(A&F links to Andrei Tarkovsky and Stalker)
Alright everyone, one of our most anticipated books of the year is out in the stores now. We might as well have a thread for it. Since Stalker is now going to be ranked #2 in our soon to be released Top 25 Pilgrimage films list, it's rather nice that there's a book coming out just now on it.
From The Guardian -
Rightly or wrongly, the synopsis is regarded as one of the lowest forms of writing. Two-thirds of the way into Zona, his characteristically singular book about Andrei Tarkovksy's Stalker (1979), Geoff Dyer declares: "There are few things I hate more than when someone, in an attempt to persuade me to see a film, starts summarising it." Doing so has the effect of "destroying any chance of my ever going to see it". It's a surprising assertion – though less so if you're familiar with Dyer's books which, whether they're about jazz, the first world war or DH Lawrence, go out of their way to fuse form and content in arresting fashion – because Zona is one long movie summary, a shot-by-shot rewrite.
... At a time when David Cameron appears to regard The King's Speech as the acme of film-making, and any art that's remotely ambitious is derided as obscurantist or elitist by middle England's cultural gatekeepers, it's especially important to stress that interested film-goers can enjoy works more challenging than The Inbetweeners Movie. It's equally pleasing to read Dyer speak up for the pleasures of watching films, not in domesticated and tamed form on DVD, but at the cinema. Stalker itself, which is an immersive experience as much as it's a visual spectacle, loses its magnetic force when watched at home. Dyer talks about the "possibility of cinema as semi-permanent pilgrimage site". He also claims "the Zone is cinema." Beyond the book's bravura formalism and in spite of the suspicion that it could be viewed as a highbrow take on live-blogging, it's Dyer's ability at moments like this to make pilgrims of his readers and to lead them on a journey in search of truths about love and about the nature of happiness that make Zona such an exhilarating achievement.
Stalker is, as Dyer sees it, ‘a test of the viewer’s ability to appreciate it’; within the film, the Zone is also a ‘test’ of its visitors. Zona follows suit. The unknown nature of the book involves reader and writer in an exercise of trust. In this sense it revisits the original sense of an ‘essay’ as ‘a trial, testing, proof; or experiment’(OED). Rather than fashioning his book from a nice knock-down argument, Dyer improvises a set of responses, risking failure in the final outcome, as he modestly boasts: ‘whether it will amount to anything – whether it will add up to a worthwhile commentary, and whether this commentary might become a work of art in its own right – is still unclear’. His apparent lack of agenda actually serves the book’s interests well. It thrives on the creative potential of his personal reactions, which are probably sharpened by all this uncertainty. Like live performance, the writing is also energised by unpredictability and, consequently, also makes better reading. It is like the difference between, on the one hand, talking to someone who charmlessly steers the exchange towards a winning point and, on the other hand, speaking to a dynamic and open conversationist.
Dyer’s project continues a vital legacy. He claims, ‘if I had not seen Stalker in my early twenties my responsiveness to the world would have been radically diminished’. He shares with his idol an artistic ideal of awareness, describing Tarkovsky’s aesthetic as a length of take demanding ‘a special intensity of attention’. The inverse dominates much contemporary culture where, ‘a lot of what’s being shown on the world’s screens is fit only for morons’ with the result that ‘there are more and more things from which one has to avert one’s ears and eyes’. Rubbish art that warrants ignorance. A bit broad-brush and heavy-handed, but its Dyer’s reason for writing. Against a social dystopia of willed numbness, Zona documents a profound engagement with an artwork. It is not so much homage to the film alone, but to the dialogue it inspires.
... Many art house films are slow-paced precisely because their directors wish us to mull over what it is that we have just seen, they fully expect our minds to wander and slow down the pace precisely in order to enable these flights of interpretative fancy. As a director who fully identified with the European art house tradition and the creator of some of the most beautiful, entrancing and spiritually confusing films ever made, Tarkovsky is a worthy ambassador for precisely this kind of filmmaking. In fact, one could quite reasonably argue that Stalker is one of the exemplars of the European art house tradition. Once you realise that the point of Stalker is to invite speculation, Zona snaps into focus: This is not a traditional work of criticism, it is an account of Geoff Dyer’s subjective response to viewing Stalker and each of his dalliances, tangents and footnotes represents an attempt to fill one of the gaps created in Dyer’s mind by Tarkovsky. As Bordwell predicted back in 1985, Dyer reacts to the gaps in his understanding by drawing on his understanding of film, his knowledge of literature and his biographical insight into Tarkovsky himself. When neither realistic nor authorial interpretative strategies fill the gaps then Dyer shifts into a more autobiographical register where he relates the film both to his personal experience and to his wider cultural interests.
It is in these dalliances that Dyer’s voice is at its strongest and most recognisable, habitués of Dyer’s writing may feel like taking a drink every time he references the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, the mundane irritations of travel or the experience of being an intelligent 20-something with too much time and too little to do. Ultimately, Zona is not just ‘a Geoff Dyer book’ it is arguably the most Geoff Dyer book that Geoff Dyer has thus far written. By using Stalker as a jumping off point for his tangents and dalliances, Dyer’s writing acquires a degree of tonal and thematic coherence that is sometimes lacking in many of his other works. To borrow a term from the Colin Marshall interview I linked to above, Zona is not just Geoff Dyer doing the same old shtick, it is Geoff Dyer doing the same old shtick and allowing that shtick to be transformed by the themes and concerns of Tarkovsky’s film. Yes, Dyer complains about losing his backpack and yes, Dyer quotes the same Austrian poet he always quotes but Dyer also reflects upon the point of his writing and what it is that he hopes to achieve by writing this kind of book. Consider the following passage:
What is the point in coming here? The purpose of coming here was to get to the point where that question could be asked of oneself rather than someone else. There always comes a moment in the writing of a book when its purpose is revealed: the moment when the urge – Nabokov’s famous ‘throb’ – that led one to consider writing it is made plain. Actually there are two moments, or, if it makes sense to put it like this, the moment comes in two phases. First when one realises that yes, there is a book here – however faintly it can be discerned – not just a haphazard collection of jottings and crossings-out clustered around an inadequately formed idea. Since, in principle, getting to that point should be easy, it’s disheartening to find that so much time and energy have to be wasted, that so many pointless detours, irritating obstacles, self-imposed tests and excuses (that voice constantly whispering or crying out ‘Stop!’) conspire to get in the way. But at that point when you realise that there is a book, even a short one with little hope of critical approval or large sales, you see that all these diversions were necessary and so, strictly speaking, were not diversions at all. [Pp 185-186]