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An empty bar, possibly not even open, with a single table, no bigger than a small round table, but higher, the sort you lean against—there are no stools—while you stand and drink. If floorboards could speak, these look like they could tell a tale or two, though the tales would turn out to be one and the same, ending with the same old lament (after a few drinks people think they can walk all over me), about not just what happens here but in bars the world over. We are, in other words, already in a realm of universal truth. The barman comes in from the back—he’s wearing a white barman’s jacket—lights a ­cigarette, and turns on the lights, two fluorescent tubes, one of which doesn’t work properly: it flickers. He looks at the flickering light. You can see him thinking, That needs fixing, which is not the same thing at all as “I’ll fix that today,” but which is very nearly the same as “It’ll never be fixed.” Daily life is full of these small, repeated astonishments, hopes (that it might somehow have fixed itself overnight), and resignations (it hasn’t, and won’t). A tall man—a customer!—enters the bar, puts his knapsack under the table, the small round table you lean against while drinking. He orders something from the barman. The fact that the barman’s jacket is white ­emphasizes how not terribly clean it is. Although it’s a jacket it also serves as a towel, possibly as a dishcloth, and maybe as a hankie, too. The whole place looks like it could be dirty, but it’s too dingy to tell, and the credits in yellow Russian letters—sci-fi Cyrillic—do not exactly clarify the situation.

It’s the kind of bar men meet in prior to a bank job that is destined to go horribly wrong, and the barman is the type to take no notice of anything that’s not his business and the more things that are not his business, the better it is for him, even if it means that business is so slow as to be almost nonexistent. Far as he’s concerned, long as he’s here, minding his own business and wearing his grubby barman’s jacket, he’s doing his job, and if no one comes and no one wants anything and nothing needs doing (the wonky light can wait, as can most things) it’s all the same to him. Still smoking, he trudges over with a coffeepot (he’s one of those barmen who has the knack of imbuing the simplest task with grudge, makes it feel like one of the labors of a minimum-wage Hercules), pours some coffee for the stranger, goes out back again and leaves him to it, to his coffee, to his sipping and waiting. Of that there can be no doubt: the stranger is definitely waiting for something or someone.

A caption: some kind of meteorite or alien visitation has led to the creation of a miracle—the Zone. Troops were sent in and never returned. It was surrounded by barbed wire and a police cordon...

This caption was added at the behest of the studio, Mosfilm, who wanted to stress the fantastical nature of the Zone (where we are headed). They also wanted to make sure that the “bourgeois” country where all this happened could not be identified with the USSR. Hence this mysterious business of the Zone all happened—according to the caption—“in our small country” which put everyone off the scent because the USSR, as we all know, covered a very large area and Russia was (still is) huge, too. “Russia...” I can hear Laurence Olivier saying it now, in the “Barbarossa” episode of The World at War. “The boundless motherland of Russia.” Faced with the German invasion of 1941, Russians fell back on the traditional strategy, the strategy that had done for Napoleon and would do for Hitler, too: “Trade space for time,” a message Tarkovsky took to heart.

The sound of water dripping. We peer through an interior set of doors, into a room. In film-script shorthand “Int” means Interior and “Ext” Exterior. This is a kind of “Super—Int” or “Int—int.” Inside already, the camera inches deeper inside. It’s as if Tarkovsky has started where Antonioni left off in the famous inside-out shot at the end of The Passenger and taken it a stage further: inside-in. As slow as that—but without the color. Antonioni’s earlier Red Desert (1964) would, as the title suggests, be unimaginable without the color. The color—Monica Vitti’s green coat—is what makes it wonderful, but for the thirty-four-year-old Tarkovsky, interviewed in 1966, the year he completed his second feature, Andrei Rublev, it was “the worst of his films after The Cry.” Because of the color, because Antonioni got so seduced by “Monica Vitti’s red hair against the mists,” because “the color has killed the feeling of truth.” Well. This takes a bit of chewing and digesting. Take away the color and what are you left with? You’re left with L’Avventura, I suppose (also with Monica Vitti), and you’re so bored you long for color, for something to make time pass or to stop you minding that it’s not passing. Since we’re speaking about truth and how it feels, I feel honor-bound to admit that L’Avventura is the nearest I have ever come to pure cinematic agony. I saw it one summer, in a tiny cinema in the fifth arrondissement of Paris where the screen was no bigger than a big TV. (A black-and-white film, in Italian, with French subtitles, in Paris, in August, in my late twenties: a case study in loneliness.) The only way I was able to get through it was by saying to myself, I can’t bear this for another second, even though there was not actually such a thing as a second in L’Avventura. A minute was the minimum increment of temporal measurement. Every second lasted a minute, every minute lasted an hour, an hour a year, and so on. Trade time for a bigger unit of time. When I finally emerged into the Parisian twilight I was in my early thirties.[1]

Even to describe the black and white of Stalker as black and white is to tint what we’re seeing with an inappropriate suggestion of the rainbow. Technically this concentrated sepia was achieved by filming in color and printing in black and white. The result is a kind of submonochrome in which the spectrum has been so compressed that it might turn out to be a source of energy, like oil and almost as dark, but with a gold sheen, too. As well as the dripping there is a certain amount of creaking and other spooky noises that are not easy to explain. We are in the room now, looking at a bed.

