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Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room (2012)

Geoff Dyer Andrei Tarkovsky

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#1 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 21 February 2012 - 02:59 AM

(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.

From The White Review -


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.

From Ruthless Culture -


... 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]

 



#2 Tyler

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 11:06 PM

LA Times review (the writer hasn't seen Stalker).

In Tarkovsky's Zone, Dyer sees echoes of the Russian gulags, the haunted nature of post-meltdown Chernobyl and the chaotic first hours of Sept. 11 — an impressively broad palette for a film more than 30 years old. And though Dyer colors his book with a staggering arsenal of cultural references from Rilke, recording artists Thievery Corporation and even "bumfights" videos with an acrobatic grace, it's the book's slow reveal of Dyer's interpretation of the Zone that eventually leaves the greatest impact.

For all the witty, self-referential asides that can make the book feel like the smartest "Mystery Science Theater 3000" episode ever written, it's Dyer's emotional tie to Writer's journey and the wish fulfillment of that vocation that stay with you the longest after the lights finally come up.


Edited by Tyler, 23 February 2012 - 11:07 PM.


#3 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 24 February 2012 - 01:56 PM

Warning: I opened this up after 10pm or so last night and then, upon turning the last page of the book, I suddenly realized it was past 2am in the morning. I wouldn't necessarily describe it as a book that you can't put down, but it's a certainly a book that you can completely lose track of everything else around you while reading it.

#4 Christian

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Posted 25 February 2012 - 07:32 PM

Jeremy, how directly does Dyer address religion in Zona? This article had me excited at first, but as I read into it, I began to think Dyer's observations of the film might miss the point.

Dyer duly notes that the setting foreshadows the Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown in the Ukraine in 1986 (he calls Tarkovsky “a prophet”), and that the Zone also echoes Stalin’s gulags. Citing Wordsworth, he addresses the importance of such man-made landscapes: “It is when there is some kind of human interaction with landscape, when the landscape, having been manufactured or altered, is in the process of being reclaimed by nature – a source of abiding fascination for Tarkovsky – that its ‘inward meaning’ is most powerfully felt.”

By the end of their journey, Stalker, Writer, and Professor have learned that the Zone “is not a place of hope so much as a place where hope turns in on itself, resigns itself to the way things are.” Not exactly a heart-warming takeaway.


EDIT: I should add that I loved Dyer's quote here:

How, you might ask, can anyone spin a 228-page book out of remembering and misremembering that? The simple answer is that Dyer, much like Tarkovsky, recalibrates our sense of time. He doesn’t merely slow things down, he sometimes freezes them, the better to examine them under his microscope. Instructively, Dyer quotes Tarkovsky here: “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,” Dyer writes, “is Tarkovsky’s aesthetiic 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 towards moron-time in which nothing can last – and no one can concentrate on anything – for more than about two seconds…. Tarkovsky is saying to the audience: Forget about previous ideas of time. Stop looking at your watches.”

Edited by Christian, 25 February 2012 - 07:34 PM.


#5 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 27 February 2012 - 01:36 PM

Jeremy, how directly does Dyer address religion in Zona? This article had me excited at first, but as I read into it, I began to think Dyer's observations of the film might miss the point.

Dyer duly notes that the setting foreshadows the Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown in the Ukraine in 1986 (he calls Tarkovsky “a prophet”), and that the Zone also echoes Stalin’s gulags. Citing Wordsworth, he addresses the importance of such man-made landscapes: “It is when there is some kind of human interaction with landscape, when the landscape, having been manufactured or altered, is in the process of being reclaimed by nature – a source of abiding fascination for Tarkovsky – that its ‘inward meaning’ is most powerfully felt.”

By the end of their journey, Stalker, Writer, and Professor have learned that the Zone “is not a place of hope so much as a place where hope turns in on itself, resigns itself to the way things are.” Not exactly a heart-warming takeaway.

I think this reviewer gets it incredibly wrong. He might as well just be pulling out quotes from the book at random. Dyer does not leave his discussion of the ending with any sort of resignation at all. On the contrary, he actually argues that the film, along with its ending, is one of the most meaningful and powerful films ever made.

Also, Dyer can't really help but address religion directly because he's writing about a Tarkovsky film. The script, after all, contains selections from the gospels and the book of Revelation. The parallels between religion and the faith and/or doubt exhibited by the three men in the film are limitless, and Dyer constantly returns to this theme. Dyer explores how the Stalker has faith in the Zone, and it becomes his job to try and somehow share his faith with these other difficult men. On the other hand, anyone expecting explicit discussions of Christianity in the book will be disappointed. This is, obviously, not a "Christian" book that you'd find on the shelves of a Christian bookstore. No "plans of salvation" are discussed at the end.

Once you start reading, you can't help but appreciate how much the author has wrestled with Tarkovsky's work. He's a good writer to begin with, and he brings a fascinating background of experiences to bear on this thought here. There are multiple layers of meaning, of literary and historical allusions, of profound beauty, of significant philosophical import ... and Dyer explores every single one of them that he can. Does he even get to everything? I don't think he does. But it is a testimony to the film itself that an entire book devoted to exploring the meaning of its story still isn't quite long enough. Long enough or entirely satisfying? No. Something worth thinking and talking about with your friends for a long time after? Yes.

