Watching Tarkovsky With Geoff Dyer’s Voice in My Head

Reading between the lines.
March 3 2012 12:19 AM

In the Zone

Geoff Dyer’s Zona is sort of about Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but mostly it’s about getting lost in a film.

Still from Stalker
Tarkovsky's Stalker

Media Transactions.

The plan at first was to rewatch Stalker before starting the book, since it had been a good 20 years since I’d seen it.1 Then, during a lull in the action—if Stalker, a nearly three-hour-long metaphysical road picture that purposely skews the viewer’s sense of passing time, could be said to have either “lulls” or “action”—I spontaneously paused the DVD2, picked up Geoff Dyer’s Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, a scene-by-scene close read of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film, and read the first few pages.

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Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

I soon put the book down, annoyed at myself—how was I ever going to get through this assignment if I kept toggling between primary and secondary source, text and exegesis?—and restarted the film.3 But strive as I might to experience the movie in a state of unbiased purity, I found I was now watching it in the company of Geoff Dyer. The author’s voice—sometimes erudite, sometimes wisecracking, sometimes goofily confessional—accompanied the movie like a DVD commentary track that I couldn’t unselect.

Zona
Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room
by Geoff Dyer
Pantheon

For the next few days, I alternated between reading Zona and watching a few scenes at a time of Stalker. An unusual camera movement might catch my eye (as will often happen with Tarkovsky, whose framing and perspective choices are subtly unsettling), and I’d grab the book to see if Dyer had anything to say about it. Or Dyer would begin a section with a grandiose claim, like “There follows one of the great sequences in the history of cinema,” and I’d feel compelled to stop reading and watch the sequence in question before returning to the book to hear him break it down. (As often as not, he would turn out to be right.) It was a disorganized and sometimes maddening mode of both reading and viewing, but a productive one too.4 I’d never engaged quite so intensively with a book and a movie at the same time.

Though it’s only 228 pages long, Zona manages to feel sprawling.5 Dyer is an enormously seductive writer, a British man-about-town who’s published four novels in addition to books of essays on everything from jazz (But Beautiful) to World War I memorials (The Missing of the Somme) to his own experiences with drugs, art, music, and travel (Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It). He has a wide-ranging intellect, an effortless facility with language, and a keen sense of humor. He’s like the most brilliant boyfriend you ever had in grad school—though sometimes you wonder whether he’ll ever finish his dissertation.6

But if Zona goes off in a few too many directions, most of them are fascinating enough that we’re happy to zigzag along in the author’s wake. In addition to being a real-time explication of a single movie, Zona is a meditation on movies and time: the way movies change us, and change for us, as we return to them through our lives. Dyer reminisces about seeing Stalker in different decades, in different cities, with different girlfriends, as a young and then a middle-aged man. These autobiographical asides weave in and out of the Stalker discussion in no apparent pattern: An early footnote about Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake of Tarkovsky’s Solaris abruptly turns into a lengthy discourse on Dyer’s wife’s apparently uncanny resemblance to Natascha McElhone, the co-star of that film.7 As he makes his way through Stalker scene by scene, Dyer’s account of what’s happening on screen is constantly being interrupted and informed by associations with the past as well as the present.

Geoff Dyer.
Geoff Dyer.

Photograph by Marzena Pogorzaly.

In one of the book’s best digressions (if “digression” is a meaningful concept in a book entirely constructed of them), a mention of a Stalker character’s lost knapsack prompts an extended lament for the author’s own beloved Freitag book bag, gone missing a few days earlier. The book-bag eulogy, in turn, segues into a lyrical riff on the peculiar melancholy of mislaid belongings:

It would be nice if, at the end of your life, the locations of where you lost your most beloved ten or twenty possessions could be revealed to you, if you could see a film that showed your younger self walking away from the festival in Adelaide, slightly drunk, while the Freitag bag, discreetly stylish in grey, sat there neglected … So that’s what happened, you would say to yourself, shaking your head in astonishment at the simple but profound mystery of loss.

Dyer is at his best (and his best can be wonderful) in moments like this, when his mercurial, darting eye settles on a small observed detail from the film and stops for a moment to let it resonate with his own lived experience and, by association, with ours. At such moments, he enlists himself as the reader’s Stalker—that being both the name and the curiously inapt job description of the film’s lead character, played by Alexander Kaidanovsky. The Stalker is a kind of post-apocalyptic safari guide who’s hired to accompany two kvetchy, apprehensive clients, the Professor (Nicolai Grinko) and the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn), through a heavily guarded, obscurely malevolent forbidden territory known as the Zone.8

More urbane and less tormented than the Stalker, Dyer guides readers through the Zone that Tarkovsky’s movie itself is: a whacked-out spatial and experiential terrain where ominous moss-hung tunnels suddenly give way to airplane-hangar-sized halls full of dust, and where the laws of physics and simple logic seem no longer to apply. Dyer may not always be able to tell us what the hell is going on—he confesses that with each successive viewing, he loses more of his youthful drive to understand what Stalker “means”—but he’s game to endure that unknowing with us, and to point out the moments of strange, stark beauty along the way.