A table, a bedside table, by definition far lower than the table in the bar. The rumble of some kind of transport causes the contents of the table to rattle. The vibrations are enough to make a glass of water shudder halfway across the table. Next to the table, in the bed, a woman is sleeping. Next to her is a little girl with a head scarf, and next to her, the man who is presumably her father. The rumble of the train grows louder. The whole place is shaking. It’s amazing anyone can sleep through a racket like that, especially as the train is also blaring out a recording of the “Marseillaise.” The camera tracks across the people in bed and then tracks back, moves one way very slowly and then moves back just as slowly. Antonioni liked long takes but Tarkovsky took this a stage further. “If the regular length of a shot is increased, one becomes bored, but if you keep on making it longer, it piques your interest, and if you make it even longer, a new quality emerges, a special intensity of attention.” This is Tarkovsky’s aesthetic in a nutshell. At first there can be a friction between our expectations of time and Tarkovsky time, and this friction is increasing in the twenty-first century as we move further and further away from Tarkovsky time toward moron time in which nothing can last—and no one can concentrate on anything—longer than about two seconds. Soon people will not be able to watch films like Stalker or to read Henry James because they will not have the concentration to get from one intermi­nable scene or sentence to the next. The time I might have been able to read late-period Henry James has passed, and because I have not read late-period Henry James I am in no position to say what harm has been done to my sensibility by not having done so. But I do know that if I had not seen Stalker in my early twenties my responsiveness to the world would have been radically diminished.

 

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The rattle of the train subsides and there is just the sound of dripping again and we’re back where we were a few moments ago, looking at the bed. The man wakes up and gets out of bed. Unusually, he sleeps without his trousers but with his sweater on. For a long time I thought that American men always slept in their underwear. It didn’t occur to me that this was a cinematic convention, something that men did in films so that when they got up in the morning, on-screen, they would not be naked. To sleep without trousers but with a sweater does not make sense with regard to any system of conventions. It just seems weird and not terribly hygienic. Another weird thing is that although he is keen not to wake up his wife he puts on his trousers and his heavy boots before clomping quietly into the kitchen, but I suppose his thinking is that if she can sleep through the train going by and the blare of the “Marseillaise”—to say nothing of the ambient creaking, groaning, and squeaking—then a bit of foot traffic is not going to make any difference. It’s also possible that she is only pretending to sleep. We see the back of his head. The man—and although we don’t know who he is yet, for the sake of simplicity, I am going to introduce a slight spoiler at this point and disclose that he is none other than the eponymous Stalker—emerges from the bedroom and looks in through the doors, as the camera looked in a few minutes earlier, when he was in the bed, the difference being that he is no longer in the bed. By any standards it’s a slow start to a movie. Officials from Goskino, the central government agency for film production in the USSR, complained about this, hoping the film could be “a little more ­dynamic, ­especially at the start.” Tarkovsky erupted: it actually needed to be slower and duller at the start so that anyone who had walked into the wrong theater would have time to leave before the action got underway. Taken aback by the ferocity of this response, one of the officials explained that he was just trying to see things from the audience’s point of view . . . He was not able to finish. Tarkovsky couldn’t give a toss about the audience. He only cared about the point of view of two people, Bresson and Bergman. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it![2]

He walks off to the right, but the camera stays where he was, seeing what he was seeing, what he no longer sees—which is his wife, getting blurrily out of bed.

He goes into the kitchen. Turns on the tap, ignites the boiler, cleans his teeth. A bulb comes on. Nice: you know, brighten the place up a bit and God knows it could do with a bit of brightening up. Tarkovsky has always been opposed to symbolic readings of the images in his film but one wonders about the significance of this bulb: Has the man just had a bright idea? If so, it turns out to be not such a good idea: the bulb flares extra bright and then goes off completely, as if it’s blown itself out. It may not be clear which country we’re in, but wherever we are it seems that getting reliable lighting might be a common problem.

In this instance, there’s a more specific problem, and it’s called the wife. Either she was awake all the time, or was woken up by the train, the “Marseillaise,” and her husband’s creaking around. She’s turned the dimmer into the opposite of a dimmer, into a brightener, has lit the place up so brightly that a second later it’s plunged into near darkness again. Their home could do with rewiring, evidently.

You know that expression “famous last words”? We are naturally curious about people’s last words, but it would be interesting to compile an exhaustive list of the first words—not just sounds, actual words—spoken in a film, run them through a computer, and subject the results to some kind of processing and analysis. In this film the first words are spoken by the wife and they are: “Why did you take my watch?” Yes, the film’s hardly started, she’s only just woken up, and, from a husbandly point of view, she’s already nagging. Nagging him and calling him a thief. No wonder he wants out. But of course we’re also getting the big theme introduced: time. Tarkovsky is saying to the audience: Forget about previous ideas of time. Stop looking at your watches, this is not going to proceed at the speed of Speed, but if you give yourself over to Tarkovsky time, then the helter-skelter mayhem of The Bourne Ultimatum will seem more tedious than L’Avventura. “I think that what a person normally goes to the cinema for is time,” Tarkovsky has said, “whether for time wasted, time lost, or time that is yet to be gained.” This sentiment is only a couple of words away from being in perfect accord with something even the most moronic cinemagoer would agree with. Those words are a good, as in “What people go to the cinema for is a good time, not to sit there waiting for something to happen.” (Some people lie outside any kind of consensus of why we go to the cinema. They don’t go to the cinema at all. For Strike, a character in Richard Price’s novel Clockers, a movie, any movie, is just “ninety minutes of sitting there”—a remark that could be taken as a negative endorsement of Tarkovsky’s claim.)

