February 21, 2012

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Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) is the latest beneficiary of Geoff Dyer’s cultural immersion method. Zona, which comes out today from Pantheon Books, is a pellucid scene-by-scene ramble through Tarkovsky’s sci-fi head trip, alive to the film’s textures as much as its ideas.  In his non-fiction works, Dyer is a dilettante angling for expertise, his books (whether on jazz, photography, or WWI) documents of an enlightenment-in-progress. Like a student prone to daydreaming, Dyer often strays off-topic, doodling in the corners of his notebook, not Van Halen logos, but on his susceptibility to boredom, how his wife looks like Natasha McElhone in the Solaris remake, or simply on his love of knapsacks. These detours are maddening and lovely, bracing returns to everyday neuroses in the midst of high-minded esthetic ruminations. It’s this whiplash between objective and subjective modes, from high to low (he’ll go from quoting William James to thoughts on three-ways), that makes his work so addictive.   The pleasure of Zona lies in Dyer’s method, in its constant sense of discovery, as if he had just stumbled out of a screening and was sharing his thoughts with you after a beer or three.

Dyer originally intended to give the book 142 chapters, one for each shot in the film, but found, “I kept losing track of where one shot ended and another began.” Instead, he splits the book into two parts, corresponding to the rather arbitrary split in the film itself. It is not a rigorous textual analysis, although it has some striking instances of that, but “an account of watchings, rememberings, and forgettings”, of how the film has implanted itself in his memories and his working life, not as a static object. It is a similar approach to what Jonathan Rosenbaum attempted in Moving Places, his cinematic autobiography, on how films affected, and were affected by, the time and place he watched them. Zona is less personal and more attuned to the active viewing experience, a kind of diary of his eye as it wanders around the screen.

He first gazed upon Stalker on February 8th, 1981, which is also the day I was born. A transformative day for us both, although perhaps more life-changing for Dyer, who says that if he had not seen the film in his twenties, “my responsiveness to the world would have been radically diminished.” For the uninitiated, the film follows a stalker (a kind of mystical tour guide) as he leads a Writer and a Professor through the cordoned off area of the Zone, said to contain a Room that grants one’s innermost wish (it was adapted from the Russian sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic, which is receiving a new English translation that comes out May 1st). In the more conventional analytical sections of the book, Dyer does a fine job of breaking down the film’s use of time, space and language, all of which expand and contract in the amorphous landscapes of the Zone.

The Zone is surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, but when the Stalker’s wife protests his latest jaunt, he proclaims that everywhere is a prison. As Dyer demonstrates, the language of the Gulag permeates the world of Stalker. He quotes Anne Appelbaum’s Gulag: “the world outside the barbed wire was not referred to as ‘freedom’, but as the bolshoya zona, the ‘big prison zone’ larger and less deadly than the ‘small zone’ of the camp, but no more human – and certainly no more humane.” Then there is the most dangerous section of the Zone, the “meat grinder”, which is how prisoners often referred to the Gulag. But in the Zone, these definitions are not fixed, as each new sector provides both new freedoms (of solitude and silence) and new forms of imprisonment (forcing you to reside inside your own head).

Dyer’s sense of Tarkovsky Time is generated through the history of Russia and of cinema. He first brings it up in the context of war strategy, one that “had done for Napoleon and would do for Hitler too: ‘Trade space for time’, a message Tarkovsky took to heart.” Russian army strategists gave up chunks of land for more time to defend it, and Tarkovsky traverses a delimited amount of space (there are only a few sets in Stalker) but explores every inch of it in his heavingly slow zoom-ins and tracking shots. Then Dyer describes his first viewing of Antonioni’s L’Avventura (“the nearest I have ever come to pure cinematic agony”), in which “every second lasted a minute, every minute lasted an hour, and an hour a year, and so on. Trade time for a bigger unit of time.” Tarkovsky pushes Antonioni-time even further, where in a minute an eternity could have passed, what Tarkovsky said, required “a special intensity of attention”. Dyer has this intensity in spades, although not for another slow-footed European modernist, the recently deceased Theo Angelopolous, of whose Ulysses’ Gaze he describes as “another nail in the coffin of European art cinema.”

Dyer has plenty of tossed off, heretical bon mots like this, designed to raise the hackles of any passionate cinephile. He says that Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Belle du Jour “sucked”, Godard’s Breathless was “unwatchable”, Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique “made straight-ahead porn seem tasteful”, Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control was “vacuous” and that Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist was “a highly crafted diminution of the possibilities of cinema”. These are all stashed away in the footnotes, and in the adrenaline provided by my indignant rage, serve as potent energy boosters to binge-read through the rest of the book.

In any case, let’s remain thankful he wrote about Stalker, and not Bunuel. His obsessive viewings of the film have given him an innate sense of the atmosphere and landscapes of the film. The book is a marvel of tactility, no more so when Dyer describes the trio’s first landing in the Zone:

It is every bit as lovely as Stalker Claims – and, at the same time, quite ordinary. The air is full of the sound of birds, of wind in the trees, running water. Mist, muted greens. Weeds and plants swaying in the breeze. The tangled wires of a tiled telegraph pole. The rusting remains of a car. We are in another world that is no more than this world perceived with unprecedented attentiveness. Landscapes like this had been seen before Tarkovsky but – I don’t know how else to put it – their beingness had not been seen in this way.

Then, after noting rhyming images with Walker Evans’s “sagging shacks” and Bresson’s dictum to “Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen’, Dyer embarks one of his more majestic digressions, of his own childhood adventures in a decaying industrial landscape, an old train station at Leckhampton. “Faded, rain-buckled, the timetable was still displayed – a memorial to its own passing.” This memory fits what Dyer would later define to be “quintessentially Tarkovskyian…: the magic of the discarded ordinary, the filmic archaeology of the everyday.” This is the elegiac highlight of the book, in which Dyer alchemically lifts his childhood memory into the realm of art, and brings Stalker, as mysterious an object as cinema has given us, deep down into the swampy earth.