Favorite Films: Stalker (Сталкер, 1979)

Dunes Near the Room That Is the Goal of Stalker

While I was visiting my bother in Palm Desert, we saw Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, a film based on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s classic SF novel, Roadside Picnic. He did not like the film, which took 161 minutes to traverse a field and enter a building in search of a room.When one entered the room, one supposedly got all one’s wishes satisfied. Dan was bored by the film’s length, whereas I felt the film zipped by at light speed.

There is something about slow films, such as Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath and Ordet, Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc, and Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Monogatari. The main characteristic of these films is a movement of spirit. If you follow this development, the film’s perceived slowness is imaginary.

In Stalker, one cannot just walk across the field and into the room. The interstellar aliens that landed in what is called “The Zone” change things around such that the stalker and the men who hired him to guide them must throw steel nuts bound in rags to check out the path ahead—and under no circumstances must they return the way they came. Several times, they pass a wall of old ceramic tiles, but in each case, the terrain around it is completely different.

The Stalker’s Daughter, Called “Monkey”

I am not saying you will love the film. I certainly do. But my brother, who shares so many film tastes with me, did not.If you demand fast action, you had best stick with CGI and Marvel Comics adaptations. But if you let yourself be guided by one of the greatest directors who ever lived, and follow the story line carefully, you will become one of Stalker’s fans.

Triptych

Last Scene from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Film Stalker

Last Scene from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Film Stalker

The following is adapted from my review of Geoff Dyer’s Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room as posted to Goodreads.Com.

What we have here is a triptych: three linked works of art, one loosely based on the other. First there was Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (1972), perhaps the most memorable of the Russian brothers’ science fiction novels. Then came Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (1979), ostensibly based on it and, in fact, employing the Strugatsky brothers as screenwriters. Now there is Geoff Dyer’s long essay entitled Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room. This last is in a genre by itself, an extended commentary retelling the story of the film with lengthy footnoted riffs about how the film has impacted Dyer’s life and imagination.

All three works are masterpieces in their own right. I have now read both books as well as seen the film, and I yearn to reacquaint myself with all three of them.

Is there something perhaps a little perverse about writing a ruminative essay about something that comes from something else. Have we somehow put ourselves too many removes from the original work by the Strugatsky brothers? Or does it matter, inasmuch as both Stalker and Zona are totally absorbing, as was Roadside Picnic.

Perhaps I should draw back a little and give you some idea of the world of the composite work of art I think of as “The Roadside Stalker Zone.” We are some time in the future, in a grimy post-industrial wasteland in a small country near an area once visited by extraterrestrials who just happened, for whatever reason, to leave strange inexplicable things behind—including a room in a deserted building which, if you enter it, grants all your innermost desires. (Never mind that the only known person to have visited it, a man code-named Porcupine, hanged himself shortly thereafter.)

These zones formerly visited by the extraterrestrials (who have all moved on without getting their visas stamped) have been sealed off by the authorities. But there is an active group of individuals called stalkers who, in contravention of the law, take people to visit the zones and perhaps bring some things back—things which are marvelous and inexplicable. The children of these stalkers are themselves strange, like Monkey, the film’s Stalker’s daughter (shown above), who has the power of telekinesis, which we do not learn until the very end of the film.

Stalker takes two individuals, referred to in the film only as Professor and Writer, into the zone. Their journey is a journey of self-discovery. Do they enter the room? I do not wish to spoil the story for you, so I urge you to consume the entire triptych, in order of publication or release, to come to the same realization that I have arrived at: That Geoff Dyer is a phenomenal writer whose work I am going to enjoy reading in the months and years to come.