Sculpting in Time: Geoff Dyer on Tarkovsky

By Jacob MikanowskiJuly 12, 2012

Sculpting in Time: Geoff Dyer on Tarkovsky

Zona by Geoff Dyer

THREE MEN PICK THEIR way across a damp field. They move slowly, gingerly. Terrible things may happen to the Writer and the Professor if they stray from the path the Stalker has laid out for them. The Stalker is their guide in a place called the Zone, a forbidden place where an alien entity, having made contact with Earth, has left some trace of itself behind — in a mysterious building called the Room. Entry into the Room can grant a visitor’s deepest wish. And it can be lethal…  


I was in London the last time I saw Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker; I went with my wife to a matinee at the British Film Institute. When we got out nearly three hours later it was night, and the streets of London seemed eerily deserted: storefronts were shuttered and garbage blew around on the wet sidewalks. On our way home we saw only one person, a disheveled man with a beard. He stood under a streetlamp picking at a vivid gash on his forearm, oblivious to the world around him. All of this should have felt strange, but it didn’t. The post-apocalyptic scene was entirely of a piece with what we had just witnessed on screen, as if Tarkovsky’s film had simply spilled out into the world, taking us with it, sending us meandering towards the Zone.

The next day we learned that we had gone to see Stalker on the night of the London riots. When we entered the theater the riots were just beginning, and by the time we left they were mostly over and the city had gone into lock-down.


Wittgenstein said that when the eye sees something beautiful, the hand wants to draw it. Thus we find a long debate about the meaning of Stalker in Kenzaburo Oe’s novel, A Quiet Life. And in Roberto Bolaño’s “Days of 1978,” set among a group of Chilean émigrés in France, one character, B (who seems to be Bolaño himself), gives another man, U, a detailed account of the great bell-casting sequence from the end of Andrei Rublev. The other man is deeply moved. Afterwards, he hangs himself from a tree.


Geoff Dyer saw Stalker thirty years ago and hasn’t stopped returning to it. In his new book, Zona, he describes the film from start to finish, scene by scene, take by take. Dyer intersperses his narration with digressions on topics as far-ranging as Rilke, hallucinogens, contemporary photography, and discount ice cream. The result is something between a commentary, a tribute, and an autobiography. This mix is typical of Dyer: Zona is less self-involved than Out of Sheer Rage, his book on D.H. Lawrence (which is really about everything but Lawrence), yet more personal than either The Ongoing Moment, his book on photography, or But Beautiful, on jazz, which remains his masterpiece.  

Throughout Zona, Dyer worries whether the book will be a success, and complains that he wouldn’t be “summarizing the action of a film almost devoid of action” if he were capable of writing anything else. The kind of criticism Dyer practices is rooted in personal response to a work — in living with another’s work and making it part of one’s life. It relies on tone instead of expertise to get its message across (Dave Hickey and Terry Castle are American masters of the mode). This tone, in turn, is sustained by a persona — in Dyer’s case, someone who is fiercely attached to his little pleasures, who is easily bored, quickly frustrated, a little lazy, sporadically generous, boastfully self-deprecating, at once pretentious and afraid of seeming pretentious.


Manny Farber once said that a whole book could be written about the exquisite beauties of the one scene in Persona, “comprised of Bibi Andersson in a 1950’s bathing suit, a sunny courtyard scene, and not much action.” No one was better than Farber at describing faces, or the action of people moving through space. Here he is on Eddie Constantine in Alphaville:

“Lemmy Caution, known as Richard Johnson to his enemies, a bullfrog whose face has been corrugated by a defective waffle iron, has the flexibility of a low income “project” building. His role consists of walking through hallways, rooms, and up and down staircases, either pinching his nonexistent lips or blinking against the torrential onslaught of lights.”

As far as I know, Manny Farber never wrote anything about Tarkovsky. I wonder what he would have made of the Stalker’s stumbling gait and worried zek face.

Unlike Dyer’s other books, Zona focuses on a single work of art, opening out from Stalker to the entire world. This puts him in the company of other obsessive exegetes whose criticism is willing to stake everything on the subject at hand. For example: Greil Marcus’s essay on Bill Pullman in “American Berserk”, in which the actor’s face becomes an emblem of America in the nineties; Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, in which a Paris shopping gallery distills the whole of bourgeois civilization; or T.J. Clark’s The Sight of Death, in which two paintings by Poussin stand for a whole regime of picture-making, tragic politics that starts in the memory of misfortune, pain, and death. This type of criticism allows for a level of scrutiny that can seem either absurd or revelatory. In Zona, writing about Stalker becomes a sort of test for Dyer, just as the Zone is a test for the film’s protagonists. It’s a book about the limits of criticism as much as it is about the limits of filmmaking.

