Canon Entry - Stalker (1979)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
Most cinephiles will never seek out Andrei Tarkovsky, or for that matter, Chantal Akerman, Tsai Ming-Liang, Bela Tarr and the other auteurs who specialize in “slow” cinema. Some of the more snobbish ilk may say that such heretics are philistines who besmirch the good name of cinephilia. I personally think cinephilia is so wide and all-encompassing that all are welcome - whether you specialize only in the grungiest direct to VHS exploitation flicks or you dine solely on the rarefied air of Stan Brakhage and Maya Deren. Stalker was, as it was for many others, my personal entry into this small, yet incredibly diverse area of cinema. It would later build up with Apichatpong Weerasethakul and culminate with a deep dive into the work of Chantal Akerman, but Tarkovsky is a well I find myself drawn to over and over again.
In many ways, it is easy to see why Stalker would be the ideal introduction. Perhaps in a science fiction film like Stalker ostensibly is, you are more willing to suspend your disbelief, but also, you are more willing to go along with a director/storyteller’s idiosyncrasies because there is a distinct sense that every little detail is important to cracking the ultimate mystery of the work. Also, science fiction within a realistic yet foreign setting tends to be fascinating as well. The film’s setting is peak Cold War Russia, one that is full of the poor and disenfranchised. A Zone has mysteriously appeared in which the laws of reality are subject to ever-changing, invisible rules. Apparently, a Room exists within the zone, which can grant someone’s heart’s true desire. A Professor and a Writer recruit the help of a Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky), a person who is trained to navigate the Zone. This includes evading the military blockade that surrounds the Zone, not to mention the disquieting tension that permeates the Zone itself.
Stalker works mainly because of what Andrei Tarkovsky does not do. He very strikingly does not strive for a level of realism and human connection, even in his works that do not flirt with genre as this one does. Tarkovsky tends to alienate his characters with long and medium shots, making them distant figures in the landscape. It is easy to sublimate the characters and their experiences into allegory when you are not personally connected to them. When Tarkovsky uses a close-up, the effect is much more dramatic because of the shot’s relative rarity and the instant, involuntary need for personal connection is jarring and uncomfortable, as it often is in real life.
He also loves symmetry, placing his people in interesting configurations within the 4:3 frame, as if to say that humans are predictable, conforming to patterns that they are only slightly aware of. Even when the characters enter the Zone and the color palette goes from sepia to color, they still seem constricted as Tarkovsky insists that we stay in 4:3, kind of like a reverse Wizard of Oz. Tarkovsky does everything to make his characters seem constantly out of their element, from the sound design that makes the familiar sound slightly off to the ways that they negotiate their environments. Even ordinary animals such as birds or dogs take the characters by surprise and unsettles them (and us).
Much of the “drama” of Stalker happens in The Room itself, which Tarkovsky and cinematographer Alexander Knyazhinsky manage to make eerie just by lighting and barrenness. It turns out that The Room’s promise of granting your heart’s true desire is (surprise, surprise) not as glorious as it seems. The Stalker tells them about the Monkey’s Paw effect the Room had on his brother “Porcupine,” which of course ended tragically. Now that the stakes of entering the Room are clear, the movie then chooses to focus on the philosophical discussions that mainly the Writer and the Professor have outside of the Room. If there is a more perfect metaphor for academia and over-intellectualization than seeing these men squabble outside a room that potentially holds the key to understanding the universe, I have not seen it. It is not so much the content of their words that matters as it is the tension between doubt and faith that is demonstrated. At one point, the Writer exclaims in despair, “There’s no such thing as facts, especially here. All this is someone’s idiotic invention can’t you tell? What good will it do to you to know?”
I had mentioned earlier that Tarkovsky does not seek to make an emotional connection in his movies. I should modify this to mean that he does not seek to tug at our heartstrings, but rather to expand the story. The monologue at the end from Stalker’s wife is seemingly mundane if one were to look at the words, but the way that she delivers it straight to the camera in such a simple, resigned manner is one of the marvels of the films. She speaks of her marriage and how she knew that her husband would have a hard time providing for her, but she feels that she is better off with him anyways. As emotionally honest as this monologue is, we know that she cannot say these words to her husband, or is she did, he would not believe her. It recontextualizes the movie for us, making it less of a science fiction mystery and more about the enigma of human connection.
While many would call Stalker a dreary movie, it is so masterfully crafted and specifically drawn that it encourages people to graft their own meanings onto it. Does the Room represent some sort of purgatory? Are all the characters dead? Is this a huge government conspiracy? Are the characters themselves supposed to be allegorical representations of real people? Something Tarkovsky doesn’t get a lot of credit for is how well he is able to encapsulate the feeling of a time and place in his films, even a fictional one. In Solaris, the movie flutters between dream and reality while being overwhelmed with a great sense of sadness and longing. In Nostalghia, a man seeks religious ecstasy in awesome yet terrifying events that happen around him. It is difficult to watch this movie and not think about the possibilities of such monumental events such as the space race, nuclear warfare and government upheaval. Perhaps Tarkovsky saw this new, unexplored world and time as a massive Zone of its own, which is full of possibilities of great change but also frightening epiphanies.