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

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Third Day - Africa, from 12 Last Days of the Soviet Union

ROVA in San Francisco

One of the great treats of traveling with a jazz group was that every night I got to hear wonderful music. I never grew tired of the ROVA group, as I came to know some of their works quite well.

The first few days, moreover, occurred during the Leningrad Jazz Festival, featuring many of the top talents from around the world. The Festival was held on an island, which required one to cross a drawbridge, which led, the first night, to my roommate being home long after midnight. The ship was trapped under the bridge!

I attended the second day, truly enjoying the vast array of talent. One young Soviet saxophonist-violinist was particularly appealing, I recall, but now, some 21 years later, it is hard to remember any the performances I witnessed. I believe I saw Viatcheslav Nazarov, the noted Russian jazz trombonist, as well as the Leningrad Dixieland Jazz Band. I vaguely remember that there was one group called "Africa," which featured only white players, but seemed an appropriate name nonetheless, celebrating the roots of jazz. Arkaddii Dragomoschenko later told me that there a great many singers and groups in the Soviet Union who had taken on that moniker.

From time to time, I went to the nearby green room, which had a small café, and where figures from all the arts gathered to talk. Whenever my friend, Arkadii, decided to visit the café he simply got up and walked across the stage instead of retreating through the back of the vast auditorium. It was his way of speaking out, I believe, against the authoritarian way of life in the Soviet Union, a kind a swagger, as if to say, "I'll go wherever I damn please." I always chose the long route.

At the café, Arkadii introduced me to several young poets and to two young curators, husband and wife, who were planning a large international retrospective of contemporary artists. When I told them of my companion, Howard's involvement with art, they immediately responded, "Oh yes, we know of him. We have his Robert Longo catalogue. Yes, we want definitely to include Robert Longo in our show." I grew interested, and we discussed several other artists they hoped to include, often asking me what these people were like to work with. "That, I wouldn't know, except for hearsay. Robert, I believe, is usually a sweetheart."

After a while, I asked them what they were thinking of calling their show. Both quickly responded: "AF-ri-ka," emphasizing the first syllable.

"Africa?" I queried. But you've named no African artists in your show, not even any Blacks!"

"Oh, but you see, it is a world of pristine beauty. Of perfection. Of innocence. That's what we want."

"Oh dear," I pondered. "When I think of Africa, I think of all the destruction of land and cities caused by Western investments. I think of great poverty, of diminishing wilderness. Yes, I am sure there is much beauty in Africa, particularly in the protected parks and isolated sections, but so many scenes in photographs and films show ramshackle huts and tin-built canteens, crumbling cities. But then, I've never been there."

"Nor we! But I am sure it is beautiful," insisted the male.

"It is as close to heaven as one can get," added his wife.

I smiled painfully. How to you argue against such a wonderful illusion? Given their own polluted rivers, rusting industrial complexes, they needed to believe that such beauty might exist somewhere, just as I had had to look elsewhere when faced with my childhood of suburban burger and pizza stands and chain shopping outlets.

Los Angeles, January 14, 2010

Go here to listen to a piece from the same year:
Rova Saxophone Quartet - Third Terrain (1989)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Two Tales from 12 Last Days of the Soviet Union: Gogol's Coat and Waiting for Tea

Day One - Gogol's Coat

After my father's death in 2003, my mother gave me his dress coat, a long brown winter garment that I have never worn but once—on a trip to New York in the middle of winter. It is quite out of character with my usual costume, considering my lack of fashionable dress, like something from another time and place.

A few years before Howard had bought a blue-hooded cotton and nylon coat in Japan that I also sometimes use on my trips to Manhattan. Just as often, however, I travel with only a suit coat. I am known throughout New York as "the man without a coat!"

In 1989, however, I did not even own anything but a spring jacket. And I as I prepared for a trip with Lyn Hejinian, her husband, saxophonist Larry Ochs, and the ROVA Quartet, I bemoaned the fact that I hadn't one. "I suppose I shall have to go out and purchase an overcoat," I mentioned to Lyn in a telephone conversation. "You most certainly will," she responded. "Leningrad is brutal in November! But my son has a coat. Why don't I bring you that?" "Wonderful," I responded. "That would solve the problem!"

