Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’: The Antidote for Big Budget Summer Sci-Fi

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Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they dive into yet another Andrei Tarkovsky movie! The man is popular, and with Stalker, he made a slow drink of water that’s perfect for a quiet summer afternoon (especially down the block from the explosion-booming megaplex).

In the #29 (tied) movie on the list, three men seek an area beyond an industrial waste zone that will grant them their true desires, but the journey is perilous, and one of them isn’t being honest about what he intends to do once he gets there.

But why is it one of the best movies of all time?

Landon: So with our discussion of Stalker, we’re stumbling upon something rather unique for the S&S list. Until we get to Godard’s other work in the Top 50, we will have discussed Tarkovsky more than any single filmmaker. This is significant because Tarkovsky only made 7 films, so we’re talking about nearly half of his filmography by its representation in a “greatest films” list.

I’d like to start of by asking, what are the integral components we can cull out that make a “Tarkovsky film”? What, if anything, connects Mirror and Andrei Rublev and now Stalker together?

Scott: Going big right off the bat. Very nice.

Landon: Russia is big, so I thought that’d set an appropriate tone…

Scott: I think religion is an easy-to-spot connective tissue. All three films have elements of faith and the search for it.

Landon: Absolutely, and the notion of faith heavily informs this one. I’d point out two more surface-level and less thematic observations: the actor Anatoly Solonitsyn (who played, respectively, a man in a field, Rublev, and The Writer here)…

And time, specifically Tarkovsky’s control and manipulation of it.

Scott: That last one is the real star of all of his movies, and I have to say with Stalker (my first viewing here) that I felt a bit left out in the cold for parts of it. I struggle there – sometimes I’m in awe of the deliberate patience and impeccable framing, and other times I’m yelling, “Got it! It’s a field! Next scene, please!”

Landon: That seems an appropriate set up for The Zone, which gives you plenty of time to think to yourself, “…this is it?”

Scott: It’s a cruel, cruel Twilight Zone episode snuck in through the backdoor of the arthouse.

It made me realize that this movie offers something unique to people that like it – and not in that pretentious “you just didn’t get it” mode of thinking.

If you like it, you end up having a parallel experience to the main characters – promised something life-changing and fantastical, but receiving something earthbound that you didn’t even know you wanted (thanks subconscious!).

And if you didn’t like it, then you just didn’t like it.

Landon: It probably didn’t help his popularity that Tarkovsky’s films became slower as his career progressed (his first film, Ivan’s Childhood, moves like lightning by comparison), but I find that Tarkovsky’s films do something for me that I find exceedingly rare in real life: the ability to simply experience time in its gradual unfolding, rather than through perpetual distraction. Sometimes they feel outside of time entirely.

It’s weird to say this about a movie, but I can feel more connected to nature watching a Tarkovsky film more than actually going outside. Even the occasional boredom of it I find exceptionally valuable. And as the world moves faster, Tarkovsky’s movies will just seem more and more strange.

Perhaps more alienating, but also more valuable.

Scott: They say that’s a sign of true love, when you can simply sit in silence together without needing to fill the awkward space.

Landon: Haha, and that’s why I think I can never be “objective” about Tarkovsky’s work. It’s oddly personal to me in the way that, say, Bela Tarr will never be. You hear that Bela Tarr? I’m taken.

But enough about me, let’s talk about The Zone.

Scott: The Zone! It gives you everything you could ever want or desire!

The twist is that what you really wanted was two and a half hours of pontificating about the nature of desire!

Landon: Do you ever get the AutoZone slogan stuck in your head while watching this? Because I do, and that’s not at all what I ever wanted or desired.

Scott: Or maybe it’s what you secretly desired. Great deals on generic auto parts.

Landon: Clearly these 3 guys missed the sale by a few hours.

Scott: Really bizarre, way-too-subtle product placement.

Landon: It’s probably worth noting that this played at Cannes in 1979 alongside another S&Ser, Apocalypse Now, about a different journey into a different Zone entirely.

Scott: Another Heart of Darkness story about man’s lust and his ability (or inability) to step back from the edge.

