The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset has referred to man as a “conscious cosmic phenomenon”. What he meant by this has everything to do with the fact that there is at least one cosmic entity that is capable of self-awareness in the universe. Ironically though, Ortega recognized that this reality remains the most transparent truth that man has failed to embrace. Throughout his collected work, Ortega argues that life and reason – that is, pure reason – are not compatible. What ought to matter most for man, he tells us, is the realm of the vital in human affairs. Vital reason, then, is the tool that is most appropriate for life.
Ortega’s work brings back to philosophy a grandeur and sobriety that is conspicuously absent in 20th century thought. The greatest task for the philosopher, Ortega argues – and he does this eloquently and convincingly – is to reflect on human existence without simultaneously robbing it of its lived vitality. Hence, he writes in The Dehumanization of Art, a book that was published in 1925:
Perception of ‘lived’ reality and perception of artistic form, as I have said before, are essentially incompatible because they call for a different adjustment of our perceptive apparatus. (1)
As with Ortega y Gasset, the guiding force behind the cinematic and written works of the Russian cinéaste Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986) is a vision of man as a spiritual entity who is embraced by spatial-temporal objectification. Tarkovsky made seven full-length feature films, beginning in 1958. Even though I will mention his other films, the focus will be on Solyaris (Solaris, 1972) and Stalker (1979).
Solaris is considered a science-fiction film. Yet, this is a rather misleading understatement. To test this, we only have to look closely at the reaction of most science-fiction fans whose idea of this genre is based on the likes of Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) and The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984). Such moviegoers react violently to any work that does not move along like a video game. We can say much more than this, but time is the genuine proof of any argument or intuition.
Solaris uses a fictional world in order to make sense of our own. The story essentially has to do with the power of memory – of the sacredness of the passage of time and how this dictates our past as well as the future. But, make no mistake about it, as Tarkovsky writes in his brilliant book, Sculpting in Time, Solaris is only by chance a science-fiction film. He explains:
Unfortunately the science fiction element in Solaris was nonetheless too prominent and became a distraction. The rockets and space stations – required by [Stanislaw] Lem’s novel – were interesting to construct; but it seems to me now that the idea of the film would have stood out more vividly and boldly had we managed to dispense with these things altogether. (2)
Tarkovsky was enthralled by Lem’s novel, Solaris. And, even though the film is based on it, Tarkovsky does not fully develop the science-fiction element of the book. Tarkovsky instead develops other themes, including love and the memories that are formed from this. Tarkovsky is clear and upfront about this point when he writes in Sculpting in Time:
I have to say at the outset that not all prose can be transferred to the screen.
Some works have a wholeness, and are endowed with a precise and original literary image; characters are drawn in unfathomable depths; the composition has an extraordinary capacity for enchantment, and the book is indivisible; […] (3)
The latter was a rather bitter point of contention for Lem after he viewed the finished film. Lem, though, has criticized most science fiction for its exaggerated plots and conventions.
The film opens with a shot of a gently flowing stream and Chris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), the protagonist, looking at falling rain. He then walks around the back of a country house. Next, two men walk up to the house. They come to tell Chris that, “The Solaris crew is transmitting puzzling data.” Chris is to go out to the station and confirm whether this is true. If proven, the station will have to be shut down.
The impression that the scientists have is that those aboard the station are possibly suffering from fatigue of some kind. This is an optimistic account, because what is actually occurring on the Solaris station cannot be solved with additional science.
After hearing of the strange events taking place on the station, Chris decides to stay out in the rain, as if he might never get to experience it again. Thus, from the start, Solaris conveys a strong feeling of isolation. This emotion is powerfully conveyed by Chris Kelvin in his country home long before we witness the same emotion on the Solaris station. In effect, Tarkovsky’s images and moods effectively depict a vital poetry of life that is rooted in daily reality. Dr. Kelvin, who is a psychologist by training, as we see later in the film, is mourning the death of his wife.
The documentary film that Chris is shown about what is happening on the Solaris station and the planet that it orbits is shot in a sepia tinge. The colour of the film resembles Tarkovsky’s other science-fiction film, Stalker. The brown look of the footage has a sense of unreality that Henri Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), the astronaut who filmed it, cannot truly reveal. For the first time, the viewer is offered the suggestion that the planet that the station orbits is intelligent. The question is then brought up: “Is it possible that Burton was affected by the vital force of the ocean, which is thought to be a gigantic brain, a substance capable of thought?”
