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Geoff Dyer’s ‘Zona’ Examines the Film ‘Stalker’ - The New York Times

Geoff Dyerʼs ‘Zonaʼ Examines the Film ‘Stalkerʼ - The New York Times
2019-12-22, 11(47
A Place of Our Deepest Desires
Geoff Dyer’s ‘Zona’ Examines the Film ‘Stalker’
The jacket of Geoff Dyer’s “Zona” describes it as “A Book About a Film About a
Journey to a Room.” It is also a hall of mirrors in which the author watches
himself watching (and remembers himself remembering) a movie that,
according to his impressively detailed description, ends with a character looking
at us, looking at her.
At once audacious post-postmodernist memoir and après-DVD monograph,
“Zona” considers Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” (1979), the last movie the great
Russian director would make in his native land. Dyer, a novelist, critical
polymath and regular contributor to the Book Review whose oeuvre includes
book-length essays on jazz, photography and D. H. Lawrence, isn’t the first
literary author to write a book about a single movie. Some years ago, Salman
Rushdie initiated the British Film Institute’s Film Classics series with a slim
volume on “The Wizard of Oz”; more recently, Jonathan Lethem wrote a booklength essay on John Carpenter’s sci-fi thriller “They Live.” But “The Wizard of
Oz” is more culture myth than movie, and “They Live” is a disreputable genre
flick that pokes fun at the Reagan era. “Stalker,” by contrast, is a doggedly
ambitious masterpiece by a major filmmaker.
It also presents something of a challenge to describe. “Stalker” is over two
and a half hours long; its pace is deliberate and its payoffs, by movie-movie
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Geoff Dyerʼs ‘Zonaʼ Examines the Film ‘Stalkerʼ - The New York Times
2019-12-22, 11(47
standards, amazingly paltry. Most of the action takes place amid voluptuously
overgrown industrial ruins. Tarkovsky characterized cinema as “sculpting in
time,” and the characteristic camera movement in “Stalker” is a high-angle
tortoise crawl over some waterlogged stretch of detritus. His hyper-real images
seem etched into the screen; his drip-drip sound design is even sharper. With its
emphasis on landscape, texture and atmosphere, this brooding, dystopian
science fiction — freely adapted from the novel “Roadside Picnic,” by the
Strugatsky brothers, Arkady and Boris — is as much environment as movie.
To the degree that “Stalker” has a plot, it’s the mock-epic odyssey of two
less-than-attractive Russian intellectuals, a writer and a scientist, guided by the
title character, a tormented fool with the shaven head and dirty rags of a gulag
inmate, to the heart of a polluted, post-apocalyptic government-restricted area
called the Zone. There’s no human presence, and the laws of nature have been
altered, perhaps by the after​effects of an extraterrestrial visitation. (In the novel,
it’s a Soviet Roswell.) Within the Zone is the so-called Room, a space wherein
one’s secret hopes are revealed and even realized. Maybe. The Zone and the
Room are distinguished by the near-complete absence of anything anyone
would consider special effects.
Dyer casts himself as “Stalker’s” stalker; getting there, as cruise lines used
to advertise, is half the fun. “We are in another world that is no more than this
world perceived with unprecedented attentiveness,” he writes, and his own close
attention is admirable. Taking pains to nail the feel of Tarkovsky’s locations
(“the echoey, intestinal, glass-strewn, stalactite-adorned tunnel”), Dyer recounts
the film’s story from first shot to last, while supplying his own chatty
annotations. In addition to waxing confessional, he conjures the filmmaker’s
formidable personality. Tarkovsky was a perfectionist. The script for “Stalker”
went through countless rewrites and, according to Dyer’s account, was largely
reshot after faulty film processing ruined half the footage. Tarkovsky suffered a
heart attack while “Stalker” was in postproduction, and he had courted
catastrophe from the get-go. Originally, the film was to be shot in the wilds of
Tajikistan; an earthquake mooted that plan, and the production moved far away
to Estonia. The new location was downriver from a chemical plant — exposure
to the toxic runoff may have contributed to the cancer that killed Tarkovsky a
decade later.