 

 

She expands on this notion of time—she’s lost her best years, has grown old—while the man is brushing his teeth. As she does so, you’re ­reminded again of Antonioni, because the plain truth is she’s no Monica Vitti. Frankly, the combination of nagging and permanently faded looks seems like a compelling incentive to leave. She lays a whole guilt trip on him, but the usual terms—you only think of yourself—are reversed, given a kind of Dostoyevskian twist: Even if you don’t think of yourself... [3]

She begs him to stay but, as she does so, you can see that she knows it’s in vain, that he’s going—even though he’s not actually said where he’s going. She says he’ll end up in prison. He says that everywhere’s a prison. Good answer. But a bad sign, marriagewise. It would seem that their relationship has got to the point where the default mode of communication is to bicker, quarrel, and contradict each other. It’s not a lot of fun, this mode, but it’s easy to get the hang of and immensely difficult to get out of once you’re in it: a prison, in fact. One assumes the man’s answer is intended metaphorically but the film often makes us wonder about when and where it is set and what its relationship is to the world beyond the screen. Stalker was made in the late 1970s, not the thirties or the fifties when the Soviet Union was a vast prison camp, when, in prison-camp slang (as Anne Applebaum points out in Gulag), “the world outside the barbed wire was not referred to as ‘freedom,’ but as the bolshaya zona, the ‘big prison zone,’ larger and less deadly than the ‘small zone’ of the camp, but no more human—and certainly no more humane.” By the time of Stalker, Communism had become, in Tony Judt’s words, “a way of life to be endured” (which sounds, incidentally, like an a­lternative translation of koyaanisqatsi, the Hopi Indian word meaning—as anyone who has ever enjoyed a couple of bong hits already knows—“way of life needing change” or “life out of balance”). Stalker is not a film about the Gulag, but the absent and unmentioned Gulag is constantly suggested, either by Stalker’s zek haircut or by the overlapping vocabulary.

 

 

 

After Stalker leaves, his wife has one of those sexualized fits (nipples prominently erect), of which Tarkovsky seems to have been fond, writhing away on the hard floor in a climax of abandonment.[4]

He, on the other hand, like many men before and since, is on his way to the pub, making his way through railway sidings, beautifully desolate and puddly, in the postindustrial fog.[5]

As the man makes his way across the tracks, a voice-over says everything’s “hopelessly boring”—a remark that makes one wonder how quickly a film can become boring. Which film holds the record in that particular regard? And wouldn’t that film automatically qualify as exciting and fast-moving if it had been able to enfold the viewer so rapidly in the itchy blanket of tedium? (Or perhaps one of the novelties of our era is the possibility of instant boredom—like instant coffee—as opposed to a feeling that has to unfold gradually, suffocatingly, over time.) The overheard voice generates some very basic confusion: Whose words are they? Presumably they are the vocalized thoughts of the person—Stalker—on-screen, tramping across the railroad tracks in the foggy fog, hands in pockets, looking pretty down in the mouth.

Especially when he sees—and it is revealed—that the person doing the talking, having the overheard thoughts, is another man, with a woman in a cute little fur cape. Uh-oh! The talker is still going on about how insufferably boring everything is. She asks him about the Bermuda Triangle. He goes on some more about how boring everything is, reckons that maybe even the Zone is boring, that it might have been more interesting to have lived in the Middle Ages. What does he mean by this? Is he saying, effectively, that he’d rather have been in Andrei Rublev than Stalker? Which wouldn’t make sense because he’s Tarkovsky’s favorite actor, Anatoly Solonitsyn—and thirteen years earlier he was Andrei Rublev in Andrei Rublev! She, on the other hand, looks like a refugee from the Antonioni set. Not only is she wearing the fur number and a long dress, they’re standing by a convertible—with the soft roof up—and she’s drinking out of a long clear glass, as if they’ve just emerged from the place in Red Desert where an orgy seems in the offing but never quite happens. They are at a port of some kind (ditto Red Desert). There’s a ship in the background and rigging, derricks.

It is obvious, from the moment he enters the frame, that Stalker takes a dim view of this pair, even though the man says that the woman—whose name he can’t recall—has agreed to come to the Zone, too, though, frankly, she does not seem to be dressed for any kind of expedition. She’s excited to meet an actual Stalker—evidently there’s quite an aura attached to this shadowy outlaw caste—but he has just one word for her: Go. It’s a man’s world, the Zone. She gets in the car and, pausing only to call Solonitsyn a cretin (or maybe she’s telling him that Stalker is a cretin), drives off—with his hat on the roof. It’s the first of several humorous moments in the film.

 

Stalker was not happy about the way this man brought along a woman, and he’s not happy about the way the man has been drinking. Yes, okay, I’ve been drinking, the man admits, but I’m not drunk. Half the population has a drink, the other half is drunk, he says. Is this an accurate reflection of drinking habits in the USSR?[6] A couple of times in his Diaries Tarkovsky talks about getting drunk and “go[ing] on the booze,” but Stalker, evidently, takes a dim view of drinking. At this stage, in fact, apart from the Zone, there’s nothing of which he does not take a dim view. The man takes a swig from a bottle; in the other hand he clutches a plastic bag, like a teenager with his stash of glue.

 



 

Stalker walks up the steps into a bar, the bar we saw earlier. Relatively speaking, customers are pouring in. Happy hour in a place that looks like people need it. The windows, like the barman’s jacket, could do with a good cleaning. They afford only the dimmest view of the world outside. Stalker is followed by the man who treats us to another bit of slapstick—slipping convincingly on the steps. It’s not just customers—the gags are coming thick and fast now, it’s practically Buster Keaton round here, Buster Keaton in his long-lost, social-realist classic, Happy Hour.