The documentary film also shows a briefing of Burton that turned into a kind of hearing that attempts to confirm what he indeed witnessed. The tone of the briefing becomes condescending when a scientist argues that the “problem” lies in Burton and not with the planet. Some indication of Burton’s resistance to the overbearing scientific scrutiny that he is exposed to is felt in his comment to Chris that, “Knowledge is truthful only if it’s based in morality.” Chris rebuttals by saying, “Moral or immoral, it’s man who makes science.” The latter is an early indication of Dr. Kelvin’s training as a scientist. But as the film progresses his respect for scientific materialism begins to wane.
Not knowing if he will ever return, Chris proceeds to burn his papers before going into space. This is a powerful scene of anticipation and foreboding. The next scene shows Chris in space over Solaris. Once he enters the space station, Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) tells Dr. Kelvin that one of the three men onboard has committed suicide after the “trouble” began.
The initial scenes after Chris arrives on the station create a surreal drama of expectation and resolution. At that point in the film, we are confronted with a new level of metaphysical phenomena – strange occurrences and uncomfortable situations that force us to make sense of our human condition.
Chris attempts to solve the enigma of the “personality disorders” that the others on the station are experiencing. Our initial thought, along with Chris, is that the desperation that those onboard suffer from is born of radical loneliness and disorientation that can only be solved by returning the astronauts to Earth. This is the scientific explanation that seems in order. But, as we witness later, science was the last thing on Tarkovsky’s mind at the time of filming Solaris. We are quickly reminded of Friedrich Nietzsche’s notion of whether we truly want to know ultimate truth. Tarkovsky adds:
… Solaris had been about people lost in the Cosmos and obliged, whether they liked it or not, to take one more step up the ladder of knowledge. Man’s unending quest for knowledge, given him gratuitously, is a source of great tension, for it brings with it constant anxiety, hardship, grief and disappointment as the final truth can never be known. (4)
The latter is one of the dominant themes of the film. This quote captures the essence of the many exchanges that take place between Chris, Dr. Snaut and Dr. Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn). This theme is developed alongside of Chris’ internal struggle to understand his wife’s appearances. This is a key ingredient in Tarkovsky’s films because his characters are developed according to their own internal struggles and not through outward action. The major contribution of cinema according to Tarkovsky is to represent interior reality through a visual medium. He writes of
[…] that prerogative of film, which has to do with what distinguishes its impact on his consciousness from that of literature or philosophy: namely the opportunity to live through what is happening on the screen as if it were his own life, to take over, as deeply personal and his own, the experience imprinted in time upon the screen, relating his own life to what is being shown. (5)
When Chris enters the station and goes to the room of Dr. Gibarian (S. Sarkisyan), he encounters the problem that is afflicting those on the station through a video made by someone who has already committed suicide. Gibarian:
I have a little time and must tell you something and warn you. By now you know about me. If not, Sartorius or Snaut will tell you. What’s happened to me is not important. Or rather, it’s indescribable. I fear that this is just the beginning. I hate the idea but here it can probably happen to anyone. Only, don’t think I’ve lost my mind. You know me well. If I have time, I’ll tell you everything. If it happens to you, just know that it’s not madness […] That’s the main thing. As for further research, I lean towards Sartorius’ suggestion subjecting the ocean to radiation. That has been forbidden. But there’s no other way. We … you … will only get bogged down. Radiation may get us out of deadlock. It is the only way to deal with this monster. No other way. (6)
After watching the video, Chris becomes baffled by Sartorius’ suicide and the latter’s contention that he is not insane. Chris walks around the space station disoriented, out of place, as if someone were hiding something from him. The fact that Gibarian mentions the lack of time to explain what has taken place in the station signals a threat of some kind. Second, he suggests that what is taking place is indescribable.
This seemingly epistemological breakdown is a fundamental theme of the film. But what is more significant still is the way in which Tarkovsky presents the question. If he presents the phenomenon that is taking place onboard the space station as being a mere paradigm change, then this will constitute yet another problem to be solved by science. Instead, Tarkovsky’s concern is in demonstrating that, if truth could reveal itself to man in its totality, it would undermine our present worldview.