They make a nice pair. And, considering his history, it’s weird that Apocalypse was the one that has the animal slaughtering, but Tarkovsky’s film doesn’t at the very least feature a horse being lit on fire or anything.

Landon: Just the dog hanging out, which is easily the film’s most content character.

Scott: Probably because he’s not on fire.

Landon: So let’s talk about going into The Zone – what we expected, how Tarkovsky made something as simple as a field seem both treacherous and promising.

Scott: Something I’ll give him, there. Even if I was bored at some parts, there’s a real power in silence and expectation.

Even in the beginning, the credits roll over a silent view of the bar, we get to see into the Stalker’s house, and with so much calm, it’s striking when his wife tells him not to go.

She doesn’t scream it, but it’s a bit of instant tension, and it lands heavily because of the contrast. There’s a lot of that in Stalker.

Landon: You’re right, the film seems riddled with contradictions intent on putting the audience off balance (the ending, most pointedly): it’s his slowest of these three films, yet it still compresses time greatly; The Zone is treacherous and foreboding and requires an incredibly dangerous journey, yet the Stalker himself is hugely skeptical of its significance; it’s a sci-fi film of an epic length, yet it’s agnostic about the supernatural and only focuses on 3 characters.

It’s like The Zone must mean something simply because it’s forbidden, and Stalker seems dead set on not meeting the very expectations it creates.

Scott: Imagine if it were remade today.

Colin Farrell would lead Jude Law and Channing Tatum inside The Zone 10 minutes in, there would be at least 3 CGI-heavy fantasy sequences, and they’d have to run from the villainous military colonel who catches them in the facility (I’m thinking Ben Kingsley). It would also cost eleventy billion dollars.

Landon: And the assumption would be that the audience’s expectations would have to be met at some point. Where you pointed out that Rublev was Tarkovsky’s epic summer blockbuster, Stalker is his anti-blockbuster genre film about the slow death of existential despair.

Put that on the poster!

Scott: I think the marketing team would probably rather go with “Be careful what you wish for!”

Landon: So the experience of watching Stalker is not unlike going into The Zone itself.

Scott: Do you make anything of this being near the end of Tarkovsky’s career? Or at least one of the closing chapters of a short resume?

Landon: To that I’ll respond with three details about the making of this film, the last I’ll expand on…

1) the pseudo-monochrome was achieved by filming in color and printing in black-and-white, which gave it its strange, distanced quality.

Scott: Pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain style.

Landon: 2) when the men at Goskino, the government’s film production agency, complained about the film’s pace, Tarkovsky said that it should be even slower and duller so that anyone who walked into the wrong film would have time to leave before the story started. When the bureaucrats insisted further, Tarkovsky said that he was only interested in the reactions of two people: Bergman and Bresson.

Those are fun facts. here’s the last one…

Scott: Hahah. I appreciate you making the build-up ominous here. Foreboding.

Landon: 3) The film was made near the Jägala river, which was several miles from a chemical plant that had been dumping poisonous liquids into it. Solonitsyn died from cancer in 1982, shortly followed by his wife. Then Tarkovsky died of cancer in 1986, and his wife, who lived much longer, succumbed to the same disease as the prior three.

The production of this film can possibly be credited for the deaths of its actor, director, and their spouses.

Scott: And then Chernobyl happened in 1986. That is terrifying.

Morbidness considered, does that reframe the movie itself for you in any way?

Landon: It adds to The Zone’s treacherous, foreboding quality, especially since it looks so pastoral, empty, and non-threatening – a less beautiful version of the fields in many of Tarkovsky’s films. It enforces the notion that there can be something dangerous that can’t be seen – an inverse of faith, I guess.

Regardless of the possible consequences of production, it makes sense that this was Tarkovsky’s last film in Russia. He clearly wanted the hell out.

Scott: So did you get what you wanted out of this conversation?

Landon: Absolutely not. This chat box is far more dull than I was expecting after such a long journey, and it clearly needed more Ben Kingsley.

Did you get what you wished for?

Scott: I actually left ten minutes in when I realized this wasn’t Pacific Rim.

Next Time: Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah

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