JUNE 3, 2012
THERE ARE DIFFICULT BOOKS and there are difficult films, but the difficult films scare me more. At school you learn to peer inside books to see how they work. Only a tiny number of people ever receive a similar education in film. If you’ve grown up on the zippy charms of television and Hollywood, adapting to slower, stranger styles takes time.
Standing before the Tower of High Cinematic Art, the doors marked “Ozu” and “Tarkovsky” look particularly forbidding. The former represents an exquisitely subtle aesthetic, apparently inaccessible to those whose total experience of Japanese culture amounts to a few Murakami novels and occasional sushi. The Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky — known for long, portentous films like Andrei Rublev (1966) and Solaris (1972) — is no less formidable. The DVD of his 1979 classic Stalker sat on my shelf unwatched for 18 months after my initial purchase. The only reason I finally got round to it was because of this review, which I pitched partly to corner myself into having to watch Tarkovsky’s film.
But here, casually mooching their way over the horizon, come two guides offering totally non-scary journeys into these rarefied cinematic worlds. Geoff Dyer’s Zona is a scene-by-scene analysis of Stalker. Adam Mars-Jones’s new book, Noriko Smiling, is an equally detailed essay on Ozu’s film Late Spring (1953).
Both books are short. Both are smart and funny. Both are written with a gatecrasher sensibility (to borrow one of Dyer’s favorite self-descriptions). They are attempts by self-declared non-experts to steal these works of art back from overly protective critics, and to bring them down to earth for the rest of us to appreciate. Dyer has no time for “the reverence that Tarkovsky tends to invite from his admirers.” Adam Mars-Jones is even more forceful. He pays his respects to critics better versed in Japanese culture, and then kicks them in the ribs. His defense? “Sometimes works of art need to be defended against their advocates, and great films rescued from their reputations.”
Geoff Dyer has had a good year. His work appeared for the first time in the New Yorker, he began a monthly New York Times column, and his essay collection Otherwise Known As The Human Condition won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. He gave interviews, tapped out reviews, and generally pootled along in his prolific slacker way. His response to this year of plenty is to publish the most unmarketable book of his career: a “summary of a film that relatively few people have seen.”
The Dyer brand is built upon contrarianism. He followed a book of eccentric travel writing with a book on photography, and then in 2009 served up a couple of loosely-linked novellas under the, let’s face it, terrible title of Jeff In Venice, Death in Varanasi. Add in Dyer’s pre-2000 offerings on jazz, D.H. Lawrence, and World War I, along with several novels, and you have an oeuvre that resembles a messy and ever-expanding Venn diagram of the author’s obsessions. Even so, a 200-page book about a Russian film from 1979 takes commercial indifference to heroic lengths.
As Zona‘s subtitle says, it is “a book about a film about a journey to a room.” The eponymous Stalker guides two characters (Writer and Professor) from the gloomy, sepia-toned, unspecified but Soviet-seeming world they inhabit into a forbidden and dangerous zone, known simply as The Zone. At the center of The Zone is a room, known simply as “the Room,” where one’s deepest desires will, allegedly, be granted.
“Few books about film feel like watching a film,” writes the critic Mark Cousins of Zona, “but this one does.” In fact, as many reviewers have noted, the experience is much closer to watching a DVD commentary. For the most part, Zona is a minute-by-minute account of what happens in the film (“The camera glides over the grass, the tangled wreckage of metal and, as it tilts upwards we see, some way off… a ruined house,” etc) accompanied by commentary and digressions in the text or in footnotes. These digressions — on Lars von Trier, on myth and reality, on the British frozen dessert choc-ice — often constitute mini-essays in their own right.
If this sounds esoteric bordering on self-indulgent, it is. One of the threads running though the book is the absurdity of its own existence. The cover of Zona — a girl reading a book — is a screenshot from Stalker, and throughout Dyer always has one eye on the film and one on his readers. When he describes how one character “glances at his watch … a gesture of impatience that the audience may or may not share,” he is not just talking about Tarkovsky’s viewers but also his own readers. Zona, after all, is a mad endeavor, almost a provocation, certainly a challenge to himself — how can I keep people interested?
In response, Dyer loads up on charm, breezing along in his most artfully loose, conversational manner. Thoughts are abandoned mid-sentence and reformulated (“No, let me rephrase that”), and the text is scattered with phrases that convey an it-just-came-to-me spontaneity. In the space of half a dozen pages, he refers to the “sucky embrace” of quicksand, a “quicksandy stretch of dry muddiness” and a dog carrying a “doggy message from the unconscious.” He reproduces the understatements and rhetorical self-undermining of conversation, vaguing up ideas in order not to appear arrogant or dogmatic. The whiteness of one character’s jacket “emphasizes how not terribly clean it is”; the film’s titles in sci-fi Cyrillic “do not exactly clarify the situation.” All this, of course, sneakily adds to the persuasiveness of his observations.
Other strategies include the “all cards on the table” move (“the first time I saw Stalker I was slightly bored and unmoved”) and the “ignorance reveal” whereby Dyer gives the impression of formidable erudition, and then unveils his lack of knowledge. He casually lists the “widely remarked on” similarities between Stalker and The Wizard of Oz, before adding: “Or so I’m told… I’ve never seen The Wizard of Oz and obviously have no intention of making good that lack now.” He laments the attention deficit disorder of the modern world — “Soon people will not have the concentration… to read (late-period) Henry James” — before revealing that he has not, in fact, read late-period Henry James.