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Geoff Dyerʼs ‘Zonaʼ Examines the Film ‘Stalkerʼ - The New York Times
2019-12-22, 11(47
“Zona” comes armed with source notes and a bibliography, but as if seeking
respite from Tarkovskian heaviness, the writer skews light. However droll, his
self-regarding asides can be wearisome: “Every time I see people drinking in
films I am immediately seized with a desire to have a drink myself.” And?
Most enthusiastic about his enthusiasm for Tarkovsky, Dyer is highly
protective of his “Stalker” experience, provocatively hyperbolic (playing with the
notion that “cinema was invented so that Tarkovsky could make ‘Stalker’ ”) and
overly ​eager to clear the field of potential rivals. ​Michelangelo Antonioni’s
“L’Avventura,” a movie Tarkovsky admired as a useful precursor, is, per Dyer,
“the nearest I have ever come to pure cinematic agony.” Other European
masters are lightweights (“Belle de Jour” and “Breathless” are “unwatchable” or
worse), while Dyer found another Tarkovsky favorite, Robert Bresson’s “Diary of
a Country Priest,” to be “a bit of a struggle.” The cult of ​“Stalker” is not limited
to Dyer alone; while exacting in his judgment of Tarkovsky’s epigones, he is
pleased to mention the film’s celebrated fans, including Bjork and Cate
Still, Dyer’s evocation of “Stalker” is vivid; his reading is acute and
sometimes brilliant. Robert Bird, the Tarkovsky exegete he most often cites, has
elsewhere characterized the Zone as the filmmaker’s quintessential space: “The
Zone is where one goes to see one’s innermost desires. It is, in short, the
cinema.” Dyer agrees and notes that the stalker who guides us there, “a
persecuted martyr” transporting the viewer to the place “where ultimate truths
are revealed,” is the artist himself. Tarkovsky strenuously resisted any
allegorical interpretation of his work, but the movie is in some sense
autobiography. (He wanted his wife, Larisa, to play the stalker’s much put-upon
Just as Tarkovsky is the real protagonist of “Stalker,” Dyer is the true
subject of “Zona.” As the stalker’s party approaches the Room, the footnotes,
some running to six pages, proliferate. The author waxes increasingly personal
in contemplating the nature of his own deepest desires, describing old
girlfriends and LSD trips, elaborating on his missed sexual opportunities and his
affection for dogs, at one point wondering, “What kind of writer am I, reduced to
writing a summary of a film?” Film critics are sometimes paid a left-handed
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Geoff Dyerʼs ‘Zonaʼ Examines the Film ‘Stalkerʼ - The New York Times
2019-12-22, 11(47
compliment that their review was more enjoyable than the actual movie. That
won’t necessarily be the case here — not because Dyer isn’t a stylish wordsmith,
but because it’s likely that many of his readers have never seen “Stalker.” Does
one need to know the film to fully appreciate Dyer’s riff? Or, would “Zona” be
best read in complete innocence, as a novel in the form of a free-associative,
wildly digressive audio commentary on the DVD of a movie too crazy to possibly
exist? (In either case, Dyer is giving a performance, and it’s another Russian
genius who presides over his book, namely Vladimir Nabokov, who contrived
with “Pale Fire” a novel composed of a poem and its unhinged commentary.)
Joking that the Zone “is one of the few territories left — possibly the only
one — where the rights to ‘Top Gear’ have not been sold,” Dyer is fully attuned
to the absurdity of Tarkovsky’s movie as well as to the chutzpah of his own
highfalutin novelization: “If someone will deign to publish this summary of a
film that relatively few people have seen, then that will constitute a success far
greater than anything John Grisham could ever have dreamed of.” Dyer is too
modest; with a first printing of 30,000 copies, he has already, by his own
standard, bested one of the best-selling novelists of our time. “Zona” is
extremely clever — and that’s one thing Tarkovsky never was.
By Geoff Dyer
232 pp. Pantheon. $24.
J. Hoberman’s latest book, “Film After Film; Or,What Became of 21st Century
Cinema?,” will be published this spring.
A version of this review appears in print on March 4, 2012, on Page BR12 of the Sunday Book Review
with the headline: A Place of Our Deepest Desires.
© 2019 The New York Times Company
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