Guest blog by Adam Hansen
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) generates commentary in proportion to its enigmas: the more it baffles, the more we speculate. Most recently Geoff Dyer has published Zona (2012) detailing his and others’ analyses of this influential work, released in the same year as Apocalypse Now (the links between the two films being more than merely chronological). With limited space (and expertise!) I’m not able (or willing) to summarise or add to such commentaries – so my response here is as impressionistic as Stalker itself. But what impressions it creates. So many surfaces in the film seem tangibly sticky and tacky. Grime and degeneration pervade. Light disappears in Piranesi-esque, post-industrial concavities, provoking paranoia in characters and audiences alike. For a ‘slow film’, Stalker is very suspenseful: as with David Lynch’s work, anything or nothing could happen next, and either can appal. Yes, there are the scenes of almost-pastoral bliss, shot with colour; and yes, light and dark do starkly contrast at times (as when milk is poured in a black dog’s bowl), but the muddy shades and visual ‘bleed’ match the film’s philosophical confusions. Whatever else happens in the Zone, and the Room, all supposed distinctions dissapear: ‘man’ and ‘nature’, ‘art’ and ‘science’, ‘sense’ and ‘reason’, past, present and future, ‘East’ and ‘West’ (especially in the opening music). Sounds also work to create this textured, tantalising, absorbent and absorbing world. There’s lots of the kind of skittering, edge-of-consciousness audio delay effects Martin Hannett was fine-tuning in equally haunted work for Manchester’s Factory records at the same time.
Did I imagine that the echoes intensified during moments of transition to the Zone’s unknown pleasures? As the camera bores into the protagonists on their motorised railway trolley, the click-clack of the tracks morphs, becoming roughly musical. Stalker is bookended with a suppressed, fuzzy fragment of Ode to Joy soundtracking a train’s progress – given the (thwarted) aspirations of those entering the Zone, is this ironic? The film’s cold joys come not in the Room, beautiful as its threshold of perforating rain might be, but back in the wasteland outside, when the Stalker’s wife’s directly addresses the camera, confessing the passions and compromises of her life, or when their daughter’s telekinetic talents manifest. She is a fitting final subject for the camera – like her (our?) world, seen as broken, but surviving. If the Zone is a Pandora’s Box, then does hope remain?
Dr Adam Hansen, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Northumbria University.