Tarkovsky presents the viewer with the genuine possibility of entertaining a new notion of what we regard as understanding. His method is striking: we are not introduced to beings from another world who will enlighten us with some new truth. Tarkovsky does not care to entertain us with aliens and the fright that comes from another dimension. It is our relationship to ourselves, individually and spiritually, that Tarkovsky explores. What if, he seems to suggest, the understanding of human existence that we possess is not only limited but also lacking in some fundamental clarity? What seems to be at stake on the Solaris station is an imprinting of our memories in a universal, cosmic mind that we only realize exists when we arrive at that point in our development. Fanciful? Perhaps.
Tarkovsky’s motive for posing the question is to explore whether we merely live metaphysically on what can be considered the surface plane of human existence. His concern is not with scientific exploration but with the non-rational.
Another theme of the film is the importance of memories in our lives. Can we live without them? What about constantly having to relive our worst tragedies? Can we be selective? Tarkovsky’s answer to this question is expressed when his wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), dies again on the space station and Chris is forced to experience loss once again.
As Chris walks around the station, he looks out onto the pulsating sea of the planet that Solaris orbits. He sees a woman walking past him. He follows her. Chris immediately comes to understand the indescribable anomaly that Gibarian mentioned in his video. The woman is Hari. His understanding is verified by Snaut after Chris tells him, “I know you’re not insane.” Snaut replies, “Insane! Good God. Insane! That would be relief!” The truth that is too much to bear becomes a living hell for all onboard the station.
Chris sees Hari again when he wakes up to find a young woman sitting on a chair facing him. She comes and kisses him. When Chris asks her where she came from, she just says. “How wonderful.” And, after Chris asks her how she knew that he was there, she becomes confused and asks, “What do you mean?”
Chris puts Hari on a rocket and launches her into space. In this regard, Chris is both reacting to what he considers a hallucination on his part and creating closure of the past. The decisive moment in this sequence takes place when Snaut reveals to Chris: “It’s the materialization of your memory of her.” Snaut explains that the problems began when “we finished the experiment of beaming x-rays down at the ocean’s surface. Apparently the x-rays enabled the ocean to explore all the little islands of our memory.”
Dr. Sartorius, too, offers a scientific answer to what they experience as a metaphysical conundrum. Sartorius figures that the hallucinations “consist of neutrinos and not atoms like everywhere else”. He explains that neutrino systems are supposed to be unstable, but Solaris’ force field stabilizes them. This scientific explanation sounds valid. After all, they are all trained as scientists and, when faced with questions of an unclear nature, the best route to take is the simplest. This may very well turn out to be the case: a scientific explanation that would decode further aspects of our superficial understanding. But this only remains a viable option as one possibility amongst many.
However, even if the above-mentioned remains true, Tarkovsky is nonetheless concerned with the question of how we experience reality, and not so much as to what it is. Regardless of the possible explanations that Chris entertains onboard, he nevertheless feels the emotions brought about by these radical experiences. A point in question in the film is the relationship that exists between my true “internal” memories and the hallucinatory, external ones experiences on the station. The touching interlude where Chris plays a home movie of himself as a boy walking in the snow juxtaposes the two. The memories that the home movie evokes are true memories. But the same cannot be said of the hallucinatory memories, as he literally relives them. While memories cannot exist of their own accord, they trigger a return to a real space and time.
This is easily evidenced when Hari cannot remember or make sense of her self, or her past, because she does not exist for herself, but only for Chris. When she makes any headway whatsoever in this regard, she does so as a negation of herself. In fact, Hari comes to the realization that she is not the real Hari because Hari was poisoned. She begins to see herself as a memory. Of course, this opens up a complexity of questions that remind us of Jean-Paul Sartre’s pour-soi and en-soi, and René Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum”. Something of this can also be seen with the replicants in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982).
Chris initiates a conversation with Hari that may be interpreted as really being a conversation with himself: that is, with his memories. Hari presses him to tell her what or who she really is. Hari is desperate to find the ontological basis to establish her own existence. She wants to know why the real Hari poisoned herself. Chris replies, “I suppose she felt that I didn’t really love her.”
