Monday, January 25, 2010

Hope (on Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker)

Arkadi Strugastky, Boris Strugatsky and Andrei Tarkovsky (screenplay) [based on a novel by the Strugastky's], Andrei Tarkovsy (director) Stalker / 1979 / the screening I saw as at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on January 23, 2010

Andrei Tarkovsky's fifth film, Stalker, is, ostensibly, a science fiction film, but viewers who seek out the Terminator series and other action science fiction fantasies need not bother. For this long, sometimes ponderous work is a deep rumination, often using the genre of the dialogue, to discuss weighty issues such as doubt and faith, fulfillment and desire, art and science, and the individual and the collective. All of this is made palatable and, indeed, becomes emotionally engaging through the filmmaker's near-obsessive focus on images, the screen often transforming into an almost abstract collage of the detritus of manmade machines, constructions, and tools—aimed mostly at the rape of nature and human destruction—set against the rejuvenating forces of the natural world.

In a small, crumbling village just outside of the protected and prohibited "Zone," lives the Stalker (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky), his wife (Alisa Frejndikh), and their mute and crippled daughter, nicknamed Monkey. The outpost, filmed in sepia, gives the whole (at least in the new print I saw at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) a slightly sickly yellow tone. We know immediately that this town is deadly to its inhabitants. Three nuclear silos appear in the distance, the streets are littered with debris and filth, even the Stalker's house is perspiring with moisture. When the trains pass, the entire house rattles, moving a drinking-glass and other objects in its wake. This is a world on the verge of collapse.

Beyond it lies an even more "dead and deadly" region, the "Zone," site of a large meteorite or nuclear disaster, or....well, no one knows. The authorities know only that its inhabitants died and when soldiers and others tried to enter, they never returned. Finally, it became apparent that the only way to keep people from doing harm to themselves was to fence it in, to prohibit entry. Policeman cruise the streets of the Stalker's small village, shooting anyone who may even appear to be trying to enter the "Zone."

In the Soviet period in which Tarkovsky made this film the implications of the "Zone" represents were even broader. As Slavoj Žižek noted in The Pervert's Guide to Cinema:

For a citizen of the defunct Soviet Union, the notion of a forbidden Zone gives rise to (at least) five associations: Zone is (1) Gulag, i.e. a separated prison territory; (2) a territory poisoned or otherwise rendered uninhabitable by some technological (biochemical, nuclear....) catastrophe, like Chernobyl; (3) the secluded domain in which the nomenklatura lives; (4) foreign territory to which access is prohibited
(like the enclosed West Berlin in the midst of the GDR); (5) a territory where a meteorite struck (like Tunguska in Siberia).

In short, Tarkovsy's "Zone" is any or all of these; it does not stand for one thing, and the essential fact is its prohibition, like so much else in Soviet life.

Following in the footsteps of a figure nicknamed Porcupine, the Stalker has learned some of the secrets of this forbidden place, and now, for a sum of money, is willing to take people in an out of this prohibited space, facing possible death from the surrounding military (the Stalker has already spent long periods in jail) and, most of all, the shifting "death traps" of the "Zone" itself.

Yet some people are willing to take their chances; a writer and professor, each named after their profession, having heard that within the "Zone" lies a room which, after one enters, fulfills a person's innermost desires, awake the Stalker's arrival. Unlike the hopeless, hapless heap of ruble outside of the prohibited space, the "Zone," despite its treacherous potential, offers people the ineffable concept of hope.

In that sense, the "Zone" is the shadow of the "real" world which the Stalker, the Writer, and the Professor inhabit, a kind of dream landscape where, despite the evidence of disaster and the potential nightmares of any dream, imagination reigns, and human potential is a possibility. Yet, as the Stalker warns his partners in crime, not everyone will survive, those who are the most wretched, who have the least ego and are most flexible, have the greatest chance of surviving, but even they are sometimes destroyed by the dangers that lay in wait. It is almost as if the "Zone" were itself a being, tricking those who dare to enter it into their own death.

After surviving the gunfire of the guards, the three escape via a railway handcar into a world that suddenly (as in The Wizard of Oz) shifts into color. Yet here no human beings exist, not even little ones. The plants have overrun the destroyed power lines and the battle tanks of the military, but their flowers have no scent. It is beautiful and, as the Stalker joyously proclaims, "absolutely silent," but it is a place without mankind, a world, in short, of death.

Almost immediately we realize that the two individuals who the Stalker is guiding seemingly have little of what it takes to survive. The writer is a worn-out genius, an alcoholic believing only in logic and longing for the "magic" of the Middle Ages. His mantra is that everything is a triangle: A1=B1=C1. Despite the Stalker's stated restrictions, he brings with him a bottle of liquor and, as we later discover, a hand gun. The Professor is equally smug, insistently cynical of the human race and of any possible salvation in the hands of his own scientific kind.

