A dark room where your desires are enacted… It’s a cinema, isn’t it? In Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, however, there is a room that goes beyond what your local multiplex offers; it is a loom of dreams, the place where your wishes solidify. This Aladdin’s lamp is located in the heart of “the Zone”, a wasteland fenced off from society. What happened to charge the landscape so mysteriously? Aliens? An experiment that went wrong? The penalty for entering the Zone unprepared is soul-skinning. But if you can find your way through the territory, your heart’s mightiest desire is within reach.
Filmed in Estonia, Stalker is set in the near-future or an alternative present, although the decaying machinery and polluted rivers are redolent not of the world of tomorrow but of the then soon-to-collapse Soviet era. In its depiction of a territory abandoned after an undescribed trauma, possibly radiation-swamped and its vegetation grown anarchic in the absence of man, Stalker reminds one of footage of Chernobyl as it is today; scientists re-entering the post-meltdown reactor were called “stalkers” by their colleagues.
Geoff Dyer has written about his obsession with Stalker before, notably in Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It. In his latest work, Zona (Russian, even the linguistically tone-deaf can deduce, for “Zone”), he atomises his favourite movie; he takes it apart scene by scene, almost shot by shot. For a writer who makes great play of his susceptibility to boredom, Dyer’s filmic fission risks zapping what it is about it that holds his interest so. Zona is wildly digressive, with branching footnotes, so that, like the film’s spooky no-man’s land, you have to watch where you’re going. Tarkovsky’s titular character has a daughter mutated by her father’s exposure to the Zone; and Dyer’s muse, bathed in Stalker’s depleted glow, births a mutant too, a volume that is neither film criticism nor memoir, an odd, oddly beguiling book.
What Dyer seeks on journeys he has written about are those fugitive, evanescent moments when he feels himself entering “the Zone”. ‘When I’m in the Zone I don’t wish to be anywhere else. Whereas when I’m not in the Zone I’m always wishing I was somewhere else, wishing I was in the Zone.’ The Zone is triggered by places – the Severan Forum in Libya , the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert – but it is not a place so much in itself as it is a feeling, a tuning-in into a dream frequency. ‘If it weren’t for Stalker I’m not sure I would ever have real-ized that the place I wanted to be – and the state I wanted to be in – was the Zone.’
Dyer describes Stalker as ‘a sort of sci-fi film’. The script, written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, is based on their 1972 novel Roadside Picnic. In the book, scattered throughout the Zone are mysterious artefacts left behind during a brief visit by extra-terrestrials. No one fully knows what the artefacts are or do. Some venture they are a gift, but the title sourly refers to a counter-theory. That the aliens were on their way to somewhere more important than earth; that their sojourn was no more significant than a roadside picnic, and that what they left behind is, in effect, their trash.
Such a notion is inimical to Tarkovsky. His films pursue, like Dyer searching for the Zone, a tremor of awe, although the sensation itself is fleeting and dangerous. One thinks of the opening of Andrei Rublev, where a medieval peasant pilots then crashes a proto-hot-air balloon. Tarkovsky was always more interested in metaphysics than quantum physics. The sense of a Godlike visitation survives the transfer from page to screen but it arrives without the Strugatskys’ gesture towards an explanation. Instead, Tarkovsky’s Stalker is a tourist guide to possibly heaven, possibly hell.
The Zone is a test of the soul, as watching the film can be a test of patience. With some cheek, Dyer berates L’Aventura for being agonizingly slow, when Stalker is nothing if not funereal in pace. Dyer first saw Stalker when he was 22, soon after it was first released. ‘It was not a case of love at first sight…. I was slightly bored and unmoved. I wasn’t overwhelmed…but it was an experience.’ I saw Stalker when I was 18. Like Dyer, I was ‘slightly bored and unmoved’, and didn’t watch it again until a copy of Zona came into my possession. My reluctance to return to the film in the two decades between viewings is bound up possibly with the circumstances under which I first saw it.
In my late teens I befriended a boy called Gregory, who although local, went to a different school, largely because of his difficult childhood, which explained why he lived with his grandparents. Whereas other adolescents with disastrous parents might have acted up with a show of arson or shoplifting, Gregory was an exercise nut who wore shorts and t-shirt everywhere, even, embarrassingly for friends, to parties. He stayed awake for days, claiming he had perfected lucid dreaming – sound training, I realise now, for Stalker’s trippier moments; Dyer’s first viewings were shaped by his experiences of taking hallucinogenics. Gregory, however, was a straight-edger. Instead of drinking Diamond White down the park, he flourished his copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra. Fools did not suffer him lightly.
