What if Stalker’s Writer wrote a book about his experience in the Zone? His first sentence – the most important, some say – might sounds like this: “An empty bar, possibly not even open, with a single table, no bigger than a small round table, but higher, the sort you lean against – there are no stools – while you stand and drink.” This is, of course, the opening frame of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, as described by Geoff Dyer in Zona: a Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room. All in sepia, as we are outside the Zone for the moment.
Dyer downplays the seriousness of his examination of Stalker, because this is what Zona is in its essence, by repeatedly calling it the summary of a film. Probably based on the response to his previous books, the author seems to anticipate the reaction, a possible reaction to Zona: “this is not film criticism, this is not autofiction, what is this?” But this is exactly the beauty of Zona and other books like it: you cannot place it on a specific shelf, it does not belong to a specific genre. It’s a hybrid. Almost like Stalker’s daughter: “a mutant” (in the Professor’s words), a product of the Zone. So no, do not expect straightforward film criticism from this book (although there is a bit of that, too). You can think of it as a commentary, a written commentary instead of an audio commentary. A commentary that includes notes on the production of Stalker, autobiographical notes and a web of references to films and books.
With a book like Zona, a book devoted entirely to one film, the temptation is to watch scenes from the film immediately after having read the respective fragments from the book and alternate like so until the end. Naturally, a reading / viewing experience like this would imply seeing the film at home. Something which Dyer is fundamentally opposed to. Stalker, he says, does not belong on a TV screen. This films-must-be-seen-in-the-darkness-of-a-movie-theater is beginning to sound more and more like a film-watching quirk (and Dyer has many such quirks) that, were everyone be afflicted with it, would seriously restrain cinephilia.
Personally, if I had waited for Stalker to be programmed at a movie theater near me, there is a high chance I wouldn’t have seen it in my twenties. Which is another one of Dyer’s conditions. A film like Stalker must be seen in your twenties, when you’re at your most vulnerable, when you are able to be moved and shaped by what you see on the screen.1 As Alice would say, let’s pretend: you crack that spine, head over to YouTube, where Stalker is available for free and legally, courtesy of Mosfilm (“Oh, the horror!” Dyer would say), and begin the alternation. Dyer talks in his book about the existence of a Tarkovsky-time. So what one does by alternating the book with the film, or even by simply reading the entire book and then watching the film, or the other way around, is to expand this Tarkovsky-time. This is truly one of the most appealing ideas offered by Zona. Also concerning time, or Time, Dyer makes this remarkable observation:
Tremors from the future can be felt throughout Stalker. In less than a decade Professor’s summary of how the Zone came into existence had taken on the aura of a premonition fulfilled, and Stalker acquired yet another dimension of suggestiveness: in its foreshadowing of the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl, in Ukraine. Tarkovsky was not only a visionary, poet and mystic – he was also a prophet (of a future that now lies in the past).
This observation is from and about the future, “a future that now lies in the past”, but what about the past, the past that is in fact the present of the film? Dyer doesn’t forget about the Soviet reality at the time Stalker was made, the seventies, and consequently draws a parallel between the Zone and the Gulag. He is however careful to point out that “Stalker is not a film about the Gulag, but the absent and unmentioned Gulag is constantly suggested, either by Stalker’s zek haircut, or by the overlapping vocabulary.” Dyer introduces the comparison to the Gulag as soon as the word “prison” is mentioned in the film and he quotes from Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: ‘the world outside the barbed wire was not referred to as “freedom”, but as the bolshaya zone, the “big prison zone”, larger and less deadly than the “small zone” of the camp, but no more human – and certainly no more humane.’ This quote actually finds its match later on, in the second part of the film, when Stalker, Writer and Professor have reached the Room and Stalker confesses: “They took everything from me behind barbed wire. Everything I have is here. Here, in the Zone. My happiness, my freedom, my dignity. They’re all here.” The references to the Soviet system are all too obvious, so we can understand why the aforementioned studio, Mosfilm, insisted on adding the opening caption that explains the fantastical and uncertain origin of the Zone.2
Dyer himself is prone to explanatory openings. Through a quote from G.C. Waldrep’s D.W. Griffith at Gettysburg, he suggests his experience with watching Stalker: “I watched the film until the film itself became a kind of blindness.”, while a quote from Albert Camus’ A Short Guide to Towns Without a Past announces his approach: “After all, the best way of talking about what you love is to speak of it lightly.” In Dyer’s case, this announced lightness does not mean the exclusion of depth. In his case, a light approach might be understood as mixing highbrow discourse and references with lowbrow discourse and references. At times, he does so successfully (a meditation on beer brings to surface the issue of class), other times – not so much. Getting to the most important part of the film, the arrival at the Room, he makes an interesting suggestion: what if the Room worked retroactively? Instead of making your deepest wish come true, what if the Room could change your past based on your current deepest regret? Dyer’s biggest regret? So trivial, so meaningless that for a second, you might think you’re reading a tabloid. In his defense, Tarkovsky himself would probably not have been worthy of the Room. After all, Porcupine, Stalker mentor, wasn’t. Stalker’s own wife might not be worthy of it. Or at least Stalker doesn’t think she would be. In the end, only his daughter, Monkey, seems to be the one worthy of the Room. This might be an explanation as to why she’s the only one we see in color despite being outside the Zone. She might not be in the Zone, but she is of the Zone.
After closely examining a film like Stalker, “a mind-fuck movie”, if we were speaking in “American”, the only answer one might expect from the author is an answer to a simple, expected, yet essential question: so what is this Room, and implicitly, the Zone? Dyer himself has several definitions throughout the book, at one point going as far as claiming that “the Zone is film.”3 In the end, the author seems to settle for a Tarkovsky-approved interpretation: the Room is merely Stalker’s invention.
Dyer quotes a 1981 interview in which Tarkovsky says: “I completely agree with the suggestion that it was Stalker who had created the Zone’s world in order to invent some sort of faith, a faith in that world’s existence.” And then a 1986 interview, in which Tarkovsky reinforces this idea, leaving room for no doubts: “The Zone doesn’t exist. It’s Stalker himself who invented the Zone.”
1)Strangely enough, Dyer is not the only one to suggest this: a number of critics have expressed similar thoughts on the occasion of the release of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. 2) What was it? A meteorite that fell to Earth? Or a visitation from outerspace? Whatever it was, there appeared in our small land a miracle of miracles: the Zone. We sent in troops, none returned. Then we surrounded the Zone with police cordons. We did right… although I’m not sure. – from an interview with Nobel Prize winner Professor Wallace to a correspondent from RAI.” 3) “The convention whereby the movements of a potential victim are tracked by a camera pregnant with menace – the camera as stalker – is common to all suspense films but here the movement from participants’ subjective view to that of an undisclosed third party creates a disquieting sense of there being an extra pair of eyes. There is never a sense that this is the point of view of an actual person, of someone who is stalking the Stalker: it is like an additional consciousness (that of the Zone itself?), alert and waiting. Perhaps this is what Tarkovsky meant when he said that he wanted us to ‘feel… that the Zone is there beside us.’ In other words, that extra person (that extra pair of eyes) is us (are ours). The Zone is film.”