On the other hand, Dyer has serious intellectual chops. He quotes the 20th century French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty here, and draft versions of Wordsworth’s poetry there. If Dyer weren’t a seriously smart and original critic, this book would slide fatally towards tedium. It does not. He is particularly good on the way great works of art can re-shape our vision of the past and expand to contain future meanings (Stalker only gains power in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster). But some of his best observations are his most simple. When the protagonists reach the Zone for the first time — this mythical, magical destination they have risked their lives to enter — Dyer perfectly evokes its unexpected appeal: “It is every bit as lovely as Stalker claims — and at the same time, quite ordinary… We are in another world that is no more than this world perceived with unprecedented attentiveness.”
“The world viewed with unprecedented attentiveness” might as well be the tagline for this book (or, indeed, the job description of any good writer). But this is a general statement of intent — it doesn’t explain this odd book. Why focus on Stalker? Why a whole book rather than a regular essay?
74 pages in, Dyer offers a rationale for his project: it is an attempt “to articulate the film’s persistent mystery and my abiding gratitude to it.” 150 pages in, he’s preparing a more elaborate defense: “So what kind of writer am I, reduced to writing a summary of a film?” His answer is something like the Tao of Geoff:
If mankind was put on earth to create works of art, then other people were put on earth to comment on those works… Not to judge objectively or critically assess these works but to articulate their feelings about them with as much precision as possible, without seeking to disguise the vagaries of their nature, their lapses of taste and the contingency of their own experiences, even if those feelings are of confusion, uncertainty or — in this case — undiminished wonder.
Having offered this manifesto of sorts, he’s ready to continue the journey.
As the structure of Zona mirrors that of Stalker, the center of the film is the center of the book: the Room. And just as Stalker is about the quest for happiness, self-knowledge and, it’s not too grand to say, the meaning of life, Zona is a book on a journey to discover the meaning of its own existence and that of its author.
As Writer, Stalker, and Professor hover on the verge of entering the Room — which is the point of the journey, the place where one’s innermost wishes are granted — Zona reaches its high point, a 40-page riff that packs profound musings (on faith, doubt, time, memory, aging, success and sex) alongside such epic mundanities that the whole book teeters between the transcendent and the ridiculous.
Having cracked the meaning of life, Dyer steps back and surveys his handiwork. He decides that Zona is not only worth publishing, but actually a book with “some commercial appeal — in an admittedly niche sort of way — deserving of serious critical attention, maybe even a little prize of some kind.” He may have a point. His achievement looks all the more impressive in comparison with another recently published love letter to a favorite film, Noriko Smiling.
Like Stalker, Ozu’s Late Spring is a film about the search for happiness — but this time the quest plays out in a domestic setting. Noriko is 27, living at home with her father just outside Tokyo in postwar Japan. It seems like a cozy set-up, one that pleases both. But the suggestion from Noriko’s aunt that it is time for her niece to get married upsets the arrangement. The rest of this quiet and beautiful film revolves around Noriko’s reluctance to accept that things can’t stay as they are.
Adam Mars-Jones’s book on Late Spring is a more conventional work than Zona, but it too is a proudly subjective, informal engagement with a classic film. Yet where Dyer seems to be aware that obsessively analyzing a film few readers will have seen is a potentially unappetizing proposition, Mars-Jones sallies forth with little apparent concern, writing as if he has a captive audience. Even at 237 small, double-spaced pages, Noriko Smiling feels long. Few readers will relish hundreds of pages of leaden detail like this:
Noriko turns, and gives him a playful slap on the arm. She seems to have recovered her poise, though she walks smartly off while he laughs. In the next shot, more or less from the professor’s middle-distance point of view, we see that she has moved a little further across the terrace and is leaning on a railing, ‘admiring the view.’
Yanked out of context, this paragraph may be more boring than in the book itself — but not by much. The real shame is that, buried under paragraphs and paragraphs of exposition and repetitive observations, there lies a fantastic 4,000 word essay waiting to be set free.
When it comes to the mechanics of film, for instance, Mars-Jones is superb. In Late Spring, Ozu tends to film from a fixed, low angle, so it is always notable when the camera moves. After one of these rare moments, Mars-Jones writes, “The next shot shows a tree on the pavement, and the camera stays put watching it, like a convalescent needing time to recover, breathless after the unaccustomed exertion.” Earlier, he captures the energy of one shot when he describes Ozu’s camera as “almost boyishly interested in the train, leaning out of the window to get glimpses of the next carriage.”
Mars-Jones expertly shows how critics bend and distort material to fit their interpretations, how they overlook contradictions and conjure supporting evidence when convenient. He takes on censorship (“There is no better school of subtlety”); the different ways one perceives a film on different viewings; and why Ozu is a kind of cinematic micro-sociologist who examines “the way manners mesh with morals” in everyday life. Plus, he’s is funny. Here, for instance, is how he describes one of the film’s minor revelations: “On the Richter scale of cinematic shock, with John Hurt’s tummy upset in Alien scoring 7.8 and the shower scene from Psycho clocking at a solid 8.6, this revelation rates no more than 1.2. Barely enough to make a chandelier tinkle.”
The problem is that Mars-Jones, unlike Dyer, is limited rather than liberated by the form of his book. I found myself wishing that he would cut loose from the filmic framework and wander off topic more often. But his diversions are brief and the road to the finish line long.
If a critic comes to praise an artwork, then their essay should send the reader rushing to the real thing. By this standard Noriko Smiling disappoints. If you’re an Ozu nut then this book is for you, but if you’re looking to convert non-believers, give them the DVDs instead.
As for Tarkovsky’s Stalker, watching it for the first time I could only work up an abstract, intellectual admiration. But Dyer’s little book just might send me back for a second viewing.