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Watching Tarkovsky’s Stalker was not an enjoyable experience for me, but it did make something about his achievement much clearer. In this film, and in most of his work that I have seen, Tarkovsky tells the viewer nothing: no plot, no characters, no resolution. He sets up an ambience through beautifully textured photography and lighting, stunning command of soundscapes, and a carefully undefined nexus of meaning. Then he allows the viewer to create a meaning. For some it is an overwhelming experience, for others a bore. This is not cinema as we normally know it but much closer to the effect of great poetry. It is sound and setting used as metaphor by means of which we can create what we can. Or not.
Ingmar Bergman (whom I regard as one of the most accomplished of film directors) thought Tarkovsky the greatest of film directors – film director meaning in this case what the French new wave critics called the author of the film.
Forget the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic (just as you had to forget Lem’s Solaris when watching Tarkovsky’s film of the same name). There is something called the Zone, but we don’t know what it is, where or why it occurred. For the confused or troubled, something inside the Zone can provide a revelation. What it is or how it works we don’t know. It’s perimeter is guarded, but we don’t know who guards it or why. Three men enter the Zone, we don’t really know why, nor who they are. Viewers who claim to know more are reading information from the novel’s plot, or quoting other viewers who are.
The Stalker (think of one of Fenimore Cooper’s characters like the Deerstalker), the Writer, the Scientist are on a journey like Dante’s. They seem confused and inarticulate, but they do know something is wrong, and they hope to remedy it, somehow, within the Zone. The Stalker is as driven as the other two. Tarkovsky suggests what the men are seeking by filming outside the Zone, a sterile no man’s land of ruin, in a washed out sepia, and inside the Zone, a lush natural tangle of vegetation, in vibrant colour.
Stalker is about the search for redemption, filmed in such a way the viewer must conduct the search themselves. Unlike Solaris, whose themes of love and memory were presented in the form of a screenplay the viewer could engage with, Stalker is a much more extreme film which approaches the limit of what a film can do. It is a film which can have no clear climax, no rationale, no explanation. The journey is the important part.
I regret the fact my rational self would not let go while watching it, that I thought the lack of proper names risible and just like everybody’s first novel, that the contrast between inside and outside the Zone was too obvious. I hated that the copy of the film I saw was unnecessarily divided over two disks as it was for VHS release and that the subtitles were sometimes in such bad English they were hard to follow. This time around it wasn’t for me. Maybe next time.
A buying guide is here: http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/dvdcompare5/stalker3.htm. Tarkovsky’s films (and many others) can be seen via free download at: http://www.openculture.com/2010/07/tarkovksy.html. The issue of copyright infringement is debated on the site. I’d like to put in another issue for consideration. Film, or art, is a commodity, like peanut butter, and it reaches us through the efforts of many hands whose investment shouldn’t be jeopardised lest we be deprived of such product. Film, or art, though, is also a state of mind, a sensibility, and we need experience and instruction in cultivating this sensibility so as to benefit from the film we are watching. Little point in owning a copy, whether free or paid for, if we don’t learn from and enjoy the experience. I have found that free products reach a wider audience, and allow members of that audience to determine which product they want to own in the best possible condition. Open access leads to increased appreciation leads to stimulus of the market. Everybody benefits.
©2010 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.