Perhaps a great deal of the film can be understood from the conversation that takes place in the library. Some critics who perhaps have not understood Tarkovsky’s vision of cinema complain that his films are too dominated by conversation. Yet conversation in Tarkovsky’s films is essential to a broadening of his overall effect of visual storytelling. Tarkovsky writes in Sculpting in Time:
Pictures, visual images, are far better to achieve that end than any words, particularly now, when the world has lost all mystery and magic and speech has become mere chatter, empty of meaning […] (7)
The essential quality or pathos of his films has to do with what amounts to man’s capacity for feeling, and not with intellect. This is a central question in studying his work because some people are under the impression that his films are “intellectual” in nature. This is not exactly true. A close and sincere look at Tarkovsky’s work demonstrates that the idle talk of some of his characters is always juxtaposed with a subtle but profound silence that refutes all forms of over-intellectualization. Now, this does not mean that Tarkovsky cannot employ dialogue that establishes this kind of atmosphere. A significant scene has Chris and Hari reading a passage from one of Miguel de Cervantes’ works:
“I only know Señor, that while I am sleeping I have neither fear nor hope, nor delight, nor glory. Sleep makes the shepherd equal to the king. It has only one fault … it looks like death.”
After this, Sartorius offers a toast to science and Snaut, as if to curtail the effect of the reading of the text. But Snaut does not share in his respect for science. He says:
“Science? Nonsense! In this situation, mediocrity and genius are equally helpless. We don’t want to conquer space at all. We want to expand Earth endlessly. We don’t want other worlds; we want a mirror. We seek contact and will never achieve it. We are in the foolish position of a man striving for a goal he fears and doesn’t want. Man needs man!”
Hari enlightens the scientists by telling them that the “guests”, as they are called, are nothing more than their conscience. “They are yourselves”, she tells them.
Solaris has a surreal quality that is reflective of a true understanding of man as an interior being who lives outwardly on borrowed time. It is interesting to speculate on the nature of a reality that all of a sudden projects our memories into the external world as materializations for all to speculate. Today, in this digital, cyber age, we find ourselves debating the nature of intellectual ownership, as if a hyper public reality places man’s internal character up for review. What effect would a reality such as that on the Solaris station have on man, if all of our memories were to become public property? What greater claims would the public sphere have over our lives in such a world? Isn’t it enough that we give the world a portion of ourselves through our actions, works of art, conversations, emotions, writing and good will, for instance?
It seems that, on a private level, a scenario such as that which takes place on the space station would be welcomed. In such a reality, we would “revisit” our lives, as it were, and perhaps we would gather the strength and understanding necessary to comprehend that which is fleeting – all that has dissipated in the rush of our lived immediacy.
Of course, this would also suggest a new phenomenological reduction, whereby we would also be taking time out to reflect or “relive” our past to the detriment of our present. In such a reality, we would still manage to neglect our present. There is a sense in which this form of reality might actually harbour a sheer state of hell for us. Some might even become addicted to their past more so than their present condition. This surreal, Unamunian sense of life is invoked in the scene of Pieter Bruegel’s painting “Hunters in the Snow”. That scene is reflective of how the people and places in the painting are only real to us in the same degree as we are real to Solaris’ overseeing ocean.
Hari, too, begins to have memories. She has a memory of herself in the snow.
Tarkovsky brings those on the station back to their present state of being through periodical 30 seconds of weightlessness that the station experiences. This oscillation between what is real and what is merely a memory creates a timeless, emotional buoyancy in the lives of those onboard. This only works to compound our phenomenological commentary on the film.
Eventually, Chris is moved by what he feels for Hari and how his sensations are “real” regardless of their illusory nature. He contemplates staying on the space station in order to not let go of his memories – of her. He believes that in doing so he will find a new longevity for the reality that he values most: his love for Hari. But, as we see take place at the end of the film, the sanctity of his love for Hari will be kept alive through his real-life memories.
Chris believes that we only love what we can lose. He says: “Maybe the very purpose of our existence is to perceive mankind as the reason for love. Shame! That’s what will save mankind.” This same point is effectively developed by Rantes (Hugo Soto), the mysterious and spiritually gifted protagonist of Hombre mirando al Sudeste (Man Facing Southeast, Eliseo Subiela, 1986). In that film, Rantes, who shows up in an asylum, tells the head physiatrist that he does not understand how humans can bury their dead so easily. Rantes’ point is that he can’t let go of his loved ones.
But staying on the station, as we have already seen, does not come without a heavy price. Chris values the fact that he can be with Hari more than he fears witnessing her death over again. Chris asks, “Snaut, why does he [the ocean] torture us?” Dr. Snaut answers: “We’ve lost our sense of the cosmic.” Tarkovsky’s suggestion seems to be that, at least for those involved in the Solaris project, a sense of the cosmic returned only under dire and abnormal conditions. Thus the cosmic, as Ortega too tells us, is a holistic understanding of our pressing need to transcend or become fully cognizant of our translucent immediacy. What makes this reality so surreal, as I have previously said, is that often what is most translucent – that is, what is closest to us – is also what we neglect the most.
