THE RICH, PROBLEMATIC delight with Geoff Dyer’s new book, Zona is that it’s so much more fun than the film it addresses, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). Once upon a time, in advance of publication, it seemed essential that the book come packaged with a DVD of the movie, granted that 162 minutes in glorious 35mm would be cumbersome—and who has a 35mm projector or anyone who can work it? But surely the DVD was a natural? Now, I’m not so sure. Reading the book a few times convinces me that I was not made to see this film too often (I identified with the dog). And, to be honest, you can read this book in 162 minutes and come away refreshed, enlivened, infuriated, amused, thoughtful, and mystified. An invigorating mixture of responses, but this is a Geoff Dyer book.
Zona has a subtitle, “A book about a film about a journey to a room,” and that’s a good start—indeed, it’s snappier and more seductive than the start of the actual movie, and you can argue that that start goes on for about 140 minutes, to be followed by the ending. In the course of spinning out over 200 pages of book on the film, Dyer admits that he hates people who insist on describing a movie in exhaustive detail. He adds that it ought to be possible to summarize Stalker in just a few sentences, so here goes:
In black and white, Stalker sets off with Writer and Professor to go through the Zone to a room where your innermost wish can be realized. They go there, and the Zone is colored countryside, green but desolate, and very damp. They say it’s very hard and strange. They reach the room, but do not enter, or blow it up. Then they are back home, though ‘home’ is a charitable word for what it is. Stalker’s wife talks directly to the camera about their life. Their child reads a book and makes three glasses move on top of a table. One falls off.
I agree: His eleven words are better and sound-bitten (a version of hard-bitten). You can imagine the publisher sighing with relief at this subtitle for a book on a film that, statistically, no one has seen, and which is even more indescribable and more boring than Geoff lets on. Not that he is less than interesting (sometimes riveting) on slowness in film and boredom in an audience; not that he doesn’t know how a few words of description are very quickly an alternative to moving film. Books can’t be movies. So a fair and helpful preparation for Stalker might be: “It’s about the sound of dripping and a world that may be turning into water. It’s a film about decay and degradation and the way time erodes appearance. It’s like looking at flaking plaster on an old wall where rising damp meets sinking hopes.”
All right, that is a bit too Harvey Weinsteinish—you can imagine it on the poster for an Oscar candidate. It really is the case that you can’t describe Stalker (or any film?) without writing a book or a poem or a slogan, or without getting off on fruitful side-trips—like Geoff telling us that when he watched the American remake of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, he felt that the actress in the film, Natascha McElhone, looked just like his wife, who happened to be sitting next to Geoff at the time. She thought there was a likeness, too—and I can see it, having met Mrs. Dyer. But Geoff carries on at ruminative length about this and comes to the idea that Natascha and Mrs. Geoff no longer look as much like each other as they did. Isn’t it the bitter truth that as we grow older we lose our resemblance to ourselves and come to look like a face in the crowd or a portrait by Rembrandt? Perhaps Geoff just needs to keep looking at Mrs. Geoff for her to look like herself. Such thoughts occurred to me as I read Zona, whereas very few thoughts have ever occurred to me as I’ve watched the film.
Geoff says he loves Stalker and that it changed his life, but he doesn’t really say why he loves it, and having known him on and off I’m not sure that anything is going to change his life so long as he can sit in his cardigan in a room of his own and make up books like this. It’s when you start thinking along these lines that you begin to wonder whether Stalker actually exists—or should exist. Most of our films these days are pretty bad and not worth a book, so it might be more stimulating to write about a wondrous film that never existed. Stalker was edging towards non-existence: So little happens; so few things are precise—even its photography seems like a blind alley (the sound track is often more interesting, but some of the most adventurous filmmakers have been going in that direction). I believe Stalker was trying to get there, to a vanishing point. That’s why, after the lugubrious journey to the room, we just cut to the guys back home. It would have been monstrous to have a return, as bad as Scott after the South Pole.
There may be a brief span in which this book revives the film. People will look at it on DVD, perhaps with Zona in their laps as a teasing guide book. Geoff says to see it on DVD is a crime against nature, but how are we going to see it in 35mm on a big screen? And why do we assume the film itself will last? I suspect the damp and the decay are such that the film, the negative, may dissolve in its own liquidness. Geoff tells the story that several people on the shoot—Tarkovsky and his wife included—died from cancers caused by being on the film’s locations that were subject to toxic leaks. It’s just like that John Wayne film, The Conqueror (1956), shot in the Utah desert after nuclear testing. That and Stalker would make a great double-bill.
So one day, perhaps, Stalker may not exist—perhaps it never did. Has Geoff made it up? Did Tarkovsky throw together some faded footage and pass it off as a proper film? All of these possibilities and more may occur to you as you read Zona. It is the most stimulating book on a film in years. Yes, Stalker is a bit like The Wizard of Oz—but Geoff has never seen that film so he can’t talk about it. Anyway, I hope Zona will be a roaring success and thus enable Geoff to return to the book he was born but too bored to write—a book about tennis. “Playing doubles with Anna Karenina”? That’s not just a possible title; it’s a plot; that could be the poster and the book. With Natascha McElhone modeling the cover in fresh whites.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.