other possibilities as interpretation’s country cousin, also known as ‘Association’, slides sideways into play. While Meaning huffs and it puffs, Association is necessarily laid back. Not pressing to capture the artwork in total, association instead allows affinities to resonate as ideas run freely.
This far into Stalker, the movie’s primary association concerns the landscape. Landscape is a major presence in all Tarkovsky’s films. Be it beautiful, bucolic, blasted or wrecked, the director’s preoccupation with the world that his protagonists travel through helps to explain the long fixed camera shots holding the physical space. The topography of Stalker spans depressed frontier town and oppressive military outpost before moving onwards into yellow green lowlands where the yellow is sickly pale and the washed-out green is not the green a child would choose to colour in a tree.
None of the landscape feigns happiness in Stalker. There are no apple orchards. No pillowy clouds edged in apricot. The humid grey skies radiate bad summer vibes. The view fits with a disturbing tale of aliens been and gone, but Stalker’s troubled lands also allude to the harm humans do, to an environmental calamity that has already been, as the movie foreshadows a greater crisis to come. Stalker came seven years before Chernobyl. And these amorphous spreading thoughts of doom are giving him brain fog. He feels a mid-movie sleep cloud rolling in.
He jolts awake, putting the film on pause. Rising from his slump on the sofa, he takes five in the kitchen with a stretch and a fresh drink. As he empties the last of the soda water into the glass, he pitches the empty bottle into the recycling bin, and while the spring-loaded bin lid closes in slow motion, he goes through the usual mental trick of instantly forgetting the plastic bottle but equally failing to entirely forget the plastic bottle, his guilt and remorse combining.
Human Plastic People
We most of us sense accelerating environmental degradation all around. The most ordinary refrains in our lives are inflected by the enormity of the eco-disaster as it unfolds. While the plastic discard in the bin embodies a range of significance reaching from minor to planetary, until quite recently he could tell himself the three items – bottle, toxicity, him – were distinct. But that little story’s stopped working. The problem about plastic is no longer simply out there awaiting a disposal solution, it’s also in here.
There are plastics inside his body. Plastics in his throat, gut, lungs and blood. (Your body too.) To be human in this time is to be part plastic. The plastic inside is particulate leaking off food packaging and car tyres, from the polystyrene frames in home delivery cartons, or the micro beads oozing out of cosmetics. Polymers everywhere. We breathe in plastic walking in the park, and when we return home we drink in plastic from the water that flows out the kitchen tap. He glances again at the chrome waste bin, visualises micro plastic filings peeling off the spent soda bottle and floating freely through the kitchen air, getting breathed in by his nose and mouth, invisible tiny particles drawn down inside his lungs and swimming in the veins on the back of his hand.
In the film Crimes of the Future, David Cronenberg’s body horror of 2022, a fugitive gang of post-humans no longer bin their plastic waste but eat it. Radical performance artists Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux have evolved into ‘humanoid composters’ and government agent Kristen Stewart finds herself erotically drawn to the couple’s deviant aura. ‘So, our bodies are different than human bodies have ever been before in history,’ observed Cronenberg around the film’s release. ‘This is not going away.’
Not going away. In the nineteen fifties, Roland Barthes wrote about Tupperware and a profound shift for humankind. ‘The hierarchy of substances is abolished: a single one replaces them all: the whole world can be plasticised.’
There is enough plastic in the average human body to make a credit card. Using the credit card as a measure is pointed: all that spending and consuming. First thing earlier today his weekly groceries arrived by van and he unwrapped the fruit from its plastic wrappings and pitched the wrappings into the recycling bin, performing the usual shizzle of noticing the pointless ruinous plastic as he eased the thought of it to the back of his mind.
He asks Gala, who knows dreams, do people have plastic nightmares? He has all kinds of bad dreams but never had a plastic one, not one single scary plastic blob chasing him down a noir-lit alley. What happens instead, what he does, is he puts the recycling sack in the green bin outside the house and this gets taken away every other Friday, to be stashed in landfills, or dropped into the sea, as we dispose of the evidence of what we did. But what is ever truly repressed never to return? Plastic returns. Plastic for sure bobs back up again, it’s in the breast milk mothers feed their newborn, or tonight’s dinner. And while it’s still not known what this infiltration means, we’re free to fear the worst: does the plastic in your blood make you tired, depressed, forgetful, is plastic messing with your fertility or pushing the cancer rates higher?
If the plastic doesn’t make you feel bad the thought of it probably will – which completes the plastic module of today’s piece.
The film critic J Hoberman describes Stalker as a work of ‘post-apocalyptic misery,’ and ‘a premonition of Chernobyl and Soviet disintegration.’ However, Stalker is not only a work of grim prophesy. That the production was probably contaminated means the film’s also a record of toxic harm.
