Stalker (USSR, 1979)
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
I wanted to re-watch Stalker before I re-watched Under the Skin, not because I think they have anything in common, other than being art-films with paraliterary sources, but I needed to remind myself what a great sci-fi adaptation looked and felt like. (I also watched the beautiful b&w Ikarie XB-1 and Mario Bava’s lurid Planet of the Vampires) It seemed far too easy to be impressed by Jonathan Glazer’s fascinating, seductive mise-en-scène and bursts of formal experimentation while ignoring that the film flirts with pastiche far too much. (Maybe I’ll think differently later. It is, however, superior to Spike Jonze’s Her in just about every way.)
Tarkovsky’s ambivalent attitude toward genre in general and sci-fi in particular, shown here in his refusal to give the narrative a goal-oriented form or familiar fantastic styles (other than the telekinetic girl in the film’s baffling and enigmatic final shot, reflecting Tarkovsky’s fascination with parapsychology expressed in Time Within Time, which I’ve just begun reading, but also an ironic comment on being careful what you wish for), results in a film that’s one long circuitous and digressive philosophical journey through the poisonous landscapes of the past, both internal and external, rather than an evocation of the future. The future’s not there to be speculated upon at all, is what I take away from it, and the past is the most unbelievable place, the most mysterious. The only lessons learned are what not to do, but not much guidance as to how to go forward. The future is booby-trapped. At one point, the stalker of the film’s title, whose job it is to take men on a kind of pilgrimage through a pseudo-sacred, alien(?) landing site called the Zone, admonishes a writer to leave behind his gun, that it would it get him killed. “Didn’t you see the tanks?!” he says, anguished. In a tracking shot we’re shown small objects underwater — a gun, a syringe, clothing — like artifacts of a dead culture; in a slow zoom, we see the skeletons of an embracing couple at the end of a passage leading outside; they’re all left behind by penitents and invaders alike, making their way to a room where wishes are supposed to come true, but not conscious wishes, but rather the deepest desire, whatever that might be or wherever that might lead. But the decrepitude all around them yields a clue.
Along the way, the stalker and his clients travel through a long forbidding tunnel hung with moss, dripping with water and portent; across miniature, identical mini sand dunes in a cavernous room; through an overgrown green field marred with concealed pits, cracked-open rocks and the wrecks of the aforementioned tanks, wading waist-deep through a drainage ditch. After all that, after all they went through, it’s not surprising that no one dares to make a wish, and one of the stalker’s clients thinks he has the final solution to those dangers.
Stalker is undeniably beautiful, with choreographed shots of landscapes and interiors the final frames of which end up somewhere unexpected. I was also fascinated by the close-ups and medium close-ups of faces, often shot in profile, sometimes almost silhouettes, or of people sleeping. The ruinous Zone itself reminded me of the large-scale installations and sculptures of Anselm Kiefer at his home/studio of Barjac. His work mirrors and reproduces the effects of the Allied bombing of Germany but also externalizes the psychic damage of Nazism and fascism. Kiefer is a contemporary artist but Tarkovsky was anticipating his work by some years, by shooting Stalker in an abandoned chemical plant, among other sites, suggesting there’s no other path through pain, the damage of human confusion and violence in the past, except to keep going. “You can’t go back the way you came,” the Stalker says more than once. Both artists belie Adorno’s assertion that there’s “no lyric poetry after Auschwitz.” Or under and after totalitarianism.
It’s here in every frame of Stalker.