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Thread: Stalker (1979)

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Nov 2002
    Albuquerque, NM, USA

    Stalker (1979)

    I realize I took forever to get around to this, but believe it or not, finding/getting a job takes up time and priority. Over the years I've become the biggest Tarkovsky junkie so I figured this would be a good place to start. I wrote this up a while back but I figure you fellas would be interested.

    I first watched a Tarkovsky movie when I was 18, a snobby moronic little shit who thought he knew a lot about film. I haven't progressed too far since that point, but watching Andrei Rublev was a pretty memorable day for me, as I had never been so captivated by a 3.5 hour foreign film with a ridiculously spread-out narrative. I've watched his films pretty slowly over the years, afraid to run out of new experiences with him because of the impact he has had on my view of movies. Then came the day I finally watched Stalker (1978). I was thoroughly confused by it at first, but as I went to bed that night I got more and more ensconced in its mystical nature.

    It's not really a movie for everybody, but I hope I can encourage at least one person to give it a shot. If you're some hopeless agoraphobic neckbeard who hasn't gone to a party in a while, now's your chance to have an evening of decadence and alcoholic bliss. When you wake up, your stomach churning and your head pounding, you can grab a glass of orange juice, plop your sorry self in front of your widescreen TV, and be in the perfect position to enjoy Stalker.

    I also have to preface this by saying that everything I write here is a single perspective on the film's meaning. It's esoteric enough that every person can have a different interpretation of it, and I want to encourage anyone to challenge what I have to say about it. So with that, I think I'll get started on talking about what I believe has become my favorite movie of all time.

    Andrei Tarkovsky was a filmmaker who deliberately made works of a nature that was difficult to perceive in a conventional sense. Although he acknowledged art’s aristocracy and inherent adversity to the mass public without creative compromise, he still abhorred what he perceived to be the rigid homogenization of art through the mass production of television and commercial movies. As he wrote in his magnificent book on film theory, Sculpting in Time,

    Quote Originally Posted by Andrei Tarkovsky
    The artist cannot, and has no right to, lower himself to some abstract standardized level for the sake of a misconstrued notion of greater accessibility and understanding. (166)
    Stalker vehemently asserts this opinion of his. Like the Russian literature that came before it, it projects a plethora of motifs and complicated ideas through its characters, who are complex victims of their own struggle with the concept of faith, ranging from its necessity and value to its danger and flaws; very few reflections are left unviewed. There is the titular character, the Stalker, a humble and weak servant to the inexplicable will of a haunting and mysterious environment. Then there is Writer, the artist seeking answers so he can enlighten the populace with such wonders. Finally, there is Professor, the one who seeks to destroy that which he cannot understand. Their quest revolves around the Zone, an environment of ambiguous origin and purpose, whose mystery serves as a force to drive the characters in their decisions. To make a statement concerning the overall impression of the film would defeat its purpose; one’s ignorance is one’s advantage when it comes to viewing it. It can only be explored in pieces. Much like the Zone that the principal characters use to reflect upon themselves, viewers can use Stalker to do the same. Tarkovsky may have abhorred deep analysis, but that is not enough to denounce its value, especially in this case. One grand theme to Stalker is the relationship between humanity and nature. These opposing forces are explored in their relation to time, establishing the contrast between mortality and perpetuity.

    The Zone is the most solid metaphor for nature, minimizing the human experience with its grandiose, eternal splendor. With an unclear explanation for its existence, the viewer‘s expectations of its secrets are expanded. The only notion that is understood is that as an environment, it does not tolerate a great deal of human presence. It is also known that at the heart of this Zone is the Room, a place wherein a person can have his or her wishes come true. Its most glaring cinematic presence comes with its intense green palette. It implies that the force of nature, be it conscious or not, achieves divine resplendence in the absence of human contact. There are remnants of civilization scattered about the area.

    Upon the arrival of the principal characters, there is a long take that slowly zooms through the window of a long-abandoned vehicle to show the entirety of its beauty. In this shot, far in the distance, there are objects that appear to the viewer to be large stones, but once a closer angle is achieved, they are quite clearly tanks, overgrown with moss and barely recognizable. According to the Stalker there is a specific physical path that men must follow in the Zone if they are to survive. Petty mortal conflict has no bearing on the perpetual continuation of time, which is more or less represented by untapped, indifferent flora. This leads to an example of the Zone’s imposing power. Writer decides to stray from the path to see what happens, then is compelled to return by a large gust of wind, which quietly whispers “Stop! Don’t move!” This brief scene institutes the idea of the Zone as a place of destiny, versus the difficult and corrupted outside world of free will. To submit oneself to the rules of the Zone, therefore, is to become part of eternity. The Zone is the primary expression of faith and old ideas, and its frustratingly confusing essence is properly as esoteric as the doctrine it represents.

