Zona by Geoff Dyer
“Nothing that happens in Stalker is an accident,” Geoff Dyer tells us in the first couple of pages of Zona, “and yet, at the same time, it is full of accidents.” This is one of the ways in which Andrei Tarkovsky’s most ambitious film imitates life and its seemingly arbitrary nature, which is in fact mapped out with cartographic precision. This exquisite geometry is also mirrored in Dyer’s book, a paean to Tarkovsky’s work, boasting a swaggering array of facts, anecdotes, references and deviations beneath a consummately rigid structure. Zona is as much about Tarkovsky as it is about Stalker which, Dyer says, was partly responsible for shaping his perception and understanding of the world and without which it would be “radically diminished”. Dyer’s interest in Stalker has been compulsive, obsessive and longstanding – and is now well into several decades. “I’ve seen Stalker more times than any film except The Great Escape,” he wrote in the Guardian a while back, “I’ve seen it when the projectionist got the reels in the wrong order (I was the only person who noticed), I’ve seen it on my own in Paris and dubbed into Italian in Rome, I’ve seen it on acid (remember that sequence when the solid ground begins to ripple?) and I’ve seen it on telly – and it’s never quite as I remember. Like the Zone, it’s always changing. Like the Stalker, I feel quite at home in it, but whenever I see the film I try to imagine what it might be like, watching it for the first time when it seemed so weird.” Despite Dyer’s intimate familiarity with the film one gets the distinct impression that he still finds it weird. And the emphasis on weirdness is both implicit and explicit. It is, in fact, the film and its maker’s otherness, which transcends both cultural and aesthetic hegemonies, that Dyer finds strange and idiosyncratic. He ruminates over the nuanced complexities of Stalker with admirable erudition and finesse but with a quintessentially English sense of curiosity, ossified by ratiocination and intellectual liberalism, which is doggedly linear unlike its European counterparts.
In many ways, it is Dyer’s Englishness that prevents him immersing fully into Tarkovsky’s imagination, and identifying with the filmmaker and his work. And thus he always remains an analytical observer and a piqued voyeur, who finds his subject exoteric and esoteric, lucid and puzzling but altogether too remote from his own value system. There is a point in the book, for example, when Dyer ponders the Stalker’s sleeping raiment, finding himself perplexed by the irrationality of it. “To sleep without trousers but with a sweater does not make sense with regard to any system of convention,” he says thinking about a scene in the film when the Stalker gets out of bed, “It just seems weird and not terribly hygienic.” This sentiment is echoed again and again whenever Dyer thinks on the Stalker and his two travelling companions. One almost feels as though he cannot quite reconcile the idea of a “prophet ” with the obdurate physiognomy of the shaven-headed zek who is to lead his two equally gruff “clients” – the Professor and the Writer – on a spiritual and metaphysical journey to “the Zone” at the crux of which lies “the Room” – a place where one’s deepest wishes are granted and ”ultimate truths are revealed”. Despite lacking an interpersonal affinity with the film’s characters and director, Dyer feels the same desire to find fulfilment, peace, happiness. “I am as badly in need of the Zone and its wonder as any of the three men,” he writes, “The Zone is a place of uncompromising and unblemished value. It is one of the few territories left – possibly the only one – where the rights to Top Gear have not been sold: a place of refuge and sanctuary. A sanctuary, also, from cliché.” Dyer employs wry and acerbic humour throughout the book to make his subject – a 163 minute long film “about three blokes drifting along the railroad to nowhere” – more palatable, more accessible, and in doing so sees the reader follow his irreverent, digressive and meandering voice avidly from page to page.
Some may find Dyer’s footnotes and interpositions self-indulgent and whimsical but they are in fact quite important to the rich tapestry of the narrative. Every anecdote and story contributes something to our understanding of the film, its director, its cast and crew and how Stalker was made after a hellish number of delays and logistical and technical difficulties. The film went through three different directors of photography, changed locations before and after shooting, encountered various faults with the experimental Kodak film, was marred by professional rivalries, directorial vicissitudes and had a serious problem with drinking on set. The cast and crew boozed heavily to alleviate boredom in between takes, spearheaded by Anatoliy Solonitsyn (the Writer) who was renowned for his two-week binges. Despite all the problems, however, the film went ahead and was made but sadly “at the cost of a heap of corpses and triple retakes”. Several people involved in Stalker, including Tarkovsky and Solonitsyn, were believed to have died as a result of the arduous shooting schedule and the toxicity of the location, which was based around a half-functioning hydroelectric station in Tallinn. Ironically, it is the beautifully desolate landscape that gives Stalker it’s most memorable quality, framed by Tarkovsky’s unorthodox used of long takes with slow, subtle camera movements, which make the film seem alive – suspiring in tandem with the viewer.