Snaut counters Chris’ longing for understanding with the notion that we only ask ultimate questions when we are unhappy. He tells Chris, as if to play devil’s advocate: “When a man is happy, the meaning of life and other eternal questions don’t interest him. Those are questions to be asked at life’s end.”
Snaut’s comment can be interpreted in several ways. He might not be as aware of the passage of time as Chris or he simply is afraid to confront such questions. Chris counters by telling him: “We don’t know when the end will come, so we hurry.” But Snaut is not ready to drop the point and tells Chris: “The happiest are those who never ask these damned questions.” Again, Dr. Snaut seems to be irritated by such questions.
Chris’ rebuttal is essentially the main point of the film: “Questioning means a desire to know. But to preserve basic truth, we need mysteries. The mysteries of happiness … death … love.” The importance of these few lines of dialogue cannot be overlooked. Many times throughout the film, the subject of exploration and knowledge comes up as a central focus of the lives of those involved in the project. Back in Chris’ home, at the start of the film, this seemed to be the main plot vehicle. There, when they are watching the documentary footage of the conference, the viewer quickly gets the impression that Chris will join the others on the station to solve a scientific problem. This is, after all, what scientist do and what most viewers expect of this genre. But Solaris is not a typical science-fiction film. It will frustrate the viewer who expects high-flying special events, alien beings and exploration of a merely physical nature.
Tarkovsky’ point in the above-mentioned dialogue is not to come across as a sceptic or critic of science. When he says that knowledge safeguards a sense of mystery, he is suggesting a Socratic notion that to know is to know what cannot be known. This can be taken to mean two things: either we can know all things, eventually, or we can know all things at once. Obviously the latter point is not the case. This leaves us then only with the possibility that we can arrive at an immensity of future knowledge. Thus, Tarkovsky brings us back to his original point: the eventuality of knowledge is contingent on our desire to know, but the desire to know can only arise due to our recognition of ignorance.
Tarkovsky’s contention is that in this desire to know we must be willing to accept that, during any given period in man’s history, our ignorance has always been greater than the immediate scope of our knowledge.
When Chris sees Hari on first arriving on the station, he becomes confused. This confusion leads to a sense of disorientation, one that keeps him guessing whether Hari is even real. As he becomes more attached to her materialization, his emotions take hold of him. Naturally, he finds her presence to be a gift of some kind. But, after his mission ends and he understands that perhaps it is Solaris’ ocean causing the apparitions, he decides to return to Earth. His decision is based on the understanding that his memories of Hari are real as long as he feels them and not when they are the effect of a cosmic mind. Chris’ decision to return to Earth will be a sacrifice in the sense that he can easily remain on the station and use the ocean as a form of projector where memories are conveyed in three dimensions. The ocean serves Tarkovsky much the same way that the murti-bing pill serves Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz in his novel Insatiability: as a narcotic that assuages the passage of time and the heaviness of human existence. (8)
Thus, the film ends as it starts, with scenes of flowing water and Chris walking around the woods by his father’s house. But his return home is more than just a physical return. In visiting the space station, Chris discovered a sense of cosmic mystery that he must retain in his worldly existence. This is the strongest suggestion that Tarkovsky makes at the end of the film. The water that surrounds his father’s house is not only a symbol of nature, but also what is vital in human existence. At the end, we come to a full understanding of Tarkovsky’s juxtaposing of the vital and immediate with the cold and overly intellectual. Solaris’ ocean signifies a realm of pure thought, pure consciousness. By the end, we are made to see how such a one-dimensional aspect of human existence necessitates an infusion of the concrete and vital. The greatest irony in the film is that Tarkovsky makes use of what some have criticized as a too cerebral form of filmmaking to emphasis vital life. (9)
Like Solaris, Stalker is also a science-fiction film that breaks with the traditional themes of the genre.