    It also receives its meaning through its contrast against the scenes of the exterior area. Shot in sepia-toned black and white, the home of the three characters is drab, dirty and depressing. A nuclear power plant looms over the town in the background, the essence of man’s desire to exploit his environment, a technological notion that cannot exist in the Zone. The Stalker’s daughter, Monkey, has lost the ability to walk possibly because of the proximity to the plant. It is a vile reality. The majority of the men’s initial meeting takes place in a train yard, another conveyance of industrialization. In the film’s first scene, a slow zoom on the Stalker and his family in their lone bed, a train lumbers by. It progresses in a realistic fashion of time, fading into the soundtrack, rumbling the house and causing objects to shake, and eventually fades away. This is an implication of the futility of human effort in the face of time. Despite all effort to make the world move faster, it still eventually has an end for mankind. In the Zone, no such disruption of the setting, aural or visual, occurs short of the characters’ journey. It is quite understandable that in the world of Stalker, humanity is simply not worthy of the Zone’s secrets.

    There is a deeper exploration of the Zone’s past in a dream that the Stalker has, a sequence that is vintage Tarkovsky. Accompanied by a poem that details what sounds like a sort of apocalypse, the Zone becomes washed in the sepia tone that dominates the outer world, and for the majority of the sequence the camera drifts slowly above a shallow body of water, as though it were floating atop it. Beneath the surface is the remnants of civilization. There is a mirror, a gun, a Russian Orthodox icon, a plate, and other assorted trinkets. Small fish swim lackadaisically around the tiny ruins, unaware or simply indifferent to what they mean. The dream implies that the Zone was once like the rest of the world: sullen, dirty, and destitute. Some greater force ripped the area out of time’s grasp and made it into what it is now, a place out of time and space where knowledge is infinite and everything is as it must be. Not much else can be made of this sequence; Tarkovsky’s most concerted efforts at cinematic bliss are always the ones requiring the least explanation, needing only a visceral understanding to interpret their perfection.

    The strongest symbols of innovation and new frontiers for civilization are characterized by the not-so-subtly named Writer and Professor, with Writer resembling the purpose of art in the face of legacy. Writer enters the Zone seeking truth, or, given the concept’s subjective quality, a greater understanding of truth. His deepest thoughts are later discovered to be more about the people around him in a monologue. The film operates with infinity as a constant element, not only in time, but in the reality of the Zone as well as the cinematography, so it only seems appropriate that before Writer sits by a large vertical pipe to look straight into the camera to express his feelings, he drops a rock into it, and it takes a full twenty seconds for it to audibly hit the bottom. His figure is flanked by a large pillar on the left, and what appear to be the remnants of one on the right. All around him he is met with the unending savagery of time. He speaks to the viewer as though he is talking of the film itself: “There’s no such thing as facts. Especially here. All this is someone’s idiotic invention. Don’t you feel it? But you, of course, must find out whose invention it is.” He then speaks of himself, and how his written work is consumed like a meal, and though he seeks to change people with his work, it only winds up changing him. He states that “a man writes because he is tormented. 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?” He concludes by lamenting that even his art is not safe from the death knell of time. The scene feels like Tarkovsky delivering his own sentiments on his films, explaining that man is inferior to some undefined aspect of existence, represented by time. It is easy to call it God, but far more interesting to leave it unexplained.

    This is incidentally what Writer decides; when the opportunity for truth that he was going to wish for is finally presented to him, he rejects it, citing his indifference towards omniscience; he would rather not truly know, subjecting himself to the will of time. “I’d rather drink myself to death in my mansion, in peace and quiet.” Instead of weakening his ego by knowing how insignificant he is, he allows the mystery to prevail. He accurately asserts that “you dream of one thing, but you get quite another.” He is referring to the ultimate rewards of the journey towards the Room; that was where the true enlightenment was ascertained. He continues: “It’s absolutely clear to me that all this poem reciting and making detours is just a form of apologizing.” Thus, Writer understands that his expedition through the Zone was a form of repentance for his hubris in the outside world, now comprehending that time will always have the upper hand.