Tarkovsky’s original intention was to shoot Stalker in the desert region of Soviet central Asia. Pre-production had reached an advanced stage by early 1977 when an earthquake required a change of plan. Filming switched to Estonia and a different landscape – no more cinder desert but hazardous wetlands instead. ‘We were shooting near Tallinn,’ recalls sound designer Vladimir Sharun, ‘in the area around the small river Jägala… Up the river was a chemical plant and it poured out poisonous liquids downstream.’
Tarkovsky’s crew squatted in the water for several hours, day after day, up to their knees in unidentified chemicals from a paper processing plant close-by. The film’s exteriors were initially shot over several months using a new Kodak film stock that was unfamiliar to Soviet film laboratories. The lab processing was bodged and all of the footage that came back was unusable. The exteriors had to be shot a second time.
Stalker is in fact a tale of multiple shootings. After the first three months in Estonia, Tarkovsky fell out with his cinematographer Georgy Rerberg, who he replaced with Leonid Kalashnikov as they set about reproducing the lost footage. Eventually Kalashnikov was replaced by Alexander Knyazhinsky and the film was entirely reshot for a third time. Through the long months of takes and retakes, the Stalker crew were on location surrounded by effluvium. There is a celebrated ‘snow’ shot in the final third of the movie with the expedition party arriving close to the Room. Vladimir Sharun recalls, ‘snow falling in the summer and white foam floating down the river. In fact it was some horrible poison.
‘Many women in our crew got allergic reactions on their faces’, reports Sharun. ‘Tarkovsky died from cancer of the right bronchial tube. And Tolya Solonitsyn [who plays the Writer] too. That it was all connected to the location shooting for Stalker became clear to me when Larisa Tarkovskaya [Tarkovsky’s wife] died from the same illness in Paris.’
Films shouldn’t hurt this much. He expects Stalker’s lethal back story will make the rest of the movie even harder to watch. As he resumes on the sofa he releases the three travellers from their long screen pause, pressing their journey onwards, out of the sodden fields and down through the web of underground tunnels called the Grinder.
The Grinder has clusters of stalagmites and stalactites and in time leads to a long-vacated industrial building where the Room is housed. In a small vestibule a phone rings…
In a small vestibule a phone rings… But he’s not hearing this. He has finally gone away. Returning to the sofa fresh from his mid-movie break, he’d felt fully confident in his fitness to continue. But so soon he faded and so rapidly as Tarkovsky’s slow cinema lulled him in the end.
Consistently his whole career, Tarkovsky was dedicated to an anti-montage cinema that resists abridging time onscreen. (After all, we need time – without it, everything would happen at once.) The title of Tarkovsky’s book on film-making is Sculpting in Time. Of Stalker he wrote that ‘I wanted it to be as if the whole film had been made in a single shot’. There are many slow-slow shots in Stalker lasting longer than a minute – which in the realm of celluloid is a long stretch of time.
This assemblage of extended takes draws viewers into a state of revery and, he now realises, is intrinsically soporific. At the entrance way to the fabled Room, his eyes start to droop. Here on the threshold of alien space, where any and every human dream may come true, he goes off to sleep.
In Zona, Geoff Dyer’s Stalker chronicle, Dyer tracks the movie’s shift in signatures from linear to non-linear, calling the temporal drift ‘dream-time’. Dyer’s term is consoling, suggesting that sleep is in keeping rather than proof of failure. To have gone the whole movie – with its hazy narrative of mood and atmosphere – without a spell of ‘dream time’, would be quite irregular. Wide awake is not how he was supposed to watch Tarkovsky’s masterpiece. He’s not that guy.
As his consciousness changes over into ‘dream-time’, the events onscreen intermix with his inner world of psychic jumble. In the pre-blur of a late afternoon dream, something is intuited. As light moves slowly against the dark, he hallucinates clouds filled with rain, a farm dog from when he was five chases too close to the tractor, and the face of someone he may once have known, a German cousin, is saying something he can’t quite catch. ‘What?’ he says loudly into the room. Disconnectedly hears himself calling as he wakes on the sofa gazing across at Stalker.
He sighs for the lost cousin. And for missing the Professor’s big moment. He rewinds back to the trio’s arrival outside the Room. Into the vestibule as the wall phone rings. The Professor picks up to speak to his office. The call is unexpected and jolting because it’s not very Tarkovsky. But this is a good thing.
After the call, all hell breaks loose as the Professor’s backpack finally comes to the head of the drama. Inside the bag is a bomb. It’s been lurking like a loaded revolver since way back and early in Act One. We just didn’t realise. Given the recent dark history of backpacks and IEDs and long queues for bag searches at public venues – perhaps we might have seen this coming.
