I could go on and on about Tarkovsky. Thousands have.
Some directors seem made for critical fodder. Hitchcock, Welles, Ford, Kurosawa, and others in the cinematic pantheon have inspired an academic avalanche, a cottage industry in analysis and interpretation.
Andrei Tarkovsky is not an exception – like Eisenstein, he has become an icon of Russian filmmaking. And like many another object of veneration, he and his works have generated an intimidatingly swollen stream of ecclesiastical interpretation. In all fairness, Tarkovsky started it. Possessed of a highly developed sense of self, he wrote and spoke of his work voluminously, in complex and sometimes impenetrable terms.
Of course, iconoclasts sprang up as well. G. C. Macnab delivers a succinct chop block to the oeuvre: “Too opaque to yield concrete meaning, it offers itself as a sacral art, demanding a rapt, and even religious, response from its audiences” (1). The adjectives “ponderous”, “portentous”, and “saturnine” litter his summation of Tarkovsky’s career. As always, today’s revolutionaries are the old farts of tomorrow.
But, as with other challenging creations designated as classics, Tarkovsky’s seven feature films genuinely and generously reward patient, repeated viewings. And no one should think that they have to complete an intensive course of study before being qualified to understand Stalker (1979). In fact, it’s far better to strip away the yellowing critical veneers that might impede a clear look at what makes this film so quietly effective.
To start with, Tarkovsky found a theme that lent itself to a reverberation of meanings. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s sci-fi novella Roadside Picnic concerns a seemingly casual alien visitation to Earth that has left behind a “Zone”, a danger-fraught, forbidden area in which the laws of space and time are voided, and to which criminal “Stalkers” lead expeditions and retrieve artifacts.
Due to problems with the shooting stock, the dismissal of waves of unsatisfactory assistants by Tarkovsky, and a complete rethinking of the script, Stalker was filmed no fewer than three complete times (2). Out of the Strugatskys’ original, Tarkovsky crafted a fable – as Stalker leads two men, known only as Writer and Professor, on to the centre of the Zone. Tarkovsky wrote, “I could extract a very harmonious form from the Srugatsky story; with flowing, detailed action but at the same time balanced and purely ideal – thus semi-transcendant (sic), absurd, absolute” (3). Tarkovsky recast the title character as a kind of holy fool, a guide to and acolyte of the Zone’s central mystery, a Room that magically seems to grant its entrants their dearest wishes.
Stylistically, Tarkovsky pares away the overt science fiction elements of the story, and imposes a stately pace and long takes to create a sense of seamlessness, of “one long take”, as though a Chinese landscape scroll were unwinding before our eyes. There are echoes of Beckett’s sparseness, The Wizard of Oz (outside the Zone all is burnished sepia in tone; inside, deep rich colour) and Dante’s Inferno (“It lets those pass who have lost all hope”, explains Stalker to his charges). The dreary, once-functional ruins in which the Room is housed are reverting back to nature. “Walls and houses and ruins are captured in the film with a Cezannian intensity.” (4)
The simple, quest-like narrative propels them forward, as the dangers of the journey are articulated. All must grope their way ahead, certain of nothing. All three actors feel the physical and spiritual drain that the invisible peril imposes on them. Nothing can be approached head-on; it can take hours to traverse 100 yards. They trudge across a miniature sea of dunes; they traverse oily, black pools – a brief flash of association to Charles Vanel in Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear, Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953) – a foul baptismal rite.
STALKER: “Our moods, our thoughts, our emotions, our feelings can bring about change here. And we are in no condition to comprehend them. Old traps vanish, new ones take their place; the old safe ones become impassable, and route can be either plain and easy, or impossibly confusing… everything that happens here depends on us, not on the Zone.” (5)
The conceit that the Zone is a nonlinear, and therefore deadly, alternate reality, powers the film. “Within this framework the everyday world in all its commonplace and often sordid reality is authentically transformed and made strange, so that for two hours and forty-one minutes we live inside it and accept its laws.” (6)
Instead of placing us in a visually imposing fantasy space, Tarkovsky stages his philosophical saga in the “real world”, and the ambiguities and field-tension he generates within that quite literally magical space makes us more aware, makes every detail of the landscape important. It makes the surroundings vivid. Soon we are searching the screen as the characters are, looking for traps, trying to evoke meaning out of a jumbled landscape.
Most importantly, it allows Tarkovsky to craft a visionary, nonlinear centre to the film. This he does largely without special effects. (In one of the few brief instances to feature such techniques, a random pile of rocks glows and crackles beside the fetid water – a burning bush with no godly centre.) He can examine faces, interrogate objects submerged and indifferent under murky waters, as whispers of Revelation and poems echo in the dim, dank ruins.
Alongside these strange, privileged moments, the themes outlined in the characters’ colloquies are baldly stated. Tarkovsky’s not unaware of this; there are subtly funny moments to be found, including one of film history’s oddest wrong numbers, and moments such as Writer standing over Stalker, observing quietly, “Forgive me, but you are simply defective”. If the external world could manifest our deepest desires, would they be any more coherent than the Zone’s maddening uncertainties?
But the words in the end are just a handhold for the unsteady, something with a veneer of rationality to provide narrative comfort. The terror and pleasure of Stalker comes from the calm, penetrating stare it dares us to take, and meaning(s) it demands we construct for ourselves out of what we see.
- G. C. Macnab, “Andrei Tarkovsky”, International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 4th ed., ed. Tom and Sara Pendergast, St. James Press, New York, 2000, p. 980.
- Evgeny Tsymbal, “Sculpting the Stalker: Towards a New Language of Cinema”, Tarkovsky, ed. Nathan Dunne, Black Dog, London, 2008, p. 350.
- Andrei Tarkovsky, Collected Screenplays, trans. William Powell and Natasha Synessios, Faber and Faber, London, 1999, p. 375.
- Mark Le Fanu, The Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky, BFI, London, 1987, p. 105.
- Tarkovsky, p. 395.
- Vida T. Johnson and Graham Petrie, The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1994, p. 153
Stalker (1979 USSR 163 mins)
Prod Co: Kinostudiya “Mosfilm” Prod: Aleksandra Demidova Dir: Andrei Tarkovsky Scr: Arkadiy Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky, Andrei Tarkovsky [uncredited], based on the novella “Roadside Picnic” by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky Phot: Aleksandr Knyazhinsky, Georgi Rerberg, Leonid Kalashnikov [uncredited] Ed: Lyudmila Feyginvoa Art Dir: Shavkat Abdusalamov [uncredited] Mus: Eduard Artemev
Cast: Aleksandr Kaydanovsky, Anatoliy Solonitsyn, Nikolay Grinko, Alisa Freyndlikh, Natalya Abramova