In Stalker, the characters’ ultimate goal—the all-powerful, wish-granting “Room” that’s rumored to exist at the Zone’s center—seems to perpetually recede as they approach it, raising the obvious-yet-profound question of whether the journey itself was the whole point. Just so, Dyer’s purpose in writing this maddening but irresistible companion to Stalker gradually becomes indistinguishable from the process of writing. Or reading. Or watching the movie. Preferably all at the same time.

* * * * * * * * * *

Footnotes

[1] The number of movies of which this is true increases every year, of course—and I’ve experienced a wave of personal 20-year movie anniversaries of late. (Not just Stalker but Cronenberg’s Videodrome, Godard’s Weekend, Pasolini’s Saló –I guess the twentysomething me liked cinematic rough trade.) This wave of anniversaries isn’t surprising, given that my 20s (like many movie lovers’, and like Geoff Dyer’s) were a time of intense and voracious cinephilia. Dyer, who was born in 1958, came of age during the golden age of repertory film in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when the works of directors like Tarkovsky, Bergman, Godard, and Bresson were in permanent rotation in one-screen theaters. Throughout the book, he wryly evokes his years as a young, acid-dropping film rat inhabiting “a squalid flat in Brixton.” He also persuasively argues that almost no one sees their film—the one that helps to form their cinematic consciousness, the way Stalker did for him—after the age of 30. (Return.)

[2] A DVD I shouldn’t have been watching in the first place, according to Dyer, who insists that Stalker "might as well not exist on telly.” But good luck following this book without access to the movie on a small screen. (Return.)

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[3] This may seem like a lot of detail to get into: Who cares about the reviewer’s internal crisis about proper research etiquette? All I can say is, if internal monologue or discursive footnotes are deal-breakers for you, don’t read Zona. The footnote apparatus as Dyer employs it isn’t entirely effective—unlike in David Foster Wallace’s work, the distinction between what belongs in a footnote and what doesn’t often seems random—but given the intricate convolutions of his mind, it’s easy to see why Dyer decided to use that format. And hard to resist doing the same. (Return.)

[4] As pleasurably dislocating as those few days of simultaneous reading and watching were, I can’t help thinking Zona might be less exhausting if it didn’t always demand this kind of toggling between book and film. The book could do more to appease the reader’s visual sense; except for the cover photo, there are no images from Stalker included with the text. And though Dyer does devote some passages to the film’s shifting color palette (from high-contrast sepia-toned black and white to vivid color) or the framing of individual shots, his comments on the film tend toward the discursively philosophical. (As the literary and cultural references began to pile up—Rilke’s poetry, Edward Weston’s photography, Björk’s lyrics—I also found my inner scholar starting to resent the absence of an index of proper names.) (Return.)

[5] In a footnote, Dyer cheerfully acknowledges his own lack of structural rigor, describing how he abandoned his original plan for a numbered shot-by-shot breakdown of the film and declaring an authorial manifesto of sorts: “… this book is an account of watchings, rememberings, misrememberings and forgettings; it is not the record of a dissection.” (Return.)

[6] In his less charming moments, Dyer can be cheeky, even cocky, about his own resistance to producing a more focused, less scattered work, or even to doing some basic research. Noting that many people have remarked on the structural similarities between Stalker and The Wizard of Oz, Dyer shrugs, “Or so I’m told. … I’ve never seen The Wizard of Oz, not even as a kid, and obviously have no intention of making good that lack now.” Why on earth not? (Return.)

[7] The “my wife looks like Natascha McElhone” footnote, which goes on for a good thousand words, is one of several spots in Zona where Dyer could have done with a less enabling editor—but then again, maybe not. I did like when he invoked the weird frisson of seeing a loved person’s face seemingly doubled on-screen: “After a while this became so striking I whispered to my wife: She looks incredibly like you. ‘I know,’ my wife whispered back.” And I wouldn’t want to cut out the passage in which he reflects on how the resemblance between his wife and that of the on-screen hero, played in the Soderbergh version by George Clooney, increased Dyer’s sense of identification with the hero’s dilemma. (In Solaris, to summarize a confoundingly difficult movie very briefly, a man in a remote space station is visited by what may be either the ghost or some sort of alien-engineered replicant of his dead wife.) But perhaps I could have done without the subsequent reassurance that multiple independent observers have confirmed the McElhone resemblance, or the information that, when Dyer and his wife happened to get a real-life look at the actress years later, the occasion was at “a lavish fund-raiser for the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London.” Still, the whole rambling McElhone anecdote arguably pays off, as Dyer ends on the sharp, wistful observation that, eight years after Solaris’ release, neither his wife nor Natascha McElhone look like the Natascha McElhone of the movie: “Only the film preserves that memory of how alike they were, more alike than the two films of the same book.” It’s easy to imagine Dyer’s beleaguered editor throwing up her hands and saying, Oh hell, just leave it all in. What purpose would it serve to rein in Geoff Dyer? Isn’t his spacey free-associative prolixity one of his writerly superpowers, the very tool that allows him to hack his way through (or at least get profitably lost in) the perceptual jungle of forbidding movies like Solaris or Stalker? (Return.)

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