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Some thoughts on Tarkovsky’s Stalker

February 6, 2009

There’s an excellent article in The Guardian Today about Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1980).  Written by Geoff Dyer in preparation for the film’s screening at the BFI Southbank on the 10th of February, Dyer tries to work out what it is that makes Tarkovsky’s film such a powerful work.  The article gives some nice biographical information about the making of the film and trots through a number of different interpretations without any of them sticking but the really interesting part of the article is a particular quote that perfectly encapsulate how I feel about the film.

“The film itself has become synonymous both with cinema’s claims to high art and a test of the viewer’s ability to appreciate it as such. Anyone sharing Cate Blanchett’s enthusiasm for it – “every single frame of the film is burned into my retina” – attests not just to the director’s lofty purity of purpose, but to their own capacity to survive at the challenging peaks of human achievement.”

Now, it’s possible to take this quote as a kind of shitty elitism.  An arbitrary “you have to be THIS smart to get on the ride” distinction between the multiplex scum and the art house massive.  But for me it is not about intelligence as much as it is about outlook.  Stalker is one of the films that fundamentally changed the way I approach film as a medium.

In the excellent The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006), Zizek takes on the film and comes part of the way to capturing what is special about it.  But only part of the way.

For me, Zizek is correct in that the film articulates something basic to the way humans experience hope, aspiration, desire and how the vital importance of these things to our psychological health in fact bears little relationship to whether a) we have a coherent and consistant set of desires and b) whether that desire is at all appropriate to us as individuals.  This is an interpretation that ports across directly from the film’s source material, the book Roadside Picnic (1977) by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky (my review of the book is here).

The book is a work that is both densely symbollic and critically evasive.  As Nick Hubble argues in the comments of my review, it is like a Zen Koan; you could discuss the book for an age and never really nail down what it means, but during the process of the discussion, you will unearth endless interpretations and observations that fold back in on each other time and again.  It is a book that immediately appeals to the intuition, the sense that there’s something going on here, but it is never completely subject to reason because it is not rooted in anything as concrete as physics or psychology.

Stalker raises the stakes on the book by being even more enigmatic and stripping the story back to its barest bones; the relationship between the Stalker and the heart of the Zone.  The genius of the film lies in its ability to combine extreme minimalism of narrative and characterisation with a semiotic extravagance that borders on the baroque.

There are certain films that tend to require active participation on behalf of their audience.  For exampe, a lot of the enjoyment to be derrived from the films of Yasujiro Ozu stems from a willingness to observe and think about the shifting interpersonal dynamics and what is not said or done by the characters.  This is most brilliantly demonstrated by a film such as Ozu’s masterpiece Tokyo Story (1953) where for the first half of the film the two old dears are shunted back and forth between their children’s families smiling all the time despite the fact that they’re clearly unwanted and their children keep making excuses to not spend time with them.  It is only when someone in a bar voices similar worries about his son that the old couple’s true feelings start to emerge.

A more extreme example of this style of film, is Bergman’s The Silence (1963).  Made by Ingmar Bergman, The Silence is a film almost entirely stripped of dialogue but yet incredibly rich in dramaand emotional nuance.  We are never told how any of the characters feel, we are simply invited to intuit it based upon what we know about them and what we can see for ourselves from their demeanour, behaviour and the events that transpire around them.

These films demonstrate something basic about the cinematic medium.  They demonstrate how a series of random images and ideas can be strung together by the right director in order to induce a certain kind of emotional experience.  In the case of Ozu, the fact that there is little or no discussion of how the old people feel about their treatment means that, as members of the audience, we cannot help but think about how they feel.  Similarly, Bergman’s refusal to explain to us what his story is about and what the emotional topography of relationship between the characters might be, he invites us to lean forward and to try and work it out.  In other words, Bergman appeals not to our ability to take on board what people say to us, but rather our natural intuitive capacity for reading social situations.

A less successful example of this type of film-making is Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light (2007).  The film is all about a farmer who has an affair with another woman and how his wife clearly knows that this is why is going on but, because of the codes of the society the couple inhabit, she never confronts him about it and it slowly kills her.  It is only once she dies that she can confront the ‘other woman’.  Reygadas’ film is less powerful because there is really not that much depth to the film.  However, despite this lack of depth, Reygadas fills his film with cinematic techniques designed to make you lean forward and think about what you are seeing; the long slow tracking shots, the never ending close-ups, the awkward silences, the empty rooms.  By filling his film with so much breathing space, Reygadas invites us to think about what we have seen, but because the subject matter is so thin, we feel manipulated by what comes across as a pretentious and dull film.