Stalker begins with a quote from an interview that a professor Wallace, a Nobel Prize winner, had given the RAI press. It reads:
What was it? A meteorite that fell to Earth? Or a visitation from outer space? Whatever it was, there appeared in our small land a miracle of miracles: the ZONE. We sent in troops, none returned. Then we surrounded the ZONE with police cordons. We did right … although ugh I’m not sure […] (10)
What is most important about the quote is that a scientist should use the word miracle in describing aspects of the physical world. Also, the word itself depicts a zone of mystery that goes beyond the physical devastation, as was, for instance, the Tunguska, Siberia, event of 1908. But the ZONE is equally dangerous. As Stalker (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) lies in bed with his wife (Alisa Frejndlikh) and young daughter (Natasha Abramova) in a grungy room, the room begins to shake due to a passing train. This is a sign that they live in an industrial area. He then gets up and goes to the kitchen in what is essentially a barren home. His wife follows him and asks a series of questions: “Why did you take my watch?” “Where are you going?” She is concerned that he will be killed going back to the ZONE. She tells him:
“You promised me … I believed you. If you don’t want to think about yourself, what about us? Think about your child. She’s not even used to you yet and you’re back to your old ways.”
She doesn’t want him to return to the ZONE because he has already served five years in prison for taking people there.
Ironically, Stalker’s Wife is concerned with the danger that he will encounter from the state authorities that have closed off the area. He, on the other hand, is concerned with the danger that the enchantment that is contained in the ZONE possess for man. Stalker essentially treats the ZONE as fertile moral ground for the initiated. When he takes people there, they are instructed to respect its internal principles. What is important here as well is that the ZONE demands a level of spiritual engagement from those who enter it that is uncommon. Tarkovsky’s stalker is a kind of Prometheus that disperses cosmic secrets to man. Yet, unlike Prometheus, he understands the inherent dangers of the knowledge that the ZONE dispenses. His fundamental problem, then, is that he cannot guarantee the moral and spiritual integrity of those who enter with him.
Stalker meets two people that he is to take into the ZONE in a small and rundown café. Unnamed in the film, they usually go by the simple description of Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn), and Professor (Nilolai Grinko). As Stalker approaches Writer, who is talking to the woman who is dropping him off, he hears Writer utter the following words to her:
“The world is governed by cast-iron laws, and that is terribly boring. And don’t know how to be broken. It was interesting to live in the Middle Ages; each house had a goblin, each church had a God.”
Writer tells Professor that he is going into the ZONE because “I’ve lost my inspiration. I’m going to beg for some.”
The little physical action that occurs in the film takes places in the opening sequences. Driving through the entrance to the ZONE, where armed guards are posted, is the epitome of action in Stalker. Physical danger does not concern Stalker in the least. In fact, driving Professor’s jeep up to the gate where the ZONE begins seems a rather mundane exercise for him. As they drive through the entrance, they are shot at, but they are not followed in. Once inside the ZONE, they then ride a railroad handcar closer to the centre.
When this episode comes to an end, the film takes on a sense of calmness that continues until the end. This is also evident in that the film becomes coloured, while up to that point it was sepia. This is the point where the science-fiction fans who have come to expect incessant physical action become dislodged from their expectations.
Stalker was taught everything he knows about the ZONE from a man who is referred to as Porcupine and who brought people there for many years. This conversation about Porcupine is important; as the viewer learns that Stalker was imprisoned several times for stalking, we come to an understanding of what Stalker does and why. Who, then, is Stalker stalking? Clearly, he stalks no one. Why, then, do the authorities make it illegal for anyone to go to the ZONE? After the meteorite hit the village and burned it down twenty years earlier, stories began to circulate that the centre of the ZONE granted wishes. The problem began, Stalker tells us, when the ZONE was “guarded by barbed wire, for who knows what wishes a person might have”. If Stalker does not stalk anyone, as we understand the word, then what he stalks must be the possibility of truth. This would explain both the government restrictions as well as his reticence to take just anyone there for fear of what they may find. Perhaps the great symbolism of the film has to do with the notion that, in order to arrive at the centre, they must not go straight ahead – the shortest path always being the most dangerous.
When Writer takes off, walking on his own, he makes Stalker nervous because he fears that he too will become affected by the irrationality of writers. Stalker cautions: “The ZONE’s a maze of traps. All of them death traps.” The indication here has to do with an allegory of life itself where “that which has become hard shall not triumph.” Another example of this same symbolism is seen when Stalker lies down to rest and hears a voice tell him a story of how man can destroy himself by intemperance.