Tarkovsky considered Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson his only peers. Together with Carl Dreyer, they made films in what Paul Schrader called the transcendental style — although I’ve never liked that phrase. It sounds too diffuse; for though the films in this tradition are preoccupied with the possibility of grace, they remain rooted in the material world. They represent the opposite pole to what Godard was doing in the sixties. Godard dispensed with the formal shackles of cinema. By introducing the freedom to be arbitrary and the freedom to be spontaneous, Godard helped create film as it is now. Bresson et al. remained completely wedded to form, to large structures and the patient accumulation of detail, while leaving the door open to subconscious associations and miraculous events. The difficulty in their films comes from the challenge of depicting their protagonists’ inner lives, instead of the chaos of the world. Because of this they can seem out of step with the times.


Dyer spends some time in Zona on directors who quote from or allude to Stalker — Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Andrei Zvyagintsev — but none of them (except maybe the last) could really be said to work in the spiritual style.

Does this tradition have descendents? It might have died out in 2007 when Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni died in the same terrible week. On the other hand, two present-day inheritors might be Terence Malick and the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakhul. The impulse behind their work is similar to that of Tarkovsky or Bresson, but they also highlight the difference that religion — however latent — can make to the construction of a film. Malick’s films, especially those from the past decade, are rooted in American transcendentalism and a very American yearning for a lost Eden. Weerasethakhul makes strange, buoyant, meditative movies set in the jungles of northern Thailand and suffused with Buddhist thought and local legends. His films are full of ghosts and mythological beings, and time moves in a loop, tied to a cycle of reincarnation. Malick is always pointing his camera up — towards the sky and the crowns of trees.

Tarkovsky reverses the usual equation of elevation with transcendence. In his documentary One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich, Chris Marker points out that Tarkovsky typically shot his actors from above, looking down, framing them against a backdrop of earth. “The ultimate Tarkovskian spiritual experience,” writes Slavoj Žižek in The Monstrosity of Christ, “takes place when a subject is stretched out on the earth's surface, half submerged in stale water.”


Tarkovsky’s films are more about texture and duration than they are a sequence of events. That texture is unmistakable. His world is dank, dilapidated, soggy, covered in moss, half-ruined. It features water flowing over the ground or dribbling down from the walls and mud you can sink in up to your knees. This world is often shrouded in elements which should make it diffuse, like fog or smoke or rain, but photographed with a precision that seems to go beyond ordinary sight (the technical requirements for Stalker were so exacting its producers simply assumed Soviet technology couldn’t keep up). Dyer is very good at rendering this texture in prose. On the black and white beginning of Stalker, he writes, “The result is a kind of sub-monochrome in which the spectrum has been so compressed it might turn out to be a source of energy, like oil and almost as dark, but with a dark sheen to it.”


Just where is the Zone, anyway? In the film, a caption says that it’s in a small country, surrounded by barbed wire. But this was just a ruse to keep the censors at bay. To a Soviet audience, a forbidden area surrounded by barbed wire naturally conjured up a big swath of countries surrounded by lots and lots of barbed wire. Dyer points out another meaning: the very word ‘zone’ would call up the Gulags. To prisoners, the world outside was known as the bolshaya zona, the big zone, as opposed to the little one of the camps. At the time, it could also refer to other forbidden zones in the Soviet Union, such as the secret research complexes like Arzamas-16 and Chelyabinsk-40, where the components of the Soviet atom bomb were produced — secret cities that didn’t appear on any map. Now, the word seems to refer prophetically to the exclusionary zone around Chernobyl.

Before he began making films, Tarkovsky studied Arabic and traveled on a geologic expedition to Eastern Siberia. He made his first film at the age of thirty, and then made six more over the course of his twenty-five year career, which was cut short by his death from cancer in 1986 at the age of fifty-four. Viewed as a whole, his oeuvre is both extremely diverse and radically consistent. His films span a number of genres, and belong to none. Andrei Rublev is a medieval biopic about an icon painter. Solaris and Stalker are ostensibly science fiction, based on novels by Stanislaw Lem and the Strugatsky brothers, respectively. Mirror is a fictive autobiographical collage. Nostalghia is something like a modern day passion play. Sacrifice is an attempt at a house drama in the style of Ingmar Bergman. Ivan’s Childhood, from 1962, is the story of a boy partisan on the battlefield in World War II. Although it’s his first film, and his most conventional, you can detect both Tarkovsky’s virtuosity at camera movement and the cornerstones of his private cosmology of roots, stones, horses, and mud. These are his signature, along with unexpected conflagrations, pools of rippling water, and Breughel paintings cropping up in unexpected places — for instance in a stream in medieval Russia, or on board a space station.


Dyer calls Tarkovsky “cinema’s great poet of stillness.” This stillness is bound up with the jumble of objects that live in the corners of Tarkovsky’s movies. Dyer quotes him as saying that “no ‘dead’ object — table, chair, glass … can be presented as [if] it were outside passing time, as if from the point of view of the absence of time.” Time was central to the way Tarkovsky thought about cinema. He titled his first collection of essays Sculpting in Time, and he thought of film images as imprinted time. Inside his world the camera moves slowly, and so do the people. This has the effect of making time slow down, making it heavy.