All of these films demonstrate how it is possible to make films that invite speculation and thought through cinematic technique.  It is not the subject matter of these different films that make them note-worthy, it is the ways in which that subject matter is conveyed.  As Cocteau put it, for some style is a very complex way of saying something simple, for others it is a very simple way of saying something complex.

Consider the footage of Stalker contained in the Zizek clip linked to above.  In particular the panning shot of the shallow river filled with junk.  This scene flawlessly conveys the impression of semiotic depth.  A gun?  a box?  what could it all mean?  it is like a cinematic trompe-l’oeil that gives an amazing impression of depth whereas in fact there is none.  The fact that there is a gun in that stream rather than any other type of object bears no relation to the meaning of the film or the scene, but a gun is so richly symbolic that we cannot help but look at that scene and try to work out what it is that Tarkovsky is trying to tell us.

The power of Stalker comes not from its use of symbols to tell a story, but from its technical expertise at inducing what can only be described as cinematic empathy.  The relationship between us and the film is akin to that between the stalker and the Zone.  We see it as being rich in possibilities, we might even try to make some kind of sense out of it as Dyer does in his article by suggesting that it’s about Soviet culture or about immigration, but in truth, the film is not really about any of these things.  The room has no secret nature, there is no true reading of the film and yet we cannot help but try and wrap our minds around it, just as the stalker tries to articulate his deepest desire without success.

Stalker is like the experiments of Benjamin Libet.  It is a demonstration of the fact that the self – the rabbit that sits in our head working the controls – is, at best, not in control of how we try to make sense of the world and, at worst, not there at all.  The film is a masterclass in how to trick the brain into looking for metanarratives and as with Red in the book and the un-named Stalker in the film, it leaves us desperately trying to find some articulated meaning to make sense of everything we have seen and everything we have been through.

Dyer’s article mentions that, in one interview, Tarkovsky raised the possibility that the Zone did not exist at all.  This makes perfect sense given the film’s final scene.  At the end of Stalker, once the three men have returned from the Zone, we meet the stalker’s daughter.  Unable to walk, the girl sits at a table and recites poetry before staring at some glasses and, apparently making them move with her mind.  However immediately after this, a train roars past the house raising the question as to whether it was the girl or the vibrations of the train that moved the glasses.  This ending perfectly condences to film’s real subject matter.  Stalker is not a symbollic film, it is a film about the power of symbols and how they affect us and how we try to make sense of the universe and ourselves based upon them.  Stalker is a film that admits that all cinema is a form of artificually induced apophenia; from our tendency to perceive a series of still images as moving right down to our willingness to read supernatural characteristics into what might easily be a walk in the country.

It is the ultimate deconstruction of the cinematic form.

6 Comments
  1. February 9, 2009 1:27 pm

    This is a very interesting piece indeed, extremely thought-provoking. To connect at the level of debate, and though I broadly agree with what you say here (and particularly agree with your esteem for Stalker: it’s one of my core texts, holy writ to my imagination), I think you underplay the potency of the film’s symbolism. So, the pan of the river with all the stuff in it:

    The fact that there is a gun in that stream rather than any other type of object bears no relation to the meaning of the film or the scene, but a gun is so richly symbolic that we cannot help but look at that scene and try to work out what it is that Tarkovsky is trying to tell us.

    Absolute semiotic specificy is, I agree, not the film’s currency; and it would be fatuous to ‘decode’ the images, as if it were all some rigid allegory. But guns figure in particular ways in this text that give the appearance of the gun here greater than just random-noise symbolic heft … the Stalker’s horror that his charges have brought a handgun into the zone, the shot where the abandoned weapon is in the water and the Stalker nudges it to push it deeper in. This gorgeous pan along the water connects with this (as, I suppose, with the gunfire the three brave to get into the Zone in the first place; and with the Professor’s bomb).

  2. February 9, 2009 3:16 pm

    Hi Adam

    Thanks for the praise. Coming from you, it’s ego-boosting stuff :-)

    I’d actually forgotten about the bit with the hand-gun but I think that we’re both correct. I think that the film is lacking in what might be called ‘external symbols’, namely signs that link the film with some wider narrative outsider of it. In fact, as I say, I think the film is explicitly about the process of attaching meaning to symbols.

    However, this does not mean that the film is lacking in ‘internal symbols’ that serve to link up certain ideas within the film. The gun is one such internal symbol, Monkey is another. She exists in order to muddy the waters by underlining the fact that everything we see in the film can be interpreted in different ways. However, if you try to enlist her as an ‘external symbol’ as part of a wider narrative about the supernatural, then she is arguably too slight to say anything of any substance.

    So YES I think I might have over-stated my case by suggesting (if not really thinking) that Stalker is a huge array of random meaningless images but also YES that I don’t think that any of the symbols in the film are strictly metaphorical, allegorical or synechochical.