    Professor more concretely represents the unwavering power of industry and science, cornerstones of progress for humanity. He is a man of logic and explanation, and his presence in the Zone presents a constant contrast of ideals. Towards the end of the film, his intentions for journeying to the Zone are revealed when he produces a bomb with the intention of destroying this environment of impossibility. He perceives it, or more accurately faith, as something that humanity cannot properly conceive or use properly. To him, it is far too easy for something so powerful to fall into the wrong hands. He wrestles with this decision, eventually concluding “[e]ven if it’s some miracle, it’s still part of nature, and therefore, a hope in a sense.” Like Writer, he ultimately feels helpless and weak. He is a figure of great wealth through knowledge and experience, but when faced with the unknown, he is equal to all. In the final, lengthy shot that takes place in the Zone, Professor dismantles the bomb and tosses it into the water, clearly a symbol for time’s eternal presence, essentially submitting himself to the splendor of existence’s lack of boundaries. In the same take, it begins to rain, and eventually stops. This can be seen in relation to the train rolling by at the beginning of the picture. Instead of that disruption, the rain is far less jarring. The train shakes the entire house, including the bed inhabiting the Stalker’s family, and water vibrates in glasses. The rain, on the other, is as inconsequential as one might assume. It essentially mocks Professor for his attempt to make a difference in the Zone. This implies his decision would not truly make a difference in the long run. As stated before, there is likely no true opportunity for conscious decision in the Zone. Professor never could have set off the bomb because all his actions were out of his control. The journey, for him, was a slow acceptance of this fate.

    The will of the Zone takes its greatest toll on the Stalker, a character epitomized by his ineffectual weakness and utter devotion. To have faith, in Tarkovsky’s eyes, is to be weak, but this does not carry the negative connotation it may normally imply. The Stalker’s subservience to the will of the Zone is exhibited as paramount to its continued existence, but it takes its toll on his family life outside.He is berated by his wife for his absence as a father for his daughter Monkey. She cannot understand why he chooses this life over a normal one. Her sentiments as well as the Stalker’s nature are complemented by a monologue that she delivers directly towards the camera near the end of the film:

    Quote Originally Posted by Stalker's Wife
    You’ve probably noticed that he’s not of this world. All our neighborhood laughed at him. He was such a bungler, he looked so pitiful. My mother used to say: ‘He’s a stalker, he’s doomed, he’s an eternal prisoner! Don’t you know what kind of children the stalkers have?’…I knew it all myself, that he was doomed, that he was an eternal prisoner, and about the children. Only what could I do? I was sure I could be happy with him…It’s better to have a bitter happiness than a gray, dull life.
    Thus, instead of attempting to draw sorrow for her and her daughter, the wife blames herself. In this world without color and guidance, she made a choice to wallow in misery for the sake of a more emotionally fulfilling existence, much like the Stalker himself. To be weak in the real world is not necessarily to be strong in the Zone, but rather to simply find comfort in the knowledge that nothing equals its majesty. Upon their first arrival in the Zone, the Stalker lies down amongst the tall grass and rolls around, lost in the ecstasy of eternal truth. A small caterpillar darts across the top of his index finger, but he does not notice. He may not be a part of the Zone, but he feels like it.

    The essence of the Stalker character is examined through a retelling of past events, where he learned the ways of the Zone from a man called Porcupine. The story is a parable of faith that plays out as the film goes along, the facts slowly being relayed by the Stalker. It is eventually revealed that Porcupine sought to use the power of the Room to wish for his brother, whose death he felt responsible for by sending him through the Zone, to return to life. Unfortunately for him, his deepest wish inside his mind was for unending wealth and prosperity, even though his specific intentions were to resurrect his sibling. And so the Room granted him this wealth, causing him to go insane with grief. He finally hung himself. The moral of this fable that plays alongside the film, and essentially the moral of the primary plot as well, is stated by the Stalker towards the end of the film, albeit a tad cryptically. When speaking of the Room in its relation to humans, he says that the real tragedy is that “they don’t need it.” What he means is that the Room does indeed exist to fulfill wishes, but to reject its potential dissection of one’s desires is a far more profound life-experience. Therefore, humanity can find comfort in its short existence by passing up on a confrontation with infinite wisdom.

    The essence of these aspects of the film infers that the forces of perpetuity and mortality are best left apart from one another. The crisis a person faces with faith is far more complicated than a 140 minute film or even a 1000 page novel could hope to explain. As a result, Stalker wraps up these ideas by saying that the Zone, or whatever complex system of which the universe is a product, should not be a concretely stated concept. Cryptic metaphor is the only way for an artist to approach such grand questions without saying something that is so obviously outside of the realm of human perception. Tarkovsky understood this with all of his films and as such did not overstate his symbolism. In fact, he denied that it existed at all, but what he really means is that there is no one interpretation that can be definitively pointed to as factually accurate. Much like the questions of faith that he examined with Stalker, Tarkovsky wanted to make every film a unique experience for every viewer. Poetic narrative can have that effect.

    I haven't even touched on the film's history, such as the fact that they had to reshoot an entire year's worth of footage and how everyone in the production died of cancer from the shooting location's prevalence of radiation, but hopefully that will leave more to talk about. Good flick.
    "So I'm a heel, so what of it?"
    --Renaldo the Heel, from Crimewave

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Oct 2002
    Thanks for your great post. This movie is due for a re-watch. I feel I need to re-experience it before making specific comments.


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