Geoff Dyer’s Tarkovsky Obsession

03/13/2012 8:59 AM |

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To promote the release of his new book Zona, jack of all genres Geoff Dyer hosted a panel discussion around a DVD-screening of Tarkovsky’s Stalker in front of a spillover crowd on Saturday at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium. People sat in the aisles, in partial-view alcoves, in folding chairs carried in by a custodian. The book is about—or, roots its digressions in—that 1979 movie, an obsession of Dyer’s since he saw it in his twenties, the film he’s seen more than any other (“except When Eagles Dare,” he said); it’s part novelization, part critical history, and part memoir, an idiosyncratic exploration of an idiosyncratic film.

Occupying a space between Jarmusch’s lanky hep and Lynch’s nerdy preternaturalism, Dyer headed an impressive roster of guests: Walter Murch, Dana Stevens, Phillip Lopate, Francine Prose, and Michael Benson. They offered “commentary and banter” throughout the evening, before and after the film and at least three times during, when Dyer pushed pause on the MacBook Pro on stage. (The event was called “Tarkovsky Interruptus,” one of several Tarkovsky-related, Dyer-hosted events last weekend). “It’s a unique way to see Stalker,” Dyer said. “A uniquely irritating way.” But perhaps a good way for the half of the audience that had never seen the movie before—those who might resist Tarkovsky’s deliberate rhythms. “You’re not gonna have a chance to get bored, because of the interruptions,” Dyer said. “It does not move at the pace of a James Bond film.”

“And then the bullets start flying,” Lopate joked later, because the first act does include speeding cars and a long shootout amid its languors. Stalker is about three men—Writer, Professor, and the title character, “classic late Soviet archetypes,” as the writer-artist-filmmaker Benson called them—who break into the heavily guarded Zone, the site of either a meteor strike or an alien visit 20 years earlier that’s now said to possess magical qualities; the trio are headed to a room there where it’s said one’s innermost wish will be recognized and fulfilled. (The often subjective camerawork suggests a fourth character—you!) Most of the movie features exceptionally long takes, which Lopate put in the context of Tarkovsky’s Russian contemporaries, an anti-Eisenstein effort to move away from socialist realism. He also connected the characters’ sitting around, talking about their wasted lives, to Chekhov.

Stalkers Meat Mincer
  • Stalker‘s “Meat Mincer”

Tarkovsky sets Stalker amid rain-soaked ruins, a semi-classic apocalyptic milieu that’s almost Italian Neo-Realist. Inside The Zone—where the movie’s melancholy sepia tone switches Oz-like to full color—nature reclaims the abandoned man-made landscape. It presages Chernobyl while also looking back at Stalinism; though not about the gulag, “it’s haunted by” it, Dyer said. Ironically, the characters do the opposite of those from a prison-break movie: more like a heist movie, they’re busting in. Once inside, things become increasingly hallucinatory, as the characters navigate strange terrains both natural and artificial, even perhaps psychological. Tarkovsky “dissolves the viewer’s logical sense,” the novelist Francine Prose said, creating a space that Slate’s Dana Stevens said was “ontologically dangerous,” not physically so. She called the movie’s Last Year in Marienbad-like transitions “audacious.”

Walter Murch, the famed editor, used the screening to share his own experiences working on Francis Ford Coppola films of the 1970s. He compared the pressure on Tarkovsky to speed up the film’s beginning—which the filmmaker resisted, saying the only audience he cared about was Bresson and Bergman—to similar pressure on The Conversation. He compared Stalker‘s imperiled production to that of Apocalypse Now, and noted that both films were about groups moving into a forbidden territory. (He had lots of great Coppola anecdotes, like how the director had hoped to build a theater in the geographical center of America to show Apocalypse Now nonstop, a tourist attraction like Mt. Rushmore.) He pointed out that Stalker‘s bisection was typical of the time for long movies; The Godfather originally had an intermission before Bob Evans decided to scrap it. “It was part of the grammar of long films,” Murch said.

Perhaps the evening’s most spirited discussion came at the end of the film—spoilers—when the panelists debated the meaning of the peculiar conclusion, which involves telekinesis. Stevens said this ending perplexed her, but through discussion the group seemed to agree it was a miraculous ending, meant as compensation for the damage done to the child by The Zone. (This gift augurs well for Russia; the sound of an oncoming train suggests the future, what comes next.) Tarkovsky’s script voices both skepticism and faith; the ending then is a happy one. The director chooses hope.

Dyer said he wished they’d done this event before the book came out; he was learning so much that he wished he had been able to include. After the event, I chatted on 12th Street with a psychology student, who offered a reading none of the distinguished panelists had mentioned: that Stalker is a Freudian story—”the Russian intelligentsia was reading Freud then,” this Georgian told me—about men confronting their subconsciouses, their innermost desires that they themselves may not even be aware of. Consider it just one more idea for the updated paperback edition.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

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