Stalker, much like Solaris, contains a great many scenes of water. Water in Tarkovsky’s films serves both as a form of purity and also renewal. In one scene, they enter a tunnel and finally come out in another strange room that is filled with water; this signals a rite of passage for those who have completed the trek. At this point, Writer delivers an unforgettable confession to anyone that is willing to listen:
“But what’s the use of your knowledge? Whose conscience will be bothered by it? Mine? I have no conscience. Only nerves. Some rat will pain me; it leaves a wound. Another rat will praise me: it leaves another wound. You put your soul into it, your heart into. They’ll devour your heart and your soul. Remove filth from your soul: they’ll devour filth. Why, they are all literate! They suffer of sensory hunger. They keep crowding around: the editors, the critics, the endless dames. All of them clamoring for more! More! What kind of writer am I if I detest writing! If it’s torture, a painful, shameful occupation, something akin to extruding pities.”
This is a significant conversation because it signifies Tarkovsky’s critique of the coldness of intellectualizing over vital emotions. What Writer is describing is an impersonal world where no one can retain the right to his or her personal vision. The problem with the “wishing well” at the centre of the ZONE is that our wishes come to mean nothing when devoid of our sweat and will. The import of Tarkovsky’s point concerning human vision is to suggest that, “The most sincere one is always the one that is reached through suffering.” Writer:
“I used to think that my books helped some to become better. Why, nobody needs me! I’ll croak and in two days they’ll be devouring somebody else. I had hoped to change them, but they changed me! To fit their own image! Once, the future was only a combination of the present. Its changes loomed beyond the horizon. But now the future’s a part of the present. Are they prepared for this? They don’t want to know anything, all they do is gabble!”
Stalker, besides being visually stunning, has a quality about it that offers an objectification of the truth contained in axioms. Tarkovsky has achieved with cinema what Plato accomplished in philosophical discourse utilizing the dialogue form. Tarkovsky is adamant about not giving away the meaning of his films. Yet some critics view his films as being too slow and employing too much dialogue. But what is actually the case has more to do with vital emotions than with dialogue. Tarkovsky’s films are grounded in a particular mood that carries the plot to fruition. What appears to be a diatribe against editors and readers in Writer’s commentary actually turns out to be a heartfelt look at the anatomy of disillusionment. Writer’s disparaging comments on the nature of writing come as the result of placing a great degree of faith in the written word. His disappointment is metaphysical in quality. Because we know very little about what constitutes his life, besides writing, we come to view his statements as raw, universal examples of life itself. Granted, the life that we have before us in the persona of Writer is but one example. His level of disenchantment remains universal in the same measure that axioms achieve their desired goal: he speaks about principles and not particular oddities. He has the following to say about the wishing-room at the centre of the ZONE:
“But world supremacy? A just society? These aren’t wishes, but an ideology, action, concepts. Subconscious compassion cannot yet be realized as a common, instructive wish.”
Writer’s verbalizing of his knowledge is indicative of Tarkovsky’s regard for the dichotomous rift that he sees as being central to human reality. The problem essentially has to do with the attainment and subsequent objectification of knowledge. While Writer undergoes an internal dialectical settling concerning some of the truths inherent in human reality, he merely guides his actions with his understanding. The problem does not really begin to take place until he attempts to make his life findings known. Stalker’s conversation with Writer finds the latter man at a crossroad in his life. Writer comes on the trip in an attempt to reconcile himself with a vital existence – one that he has lost due to his cynicism. Yet his attempt is sabotaged by the precise thing that he is trying to run away from: himself. He makes no progress as a consequence.
Writer and Professor are essentially materialists out on an experiment. Professor, too, has a past that he wants “cleared”. His motivation for going to the ZONE has to do with a vendetta. Stalker’s concern for the type of people that he takes to the ZONE has to do with the fact that the ZONE is a kind of Pandora’s Box where evil, as well as good, can be realized. Stalker’s notion of human life is summarized as possessing a correlation with man’s existence where we “see” and “feel” what we are capable of and no more. He tells the others:
“Music: If it has anything at all to do with life its mechanical, lacking ideas or associations. But it goes right to your soul. What chord in us responds to its harmonies? What gives us such pleasure, and unites us, and stirs us so? […] In the long run, everything has a meaning and a season.”