The tall man, the man we saw in the precredit sequence, is still there, drinking coffee, and the barman is still smoking. Not for the last time we are back where we started. We don’t need a sign to tell us this is the Last Chance Saloon. Chance of getting a decent cappuccino? Zero. Hundred-proof vodka? Now you’re talking. Stalker tells the tall fellow, Go ahead, have a drink—but when the other guy produces his bottle (he’s brought it with him into the bar, coals-to-Newcastle style) Stalker tells him to take it away. Okay, says the man, in the time-honored sophistry of the alcoholic, we’ll drink beer instead. The barman pours him a beer. Stalker glances at his watch, the watch he’s stolen from his wife, a gesture of impatience and anxiety that the audience may or may not share. All the time the barman is pouring his drink, the man is holding the glass, eager to get on the outside of what’s inside it. The moment the barman has stopped pouring he downs it in one—attaboy!—and by the time the barman has finished filling two other glasses he’s ready for a refill. At the heart of the Zone is the Room, a place where—we will learn later—your deepest wish will come true, but one gets the impression that this room is his Room, that his deepest wish is being catered for right here, chain-swilling beer.[7] He brings the refill and two ­other glasses over to Stalker and the tall man. He’s about to introduce himself but Stalker (played by Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) tells him his name is Writer and the tall guy’s name is Professor (Nikolai Grinko). Ah, hints of the heist here: Mr. Pink, Mr. White, and all that—generic code names in the style of Reservoir Dogs. Has Stalker been lured back into the Zone for one last job?

 

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Every time I see people drinking in films I am immediately seized with a desire to have a drink myself. Certain countries—that is, the films produced by certain countries—tend to make particular drinks look especially alluring. French films, predictably, make one crave red wine, but whites with a chateau on the label look pretty good, too. Whiskey looks good in westerns (men swaggering into saloons, thirsty from cattle drives). Beer looks great anywhere. And it’s not just the films. In most countries of the world, even the shittiest ones, you can generally get your hands on a beer that is, as they say, drinkable. Speaking of beer, we are interested, obviously, to see if Stalker is going to get one down him. Who knows, perhaps he’ll even get his round in? As it turns out, only Writer drinks anything at all. Professor sits with his coffee and Stalker just looks anxious. Writer is the one doing the drinking—maybe he should have been called Drinker—and he is also the one doing most of the talking. When Professor asks him what he writes, he says one should write about “absolutely nothing.” So, a Flaubertian in his way. In a letter of 1852 Flaubert announced his desire to write “a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the internal strength of its style, just as the earth, suspended in the void, depends on nothing external for its support; a book which would have almost no subject, or at least in which the subject would be almost invisible, if such a thing is possible.” In this direction, Flaubert believed, lay “the future of Art”: “there is no longer any orthodoxy, and form is as free as the will of its creator.” Compared to content-driven Hollywood cinema, this sounds like a reasonable prediction of what Tarkovsky would achieve in Mirror (the film he made before Stalker): not a film about nothing, obviously (it could ­equally claim to be a film about everything), but one held uniquely together by the director’s style—“the will of its creator”—rather than by the mechanical demands of narrative or “the burden of tradition.” Flaubert concludes this interlude of speculation with an observation that could have come straight from Tarkovsky’s Diaries: “from the standpoint of pure Art one might establish the axiom that there is no such thing as subject—style in itself being an absolute manner of seeing things.”

Anyway, they’re standing around the table in the bar, having a good old chat and a drink, though really Writer is the one doing most of the chatting and all of the drinking—and, in the time-honored tradition of the drunkard, he’s repeating himself. He’s going on about triangles again, just as he was with the woman outside, before Stalker sent her packing. Triangles this, triangles that. He wonders why Professor is going to the Zone but then launches into his own explanation of why he’s going there, what he’s looking for. Inspiration, it turns out. He’s washed-up. Finished. Maybe by going to the Zone he’ll be rejuvenated. Man, I know how he feels. I could do with a piece of that action myself. I mean, do you think I would be spending my time summarizing the action of a film almost devoid of action—not frame by frame, perhaps, but certainly take by take—if I was capable of writing about anything else?

All the time this conversation is going on the camera is moving in, getting tighter, but so imperceptibly you can’t tell it’s happening until it’s happened, until we are practically leaning on the table with them. Often, in Tarkovsky, when we think something is still, it’s not; at the very least, the frame is contracting or expanding slightly, almost as if the film were breathing.

We hear the hooting of a train, can hear that lonesome whistle blow. So, this grim-looking bar does have several things going for it—if by “several” we mean “one,” namely proximity to the railway station. The hooting grows louder. Do you hear it? Our train? says Stalker, checking his—i.e., his wife’s—watch. They get ready to leave the bar. No one says, “Drink up!” but that’s pretty much the idea. The camera continues to move in on Stalker who says to Luger, the lugubrious barman—a type so strong and silent he could have found work as an actor back in the twenties, before the introduction of sound—that if he doesn’t make it back, to “call” on his wife. And what? Deliver a message of condolence? Sit there smoking a cigarette, silently? See if there’s any chance of her laundering his jacket? After this speech Stalker stares right at the camera. Writer is about to leave the bar, we see the back of his head, and then he turns and stares straight at the camera so that, momentarily, in accord with the shot-reverse-shot convention, Stalker and Writer have both stared straight at each other. But it also seems that they are staring straight at us. This is in direct contravention of Roland Barthes’s little edict in his essay “Right in the Eyes” that, while it is permissible for the subject to stare into the lens—at the spectator—in a still photograph, “it is forbidden for an actor to look at the camera” in a movie. So convinced was Barthes of his own rule that he was “not far from considering this ban as the cinema’s distinctive feature . . . If a single gaze from the screen came to rest on me, the whole film would be lost.” In this case, though, the effect is to implicate us in the reciprocity of their gaze. We are going along for the ride, too. We are one of them.

 

 

 

They—we—head outside. Stalker is carrying some kind of takeout, and he tramps through a puddle. This is no accident. Whatever else he may be, Stalker is a man with a MacArthur-like indifference to getting his feet wet. They clamber into a waiting jeep. The air is filled, now, with the constant blowing of the lonesome whistle. It is raining, and the headlights of the jeep are pure white in the gloom and damp. Stalker is driving. Although we cannot see the rain falling through the air—it is drizzling, not pouring—we can see puddles, rain sprinkling the puddles, and the headlights reflected in the puddles, and the jeep driving through the drizzled headlights of the puddles, driving through shrubbery, through damp and gloomy alleyways in which lingering mist still lingers.