Dyer pieces together a capital of information to provide a comprehensive overview of Tarkovsky and his cinematic vision; a sophisticated and original vision, which has made him one of the most innovative and brilliant directors of the last four decades. “Tarkovsky was not only a visionary, poet and mystic,” Dyer says, “he was also a prophet.” Stalker is loaded with allusions to mankind’s immanent future; and it is a dire forecast. One of these portentous bolts seems to be forewarning of the looming disaster of Chernobyl, by way of the Professor’s impassioned speech about a meteorite which fell to earth, destroying lives and communities and creating the Zone. ”Tremors from the future can be felt throughout Stalker,” Dyer writes, “In less than a decade Professor’s summary of how the Zone came into existence had taken on an aura of a premonition fulfilled, and Stalker acquired yet another dimension of suggestiveness in its foreshadowing of the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl.” Paradoxically, the oneiric terrain and scenic atmosphere of the Zone is where Tarkovksy’s poetic propensities come to the fore. “Landscapes like this had been seen before Tarkovsky,” Dyer writes, “but…their beingess had not been seen in this way. Tarkovsky reconfigured the world, brought this landscape…into existence.” Dyer also stresses that we ought to pay close attention to the seemingly irrelevant objects on film because they too mean something in Tarkovsky’s world. Everything, a rock , a tuft of moss, a puddle, is imbued with a “breathing magic”. They’re all part of the human interaction with the landscape , Dyer explains, which Tarkovsky makes into a kind of poetry comparative to that of William Wordsworth’s. It is Tarkovsky’s Wordsworthian understanding of and interest in nature’s ”inward meaning,” says our literary tour guide that gives Stalker’s filmic archaeology that “special aura”.
This is one of the many and varied elements that make up Tarkovsky’s cinematic trajectory. Most of them are considered in the book through Dyer’s ruminations on Stalker, which he says is a literal journey as well as a “journey into cinematic space and in tandem into time”. This was one of Tarkovsky’s principal preoccupations, which Dyer contemplates in regard to this own life, conflating research and studious inquiry with humorous yarns and confessional annotations. We get to learn, for example, that Dyer could have had several threesomes but didn’t, that he used to spend his student days tripping on LSD, that he thinks there was a time when his wife looked uncannily like Natacha McElone in Solaris and that they’ve been debating getting a dog for over five years. Some of these might be immaterial to the topic at hand, but they’re fairly interesting and offer great insight into Dyer, the man. Throughout the course of the book we get to learn about both the writer and his subject as Dyer journeys into himself by recounting the journey of Stalker and his two clients. And this makes for some very interesting reading, but perhaps the most interesting (and important) of the nuggets of knowledge we acquire is the meaning of the Zone, a term which derives from prison jargon for the world outside. “[In] the 1950s when the Soviet Union was a vast prison camp…in prison camp-slang (as an Applebaum points out in Gulag) ‘the world outside the barbed wire was not referred to as freedom, but as the ‘bolshyaa zona’,” Dyer explains, “the ‘big prison zone’ large and less deadly than the ‘small zone’ of the camp, but no more human – and certainly no more humane.” Whenever asked about the symbolism of Stalker Tarkovsky always maintained that there wasn’t any, saying the Zone should be taken at face value rather than as a cinematographic treatise on freedom, and its dearth in the Soviet system. But that’s precisely how the film should be interpreted, as Tarkovsky’s (man’s) quest for personal freedom through his artistic realisations, which was the only time he felt he had any. This is something Dyer could have explored a little bit more perhaps for after all Tarkovksy’s artistic freedom was the linchpin of his work.
Publication Date: March 2013
Paperback: 228 pages