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Staring at the cover from the Criterion Collection is better than
watching the goddamn film

dir: Andrei Tarkovsky


As a self-appointed film wanker, one who’s studied some elements of film history and criticism of the art form, but who hasn’t earned any formal qualifications or work experience in the field or any real credible basis for one’s pretentions, it’s often hard for me to justify my own status. Sure, I think I’ve got something relevant/amusing to say about films, mostly only because I love ‘em, and when you love something, whether it’s individual films or films in general, you might, like I do, feel like that gives you licence to inflict your opinions upon the rest of the world.

The hardest thing for me to justify is not my lack of knowledge of the kinds of things that send professional film critic and theory types into paroxysmic orgasms, but the fact that quite often I just can’t muster any appreciation of them.

In other words, yeah, so I’ve seen Citizen Kane a few times, but, honestly, put that Rosebud shit to bed, it’s had its day already.

Long intro: short point. I’ll acknowledge that I know who the Russian directorial ‘master’ Andrei Tarkovsky is, and what his films are, and that he was a master of crafting what he and many other film wankers consider some of the finest films known to man. But for the fucking life of me it doesn’t translate into my being able to enjoy watching most of his flicks.

Stalker was the last of the films in a Tarkovsky collection I bought a few years ago, last chronologically in the set as well as the last I finished watching. It’s taken me no less than about a dozen tries to get through the goddamn flick. My biggest problem is that, just as with his other alleged masterpiece, Solaris, watching any of the sequences in this flick, especially any time when the camera slowly zooms in on nothing happening, or when it painstakingly, agonisingly pans from left to right or back again, it knocks me the fuck out. I don’t mean it makes me feel a tad sleepy, I mean it knocks me out like a handful of Ambien. Day or night, ragged or rested, certain of his flicks put me into a narcotised state from which it’s not safe for me to operate motor vehicles or heavy machinery for a day afterwards. Even using the phone is not a good idea. You’ll be slurring like you’ve been drinking cough syrup all day.

I don’t know whether it was his intention when making flicks, or just a side benefit. Maybe it was part of a Soviet plot to put the capitalistic film-going West into a mass coma. Actually, I do know what his intentions were, having seen all of his films and having watched documentaries about them. He thought of film making as sculpting in time, and called his autobiography the same thing.

He was a brilliant man, I’m sure, and probably a great director, probably one of the true greats. That doesn’t mean I find most of his films any easier to watch.

My real connection or interest in this flick is its connection to a set of Russian PC games (starting with Stalker: Shadows of Chernobyl) which represent the first time that I can think of that an arthouse classic has resulted in a successful and very violent first person shooter franchise, although it does beg the question as to where the hyper-violent game versions of Raise the Red Lantern and Room with a View are lurking.

Why? Well, who wouldn’t want to hunt down Julian Sands or Helena Bonham Carter and shoot them in the head?

No sane person, that’s who.

The world of Stalker is a strange one. For some mysterious reason, whether it is the result of a meteorite strike or some other phenomenon, a region in what we assume must be Russia, has become very strange. I’ve heard tell that the inspiration for it might have been the Chelyabinsk nuclear accident in 1957 that the Soviets hid from their own people, at least the ones who survived, let alone the rest of the world. It was kind of like the test run for the Chernobyl disaster and exclusion zone. Ah, those were the days.

The laws of physics are no longer dependable in this place, referred to as The Zone. But it also has a consciousness of its own, which can usually result in very paranormal events, or in people who venture there dying or simply disappearing.

Though the military surrounds all entrances to the place, and entry is strictly forbidden (which is kind of redundant, considering that wasn’t pretty much everything forbidden except drinking vodka under the reign of the Soviet totalitarian regime?), there are those who enter the Zone for kicks or as guides. They are known as stalkers.

Our main character, called Stalker (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky), stalks tours into the Zone for money, but also because he is drawn to the place inexorably. He ends up taking two other chaps, being Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and Professor (Nikolai Grinko) into the place despite the fact that he’s spent time in jail for his previous traipses, and that either the troops guarding the entrances or the Zone itself could kill them all for their trouble.

Why do they want to go there, the Writer and Professor, I mean? Well, apparently there’s this room in the centre of the Zone, where a person’s most heartfelt wishes can come true in some kind of miraculous way. This, and a whole bunch of other borderline mystical crap Stalker says strongly implies that the region itself is sentient and has a consciousness, and responds depending on the behaviour and character of trespassers.

It takes a monochromatic age for them to get into the Zone, in a convoluted and, dare I say it, almost exciting sequence. Honestly, there’s a level of tension and excitement in these early scenes as they dodge roving patrols and try to get through the heavily guarded gates. It almost makes you think there’s going to be some energy to the proceedings.

Once they get to a tiny motorised railcar, the sleepwalking journey really begins. From then on each take seems to go on forever, with the camera fluidly and ever so slowly panning over the rugged faces of our three guys, and back again.

