Thursday, January 17, 2013

Wish I May

Film: Stalker
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

Films like Stalker drive me nuts. I know there’s something here, something I should be divining from it. There’s unquestionably something very deep here, but I don’t know that I have the vocabulary to describe it. I know at a very deep level that Andrei Tarkovsky is saying something here, but I feel like I’m just too damn stupid to know exactly what he’s getting at.

The world of Stalker is something like our world, but in a very degraded form. Much of the initial section of the film is in a strange black-and-white that doesn’t feel like black-and-white. It’s almost a sepia, but there’s an odd sensation of color, almost as if it was filmed in color and then stripped of 95% of it. Naturally, since this is a Russian film, we’re somewhere in the Soviet Union, but not somewhere like Moscow. We’re instead in an industrial wasteland, a place that looks and feels toxic. It is here that we meet the Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky), who is leaving his wife (Alisa Freindlich) to make a trip somewhere, and she doesn’t want him to go.

The Stalker meets up with his two clients, who he names by their professions rather than their actual names. These men are Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and Professor (Nikolai Grinko). The Stalker is going to lead them into the nearby area that has been cordoned off and guarded by the military. This is The Zone, a place where something mystical or unexplainable has happened. Rumors include events like a meteor strike. It is a wasteland where people once lived, at least based on the structures and the debris in the area. Somewhere in The Zone is The Room (and not Tommy Wiseau’s version). Allegedly, anyone who steps into The Room receives his deepest desire. The Professor claims that he wants to win a Nobel Prize; the Writer wants inspiration, since he’s run dry.

And the men begin. Throughout, the Stalker warns the other two men to follow his instructions. The Zone is a place of danger and is loaded with traps. Slowly, they make their way across the blasted landscape, and as they do, they begin to explore their true motives for entering The Zone and what they truly desire from The Room at the end. Frequently, we learn about Porcupine, another stalker who used The Zone to kill his own brother, came into a great deal of money, and then hanged himself. So, while this began as a journey to get two men what they really want, it ends as an exploration of what all three of the men truly want, and how this may be at odds with what they believe they want. I’d love to go more into this, but that’s all I feel safe saying in terms of the plot, lest I let slip something as a spoiler that I don’t even know is a spoiler.

What strikes me most about this film is precisely how much it reminds me of a number of other films, some of which came from before Stalker and some which I merely saw before I saw this one. There are elements of Alphaville, for instance, and there’s no getting away from Tarkovsky’s own Solyaris, particularly with the destroyed technology and garbage of the world strewn across the destroyed landscape. But there’s also a sense of the existential strangeness of Cube. Most strange of all, there is a real sense of horror films in this, which seems very much to fit in with the fantasy elements of the film—all fantasy has a sense of the horrific. And, as the picture above indicates, there are some religious references here as well.

So where do I stand with this film? It’s hard to say. It’s one that I need to watch at least one more time, and probably multiple times to start teasing out what I think Tarkovsky put here and what I get from it even if Tarkovsky didn’t intend it. I don’t think there is a single correct interpretation for this film, nor do I think that anyone who watches it carefully will limit him- or herself to a single interpretation. The film is simply too deep and too dense to be limited to a single idea.

Stalker is also a film that separates the real science fiction fan from the poser. Plenty of people claim to love science fiction and fantasy, but on further review are just action junkies. After all, the vast majority of science fiction is something all about things blowing up. It’s I, Robot for those willing to watch anything, or Inception for those who still want a little thinking with their explosions. The story of The Lord of the Rings is epic and involving, but there are also tons of awesome battles. Stalker is nothing like this. This is a thoughtful film, one that is more concerned about the internal of these three men. There are no explosions, no aliens, no laser guns, again very much like Solyaris.

So what do I think? Stalker is true art, a film that is more than simply a story, but one with multiple possible, realistic, and believable meanings. It’s also far too much for a single viewing to reach a lot of conclusions. I need to watch it again at least once, but it’s a film I want to watch again, a film I look forward to watching again, and a film I expect to enjoy exploring further.

Why to watch Stalker: You should never say no to Tarkovsky.
Why not to watch: You may not have a single clue what any of it means.


  1. I think this is a film for which one's viewing experience can greatly color one's reaction. When I saw this one, I was a little bit tired, and my brain was in a mellow kind of mood. Ready, then, for watching a movie like Stalker.

    Because of that, because I wasn't all anxious or energetic or hopping around or thinking/worrying about other things, I TOTALLY fell under its spell. It was an extraordinary experience.

    I loooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooove this movie. It's my favorite Tarkovsky film. I can't believe how wrapped up I got in it, considering it's a lot (A LOT) of talking and no special effects. But I was frightened, legitimately, by going into "The Zone."

    But it's not a film I would recommend easily because I know it's slow and dense (and a lot of talking) and heavily symbolic. It just clicked for me, completely, but I also completely understand your reaction to it and why it would not (and probably doesn't) click for others.

    I've been asking for it for Christmas for several years now. No one has yet to purchase it for me. Seriously, I would probably consider placing it Top 25 Favorites, and definitely Top 50.

    1. Yeah, I think you're right. This is a film that I feel like is just out of reach for me, that there's something there I can't quite grasp. I had the same reaction to Solyaris, which is now a film I respect greatly.

      I'm really looking forward to seeing this one again. It'll have to wait until later in the year, but I do want to explore it more. While my understanding of it is imperfect, I'm hardly turned off to the experience of seeing it a second (and third, fourth) time.

  2. I saw this movie maybe 6-8 years ago, before I ever heard of Tarkovsky or knew anything about his style of films. (I knew of Solaris - a film I still have yet to see, but I didn't know who directed it and didn't know to connect it to this film.) The only reason I watched Stalker and not Solaris is that the former showed up on the IMDB Top 250 and the latter did not.

    Anyway, when I first started watching Stalker I knew it was science fiction (i.e. actually about someting), not sci-fi. That meant I had some issues with the movie for a while because, as you pointed out, it is far from straightforward.

    I achieved a breakthrough in liking this film when I realized that the entire thing is intended as an allegory, not a literal story. Each of these men needs to find within themselves what they truly want and this journey is a physical representation of the metaphysical journey that each must make.

    And there's actually nothing in the film, other than a brief shot of telekinesis at the very end, that technically even makes this science fiction. In theory these people could have been travelling through a current industrial wasteland, being led by a person who was making up everything about the journey and destination.

    1. All true. It's science fiction in its purest sense, but it's a very soft science fiction. There's not really any strange technology or anything else that makes anyone associate it with that. It's also why I tagged this as fantasy, too, because it dips into that realm as well.

  3. Yes, STALKER, like all of Tarkovsky's films, is a tough nut to crack. A rewatch did wonders for this film, made it a favorite, but I'd be struggling to explain it's deeper meanings to anyone else. I love the atmosphere and the abstract world-building. You get a sense of the universe without ever having the details of it explained or the whys or hows. It just is.

    1. I absolutely need to watch it again, but it's one I look forward to revisiting.