Stalker   Adrei Tarkovsky   (USSR 1979) Alexander Kaidanovski Alisa Freindlich

Viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 26 May 2022

Retrocrit: Sliding into this watery domain did you get wet…?

The response to Stalker, as to most of Tarkovsky’s (T) work is in a subjectivity.

What T achieves in Stalker is to create the filmic conditions where it is the viewer who moves, who is on the journey into the Zone. In one sense the viewer is the star of the film. The defining features of the way Stalker has been filmed: the length of its shots and the shot composition, the tracking shots either over the shoulder or composed through the wreckage of the Zone, create spacio-temporal conditions for the audience to have to define and understand what is going on for themselves and world of meaning in which they locate themselves.

The film is constructed to work dynamically with the viewer. It is the viewer who is the affected. To view is to engage. It is only possible to view Stalker if you are able to attune consciousness to the visual and temporal stimulae expressed in the film.   Stalker is about state of mind: your state of mind. Dream – allegory – hallucination.

Stalker creates possible worlds with which we have to engage and enter. If we can’t do this, we either leave the movie or the movie will leave us.

The world of ‘Stalker’ is built on a few simple precepts, like the rules of a simple game. There is a forbidden area called the Zone; in the Zone is a room which if you enter you will be granted what you desire. You need the stalker to enter and to traverse the Zone. The Zone is not constant in form, but changes in response to human presence. Only the stalker knows how to find the room. These elements are rich enough to sustain and enrich a number of different orders of allegorical readings and priorities.

In ‘Stalker’ the eponymous guide is the Holy Fool. Like one blessed by God whose vision penetrates into and beyond the myriad manifestations that present on the surface of existence. In the Zone, the Holy Fool is our guide to ‘seeing’; but in accepting the Holy Fool as guide we enter unknowingly into a epistemological compact which becomes increasingly difficult for us to accept.  Like the viewers, the Writer and the Scientist are slaves to Reason. The seeing and the utterances of the Holy Fool aren’t grounded in the rationality that defines the life and identity of 21st century citizen. Like John of Patmos (author of the Book of Revelation – the Apocalypse) Holy Fool speaks revelation, vision and intuition, a language that casts reason to the dogs, undermining the foundation of our being in the world. The Holy Fool is mad and dangerous. After initial infatuation with his novelty, the Writer and the Scientists block him off, their aggrieved egos reject him and all he stands for. The mechanics of Marx’ dialectic may be dead; but we are not able to follow the Holy Fool . That is our dilemma: we live in a world without meaning, neither within nor without time. ‘Stalker’ is a mystical statement directed at the deadness of the ideology that sustained the USSR.

Cuckoo Cuckoo! The eidetic sound of the cuckoo is interspersed throughout T’s soundtrack. The emblematic bird call that mocks man and all his designs, bids him harken to the natural world, which is of course here to be found in the devastation of the ‘Zone’.

The characteristic natural element of ‘Stalker’ is water. Water is everywhere: seen – heard – experienced. Like life it is never still. It flows falls ripples spreads covers, often disturbed and perturbed by man.   The Zone is world of wetness where boundaries are not mediated by definite form but by a liquid soluble contiguousness. A world where things merge rather than separate. A world mostly covered in a unifying aqueous layering. A world where the viewer gets wet, slips into a primordial wetness. A toxic baptism.

T’s camera probes beneath the surface of the world. We pass through cosmological miracles of light and dark, snow rain and broken surfaces. As the camera glides through the water a gold fish appears from nowhere, and we notice colours transmitted in the details of submerged objects that are as intense as any Russian icon. A world that is poisoned yet like Russia still reveals traces of an overwhelming aesthetic imperative. A trace of faith in the middle of the dead environment. The journey to the room has no end. The Stalker will not enter the room, he is beyond desire; his need is to approach to guide: nothing more – an act of obeisance to another higher order. The writer seeks renewal, the scientist destruction. Neither finds what they desire; neither as far as we know enters the room.

The Stalker exhausted returns home lies down as if to die. His wife testifies that he is a good man, a worthwhile man. His daughter, crippled, sits before a table. In front of on the table there are a number of vessels. They start to move of their own accord, sliding across the surface until one drops of its edge. We read into it what we will: chance – telekinetic powers – a final parable.

“….and he showed me a pure river of water of life as clear as crystal and proceeding out of the throne of God…” (The Revelation of John the Devine)

As I progressed into Stalker the notion arose that I was being led into a sort of inverted twisted Book of Revelations. A negative vision of Jerusalem cruelly stripped of God and the yearning for the kingdom of heaven. The apocalypse had happened but it was man made: not the creation of the demiurge. All that remains are our desires and they will not save us from ourselves. The film invokes subjectivity in the viewer (for which it was forcefully attacked by Soviet critics) but for me ‘Stalker’ points to the fact that subjectivities are of little use on the journey to understand ourselves.

Stalker was the last movie T made in the Soviet Union. It is a fateful marker. T left during the last days of the Soviet Empire to explore the psychic detritus of the West. Some think that the filming of Stalker on location in the polluted poisoned water of an abandoned chemical plant in Estonia caused the bronchial cancers that cost him, his wife, Larissa and the actor Anatoly Solonitsyn, their lives. Another school of thought imagines him killed by the KGB as a dangerous cultural renegade.

adrin neatrour


Author: Star & Shadow

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