As the jeep turns a corner they hear the sound of a revving motorbike and hit the deck, the damp deck. On release, Stalker was billed as a sort of sci-fi film and this is the beginning of the most sci-fi-y sequence in the movie, even if, overall, Tarkovsky was pleased with the way he’d been able to get rid of most of the elements that made it look like sci-fi in the way he had not been able to do with Solaris, which remained within the confines of genre (difficult to avoid with a movie set in the future, on a space station) and was, for this reason, Tarkovsky’s least favorite of his films.[8]

The motorcyclist is some kind of guard, patrolling a perimeter or a premise. He’s wearing leather and a white helmet and looks like a guard from Metropolis or 1984. Inevitably, now that certain seminal dates in the calendar of sci-fi projection—1984, 2001—have come and gone, faded into history, large parts of the genre have acquired an antiquarian quality, have become a future-oriented subset of costume drama. One possible interpretation of this sequence, then, is that Stalker and his mates are trying to ­escape from the clutches of history itself, from the ruinous vision of the future ­announced by Marx, which, a little more than a decade after the film was made, would finally declare itself obsolete and bankrupt.

There follows a cat-and-mouse car chase. I say “car chase” but there’s only one car—a car that is actually a jeep—and it’s a bit confusing in terms of where exactly Stalker is going or trying to get to. In other words, it’s a car chase in classic mode in that it exists not in order to achieve anything in particular but in order to bring into existence and be part of the vehicular ritual called a car chase. While the jeep nips in and out of all this postindustrial dejection the gates are opened for the freight train whose lonesome whistle we have heard blowing. Like Luger, the barman, the guy who opens the gate is smoking a cigarette. He might be Stalker’s inside man, a believer in the Zone who, for some kind of cut, has agreed to help them get through. Once the gates are open and the jeep has slithered through, he runs off, to alert the authorities, presumably, so that, along with everything else, Stalker has the possibility of a double-cross to bear. We really could be in a heist movie—a sci-fi heist movie.

The big ole freight train heaves into view, bearing components of an electricity generator or something of that ilk, something huge, state funded, and, almost certainly, harmful to the environment. The heavy train rumbles to the heavily guarded border crossing. The screen creaks under the weight of everything that is being projected onto it, especially since what is being projected is like a distant memory of the dawn of cinema, of the Lumière brothers and their train arriving at the station in 1895. Bright lights. The guards—dressed like the one we saw earlier on the motorcycle—check to see that there aren’t stowaways hidden on or under the train. The irony, as Chris Marker points out in One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich, his homage to Tarkovsky, is that asylum and freedom lie behind the barbed wire, in the Zone. In a way, this is also true of Tarkovsky himself, for while he often felt frustrated by the control exercised by the state over his and others’ artistic freedom, in the West a subtler kind of censorship and tyranny—that of the market—would have made it extremely unlikely that he could ever have ­obtained permission (raised the funds) to make Mirror or Stalker. (How we loved making this point back in the 1980s!)

 

 

 

 

There’s a brief pause as Stalker waits for the right moment to make their bid for barbed-wire freedom. Writer takes advantage of this lull to get all maudlin.

He doesn’t really care about inspiration and doesn’t know what he wants or if he really wants what he wants or doesn’t want what he really wants, and he doesn’t even care if the other two are listening—and who could blame them if they’re not?

As the train makes its way beyond the barriers, the jeep comes sliding along in its wake, on the coattails of the iron horse. The guards are hardly on the ball but, once the alarm is sounded and the searchlights flick on, they are not slow to open fire. It really is all action at this point—maybe Tarkovsky was right about starting slowly so people who’d come in by mistake had time to leave. There are ricochets and everything. Things get blown apart and the jeep crashes through a pile of crates. They come to a halt in another part of what seems an infinite warehouse complex. The air is full of the cawing of birds. Instead of the lonesome whistle, there is the busy moan of foghorns. Whatever else it may be, this is obviously a major transportation hub. Stalker tells Writer to see if there’s a trolley. In a few minutes we will see that he means a little diesel-powered thing that takes them along a narrow-gauge railway track, but at this point the word suggests that they are in the one of the world’s more decrepit airports or an outpost of Sainsbury’s that has long since gone belly-up. Obediently, if rather grudgingly, Writer goes looking for a trolley but finds only a volley—of fire from the guards. He is sent sprawling into a spongy safety net of botany. By this point he is possibly regretting all those drinks he downed before setting out on what is proving to be a quite dangerous escapade, not the well-oiled caper he had envisaged. The sober Professor says he’ll go instead, into another even wetter and more ruined part of wherever the fuck they are. Shots are fired at him, too, but they miss and land in the water, leaving pale oblongs of light—­­r­­­e­­­­flecti­ons of windows, the world outside—to sway and settle and eventually, after the camera has moved on, to resume their shapely place in the brackish water’s scheme of things. Professor finds the trolley car and waves the others toward him, through the water that he’s just walked through, the water that is being dripped into by more of itself. You can see why Stalker didn’t mind about that puddle outside the bar: they all have wet feet now! Another hail of bullets, but harmless, Where Eagles Dare–ish in their harmlessness. They clamber onto the trolley car, hunched and seated, and they’re off, the three of them, chugging out of sight, screen left.