Convinced that the Room is a bad entity certain to be misused by humanity, the Professor’s travelled all this way to blow it up. Before he can detonate the device, the Writer and Stalker argue with the Professor. The three men tussle. Firstly they tussle physically – just a little bit – but soon the dispute becomes verbal and ideas-based. There is a lot of heat and some amount of tension. The tension you’d expect from a bomb in a Tarkovsky movie, compared to a bomb in, let’s say, Mission Impossible, mixed with the tension of a high-powered debate club. As he types this he recognises his precis as quite simpleton but that’s not how it develops on screen. Persuaded by the combined arguments offered by Stalker and the Writer, the Professor agrees to disarm the bomb – which he then breaks up into small inert pieces to be discarded. The expedition party agree not to enter the Room of Desires, after all, and begin their arduous journey back across the Zone, homeward bound.
On his return, Stalker tells his wife that humanity has lost its faith and to live a good life is an endless struggle. Not your usual work-related gossip. But Stalker has an unusual job and resides in a strange town inside a crooked house, and has a young daughter who, it is powerfully revealed, has magic powers. As the film’s closing scene of mystification, the young daughter fixes her eyes upon a glass placed on the dusty kitchen table and wills it to move. The glass wobbles and rattles, then careens along the wood and over the edge, smashing across the floor. It happens before our eyes. And yet how can this be so? In this way, Stalker concludes its one hundred and sixty one minutes with an unforgettable exhibition of the inexplicable – the limits of rationalism re-stated.
He turns off the TV and somewhere inside his head a little cartoon man punches the air for having finished Stalker.
The Dream Downstairs
Shortly, he leaves the house. As he climbs the hill, the familiar wind sweeps across his face while he observes the traffic carrying on as always – apparently unaffected by what he just watched. The trucks roll their huge wheels up the steep slope, as a bus, not aware of any post-Stalker disarrangement, pulls into the side of the road and lets passengers off and on. Shoppers move into the shops, and out again, not one of them visibly metaphysically pulverised by the three hour movie he just saw.
The following day, as cold rain continues to sweep the city through to the evening, he gets together with Gala and provides a brief report on Stalker.
It is a while after dinner when they decide to watch TV – two episodes of TV’s My Brilliant Friend. Between episodes they take time out for the usual story debrief. Their discussion of the episode they just watched covers several angles before becoming focussed on the dream sequence. Gala asks when did he realise we were watching Lenu’s dream?
No. Straight away. Really?
Not at first.
Gala shakes her head with emphasis. She has put out some TV snacks in a bowl which she nudges his way while looking him in the eye. He bites into the snack which is sugary but not too sweet. He says it’s funny how frequently films and TV use dreams to trick the viewer, playing games with verisimilitude, sort of cat and mouse.
Verisimilitude is an example of the kind of high-end term he thinks twice about using these days; compared to his younger self who got so filled to the gills with the thesaurus the words just came tumbling out. Since arriving into mid-life, many sentences start life in his head with a mini struggle – keep to the real economy of plain speech, or use some inflationary language? But yes, he says to Gala, assuming he’s actually awake when it happens, he’d always back himself to spot the oneiric as used onscreen. The oneiric, he actually says that word.
Oneiric! she replies.
There’s always a change of atmosphere. The look, the lighting, the sound, all of it subtly alters. There are also more blatant pointers.
He nods at Gala for confirmation of her continued interest and she nods back. Yes?
So far, season three of My Brilliant Friend has had more dream sequences than series one and two combined, he says. As the leads mature perhaps their sense of the reality illusion and what lies beneath deepens. Lenu has had, I think, three dreams, and each one, if I remember, has featured a flight of stairs. The outward signal of a descent into her unconscious perhaps.
Gala demurs – as unpersuaded by his tidy theory as he is. He can’t recall her precise words and it wouldn’t do making stuff up. They decide to watch their second episode for tonight and instantly they’re returned to Italy’s turbulent nineteen seventies – caught in the thick of it in Florence during the dangerous Years of Lead. An ex-lover of Lenu has just been beaten up by the fascists, while Lenu’s stodgy academic husband has a gun pulled on him by an angry student of the left.
Lenu has become entangled in a scandalous love affair and unsurprisingly her psychic realm is on high alert. It’s late one night at their elegant Florence home and Lenu is going down the stairs again where she encounters a complex dream scenario featuring her mother.
As the dream scene progresses, he feels his eyes flickering before inevitably he looks across at Gala expecting she’ll surely have noticed that once again stairs were the portal to Lenu’s dreamscape. He hopes Gala will be impressed by his acumen being confirmed on screen and prepares to bask in the glow of appreciation from his brilliant wife. Alas, in the dim half light he sees that Gala’s eyes are closed. It is a rare thing in front of the telly, but Gala’s asleep.