We continue with “Stalker” (1979) from last month as we gradually wind down the yearlong survey of films by Andre Tarkovsky. In the opening shots, after the introduction, we begin by pushing in through half-opened doors, but notice how we immediately find ourselves hovering over the face of the stalker’s wife before introducing the rest of the family. His daughter’s face will be the last to grace the screen at the finale.
The stalker’s family is of paramount importance to this story, even though they make up only a fraction of what we see and hear. It’s not his wretched living quarters next to the tracks nor that dismal drinking establishment in the shadow of the cooling stacks, but the man’s wife and child that bring him back. It becomes his heart’s desire to take them with him to The Zone.
It’s a sly touch of comedy to have such a lost clown lead a prominent scientist and a celebrated writer on an expedition into the unknown. The stalker is occasionally referred to by his companions as a “chinkgachook.” It translates as something like “restless soul” or “holy kook,”but he alone can provide safe haven through a place where, years back, on account of some cosmic fluke, nature rid itself of humans. Almost everyone who ever went in there since was lost.
This chingachook’s been there and back so many times he’s a master. Where you or I see a safe path, the chinkgachook sees traps. We can only comprehend the complications of the labyrinth we inhabit by watching him pilot his companions through its funky kinks and cul-de-sacs. Tarkovsky trusts his audience to feel and think. His synthesis of time, through sound and image, maximizes space for audiences to fill in lots of blanks.
There’s a fence around The Zone and guards won’t let anyone in. They won’t go in either; they wouldn’t dare. It’s like chutes and ladders in there. You risk hell in following a stalker’s advice, but if you make it, you’re a citizen for a spell in paradise.
Actually, The Zone is not pure bliss. Like our own biosphere, it is equidistant from extremes. The Zone is merely Nature coming back from the effects of industrial blight, but the fact that she’s been spoiled makes her all the more precious and delicate. As a composer does with counterpoint or a painter does with darks and lights, Tarkovsky ups the emotional pitch of his subject by depicting polar opposites.
Light as it sounds, something seems to be pressing down on everyone in The Zone. One can hardly hold oneself up and it hardly matters where you lie down. Even when it’s soaking wet, nobody minds. Pilgrims slog and scale about the bag-end of Eden wrestling with inner demons, eventually penetrating an abandoned power plant with serpentine tunnels, treacherous currents and murky crossings. It makes a compelling visual context for characters to self-isolate, conspire, then snap back to ordinary again after each of them confronts the pros and cons of their most private desire.
At times this movie calls to mind the mind-bending paradigms in tales by Castaneda and Borges. Ordinary reality cedes to the outrageous. Passage through The Zone is a struggle between feeling and numbness, spontaneity and habit, pressure and suction. Characters plunge into unconditional reality and must sink or swim. Stalker cautions his entourage to hang close to him and takes the responsibility seriously–almost mystically. Rumor has it some legendary stalker named Porcupine lost his only son.
Great story. Now set it aside and shift the emphasis to what most interested Tarkovsky, the thing he called “sculpting time,” or how he frames the stuff of Nature in space to achieve awe-inducing spells. The artist’s pet pursuit programs cinematic progressions and rests at fluctuating rates and intervals. “Time pressure” is how he relates. A breeze lifts vapor and dust through the landscape, turning it to liquid space; time itself becomes visible as backgrounds and foregrounds dislodge. Actors pause and pace, water drips, steam rises, the camera dips and dodges to a tempo in which life itself thrives and bathes.
There are no literal mirrors in “Stalker.” Instead, dried silt in an arid lake bed lofts into the air on sudden gusts and with this image Tarkovsky somehow epitomizes the sodden journey of three conflicted men, each confronting their deepest desire.
Like a dune in the wind, never appearing the same twice, reality is in continual shift and flux inside The Zone. In other words, these mens’ very presence irreversibly alters the balance of space; as human presence has always done, conquering wild places. I consider this cinematic sequence as enlightened a statement of our predicament as any ever attempted by anyone before or since.
“Stalker” was well received internationally but back home its director was harassed. I wonder, did the maestro make a conscious decision to do away entirely with the mirrors in this film in an effort to transcend them, or was it just coincidence? We began this series over a year ago with his third film called “Mirror,” a movie that got the most heat from his detractors. Not everyone liked what they saw in the looking glass. Its intensely personal subject matter put off some viewers while exhilarating others. Within the state-run movie system of the Soviet Union, the negative response to “Mirror” probably sealed Andre’s fate as an ex-pat in the future.
Mirrors were never limited to shiny glass in this director’s films anyway. They can be found in placid ponds or on burnished shields too. They are equally abundant in both metaphor and simile as well.
Looking in the mirror means taking personal responsibility–our most pressing business on the planet. Like the best of the great artists, Tarkovsky was an oracle overlaying an enlightened frame on the future, using every thing available to him to settle technology’s debt with nature.