(Part 1 of this thing is right here.)
It shames me to admit that Andrei Tarkovsky's cerebral sci-fi movie Stalker is the first movie that sent me literally running for the exit door. (There have been plenty since but none with this film's pedigree.) You should know this was many years ago when I was a naive teenage kid living in Alabama. I'd never really seen a foreign movie, unless you count the occasional late-night Godzilla flick.
I heard a nearby university film club was screening a Russian science-fiction film about aliens (this was in 1982, three years after Stalker's theatrical release, and three years after I should've walked out on The Ravagers, but didn't). I was the sorta well-read nerd kid jonesing for all the sci-fi I could find. Russian SF? Huh. I was a kid in the South during Uncle Ronnie's paranoid rants about the Evil Empire. Everybody feared nuclear destruction back then and we saw it reflected back at us through many post-apocalyptic movies and TV shows. My pals and I wondered if the smelly and dank high school basement would really prove to be a safe fallout shelter as promised by a pair of ancient metal signs bolted to its doors.
So it wasn't cool to like anything from Russia except maybe Yakov Smirnoff. But if there were cool spaceships or bad-ass monsters to be seen, I was happy to temporarily renounce my American citizenship and check out Close Encounters of the Communist Kind or whatever it was.
What I saw was ... not quite what I expected. Not. At. All. Let me channel what was going through my teenage head: This painfully slow-moving story opens with three bitter-faced men muttering and drinking in a dingy bar before deciding to dash around a bit in a jeep evading some inept guards. For thirty minutes. After more hiding and grim-faced muttering, they finally take a tiny train car into a place called the Zone ... and this train car is rolling ... and rolling ... and rolling ... it takes, like, forever ... until they reach a green wooded field where the aliens are. But there are no spaceships, aliens or cool landscapes in sight. Not even a hot space chick.
Understand that in addition to being somewhat aesthetically stunted by blockbuster sci-fi films and the backwards cultural norms of a place like rural Alabama, I was also restless, sugar-fueled and, thanks to tidal waves of teenage testosterone, my neurons were popping like black-market sparklers. I was still heavily under the influence of the amphetamine pinball rush of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Even though I knew scads more about film history and technique than most of my peers (thanks to Famous Monsters and Starlog and making my own Super 8mm movies), I can now see that I was about as cinematically seasoned as a dried cow turd. So I didn't "get" this Stalker movie at all. Those 30 minutes were the longest of my life and when these dour travelers finally reached the sinister-sounding "Zone" where something maybe evil and maybe magical but definitely alien lurked, I was flabbergasted to see it looked like the overgrown field of weeds across the street from the K-mart on Woodward Avenue.
That did it. I'd had enough. I got the hell out of there. I can still remember standing from my seat and walking up the aisle past the rows of expressionless faces still watching this glacial, impenetrable and apparently endless strip of celluloid. I sought out the nearest videogame arcade and furiously pumped photons through my optic nerves to replenish my dulled mind.
After handing down the most damning verdict an audience member can serve to any art form, you'd think I would have gone on with my life not thinking one further whit about Stalker. But over the years, I've thought more and more on those 30 minutes than I have about most films I've seen in their entirety. Yes, it was a slow and measured pace, a near-eternity spent in a drab, dour and fatalistic world. But something about that unfinished story always stuck with me. From time to time over the years, I wondered if those strange and haunted men found whatever it was they were looking for. Whatever their mysterious destination was, they seemed obsessed with finding it. It's their obsession that resonated for me. I didn't understand it at the time. Only now, years later, am I just barely beginning to "get" this film called Stalker.
Art can be obsessive. People have always obsessed over stories and music and painting and theater. When art strikes a deep chord, it's something we like to return to again and again. Today technology allows us to indulge our obsessions in ways never before imagined. As a writer on an upcoming TV show that attempts to cross-pollinate with a videogame counterpart, I'm fascinated by the technological possibilities of bridging art from one medium to another.
We call obsessed art lovers fans, from the Latin fanaticus, which means insanely or divinely inspired. (This digression reminds me that I had two years of Latin in high school, so maybe I wasn't as dull-headed back then as I fear.)
Ever since its release, Stalker has become an obsession like no other. Growing legions of fans claim the film changes upon each viewing, revealing some new hidden depth of meaning. (I certainly experience that with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I've written about here and here.) Stalker is an obsession for me, as well, even though it's taken decades to develop into something I could sense. Until recently, it's forever been those 30 minutes (which felt like 30 years, but that's part of its hold) of three men frowning, drinking, sulking, then charging through a fence as bullets hail around them, and later standing and sitting motionless on a tiny train car, sad Soviet statues lost in sad Soviet thoughts as a sepia-toned landscape slides past their eyes ... only to become bright and green. And something else entirely.
I'm not the only one haunted by this movie. Tarkovsky fiends are keyed into the filmmaker's extended shots that continue beyond the bounds of ordinary patience and become extended trance-like meditations on life itself. Many other filmmakers have fallen under this spell. For example, there's Christopher Nolan, obviously a Tarkovsky fan, whose mystifying final shot in Inception is a direct homage to the last image in Stalker:
And here's the amazing actress Cate Blanchett in a brief video explaining why it's the one movie she would send to the future for audiences to watch.