Scouting a location for a film in Uzbekistan, Antonioni once gave three elderly Muslim men a picture he had taken of each with his Polaroid. The eldest glanced at the photo and immediately returned them, asking: “What is it good for, to stop the time?”


Few directors have devoted more time or care to the depiction of men struggling to walk, or to move in any fashion. Much of Stalker consists of three men feeling their way over sodden ground. A pivotal scene in Nostalghia takes place with the protagonist up to his waist in the scum-filled waters of an abandoned spa. In the middle of Mirror, Tarkovsky inserts a stretch of archival footage showing the Red Army’s march across Lake Sivash in the Crimea. The footage shows men advancing across a flooded plain. There’s water to the horizon in every direction. It’s a world-spanning ocean, but only a few feet deep, and in the middle of it a group of men strip down to their underwear dragging pieces of heavy artillery with nothing but their bare arms and legs.


Sometimes with Tarkovsky you’re mired in the mud, and sometimes you take flight. Either way, you don’t know where you’re going. At the start of Andrei Rublev, the camera is following a monk running towards a church tower. A group of angry men pursues him, like the mob at Frankenstein’s castle. The monk goes into the tower and runs up the stairs. There’s a kind of flying machine waiting for him at the top: a bunch of hide balloons held together by ropes. Suddenly, while the villagers overpower the other monks at the foot of the tower, we take off. The camera rises with the balloon; we’re airborne, now watching through the monk’s eyes, and now hovering alongside him as the balloon flies over a landscape of somber gray lakes, set in a winter-blasted plain. And then we’re behind the balloon, and the balloon crashes and the priest dies.

I have no idea what this sequence means. It seems to have no relation to the rest of the film. I know that it’s thrilling. Was the priest a peasant Icarus? Is he a reference to the Breughel painting, or a presentiment of movies to come — movies set, like Solaris, in space? I suspect that an argument could be made for how it fits with the end of the movie, when the painter monk Andrei breaks his self-imposed silence and begins to paint again after years of wandering and self-abnegation. I can feel instinctively that the balloon flight has something to do with the leap from silence to speech, from the blank panel to the painted icon. It’s a leap that reappears throughout Tarkovsky’s movies, as in the opening of Mirror, in which a boy is being taught to overcome his stutter. But on some level I don’t want to know too much. I want the moment to hang there, in suspension, where it can be free to mean whatever it wants. What I don’t want is to have it explained.


The Zone calls up a nest of contradictory associations — freedom, imprisonment, secrecy, forbidden technology, punishment, contamination, and escape. But the Room, inside the Zone, is a different kind of space. In Stalker, it’s the place where you can go to realize your innermost desires. It belongs to a family of impossible places in Tarkovsky’s films, like the dacha inside a ruined cathedral in Nostalghia, the writer’s apartment in Mirror, or the house at the end of Solaris, manifested on the surface of an extraterrestrial ocean by the planet’s inscrutable brain. These are places in which time and space double back on themselves, where memory turns into reality and desire becomes fact. In other words, the Zone is cinema: infinite possibility in a bounded space.


Tarkovsky can be a difficult director to love. His films are intimidating monoliths, often slow, ponderous or obscure. Watching them is work. They require a degree of patience and a level of attention that can make them seem like artifacts from an alternate past in which film was developed at the same time as stained glass and Gregorian chant. Yet again, hardly anyone has been better at creating a believable future, one built on human frailty and decay as much as progress. But more than any other director he provides moments of visual revelation: things that are stunning because they could only be seen on a cinema screen.

The boy dies. The bell rings. The dacha is in the middle of the ocean. The coin moves. The dacha is inside a church. The house burns down. These are perhaps the most astonishing endings in the history of cinema, but Tarkovsky’s films are impossible to spoil. For Dyer, one such moment comes at the end of Stalker, and it justifies the whole history of cinema. The scene, in which the Stalker’s daughter Monkey moves a glass across a table with her mind, exists, Dyer says,

in a realm of loveliness unmatched anywhere else in cinema. We are able to believe in something blatantly untrue, an amendment to the idea that men were put on earth to create works of art: that the cinema was invented so that Tarkovsky could make Stalker, that our greatest debt to the Lumière brothers is that they enabled this film to be made.

Dyer sees this moment as a kind of aesthetic miracle. I think he’s right. Monkey’s ability is never explained, and neither is the disability that goes with it. Presumably it’s some kind of inheritance from her father, a mutation brought about by prolonged exposure to the Zone. But it’s more than that. The moving glass is like the bell ringing at the end of Andrei Rublev, or the fire at the end of Nostalghia: a tremendous release of pent-up energy and the beginning of a mystery.


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Jacob Mikanowski is a writer based in Berkeley, California. More of his work can be found here.


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