I felt a rivalry with Gregory that was all the more intense for being unacknowledged. Despite a minor mania for working out, Gregory hated sport, particularly football, as did I. Our “teams” were Tarkovsky (Gregory) and David Lynch (me). Competitively we found out as much as we could about our chosen director – and our rival’s choice. Settling on David Lynch in 1991 was, I see now, like choosing to support Manchester United. Lynch was buoyant at the time, having won the Palme D’Or with Wild At Heart while his television show Twin Peaks was, briefly, a success with critics and viewers. I especially loved Blue Velvet, Lynch’s dark romance of small towns and their secrets; my adolescent self liked to imagine my own small town harboured mysteries of its own. At the time I didn’t see a connection between the two directors, who seemed so representative of the spirit of their respective national cinemas; while both men traded in mystery, Tarkovsky’s were rooted in a struggle to recognise the numinous in the everyday, a conflict familiar from the work of Dos-toevsky and Tolstoy, while Lynch’s bright nightmares were poised between idealising and mocking the folksy strain of American life. But then again… The key moment in Blue Velvet features its hero hidden in a wardrobe spying on a naked Isabella Rossellini as a prelude to a troubling, sensual encounter between the two. A dark room where your desires are enacted… Often the abiding preoccupation of the cinema appears to be the cinema. ‘The Zone is film,’ Dyer writes. In his idiosyncratic history of photography, The Ongoing Moment, Dyer structured his narrative not chronologically or by photographer but by photographs that captured similar objects, people, phenomena. A similarly wrought story of the cinema might neighbour Stalker’s room and Blue Velvet’s wardrobe. Certainly my adolescent hormonally-juiced self was powerfully attracted to Lynch’s fantasies, and if I’d ever found myself in the Zone, my wish might have been to dwell in Rossellini’s wardrobe for a while. ‘The question, I suppose, is this,’ writes Dyer as a prelude to an equally unfortunate confession. ‘Is one’s deepest desire always the same as one’s greatest regret? If so, then my greatest regret is, without doubt, one I share with the vast majority of middle-age, heterosexual men: that I’ve never had a three-way, never had sex with two women at once. Is that pathetic or wisdom?’
In a way that only became apparent years later, our championing of Lynch and Tarkovsky set the bounds of our adolescent mindscape. On the one hand, a yearning for a spiritual enlargement, not through religion, which we spurned, but via the great books and films of European art’s soberest tradition. On the other, an irresistible attraction to the flip, the trashy, the ironic, the hip, disturbed and erotic. In my repressed little town, repeatedly watching Blue Velvet on VHS stood in lieu of a sex life. Appropriately, while I watched Blue Velvet exclusively on the TV in my bedroom, I had to make a visit to the cinema, chapel-like, to see Stalker.
Perhaps that’s why I got a little annoyed by Dyer’s indiscreet memories in Zona of his younger self’s sex life: jealousy. He does often go on in his writing about his remarkable sexual career, and to the less blessed, it often borders on boastful. There are other aspects of Dyer’s shtick that were less charming on this excursion, notably his slackerdom, his candid admissions of not putting the work in. One area I was looking forward to Dyer addressing was the parallels between Stalker and that Depression-era fantasia The Wizard of Oz (the shift between black and white and colour, the journey across a magical land, the ultimately disappointing revelation), not least because David Lynch has repeatedly referenced Frank L Baum. ‘I’ve never seen The Wizard of Oz, not even as a kid,’ Dyer announces, ‘and obviously have no intention of making good that lack now.’ Why not? It’s only a couple of hours long. Similarly, he ventures a line in another Tarkovsky film, Solaris, is in the script but not in the Stanislaw Lem novel it’s based on, although he can’t bring himself to read the book thoroughly enough to confirm (‘I skimmed’).
I don’t mean to carp. I enjoy Dyer’s work more than almost any other contemporary English writer. I think that what happened was that his book-length championing of Stalker revived in my mind my adolescent rivalry, with Dyer playing the part of Gregory. He was given to boastfulness too, with much to boast about: the last time I saw him, about a decade ago at a funeral, he was married to a beauty and about to start a new job in America; you would forgive me for suspecting he had somehow found his way to the Zone’s room. I didn’t watch Stalker for almost 20 years: when I did, the effect was painfully Proustian. Taking the role of Gregory, Dyer had cast me back to my adolescence. At least I don’t watch Blue Velvet in my bedroom on video tape any more. No. I’ve upgraded to DVD.
ZONA – A BOOK ABOUT A FILM ABOUT A JOURNEY TO A ROOM