After their return from the ZONE, Stalker is seen as being the one who has suffered the most. While the other two appear to be merely entertained by the experiment, it is Stalker who returns home to his wife disenchanted. His disillusionment originates in his belief that he could actually improve the circumstances of the other two men. Stalker resembles Ortega’s notion of belief as a vital form of life that negates artificiality and over-intellectualizing. Stalker fashions arguments not to debunk the over-intellectualizing of Writer and Professor, but because he lives out his emotions and is guided by them. Is Tarkovsky attempting to exploit a dichotomy in human existence between the intellect and our emotions? When Stalker returns home, he talks to his wife in a manner that we have not seen from him previously. He is clearly shocked by the world of the men that he has come into contact with. He tells her:
“Some intellectuals, those writers and scientists. They don’t believe in anything! They’ve lost their sense of hope! My God! What kind of people are they?”
This is why his return home is essentially the culmination of the story. If Tarkovsky had ended the film in the ZONE, the film would have remained a tale of adventure and self-discovery. Stalker’s paralyzing disenchantment after he returns home allows the story to develop into more than just the fulfilment of three people. This rounding effect to the film is best understood when Stalker’s wife tells him: “It’s not their fault. They should be pitied.” Her allusions have everything to do with the split between life and the intellect that so aptly defines modern life. (11)
Stalker, still reeling from his shock at the emptiness of the men that he has just spent time with, adds:
“But their eyes are black! They keep worrying about getting their full share. Getting paid for every breath they take! They know they weren’t born for nothing. Can their kind believe in anything? Nobody believes. It’s not just these two. But the worst of it is that nobody needs this. Nobody needs the room.”
Once he returns to the simplicity of his room, his wife, and his handicapped young daughter, he puts into perspective the clash of his world with that of the seemingly more worldly and sophisticated intellectuals. What keeps Stalker anchored to reality is his web of core beliefs. At the end of the film, we come to realize that the room at the centre of the ZONE confronts all who go there with a moment of truth when they must make sense of reality based on their beliefs and convictions. This confrontation has to do with the limits of the knowable, and what this means in our own existence, and not necessarily with knowledge itself. Perhaps even more important is a reflection on the transformative and cathartic power of what we do know. The latter has to do with what Ortega means when he describes man as a conscious cosmic phenomenon.
These points are evidenced throughout Tarkovsky’s films, but they are made explicitly clear in his notion of æsthetics in Sculpting in Time. Of course, the films are enjoyed on their own merits. Whatever impression his films make on us will be sanctioned by his ability as a film director. It would be simplistic to assume that the book does not entice us into a greater understanding of the man’s vision and his chosen vehicle to accomplish this. Tarkovsky’s cinematic vision transcends his films. His vision is made manifest in the degree of clarity of his spiritual embracing of reality. In other words, Tarkovsky’s sense of reality is brilliantly transformed into a visual collage, while his overarching æsthetic sense is mediated through his book, Sculpting in Time.
- José Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), p. 25.
- Andrei Tarkovsky, translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair, Sculpting in Time (Austin: University of Texas, 1986), p. 199.
- Ibid, p. 15.
- Ibid, p. 198.
- Ibid, p. 183.
- Andrei Tarkovsky, Solaris (New York: Fox Lorber Home Video, 1991).
- Sculpting in Time, pp. 228-9.
- Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, Insatiability. Witkiewicz’s novel is perhaps the greatest example of the brave new world that man seeks, like small children whose sole responsibility is to play in make-believe worlds. His narrator says: “That they were living, thinking, sentient creatures seems indisputable, whereas the existence of inorganic matter, of the sort physics would like to posit on the basis of data derived from its own mundane vision of the world, would seem highly problematic, unless one assumes the existence of a mundane dualism, a mundane ‘pre-conceived order,’ and that people have altogether ceased to think in a mundane way – so there! The ‘collapsing’ of time was unendurable. Life teetered on an arête like a seesaw. On one side were sunny valleys of normality and great numbers of cosy little retreats; on the other loomed the murky gorges and chasm of madness, smoking with thick gases and glowing with molten lava – valle inferno, kingdom of eternal remorse and unbearable guilt.” (p. 400).
- In Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky develops a spiritual æsthetics that cannot be separated from man’s vital responsibility for his own existence. He writes, “I am convinced that any attempt to restore harmony in the world can only rest on the renewal of personal responsibility.” (p. 235).
- Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker (New York: Fox Lorber Home Video, 1993).
- Allusions to this dualism are in evidence throughout Sculpting in Time.