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stalker: inside the viewer

thomas redwood: geoff dyer, zona

Tom Redwood teaches at Fregon Anangu School in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in northwest South Australia. He is the author of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Poetics of Cinema (CSP, 2010).

Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky
GEOFF DYER’S CURIOUS NEW BOOK ZONA CALLS ITSELF “A BOOK ABOUT A FILM ABOUT A JOURNEY TO A ROOM.” IT COULD EQUALLY BE CALLED A BOOK ABOUT A MIDDLE-AGED MAN WHO LIKES TO SPEND ALL DAY IN HIS PYJAMAS WATCHING HIS FAVOURITE DVD. “SO WHAT KIND OF WRITER AM I,” DYER LAMENTS, “IF I AM REDUCED TO A SUMMARY OF A FILM?...WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF SUCH AN EXERCISE?”

These are pressing questions that never quite go away for both the writer and reader of Zona. How could a recount of an author’s favourite film be considered a valid subject for a book? And why should an author feel the need to defend the existence of a book he is writing? Matters are not helped much when Dyer tells us his “deepest wish” for Zona is nothing less or more than “success, enormous success,” by which he means publication:

“If it is published, if someone will deign to publish his summary of a film that relatively few people have seen, then that will constitute a success far greater than anything John Grisham could ever have dreamed of.”

He needn’t have worried. Canongate in the UK, Random House in the US and Text Publishing in Australia came to the party.

What rescues Dyer’s book from the bonfire of inanity is that this very problem, this dance with meaninglessness, also pervades Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the film that Zona is so emphatically about. A recognised masterpiece of cinema, a sci-fi epic in its own way, Stalker is nevertheless disconcertingly insubstantial, “a film almost devoid of action,” as Dyer puts it, that leaves us to question whether anything is achieved at all by the conclusion of the narrative. The plot is indeed slim. Two men (one a writer simply called Writer and the other a scientist called Professor) are led by a third (called Stalker) on a journey that takes place over a single day. Their purpose is to travel from point A (a bar), through a magical and forbidden area (called the Zone), to ultimately arrive at point B (a room simply called the Room, where one’s innermost desires are said to be realised). Unfortunately, when they eventually do reach their goal, no-one appears willing to enter.

As Dyer notes, Tarkovsky leaves much space for doubt in his films and in the case of Stalker it is the space to doubt whether the Zone is anything more than just a place, the Room anything more than just a room. Although his main character, Stalker, is emphatic about the miraculous power of these places, there are more than enough reasons to reject his view. Indeed the more one pays attention to the film, the less believable Stalker’s explanations become. Although normally a fervent promoter of the miraculous, Tarkovsky himself was surprisingly open to the idea that the Zone and the Room are nothing special, that they are “a dream of something that does not and cannot exist,” (Tarkovsky, A, Sculpting in Time) “created by Stalker in order to instil faith...in his reality” (Tarkovsky, A in Tassone, A, “Interview with Andrei Tarkovsky (on Stalker)” in Gianvito, J (ed), Andrei Tarkovsky: Interviews).

Zona Zona

So what then? A pointless book about a pointless film about a pointless journey? This may well be the point. As Dyer writes:

“The thing about the Zone is that it’s always subtly reconfiguring itself according to your thoughts and expectations. You want it to seem ordinary? It’s ordinary... whereupon it does something briefly extraordinary. (Or does it?)”

In other words, it’s by virtue of Zone’s potential emptiness as a place, and Stalker’s implicit emptiness as a narrative, that the film can acquire actual personal meaning for the viewer. Just like life, it’s the action performed not by the Zone or by the film’s characters but by the viewer that makes Stalker a meaningful experience. And with this understood, Zona offers even a Tarkovskian pedant like me something new: proof that a film seen by a thousand different viewers is a thousand different films. In fact what Dyer wants to emphasise in Zona is that Stalker seen by the same viewer a thousand times is a thousand different films! Beyond his close analysis, it is Dyer’s own experience of the Zone over 30 years of viewings that he wants to convey by ‘reciting’ Stalker, as it were, line for line. “This book is an account of watchings, rememberings and forgettings; it is not the record of a dissection.”

Perhaps it’s a new sub-genre being invented here: a kind of pseudo-critical, stream-of-consciousness film analysis, where details from the film trigger associations for the author (memories of other films, of girlfriends, of old apartments, of playing in abandoned buildings and railway stations as a child, of the grey sky on Sunday, of his father’s aversion to spending money on ice-cream). Sometimes Dyer attempts to contain these associative thoughts within footnotes. But ‘footnotes’ isn’t really an apt term for his sprawling annotations. They are more like sidetracks, and often they take over the text completely. Other times Dyer simply lets the main text go where it may, like the character Stalker, in a way, plotting a route through the mysterious Zone. The path he maps out claims the authority of a narrator, but there’s an undeniable feeling here that he’s just making this shit up as he goes along.

What works in Zona is that Dyer’s loose associative memories provoke further associations for the reader. ‘Ah yes, all those cigarettes in Godard’s Breathless! I remember them too. How it reminds me of being 22, standing in the rain in Paris.’ And so on. This happens all the time when we read a book or watch a film. But in Zona Dyer is trying to make this associative subjective process an explicit aspect of the text (which is exactly what Tarkovsky is trying to do in Stalker). We shouldn’t confuse the two: Stalker is an amazing artistic accomplishment by the standards of any art form; Zona is a light and occasionally funny read with moments of depth. What Dyer has offered by piggybacking on a masterpiece is an extension of Tarkovsky’s artistic project, a quite literal fulfilment of the creative contract Tarkovsky makes with his (devoted) viewers: “whereby the artist obliges the audience to...think on, further than has been stated...[putting] the audience on a par with the artist” (Tarkovsky, A, Sculpting in Time).


Geoff Dyer, ZONA: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, Text Publishing, Melbourne 2012; Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, trans. Kitty Hunter-Blair, Austin: University of Texas Press, Austin, 1986

giveaway

Courtesy of Text Publishing we have three copies of ZONA to give away.
Email giveaways@realtimearts.net with your name and address if you'd like to be in the running.

Tom Redwood teaches at Fregon Anangu School in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in northwest South Australia. He is the author of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Poetics of Cinema (CSP, 2010).

RealTime issue #109 June-July 2012 pg. 19

© Tom Redwood; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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