#6 Christian

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Posted 27 February 2012 - 03:54 PM

Thanks for fleshing that out, Jeremy. I'm reassured.

#7 Christian

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Posted 01 March 2012 - 05:44 PM

I wish the author would come to D.C. to promote the book, but for now I'll have to content myself with online articles like this one.

Dyer's upcoming events are listed here. Those who live in Seattle, New York and California should take note.

Edited by Christian, 01 March 2012 - 05:45 PM.


#8 Christian

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Posted 03 March 2012 - 08:48 PM

Dana Stevens' review, FWIW.

#9 Christian

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Posted 03 March 2012 - 09:19 PM

J. Hoberman in yesterday's NY Times!

Quite a publicity push behind this book.

Edited by Christian, 03 March 2012 - 09:19 PM.


#10 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 04 March 2012 - 03:16 PM

Dana Stevens' review, FWIW.

In which she writes:
... But if Zona goes off in a few too many directions, most of them are fascinating enough that we’re happy to zigzag along in the author’s wake. In addition to being a real-time explication of a single movie, Zona is a meditation on movies and time: the way movies change us, and change for us, as we return to them through our lives ...

This is true and is the primarily reason I found the book to be so enjoyable.

J. Hoberman in yesterday's NY Times!

In which he writes:
... Dyer casts himself as “Stalker’s” stalker; getting there, as cruise lines used to advertise, is half the fun. “We are in another world that is no more than this world perceived with unprecedented attentiveness,” he writes, and his own close attention is admirable. Taking pains to nail the feel of Tarkovsky’s locations (“the echoey, intestinal, glass-strewn, stalactite-adorned tunnel”) ...

Reading Dyer's prose and descriptions of the very atmosphere of the film is all enveloping. It's the sort of writing you submerge yourself into, which is why I think it's one of those books that is especially enjoyable if you are able to read the whole thing in one sitting.

#11 Christian

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Posted 10 March 2012 - 11:42 PM

Glenn Kenny attends a Stalker screening and discussion with Geoff Dyer, Walter Murch, Phillip Lopate and Dana Stevens. Interesting insights, including this:

(Philip is a neighbor and friend and after the event proper I had an amiable chat in which we reflected that neither of us should be surprised that he chafes at Tarkovsky's evangelical side).

#12 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 11 March 2012 - 12:42 AM

Kenny also posted this item on the book a couple days ago.

#13 Overstreet

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Posted 14 March 2012 - 01:20 PM

Now, David Thomson.

Geoff says he loves Stalker and that it changed his life, but he doesn’t really say why he loves it, and having known him on and off I’m not sure that anything is going to change his life so long as he can sit in his cardigan in a room of his own and make up books like this.


Edited by Overstreet, 14 March 2012 - 01:23 PM.


#14 andrew_b_welch

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Posted 14 March 2012 - 02:01 PM

Bought a copy of this just the other day when I visited Boston. Looking forward to reading it very soon.

#15 Tyler

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Posted 14 March 2012 - 03:28 PM

The book is enjoyable for the most part (the off-hand dismissals of the Coens, Veronique, etc., were annoying), but I'm fairly obsessed with Stalker and have watched it several times, and Zona didn't point out much I hadn't noticed already. The most interesting part for me was learning about the film stock fiasco that was discussed earlier in the thread.

#16 Christian

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Posted 31 March 2012 - 07:08 PM

Scott Esposito goes thumbs down at Salon, which appears to have given over its Books channel completely to Barnes & Noble Review reprints.

I just bought the book yesterday -- from the Barnes and Noble (!) website -- and am looking forward to reading it. Although I agree with Dyer that Stalker is best experienced only on the big screen, I broke down Friday when I saw a DVD copy of the film at the library. I want to watch it again before I read the book. But that's probably a mistake. The DVD is infamous for having only a surround-sound mix and no mono. I'm supposed to avoid it.

Part of me wants to watch the film with sound turned off, just to revisit the visuals.

Edited by Christian, 31 March 2012 - 07:09 PM.


#17 Christian

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Posted 05 April 2012 - 02:24 PM

The first 25 pages of this book are great! I've laughed, been provoked to think about the film more deeply, been encouraged by how well Dyer can conjure up the images that I saw so many years ago, and have been close to dazzled by the way the author's mind works. I'm trying to hold that last impulse in check; maybe he's going to go down too many rabbit trails. But for now, what a blast!

#18 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 06 April 2012 - 10:35 AM

Granted, there are rabbit trails (wherever those sling-shots should happen to fall), but as you keep reading you get a sense that there's still a method to the madness.

#19 Christian

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Posted 06 April 2012 - 11:29 AM

My favorite passage from early in the book is this:

"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 favourite actor, Anatoli Solonitsyn — and thirteen years earlier he was Andrei Rublev!"

I don’t know why that makes me smile so broadly, but it does.

#20 Christian

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Posted 14 April 2012 - 07:58 PM

I finished this and rated it 5 stars at GoodReads. It's probably a 4.5-star book, but GoodReads doesn't let me assign half stars. The book is better than 4-stars-out-of-5, so I rounded up. I was frequently delighted while reading Zona, put off just once or twice, and now would like to read more of Dyer's work.





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