There follows one of the great sequences in the history of cinema. First, there is Writer’s head in tight close-up, while, in the unfocused background, some kind of landscape blurs past. The camera moves from Writer to Professor (in his bobble hat, the texture of his coat in sharp focus) to Stalker and back, as they scrutinize their surroundings with concentration, perplexity, foreboding, and, in the case of Writer, a suggestion of hungover befuddlement. These are the faces—the expressions—of travelers anywhere, from Columbus’s crew in search of the East Indies, to tourists in a taxi on their way from the airport to some city center that they—Writer and Professor at least—have never visited before. They’re taking everything in even though they’re not sure if what they’re seeing is any different from what they’ve already seen or where they’ve just been. Frankly, they’re not entirely sure that what they’re taking in is worth taking in, a feeling we’ve all had as we make our hyperattentive way through the universally uninteresting, often desolate stretch between airport and the luxurious promise (hotel, cafés) of the city center. Occasionally the camera permits a focused glimpse of what they are passing by—mist, a brick building, piles of discarded pipes, crates, a river (or possibly a lake)—but even then, even when we can see clearly, we are not sure what we are seeing. Outskirts, periphery, abandonedness. Buildings that are no longer what they were once intended for: sites of decayed meaning that may, as a result, have acquired some new and deeper meaning. It depends. On what? On whether we have entered the Zone yet. We are, as Roberto Calasso says of Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle, “on the threshold of a hidden world that one suspects is implicit in this world.” The threshold is a thin line, and it is also ubiquitous. Stalker must know if we are in the Zone—he, after all, has been here many times before. So what are his feelings? Impossible to say: his expression of furrowed anxiety, of generalized unhappiness—all the world’s a prison—has not changed since the film began.

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In his poem “The Movies,” Billy Collins says he’s in the mood to watch a movie in which “someone embarks on a long journey, / a movie with the promise of danger.” I like movies like that, too, whether the journey is by boat (Apocalypse Now, Deliverance), train (Von Ryan’s Express), or car (take your pick). Collins doesn’t care what dangers are encountered in the film he’s watching since he will just be sitting there, watching. So they’re our representatives, these three middle-aged men, sitting there watching, still and still moving, while the endless gray-black Bayeux of imagery slides past their eyes and into their heads. This long tracking sequence, following the trolley as it clanks and clangs along, is the most straightforward journey imaginable—horizontal, flat, right to left, in a straight line—and full of all the promised wonder of cinema. That’s what we are being sold in the trailers that precede what used to be called the “feature presentation.” Unfortunately, this has become some of the most debased wonder in the history of the earth. It means explosions, historical epics in which the outcome of the Battle of Hastings is reversed by the arcane CGI prowess of Merlin the Magician; it means five-year-old children turning suddenly into snarling devils; it means wrecking cars and reckless driving; it means a lot of noise; it means that I have to time my arrival carefully (twenty minutes at least) after the advertised program time if I am to avoid all this stuff which, if one were exposed to it for the full hour and a half, would cause one’s capacity for discernment to drop by 50 percent (or, conversely, one’s ability to tolerate stuff like this to increase a hundredfold). It means sitting there shaking one’s middle-aged head; it means that one is wary about going to the cinema. It means that there are more and more things on the street, in shops, on-screen, and on television from which one has to avert one’s ears and eyes. With television I have my strict rule, a rule applying to Jeremy Clarkson, Jonathan Ross, Russell Brand, Graham Norton, and a whole bunch of others whose names I don’t even know: I won’t have these people in the house. It’s not—as Stalker claimed—that all the world’s a prison; it’s just that a lot of what’s being shown on the world’s screens—televisions, cinemas, computers—is fit only for morons. Which is another reason why, in the long years since I first saw Stalker, I am as badly in need of the Zone and its wonders as any of the three men on the trolley as they sit there and the blurry landscape clangs past. The Zone is a place of uncompromised 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. That’s another of Tarkovsky’s virtues: an absolute freedom from cliché in a medium where clichés are not only tolerated but, in the form of unquestioning adherence to convention, expected. There are no clichés in Tarkovsky: no clichés of plot, of character, of framing, no clichés of music to underline the emotional meaning of a scene (or, as is more usually the case, to compensate or make up for an emotional meaning that would be absent were it not for the ­music). Actually, we need to qualify this slightly: there are no one else’s clichés in Tarkovsky. By the time of his final films, Nostalghia and The Sacrifice, he is reliant both conceptually and incrementally on Tarkovskian cliché. Bergman said that, toward the end, Tarkovsky “began to make films that copied Tarkovsky.” Wim Wenders felt exactly the same way about Nostalghia, that Tarkovsky was “using some of his typical narrative devices and shots as if they were between quotation marks.” [9] The guru became his own most devoted disciple.

We are in no hurry for this sequence to be over with, partly because it’s difficult to keep track of how long it lasts. Writer’s appearing to nod off suggests that, on this most linear of journeys, we are drifting into nonlinear time, are entering dreamtime, but a dreamtime where everything, every treasured detail is anchored firmly in the real and the now. Professor and Writer are wondering exactly the same thing that we are, the question we asked as children on every journey with our parents: Are we there yet? Is this the Zone? Is this it? That, perhaps, is a question that can only be answered by the questioner, when he stops asking it. We are in the Zone when we believe we are there. The blurred landscape slips and clangs past. What we are seeing may be the external representation of the dream-flecked remains of Writer’s sleep, a sleep littered with booze-blurred memories of things he has seen a few minutes or hours earlier: abandoned buildings, discarded metals, the man-made poised to return to the natural. Is anything especially worthy of our attention? Everything is, or may be.

It lasts long enough, this sequence (a sequence one remembers as a single take, though it actually consists of five), to lull us into a kind of trance. There then occurs one of the miracles of cinema, one of several miracles in a film about an allegedly miraculous place. It’s not a jump cut or fade but suddenly and gently—the clanging and echoey clank of the music and trolley are still on the sound track—unambiguously, we’re in color and in the Zone.[10] You can watch the trolley-car sequence again and again, can refuse to succumb to its hypnotic monotony, and you can never predict where it will come, this moment of subtle and absolute transition. Camera and trolley continue clanking forward for a few moments and then come to a halt. The camera pauses and moves back.