Since I was in New York City just prior to the trip, I left with others joining us from that region on Finnair from Newark. On the same plane were poet Clark Coolidge and his wife, Susan, who in those days lived in upstate New York.

Unlike most American flights and other European airlines I'd been on, the many Finnish passengers, almost all tall, imposing men, walked up and down the aisles throughout the flight, using the back galley as a kind of bar. They drank all night. There was no possible way to sleep.

We were to meet the San Francisco contingent of our group—consisting of most of some twenty group travelers—in Helsinki. But we found no one to meet us at the airport, and soon thereafter, we discovered that the San Francisco plane had been delayed by an entire day or two! None of the few of us in Helsinki had ever been to the Soviet Union, and the tour guide, who might have led us through the difficulties of entering through Leningrad, was with the San Francisco contingent. We had no other choice but to proceed on our own.

Fortunately, poet and friend Arkadii Dragomoschenko had been forewarned of our plight, and was at the Leningrad airport to meet us and help us through customs. He arranged for a bus to the hotel, where we were met also by ROVA photographer, Peter Vilms, who was to me my roommate, who had arrived earlier from Helsinki, traveling through his ancestral Estonia before arriving in Russia. The official Soviet tour guides were also there, and as soon as we had unpacked and showered, they took us out for a short tour. Suddenly, standing on a snowbank in the freezing winter, I remembered that I was without a coat; Lyn had what was to brought "my" coat with her!

The guides helped me to buy a Ushanka, the famed Russian hat, and one of them loaned me a scarf. I put on the heaviest sweater I had brought. But it was several degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and, despite my cheery bluff, I was absolutely freezing. Perhaps we were saved from more enforced tours that first afternoon simply because of my incessant chatter of teeth. Besides, we needed the sleep.

I felt kinship with Gogol's poor character, Akakii Akakievich, a man whose coat has been stolen! But then, I had never had one to begin! I was even more of a fool than Akakii.

It took almost two days for the others to arrive, and the tour guides refused to let us remain inside. Yet I survived. Finally the coat, along with the rest of the group, appeared, and I was able to move through the city without fear of freezing. Indeed, somehow, I, who hate shopping and resist that activity at home, got the moniker, there in Russia, as "the shopper," since I visited dozens of out of the way Soviet shops.

What fascinated me about them was that in most of them there was simply nothing to buy, or they contained ridiculous items that had little at all to do with how they had advertised themselves. For example, what had been a jewelry store was suddenly filled with gym mats. The jewels, watches, and other things had never arrived or perhaps no longer existed, but they had been shipped, perhaps by accident or by request, boxes and boxes of gym mats; and that, accordingly was what they were now selling. How many customers they had for such a ridiculous object, priced out of range for most Russian citizens, I have no clue. But everyone from the neighborhood had seemingly come out to see them—as if perhaps the arrival of these bright green and blue mats were an indicator of better times to come; maybe the authorities might even ship them food! For weeks, so Arkaddi told us, Leningrad had survived mostly on spaghetti.

So I walked and walked, one day even becoming lost, as I explain below in "Waiting for Tea." Now I was quite comfortable going about. Strangely, by the time our trip ended two weeks later, one by one everyone had come down with a cold—except me. I didn't even sniffle.

Los Angeles, January 7, 2010

Day Two - Waiting for Tea

Our tour group met together each day in the hotel dining room at a precisely appointed time for lunch and dinner. Food was not served outside of these set parameters, and if you were not punctual you simply missed out. Usually the meal consisted of some mix of salmon and herring along with a small serving of vodka, followed by a kind meat patty and potatoes. Most of us chose to drink lukewarm Pepsi, since the bottled water was unbearably salty and the regular waters of Leningrad were so polluted that people not immune to the drinking often developed stomach ailments including serious bacterial infections. We were warned never to drink water! The meal was followed always by ice cream.

