CRITERION COMMENTS: STALKER (1979)
Deep in the recesses of film history, we can find a bevy of individual voices and singular artists whose works tower over others with a certain familiarity; although we may not consciously reaffirm to ourselves that these artists hold superiority to others, and to even say one work is definitively better than another sacrifices the point of all art, we may still find ourselves knowing, somewhere in our deepest of thoughts, that these artists lead visions and facets of cinema which others dare not cross. There is a ‘zone’ in film, one which we do not speak about, but it is there -- and those who cross it, few of them as they are, will become wholly intertwined with the greatest of all artists, if only because they had the curiosity, the bravery, the deep connection to their work, to themselves, to cross over to the other side -- to ponder over a looking glass and then gloriously shattering it.
One of these voices is Andrei Tarkovsky, whose own films were, for better or worse, few and far between -- those which can still be found today (without scrambling through some Ural-mountainside lair) span from the treacherously true Ivan’s Childhood (1962), which looks back in disgust, through to the morose The Sacrifice (1986), which looks forward in fear. Each of them accompany their regular irregularities which are only outlets of Tarkovsky himself, but they mark themselves through the years for their sudden and abrupt differences, meandering through the different tensions and plaguing thoughts of the era, but of the artist, too: Tarkovsky was a man frightened by time, taken aback by the ticking and rushing of days that we all experience -- this is why his films, which are patient, which attempt to examine and decelerate (if not stop) time, are those which join the bevy of the unconscious giants.
In Stalker, which would prove to be (through the processes of political instability and refugee camps) the director’s final film made in the Soviet Union, Tarkovsky bestows to the audience three characters: a writer, a professor, and a “stalker”, a man who is hired is to efficiently and deceptively bring the other two into a realm known as the “Zone”. The Zone is a scientific anomaly which has appeared under no explanation and is deemed illegal -- supposedly, though, it acts as a fountain of youth for those who enter, giving them their greatest desires. Supposedly. The families of all three detest the illegal entry in, and beg the three to reconsider, but it is a lost cause; the world, for them, is a tired one, a minefield where lies and trickery and misfortune await with each step. The film’s sepia tint continues from the opening frame until our characters reach the Zone -- not bright or lavishly splashy, but colored nonetheless, a sort of Oz, colored by the truth and purity which the outside world does not permit.
The three characters, throughout their journey, only relate to and call each other by their professions. After all, this is why they are there, they say. Inspiration, energy, drive to push forward. They seem to seek light in their professions, almost seeing it as their own existence. And yet, the Zone is one of truth. You can’t hide, and almost immediately, characters break down their real motives of wanting youth or fame or discovery, instead of internal motivation or self-gratitude. Tarkovsky peers, uncomfortably, vulnerably, into these vehement desires; not once throughout Stalker’s bulky runtime do we feel as if we were invited, an omniscient point-of-view in this world, with these characters. Instead, we look to them in shame and almost shake our heads at the screen. And yet, we cannot. Tarkovsky only permits traits on characters which we can see in ourselves. And that’s what the Zone represents: painful honesty. Just because we are not alongside these characters, that doesn’t mandate that we are above them.
We float through time once we enter the zone, moreso, likely, than any other sequence in movies. Our characters will start to break into dialogue, and rather than offer the traditional track alongside them as they move, the camera almost creeps -- as if looking over an edge. Methodical, practical -- slow, yes, as the complaints arose from the regional film board, to which Tarkovsky responded that it “required” to be slow. If a film can encompass days to years to millennia over a two-hour period, what power can be given to a piece which seemingly offers a real-time perspective, and yet, in the ways of ghosts the film attempts to inhabit, is never tied to a reality? What can one offer for themselves by immersing themselves into this world?
The answer, for Tarkovsky, is simple, and would habitually become simpler the more films he made: it’s about you, about us. There’s no point in creating a film this gradual, this patient, unless each moment would provide a further step to connection between the film’s “zone” and our consciousness. After all, that’s where the great director always said the film should go -- not through the eyes that scan it or the ears that recognize it, but through the soul that embeds it, passes it within oneself. And of course, our characters never end up entering the zone. The zone is within them. It’s their own creation. As soon as we enter the zone, one character remarks, “It’s the quietest place on Earth.” The quiet, as it seems, is what allows our characters to grow, to allow them the silence and personal space to understand themselves, and where they are going. The stalker, when confronted, cries in the film’s most painful moments -- the hope, the leading to where they might go, is all he has. “They took everything from me behind the barbed wire,” he says, “but don’t deprive me of what’s mine.” It is his, just like it’s yours or mine or anyone else’s. It’s what we believe it to be that gives it its structure and forms its shape.
We exist in our own time, in our own worlds. Sometimes, when we are at our most enlightened, we cross the zone. It’s there, waiting, somewhere beyond the wire and forestry and structures that corrupt and entangle our characters. It’s waiting for you to cross over. If Tarkovsky makes you contemplate, makes you fix your eyes on details so miniscule -- it can only be because he encourages you to move past blockades, to go through the tree limbs, and enter the zone. It’s right there, and Stalker is your invitation.
10/23/2017 09:26:41 am
I’m impressed with your intellectual abilities. This is beyond the compression of most people, I appreciate the respect and self diligenance throughout this review. Impressive doesn’t even begin to state what I believe you can do, Mr. Lampson.
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comments on the screen by nolan lampson.