    But you are quite correct to point out that the gun is more functional a symbol than I suggested.

  3. February 9, 2009 7:33 pm

    “I’d actually forgotten about the bit with the hand-gun…”

    It’s interesting, isn’t it? The seems exactly the way Stalker works, at least in my experience. I watched it again recently and there was a whole bunch of stuff I simply didn’t remember from when I last saw it. This, I think, isn’t because the film is unmemorable (of all the films I’ve seen, this is the single most memorable, I think, in lots of ways) but because it seems to play peculiar tricks with memory, as the Zone does with the protagonists. So for instance: I’d forgotten that the Professor goes back for his rucksack, despite being specifically told not to go back by the Stalker … and then somehow ends up ahead of the other two. It doesn’t seem to me coincidental that my memory took some kind of perverse short-cut past that part of the narrative. And now, as I write, I can’t remember if it’s the Writer or the Professor who brings the pistol into the Zone … presumably the latter, I suppose. But the movie lives in a much more fluid, sinuous way in my mind than most films I’ve seen.

    I’ve been thinking about this all afternoon, and I wonder if part of the thing here is the way Tarkovsky’s cinematic technique, his scrupulous way with lighting and cinematography, his famous slow pans and long-held takes, encourages us to pay much closer attention to the quiddity (if you’ll pardon the pretentious language) of the world of his films. He is the great visual poet of attentiveness to the world. What this means, I think, is that when he puts a gun on screen we’re much less likely to respond to it on the level of crude symbolism (as it might be: that representes ‘violence’ or ‘power’ or ‘intimidation’ or whatever) and much more likely to respond to its materiality as a thing; its colour and shape; the texture of its metal and the way its material responds, especially under water, to light. In a way this sort of response is the point of Tarkovsky.

    As for the final shot of Monkey at the table, I agree that it generates enormous power by bringing in the vibration of the passing train in order to problematise whether she actually has telekinetic powers or not. But I think the reason this is so clever is that it crystallises a moment of desire in the viewer. It makes you think: am I disappointed or relieved that she has, or that she hasn’t, these powers of telekinesis. Which explanation for the moving glass do I prefer? What does that say about me? The room in the zone is about making manifest your deepest desires after all, and one of the threads of the movie is that these desires are hidden even to yourself.

  4. February 10, 2009 11:01 am

    I agree with you that Stalker has a kind of mnemonic fog surrounding it. Some parts of it are as clear as day and etched into the mind but other parts of it are less clear.

    I’m wary of laying this at the feet of Tarkovsky’s cinematic technique simply because his techniques are used elsewhere without the same side-effects. For example, the shots of empty space and incredibly long takes pop up all the time in Terrence Mallick’s films (another great visual poet, I rewatched The New World recently and was just blown away by the skill and beauty of it all) but Mallick’s films are much easier to summarize.

    I think instead that it might be down to the way that we remember films. Games like Chinese Whispers show that we don’t remember information straight, instead we construct narratives around it and store it that way. Stalker’s issue is that despite having a plot, a lot of the plot is only tangentially related to the central narrative and almost completely unrelated to the elusive themes of the film. So when we watch it, I suspect that our brain folds the film up into a convenient shape by cutting out the bits that seem less important. However, because the real themes and subject matter are so elusive, you can sit down and rewatch the film time and again and still be no clearer as to what it’s about and so you reform new schemas and uncover whole new sections of the plot that your brain snipped out for the purposes of storage.

    However, what’s disconcerting about the film is the impression that Tarkovsky knows precisely what he is doing with every shot and it wouldn’t surprise me if he knew about the mnemonic fog too.

    It’s like one of those images of a behaviourist future in which a screen flashes the colour green and all the conditioned humans gurgle with bliss. It’s a film that by-passes the higher brain functions and operates directly on the point of interaction between neurological quirks and cinematic technique.

  5. Ken Peggs permalink
    April 14, 2009 12:34 am

    I doubt we are supposed to wonder if the glasses were moved by the train – the manner win which they move is so precise and controlled, and she looks at each one before it starts to move. Plus the sound and general vibrations from the train do not start until later. So if that was Tarkovsky’s intention, I think he botched it – which doesn’t sound like him, so I think it’s just one of those theories that appeal to people who like ambiguity. I see no reason to shy away from a literalist view of the final scene.

  6. April 14, 2009 6:58 am

    Hi Ken :-)

    Had Tarkovsky wanted us to take Monkey’s psychic powers completely at face value then I suspect he would not have included the passage of the train. The fact that he did include it does suggest, as Adam puts it, that Tarkovsky wanted at least to problematise the straight-forward assertion that in the world of the film, the supernatural exists.

    I don’t think it’s completely ambiguous but there’s a degree of ambiguity there and it would be silly to just ignore it.

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