After several days of being hurried from site to site by our in-tourist guides, I decided to elude them one morning, setting out on a journey of Leningrad by myself. I brought along a piece of paper naming my hotel and bravely set forth, walking first toward the center of the city, following the famed Neva River, turning and wandering down the vast Nevsky Prospekt. As the Russian author Andrei Biely described it:

The Nevsky Prospect possesses an impressive quality: it
consists of a vast expanse for the circulation of the public;
numbered houses restrict it—this makes it easier to find any
home we may want. The Nevsky Prospect, like any prospect,
is a public prospect; that is, a prospect for the circulation of the
public (not of air to be sure); the houses, which line it and
shape its frontiers, are what give it substance—h'm...yes...for
the public. In the evening the Nevsky Prospect is lighted by electricity.
By day the Prospect needs no illumination.

Some of the grand buildings were still beautiful, but many had an almost fairy-tale like quality, the outsides appearing like stage-sets with nothing behind them. And indeed when I went into some of the grandest of these stores, there was nothing within. What had once been great groceries and clothing emporiums were now almost empty sets.

Still the Russians crowded through the doorways as if there might be possibly a new delivery of what they had lost. Throughout the city, and I would later confirm this, all double doors were arranged according to determined blockage to entry and exit. Wherever there we two doors, one was locked, so that people coming and people going were forced to wait for one another, as if the authorities were determined to hold those who were about to enter as long as possible from entering, while also stopping up the flow of those about to leave. At many doors, moreover, sat a man or woman on a stool as if they might check the passing crowd's papers. Yet they did nothing more than further block that furtive coming and going of the public mass.

At one point I stopped and ordered a small cup of what I was told was called "soku," a combination of crushed ice and fruit juice. I quickly drank it down, suddenly realizing I had just swallowed the polluted waters of the Neva. Would I survive?

A few yards further, I saw a long line snaking up to a little hut. The people in line, I soon realized, were waiting for tea. This impossibly long wait so intrigued me I decided I would join the line, just to experience the kinds of wait the Russians daily had to endure for anything they might seek. An hour later, I had a cup of tea in my hands for which was I was not even thirsty. I don't even like tea, but I drank it all up, embarrassed for having made everyone behind me wait. But through that event I realized how everyday mothers and fathers, sons and daughters had to be determined to survive. If you wanted to put food on the family table, the mother had to wait in line for hours; it you wanted to drink of cup of tea between work shifts, it was necessary to patiently endure the cold. It was easier not to survive than to continue the travesty of ordinary life. There was no ordinary life in Russia any more.

Indeed, the whole city, despite its occasional spectacular beauty, seemed destitute. And Moscow would later seem even more so. All those years the United States leader's arguments for a verbal, financial, and militaristic war with this nation had been built, to my way of thinking, on a horrible lie. The Soviet Union appeared to me as a 19th century country in a 20th century cultural predicament. Yes, they had missiles, bombs of destruction, but what had it all been about? We had won the battle while losing our souls.

I walked on and on, visiting all sorts of stores, little shops, black-market kiosks (as warned, I bought nothing at these), tiny huts, even underground bathrooms, trying to find something that I might find familiar. Everything seemed foreign and cold. I realized that I could not survive in Leningrad—at least not in 1989—that, if I lived in this city, the man I was could not have been me.

Soon I realized I had walked far from the center, and I no longer knew where I going. The light was beginning to fade, and I grew weary. How to return to the hotel? I tried to stop a person, showing them the name in Cyrillic on my piece of paper. But they could not or would tell me anything. Hotels were off limits to the regular citizens, and perhaps they didn't even know what it was I was trying to ask? I became frightened. Would I be forced to spend the night on the freezing streets of Leningrad, without food and a place to sleep?

At a small kiosk, I pointed to a map, which I purchased, trying desperately to match the street sign beside me to a name of the map. Finally, I spotted a word that might be the same. I turned and walked in the direction of what appeared to be the Neva, after a long while, reaching Nevsky Prospekt, feeling my way back to the hotel. I was hungry, but I had missed the appointed hour. Now I knew how if felt if one decided not to wait, not to suffer the daily indignities of the system. If I had had children, they would have gone hungry as well.

Los Angeles, January 11, 2010