Stalker 1979 Analysis -The innate futility in writing about Tarkovsky’s “Zone”

Stalker 1979 :

Let them believe. And let them have a laugh at their passions. Because what they call passion actually is not some emotional energy, but just the friction between their souls and the outside world. And most important, let them believe in themselves. Let them be helpless like children, because weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing.

the Stalker, Stalker 1979
Entering the Zone
Entering the Zone

Stalker(1979) by Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky earns its infamous recognition not only due to its revolutionary cinematic style, but also due to its possibility being the film that killed the actors as well as the director and his wife themselves. Shot in an abandoned power plant, the dominant stretches of silence in Stalker(1979) is akin to the Zone itself, which is “the quietest place in the world.” Interrupted only by occasional natural sounds(sometimes produced from a synth) and rarely by a single piece of ambient music, the movie is a meditation itself.

The Stalker lying down in the Zone
The Stalker lying down in the Zone

The act of sculpting in time in “Stalker(1979)”

“Never try to convey your idea to the audience – it is a thankless and senseless task. Show them life, and they’ll find within themselves the means to assess and appreciate it.”

Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema(1986)

The attempt to show life by framing every passing moment is a notable characteristic of Stalker(1979). Ranging to about three hours, the movie delves into the intricacies of passing time. Time is not merely taken for granted, but its sense is utilized to get the most out of every moment -often neglected in cinematic art. Tarkovsky’s act of sustaining time shows the passage of moments in its natural spontaneity. So, we see, for instance, long shots of such moments as simple as that of people sitting in silence.

The long shot of the three travelers sitting in silence in the Zone
The long shot of the three travelers sitting in silence in the Zone

Another remarkable instance was the journey to the Zone in the railway carriage. Throughout the journey, the focus remains only on the heads of the three characters, up close. Only silence prevails, with the exception of the continuous hum of the carriage.

Expressions, not messages

Such intricate and elongated focus only uses time as an aid for building upon the passage of each moment. Moreover, Stalker’s(1979) adherence to the Aristotelian unity, through its unraveling of events in one single day and a single location, enables a wider scope for such full-fledged expressions.

In fact, the desire to express is highly noticeable. Apart from the outstretched focus on the characters’ facial expressions during their delivery of speech, the speech itself is plagued with more questions than answers. One character may devise some reason, but others may not go along. The conflict between the characters stretches throughout without any definite conclusion. Other than the various existential monologues and dialogues, silence also often dominates. Of an absolute kind, this silence refrains from any definite communication of meaning, and its presence only demands the viewer to go along. Again, the viewer may not agree with it.

But, this sheds light on some observations. These include Tarkovsky’s belief in showing life, and not rushing to a conclusion to “convey an idea”. One may point out that the animation of nature at certain instances with the words, especially of the Stalker, ringing out may be aiding the communication of a message. But, such would only be the defiance of the filmmaker’s own beliefs.

On art, through “Stalker(1979)”

It is obvious that art cannot teach anyone anything, since in four thousand years humanity has learnt nothing at all….Art can only give food – a jolt – the occasion – for psychical experience.

Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema(1986)

Tarkovsky cited himself as a sworn enemy of symbols. Symbols are mostly impregnated with intended meanings for the viewer, whereas Tarkovsky’s usage of metaphors, according to him, lets him dodge the snare of definite meanings. Art, then, for him is solely for expression. The Writer putting on a crown of thorns, for instance, may not be a symbol hinting towards a “hidden significance”.

A viewer may find it difficult to decipher an obvious message from the film. The characters’ perspectives and their standpoints not only seem justified, but their own absoluteness is enhanced all the more through their actions and speech-delivery. Moreover, Tarkovsky’s pessimistic views on art as a morality-exercise also manifests itself in the film. One may argue that he speaks through the Writer, but his own beliefs in art seem to resonate with those of the Stalker in respect to the room, by the end. The Professor with his technical bent of mind cannot be left out, too. The filmmaker himself has commented on the initial conception of a film as characteristic of boredom, devoid of any poetic quality. The three characters, then, may represent three aspects of a single consciousness. But, this again, would be a feeble attempt of penetrative interpretation.

Of absurd dilemma and belief

“A man writes because he is tormented, because he doubts…And if I know for sure that I’m a genius, why write then? What the hell for?

the Writer, Stalker(1979)

Due to the granting of only one’s innermost wishes to fulfillment, the very task of the room as a wish-granter is thrown into a dilemma. Although it granted one’s wishes, such was never in accordance to one’s conscious desires.

The hopes and anticipation of the viewers are held successfully even up to the very threshold of the room. However, the crumbling of the initial building blocks does not devalue any purpose, which if any, is solely to express. Stalker(1979) daringly takes a step ahead in cinematography through such an attitude, also reminiscent of a play written almost three decades ago.

Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot”s(1952) monotony has not only manifested the feeling of isolation, but the play itself has transcended norms of dramatic art. The single space setting of the two-act play concerns itself with dramatic expressions of simple, trivial actions, rather than to convey a definite message. The faint hope that makes Vladimir and Estragon cling to their lives in Waiting for Godot parallels the hollow hopes of the Stalker associated with the room. He was a strong believer of the room and the Zone itself, just like the former believed in Godot, despite the disappointing consequences. The fear of fulfillment owing to one’s innermost desires being unknown, was the fulfillment that Vladimir and Estragon desired through death. No amount of struggle in the former or monotony in the latter could mitigate this fear altogether. The abandonment of an act of fulfillment lies common to both.

The desolate setting of Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett
The desolation characteristic of the Zone in Stalker(1979)
The desolation characteristic of the Zone in Stalker(1979)

Of interpretation and unknowable-ness

Moreover, the question of the room in Stalker(1979) is like the question of life in Beckett’s play. Both are still clung to with a blind hope. If the room, then, is life itself, it makes complete sense in it granting one’s innermost desires than what one consciously seeks from it. Life, like the room, is uncertain. The innermost desires in one’s life may drive one consciously. But, more often than not, it only becomes a repressed desire. Upon repression, its intact presence in the unconscious mind still happens to drive one’s life. Life as a reservoir of one’s innermost desires is characteristic of an unknowable-ness.

The unknowable-ness of life, denying fulfillment, seldom allows one at peace. It is human nature to dissect both life and the expression of life in striving for a comprehensive meaning – for fulfillment. The existential drama of Beckett and Tarkovsky’s Zone are no different. They, too, have encountered several attempts of interpretation since their conception. Hordes of interpreters still attempt to explain Tarkovsky’s works as symbolic of other aspects.Tarkovsky has himself refrained from giving any interpretation of the film or even citing it as a specific commentary. The film, according to him, is a fulfillment in itself. Whether it fulfills one’s conscious desires(of seeing the room, for instance), is another matter. Stalker(1979) aims towards the innermost desire for sensual experience.

The Writer's commentary upon his works and their interpretators....
The Writer’s commentary upon his works and their interpreters….
...the swarm of "journalists,...
…the swarm of “journalists,…
...editors, critics...
…editors, critics…
...who demand, "more, more""
…who demand, “more, more””

The totality of “Stalker(1979)

Interpretations of artistic works tend to construct the artist in the interpreter’s image. In an attempt of comprehension, both the artist and the art lay dissected by knives of interpretation. In cinematic art, a scene may be taken out to mean something or the other. Such attempts aim to uphold one part of a film as more important than others. But, the parts made to appear devalued are as essential as those of seemingly heightened significance. The parts of the Zone, for instance, not made visible to the viewers are of equal importance as those that visibly appear. Even the room which was abandoned at the threshold, aids in holding the narrative thread intact. It is much like the sculpture where hollow spaces, too, constitute in shaping the structure along with the filled ones.

Stalker(1979) as a celebration of expressions, refrains from reducing itself to meanings. A step ahead in the same direction as that of Beckett’s drama, the film’s distinct cinematic style builds upon the monotony of passing moments for narration. It is no doubt that for debut viewers, Tarkovsky’s works may earn a position of either extreme admiration or baffling phoniness. Intricately intact, the movie serves Tarkovsky’s beliefs well by leaving no chance for separate scene-analysis.

Moreover, intentionally perplexing, the boundaries between reality and fiction often becomes marred. One may recall the closing scene, for instance, and debate to whatever extent whether the instance portrayed was that of psychokinesis or an effect of the passing train, but still not reach a definite conclusion.

Whether an instance of psychokinesis or an impact of the passing train?, Stalker(1979)
Whether an instance of psychokinesis or an impact of the passing train?, Stalker(1979)

An exercise in futility

the futility in writing about Stalker (1979)
The Writer’s regret…
the futility of art as a teacher itself in  Stalker (1979)
…and contemplation of the futility of art as a teacher.

Short on plot, Stalker(1979) is quite reflective of Tarkovsky’s own aesthetic beliefs. By emphasizing more upon thoughts, Tarkovsky turns the attention to the primary and the most primal component, that of the human psyche -and, thus, to the human itself. As much as expressions are a manifestation of the subjective human psyche, so are artistic innovations or scientific inventions. The task of enhancement of an objective core through art is abandoned. If anything is universal, it is the underlying existential dilemma.

“One cannot speak of the infinite world by applying tools that are definite and finite.”

Andrei Tarkovsky

The work of us analysts is then futile in accordance to Tarkovsky’s own views on attempts of comprehension of his films. It was interpretations of his films as antithetical to national sentiments that led to Tarkovsky’s exile. Interpretations are only narrow. The interpretative gaze tends to make absolute sense,destroying the infinite essence of the art itself. Like the Zone, which, in even granting wishes true, did not resonate with one’s desires, so does a work of art escape the penetrative leash of those that do not allow themselves the immersive experience prior to interpretation. They are like the Stalker’s clients, the Professor and the Writer, who stopped at the threshold.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Abby McGuire

    Solid piece. Enjoyed it a bunch.

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