We are there. We are in the Zone.



[1] There’s a wonderful moment in Tempo di Viaggio, the documentary Tarkovsky made about his time in Italy, researching what would become Nostalghia with screenwriter Tonino Guerra. The two of them are sitting there, chatting. The phone rings and Guerra answers: “Si . . . Oh, Michelangelo . . . ” Antonioni has called up for a chat! It’s the twentieth-century cinematic equivalent of those entries in the Goncourts’ Journals: “A ring at the door. It
was Flaubert.”

 

[2] Tarkovsky constantly reiterated his admiration for and love of these two, especially Bresson, with whom he shared a special Grand Prix du Cinéma de Création (for Nostalghia and L’Argent, respectively), announced by Orson Welles, in Cannes, in 1983. Quite a trio. Bresson declines to give any kind of acceptance speech, Tarkovsky shrugs and says, “Merci beaucoup”; neither behaves with any graciousness. Maybe both are a little miffed at having to share the honor with the other.

 

[3] Tarkovsky’s wife, Larissa, wanted this part and the director-husband was eager to give her the role. He was persuaded to drop her in favor of Alisa Freindlikh by other crew members, chief among them Georgy Rerberg, director of photography on Stalker—initially—and Tarkovsky’s previous film, Mirror. In making an enemy of Larissa, the seeds were perhaps sown for Rerberg’s later dismissal or departure—depending on whom you believe—from the film.

 

[4] Cf. The second resurrection of Hari, coming back to life, so to speak, in a see-through shorty nightie after drinking liquid oxygen in Solaris.

 

[5] Printed in The Observer alongside a review by the film critic Philip French, a still from this sequence was actually one of the things that persuaded my friend Russell and me to see the film in the first place. When I was a boy, growing up in Cheltenham, stills were displayed outside the ABC, the Coliseum, and the Odeon as a way of luring you in, and it was always a significant moment when you saw the still image in motion. (The ABC and the Coliseum are long gone and the Odeon is now derelict, though I still think of it as the Odeon, just as my parents always referred to it and the ABC by their earlier incarnations and names—the Gaumont and the Regal, respectively—thereby suggesting that these places were the sites of some kind of mythic prehistory, an impression heightened by the fact that I saw the film ­adaptation of Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods in one of them.) It confirmed that you were within the experience advertised outside, even though it was almost impossible to pin down the precise moment when the still was taken (we didn’t realize, back then, that a still was not a frame lifted from the flow of images, but a different, independent entity), or at least the slight lag between “seeing” the still and recognizing it as such meant that it had morphed into a slightly different image. A still, it seemed, was not still at all, more like the aftermath of a more specific but still elusive tingle of déjà vu.

 

[6] Certainly, drinking on set was a widespread problem, especially during the periods
when something went wrong (something was always going wrong) and there was nothing to do but wait for it to be sorted out. A snowstorm in June threatened to shut down the production completely. Then Tarkovsky announced, out of the blue, that shooting would begin again at seven the next morning. Sound engineer Vladimir Sharun went to Solonitsyn’s room to let him know and found the actor and his makeup man “totally out of it.” The makeup man immediately asked for three kilograms of potatoes so that the peel could be applied to Solonitsyn’s face and reduce the swelling caused by “the two-week binge.” (Not two days, two weeks.) The potatoes were procured and the potion mixed, Sharun returned to Solonitsyn’s room to find the makeup man flat on his back, and the star applying this peasant version of a Kiehl’s product to his face.

 

[7] A sentiment shared by many men on this thirsty earth of ours. When I was a boy my dad would come home from work, after the summer holidays, full of disgust for his work-mates who had been on holiday somewhere and had spent the entire time at the bar or around a swimming pool, drinking, either in Spain or some other place where the licensing laws were not as repressive as in England. That was their deepest desire and wish. We rarely went anywhere on holiday because my dad’s deepest desire was always to save money, and the best way to do this was not to leave our home, the room where money came in, very slowly, but left even more reluctantly.

 

[8] Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 version is obviously and consciously a sci-fi film set in the sci-future. He claimed his film was not a remake of Tarkovsky’s Solaris but a refilming of the Stanislaw Lem novel on which Tarkovsky’s film was based. There was certainly scope for this as far as Lem was concerned; in his opinion, Tarkovsky “did not make Solaris; what he made was Crime and Punishment.” Still, in the very first shot of Soderbergh’s film (raindrops on a windowpane, olive green and beigey brown), it’s obvious that memories of Tarkovsky’s Solaris (specifically the transitional shot near the end, taking us back from the space station to Earth, of a plant on Kris’s brown-beige windowsill) are intent on coming (and are intended to come) back to haunt us. The film is a lot better than Tarkovsky loyalists might care to ­admit, and George Clooney is good as always, even though he looks, as usual, like he’s starring in a (futuristic) advert for George Clooney. The most interesting thing about it, from my point of view, was that from the start Natascha McElhone looked rather like my wife. After a while this became so striking that I whispered to my wife, “She looks incredibly like you.” “I know,” my wife whispered back. This resemblance deepened as the film continued. With every subsequent death and reincarnation of her character, Natascha McElhone came to resemble my wife more and more closely until, about halfway through, it was exactly like watching my wife up there on-screen, constantly getting killed off and constantly coming back with more devotion and more love. Although I was deluded in thinking that it was my wife on-screen, this delusion was encouraged by the film to the extent that I was more deeply implicated in the on-screen drama than I had ever been before. Just as writers sometimes speak of an ideal reader, so, in a way, I was Soderbergh’s ideal viewer. There I was, thinking, My God, it’s my wife, and there was Clooney being told, “That’s not your wife, you’re dreaming her.” It was like one of those dreams in which you wake up only to find that you have woken up in another layer of dreaming (in the same way that a phrase in a little aside about a film by Soderbergh paves the way for a further digression into Christopher Nolan’s money- and brain-wasting Inception). This was not vanity on my part, the dream was not all-enveloping: I wasn’t sitting there thinking, I’m married to Natascha McElhone, therefore I’m George fucking Clooney. But I wasn’t—we weren’t—alone in thinking that my wife looked incredibly like Natascha McElhone. We once went to a wedding in the Adirondacks where a fellow guest sidled up to my wife and said, “I’ve been wondering all weekend if you’re really Natascha McElhone.” At least two other people made similar observations in the years immediately following the film’s release. We watched Solaris again a few days ago, only to discover, predictably enough, that my wife no longer looks like Natascha McElhone in Solaris—but then neither does Natascha McElhone. We were sitting near her at a lavish fund-raiser for the ICA in 2010, and although we did not chat we were able to have a discreetly good gawk. Natascha McElhone and my wife have both changed, but have changed differently—in the same direction (they’re older) but in slightly different ways. It doesn’t matter. In the film Natascha McElhone is as she is because that’s how George Clooney remembers her, and she looks like my wife because that is how I remember her. Only the film preserves that memory of how alike they were, more alike than the two films of the same book.