I recently watched Stalker in its entirety, on DVD from Kino International. I thought for sure I could plop down and watch this movie in one go ... but I couldn't. It took me two days to work through it -- accent on the work. While I felt keyed into the film's dreamlike pacing and imagery, there were too many things that pulled me out of that trance and made me restless. The characters don't act like real people ... or are they too real? Their mystifying soliloquies and random naps, often in the middle of running streams, are frustrating and almost impenetrable. But then again, aren't we all bizarre and unexplainable to some degree?
So I fidgeted and watched with furrowed brow, but two days later I got through it. And I felt something weird taking hold.
Thanks to posts from people like writer Warren Ellis, I've been pointed to additional material that helps me understand why this story is so primal and haunting. It begins with the movie's origins -- not a screenplay as you might expect, but a novel, and a pretty amazing one at that.
In 1972, Russian science-fiction writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky wrote a novel called Roadside Picnic. It's about aliens contacting Earth. Well, actually, they don't contact us at all. They drop by in the middle of the night and then leave before we wake up the next morning. No messages, no gifts -- it doesn't look like they gave a damn about us at all. Maybe they were changing transmission fluid. Taking a leak. Or just enjoying the roadtrip repast of the title.
They left behind strange things -- we think they're gifts from the gods (and devils), but they're probably nothing more than alien beer cans and sandwich wrappers. These landing zones have become places where the laws of physics have broken down. They are mysterious. They are deadly. In the several nations where the landings took place, these areas are quickly cordoned off by military. People -- scientists, politicians, soldiers -- go exploring in these Zones and never return. Everybody wants the artifacts that lie inside, even though nobody can understand their origin or intent.
Into these zones go scientists and explorers. Some legit, others mad and driven, all of them looking for something beyond financial gain. It's a strange, thrilling and memorable tale, and Boris Strugatsky's afterword details the novel's Kafka-esque journey through the Soviet censorship board.
Not long after, Tarkovsky commissioned the Strugatskys to produce a screenplay that he rewrote, paring the story down to its barest dreamlike essentials. He filmed it but discovered that a technical error rendered his footage completely unusable. The filmmaker's luck was such that he had to shoot Stalker twice more before it could be edited and released. Perhaps Tarkovsky should've abandoned the project after the first ill-fated attempt because his final version was lensed in a highly toxic industrial zone. It is widely believed that exposure to these elements contributed not only to Tarkovsky's death, but also the deaths of his wife and the film's leading man.
If that's true, we can call Tarkvosky's relentless pursuit of this story the first documented case of Stalker obsession, a seed planted before the film was even released.
The film found a small and loyal following among cinephiles but is stature was, at best, that of an obscure and cultish art-house film. Its cultural impact might have peaked then and there, but a few years later something happened that caused a strange cultural harmonic resonance: the bizarre and tragic story of a place called Chernobyl in 1986.
That entire city, located within the Soviet Union, was rendered unliveable by radioactive contamination, the result of a nuclear power plant failure. The death and devastation is documented in this incredible pictorial. Today it stands decrepit, mysterious and dangerous, just like the Zones from the novel and movie.
Fast-forward two deacdes to 2007 and there's another resonance in the release of a first-person shooter videogame. It involves people who penetrate the zoned-off area of Chernobyl. It also involves extraterrestrial contact. That game, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, was produced by a Ukrainian software company and has spawned several sequels.
Last year, novelist and essayist Geoff Dyer wrote a book that hits all of these things (and so much more) with the unfettered ease of sparkling conversation over a nice glass of scotch. Zona is, as the subtitle says, a book about a movie about a journey to a room. Dyer's one of those fanatics who walked into a screening of Stalker back in the 1970s and never left the theater.
It's a short book by a free-ranging intellect. Everything from high art to fast food gets referenced here. It helped me appreciate and make sense of this strange and compelling movie. For an even shorter take on Stalker from Dyer, here's a piece he did for the Guardian back in 2009.
This year we went back back to the Zone via the movie Chernobyl Diaries. It's a found-footage horror story about American travellers who go exploring in the forbidden radioactive zone of Chernobyl. Of course what they find there isn't very nice (and probably not very good, judging from most reviews) but the ruinous imagery is pure Tarkovsky, even if the hyperkinetic pacing and hand-held camera isn't.
I've been thinking of a way to succinctly wrap up all my myriad thoughts on this -- this post has been weeks in the making, as I've amassed notes and thoughts and images -- but there's simply no way to offer any profound conclusion. Obsessions never conclude. Most of them fade away, or are transmuted into something newer, more urgent. Some of them ebb and tide from our consciousness. The story of the Zone is like that. It's been echoing across cultures and media in some form for more than four decades now.
Even today we see Stalker's iconic imagery -- troubled souls wandering the post-apocalyptic wasteland of our at once rural and urban contemporary world -- recreated in TV shows like The Walking Dead and the upcoming NBC drama Revolution. And here's an interesting film collage for an alternate-world version of a Roadside Picnic adaptation-- it's uncanny how seamlessly frame grabs from the Iraq-set movie The Hurt Locker blend with actual photographs from the Chernobyl urban graveyard.
Part of Stalker's magnetic hold is the juxtaposition of urban wasteland with strangely verdant landscapes. The cities and civilizations die but nature is always there to take over. That's what worked about the dead rocket garden in The Ravagers. Even if nothing else in that movie is worth a damn, I'm glad it was made for that scene alone.
We all want to experience the "other," either through religion, extraterrestrial contact or other forms of mind expansion. We have hopes and wishes we want fulfilled. As the earliest folk tales told us, it is often our bravery through a treacherous landscape that will prove us worthy of our dreams.
We have been to the Zone many times before. We will go there again.
I'll probably see you there.