On this incredibly long journey into the Zone, we get to see a lot of what probably wasn’t faked pre-end of the Soviet Union decaying infrastructure. On some level (which of course meant I wasn’t ‘into’ the flick, and was thinking about real world political and historical issues) it looks like visual proof that the faltering Soviet conglomeration was doomed way before the muscular hero Ronald Reagan knocked down the Berlin Wall with his bare hands back in the late 80s.

Once in the Zone, their progress in this lush, verdant place towards the hallowed room, is hampered by a lot of unseen factors, none of which seem to exist in the physical realm beyond the stalker’s fears. That is, after all, why they hired him, but his whiny demands for them to listen to him and follow his every command only serve to delay their getting to the room for another two hours.

Stalker is convinced that if they try to progress towards the wish granting room in a straight line, it’ll anger the Zone, which will rear up in some way and kill them. They also can’t double back, because the path won’t be the same, and they’ll get irretrievably lost. They also, just to slow things down even further, have to tie these ribbons to these iron bolts, which Stalker throws in front of them in order to work out if there are any anomalous areas that could do something and hurt them in some way. We watch their progress in all its agonising slowness, as painstakingly laborious as watching a dentist gradually build the tools he’s going to use before working on someone’s teeth. In slow motion. Whilst heavily drunk on Southern Comfort.

It’s undeniable that each and every individual shot is incredibly well composed and shot. The composition of each and every glacially slow scene is a triumph of composition, and makes almost every image into a portrait in and of itself. There are also incredibly dense and complicated ideas here, and themes introduced, and elements deliberately left out which make it all the more intellectually intense and obtuse.

Even given all of this, I still find it impossible to watch for more than half an hour at a time. It knocks me the fuck out, and I fully admit that the fault, the defect, would have to be with me. Because of my defective and non-Russian-cinema appreciating brain, when I watch a fifteen minute scene slower than continental drift, where three characters talk almost in whispers, about how the dreams of all men are obscured even from themselves, and that their heart’s greatest desires are unknown to themselves, as the three men lie on the wet ground, and some dog comes over. Or doesn’t come over, and lays down for some reason, I am unlikely to be anything less than perplexed or unconscious.

It’s my nature to want to figure things out, before, during and after watching a flick, especially if it’s “difficult”, especially if it seems like there’s some merit to figuring it all out because there’s some point at the end. The truth is that with this flick, individual explanations for each of the sequences, and overall exegesis leaves me cold, because the flick is immovable, and ultimately does nothing of any consequence.

It’s very frustrating to watch, even when you’re fully alert. Everything Stalker does seems at first necessary, but progressively seems more and more pointless. The dangers of the Zone, as far as we can ever tell in the end, exist solely within Stalker’s actions and head. It ultimately becomes something like watching a heavily edited version of Jaws.

Imagine this version of Jaws where every scene of the actual shark, whether implied or explicit, is edited out, as are all of the attacks, or any scenes at the end when the threat is eliminated with extreme prejudice. You’d be left with a flick that makes no sense. You still have people acting and reacting like there’s something going on, but with the sound off you’d never know if the nemesis faced by the good people of Amity Island was a shark or a giant invisible dinosaur or people running around looking scared because of their itchy underwear.

It may be intellectually richer to do it Tarkovsky’s way, but alls I knows is, it don’t make for particularly interesting viewing.

When they finally get to the fucking room, to say that nothing happens would be an insulting understatement. It would be insulting to oblivion, to anti-matter, to the vacuum of space, to lots of other things that have never happened because they never existed. I’m used to deliberately dissatisfying endings in literature (I’m thinking of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, or everything ever written by China Mieville) and occasionally in movies (like the ending the Coen Brothers came up with for A Serious Man), but after all that didn’t happen here, I was desperately praying for something to justify the three fucking hours I’d spent with these shmucks.

To no avail.

Something that flies the fuck our of nowhere is the Professor threatening to blow up the wish granting room, but even that exists in the realm of “well, what fucking difference would it make?” And even that goes nowhere.

For me, as it was watching Avatar, or most of the films made by Peter Greenaway, and all of the films made by Tarsem Singh (The Cell, The Fall) the only merit / worth down the track is from having seen some of the visuals, and remembering them. In many ways film is a gift to us, the way that any of the great paintings or photographs give us an actual (and from then on, in our memories, a remembered) image, to be recalled or projected onto everything else we see or experience. That’s really all I’ve got left to take away from Stalker, the alleged Russian Science Fiction Masterpiece from a Titan of Russian Cinema. Some images of guys lying on the ground, an Estonian dog, a decaying and water damaged hospital, and a man putting on his own crown of thorns. That’s it, nothing to see here, no story worth telling, at least one justifying three hours of my time.

Hooray for Russian cinema, and hooray for me for not getting any of it.

5 attempts it took to sit through this flick all the way to the end without having an aneurysm out of 10.

“A man writes because he is tormented, because he doubts. He needs to constantly prove to himself and the others that he's worth something. And if I know for sure that I'm a genius? Why write then? What the hell for?” – Stalker.