Slowly they make their way toward the "room," seemingly just a few yards from where they stand; but both are frustrated with the Stalker's insistence that they cannot attempt a direct assault, but must make their way around things in order to survive, turning this way and that, moving every few feet toward a cloth tied up with metal nuts, retrieving it, and throwing it out, in another direction, before setting forth again.

Indeed the rules imposed upon this absurd journey often seem to be right out of Samuel Beckett's writings, and the two "tourists," arguing as they go, often appear to be playing out a variant version of Waiting for Godot or Mercier and Camier. So inconsistent seem the Stalker's rules that the Writer finally determines that he will disobey and move straight ahead, but when he attempts the maneuver, the house itself warns him to stay away, and he retreats, insisting that he was called back by his colleagues, they insisting that he spoke to himself in a transformed voice.

At one point, when the Professor disappears (against the rules he has returned for his forgotten rucksack), the remaining two proceed through a rainy drainpipe, only to find him safely on the other side. It is as if space itself circles back. So exhausted are the three, they fall into a grumbling sleep, the two outsiders fighting like a long married couple until they are collapse in a coma-like sleep, heaped each upon each, a stray dog hunkering down beside them.

Besides the simple beauty (and marked ugliness) of the landscape,* what helps the viewer to accept these somewhat academic dialogic encounters is the humor of it all, the Kafka-like ridiculousness of their positions, particularly given their improbable situation. What we gradually come to comprehend, moreover, is that despite their oppositional stances toward life, they now have to obey the rules of a different world, and can make no progress without them.

Their final long voyage through a dark and filthy tunnel, although dramatically eerie, hardly matters. We know that despite their bluff, these are both wretched men, unhappy even in their great successes. They will survive the trip, but will they survive the "gift" of the room, the realization of their "deepest, innermost" wishes?

As they reach the entry to the room, the Stalker once explains what is about to happen before encouraging them to enter, reiterating that, having learned from the example of Porcupine (a stalker who entered in order save his brother, but instead became fabulously wealthy, and, soon after, committed suicide), that stalkers are not permitted to set foot in this sacred space.

The Writer gets cold feet, realizing that the trap of the promised magic is that the innermost wish of any individual may not be what he consciously desires. It may be a destructive force, a petty wish that counteracts any human good within that being. No, he proclaims, he will not enter.

The Professor has already understood that such a force might be used by the truly evil men in the society to take over governments, to kill thousands, etc., and he has brought a bomb with him to destroy the spot.

Terrified that this one last abode of "hope," the remaining "treasure" of Pandora's box, will be forever destroyed, the Stalker lunges for the bomb, but both the Writer and Professor fight him off. Again and again he tries desperately to save his world, but these are not men of belief, representing as they do the elite, the select, yet totally disaffected Soviet upper class, whereas, in his blind faith, he is a muttering fool, a mere stalker, always on the search for something or someone.

Yet his fervor, his plea for the salvation of this sacred place gradually wins them over. The Writer apologizes ass the Professor disassembles the bomb, the camera focusing with intensity for several moments on the three men gathered at the future's gate, the floor of the room inexplicably flooding.

Returning home, exhausted, the Stalker and his "passengers" gather once more at the local bar before his wife comes to fetch him. At home, he reports that he realizes he can never take another person into his beloved "Zone," that he must give up the one thing he was able to offer others, because there is no longer anyone who believes strongly enough. When his wife proposes that he take her to the room so that may achieve her secret desires, the Stalker admits he cannot dare that. Even he, it appears, does not have enough faith.

Has the "Zone" been his own fantasy, as the Writer and Professor have hinted, being the one thing in his string of life failures that he has had to give, been able to create? We can never know.
His wife's monologue about both their sufferings and love which have allowed happiness and hope to coexist, however, seems to point to their survival, perhaps even to their prevailing over the difficulties they face. The rugged dreamer will ultimately the ordinariness of his life.

In the distance we hear the rumble of the train. Their deaf and crippled daughter sits alone at the table. First a glass, then a bottle, and finally a second glass slides across the table, the last falling to the floor. The train comes nearer, and with it, embedded deep within the rumble of the railway, a muted musical accompaniment from Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," which disappears as quickly as the engine passes. We now must ask ourselves, was it the train that moved the glass in the very first scene and now, these three objects, or was it an extraordinary telekinetic gift with which the child is possessed? There is no answer when it comes to such a question, only hope.

*Most of these scenes filled near Tallinn, Estonia, in an area around a small river with a half-functioning hydroelectric station. As sound-editor Victor Sharun has written:

Up the river was a chemical plant and it poured out poisonous liquids downstream. There was even this shot in Stalker: snow falling in the summer and white foam floating down the river. In fact it was some horrible poison. Many women in our crew got allergic reactions on their faces. Tarkovsky died from cancer of the right bronchial tube. And Tolya Solonitsyn too. that it was all connected to the location shooting for Stalker became clear to me when Larisa Tarkovskaya died from the same illness in Paris.

Los Angeles, January 24, 2010

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