 

[9] On the subject of quotation within film: an interesting study could be made of scenes in films where bits of other films are seen, glimpsed, or watched, either at a drive-in, on TV, or in the cinema (Frankenstein in The Spirit of the Beehive, Red River in The Last Picture Show, The Passion of Joan of Arc in Vivre sa Vie). Actually, maybe it wouldn’t be that interesting after all; one wouldn’t get far without the word meta cropping up and turning everything to dust. But, as it happens, this sequence in Stalker is used to brilliant effect in Uzak (Distant, 2002) by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Mahmut, a middle-aged photographer, is living in Istanbul. When his clodhopping cousin, Yusuf, comes to the city looking for work, Mahmut is obliged to put him up in his apartment. They may be from the same village, but they’re worlds apart and Mahmut is not about to compromise his high aesthetic standards just ­because a dull-witted cousin has come to stay. So when we see them at home, feet up, watching TV, it’s not Top Gear or Turkey’s Got Talent they’re watching; it’s Stalker, the trolley sequence. The two of them are slumped and stretched out in their chairs, in a torpor of concentration and boredom. Mahmut is eating nuts, pistachios presumably. Cousin Yusuf has nodded off. One can hardly blame him; even the most boring night in the village cannot compare with the depths of tedium being plumbed here. Professor, Stalker, and Writer are on-screen, on the trolley, heading toward the Zone, faces in tight close-up, while, in the unfocused background, some kind of landscape blurs past. The electronic score echoes and clangs through the apartment. Yusuf wakes up, amazed to discover that he’d only been asleep for a few seconds or, even more amazingly, that after a decent nap the TV is still showing these three old blokes drifting along the railroad to nowhere. Peasant he might be, but at some level he has intuited Baudrillard’s insight that television is actually a broadcast from another planet. The evening, evidently, is not going to improve. He decides to go to bed. They say good night. After a decent interval, Mahmut gets up, fetches a video, puts it in the VCR, and points the remote. Stalker is replaced by girl-on-girl porn. Everything else remains pretty much unchanged. Before, he had one foot on the pouf, and one hitched up over the arm of the chair. Now he has both feet on the pouf, otherwise he’s stretched out the same way as when he was watching Stalker. The only difference is that now, instead of this long magical sequence of three men clanging toward the Zone, we’ve got a silicon-breasted woman sucking the enormous tits of a Page 3 model. Upstairs, Yusuf calls home. After a while he comes down again, and Mahmut, who has not budged, who is not jerking off, whose fly is not even open, just about has time to flip to a broadcast channel. The fact that the indescribably boring film they were watching before has morphed into some kind of comedy is not lost on Yusuf—this is much more his cup of tea—and he stands there snickering a bit, so Mahmut flips channels again and comes to a kung fu movie—which is exactly Yusuf’s cup of tea. His evening has improved after all, but Mahmut’s has taken a decided turn for the worse: no Tarkovsky and no g.o.g. action, just him and his moronic cousin watching a kung fu film. It’s late, he says. Let’s turn that off.

If you wanted a definition of deadpan you could do a lot worse than choose this sequence to illustrate your point. In fact, thinking about it, this is probably the most deadpan sequence I have ever seen in a film. It’s so deadpan that you have to be a real cinephile to find it funny, and even then you don’t actually laugh out loud. You just sit there on the sofa with your feet up, munching pistachios, watching, snickering. If you laugh out loud it’s partly to show you get the joke in all its precise levels of denotation, but there’s an element of affectation about that laughter; it’s one of those laughs that contains the desire to explain why you’re laughing, why you’re so clever. If I were to make a film I would definitely contrive a scene in which a couple of people were watching a bit of Uzak, though probably not this bit. That way, I’d really show how clever I was, and it would give people in the audience a chance to have a good, third-degree, cinephilic metachuckle.

[10] The similarities between Stalker and The Wizard of Oz have been widely remarked on: Dorothy longs to leave her small black-and-white town in Kansas; a tornado transports her to the magically colored kingdom of Oz, where she and her companions—Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and Scarecrow—set off on a journey to find the wonderful wizard, who will allegedly grant all their wishes, et cetera. Or so I’m told. I take other people’s word for it. I’ve never seen The Wizard of Oz, not even as a kid, and obviously have no intention of making good that lack now.

 

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