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DVD Review: Stalker

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Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker (Сталкер) is not the great or masterful film its most ardent critical supporters proclaim it to be, nor is it the slow, boring Eurotrash that its most vocal critics counterclaim. It lies somewhere in between: a film that risks and occasionally fails, although it is far closer to greatness than trash.

That’s because Tarkovsky has crafted a film of unusual visuals and even more unusual power. There are scenes that recall the old telefilm The Lathe Of Heaven, released the same year as this film, 1979; Carl Theodor Dreyer’s great Vampyr, in its use of shadows and fog; the 1976 sci-fi classic Logan’s Run, in that the three leads of the film are running away from their society; Tarkovsky’s earlier Solaris, in its mix of color and sepia images; and, most of all, Alex Proyas’s 1998 sci-fi classic Dark City, which, like Stalker, creates a wholly believable alternate world unlike any other put on screen. Visually, Stalker most reminds me of the human portraits of the great Austrian painter Egon Schiele, with his myriad of gaunt, pallid, balding, dirty, twisted characters.

However, as in most Tarkovsky films, it is not the visuals that dominate, but the philosophic depth of the characters. What they don’t say or dream is almost always as important as what they do say and dream. Stalker succeeds because its ellipses are more brilliant than its phrases. Stalker misses greatness, however, because its phrases sometimes fail. Here is a précis of the film's two hours and 43 minutes.

Based on a novel called Roadside Picnic, by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, the film opens with a narrative scroll explaining that in the near future, part of Siberia has been tainted by the crash of either a meteorite or a flying saucer some two decades earlier. The land about the crash site is called the Zone (an eerily prescient presaging of the coming Chernobyl disaster, wherein the land about the disaster was also called the Zone). The Zone is a place into which people seemingly disappear, but may be guided to a mystic room where dreams can come true by what is called a stalker – a person of ethos and selflessness. We later learn that stalkers may be human-alien hybrids.

We then see a room in sepia, with much action going on, very reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s later Pi. Then we pan over a bed and see the nameless titular Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) waking beside his bitching wife (Alisa Freindlich), who loathes the fact that he has been hired to guide two more intellectuals on a quest. They also have a seemingly deaf-mute little blonde daughter, called Monkey (Natasha Abramova), who is a cripple.

Stalker is gaunt and bald, but with an odd patch of seemingly dyed white hair on one side of his skull. He is hired by a man called Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn), who is famous and rich and owns manses and many possessions, and a scientist called Professor (Nikolai Grinko), who dreams of great discoveries and a Nobel Prize. The first 37 minutes of the film are shot in gorgeous sepia, which makes the characters’ post-Apocalyptic world actually look beautiful. They talk philosophy and plot how to get past the sentries who guard the entrance to the Zone, which has old railroad tracks as a port of entry.

Only upon entry into the Zone (via a small flatcar) do we get color, and even then it is subdued greens, browns, and steely grays – earth tones. There is no David Leanian explosion of color; it’s more like the eye-level realism of a Werner Herzog. We get many hints of some strange force that is dangerous in the Zone, yet, as these all come from Stalker, and seem to never be borne out, we have no idea if the whole mythos of the Zone (manifestly based upon the real life 1908 Tunguska Fireball) is merely a collective societal delusion that the stalkers have learned to capitalize on financially, or if it’s real.

Stalker seems to believe it’s real, for he is the most overtly fearful of the trio, filling their heads with the tale of the demise of his mentor, Porcupine (nee Teacher) – another stalker, who committed suicide after leading his brother to death in the Zone, and winning the lottery. He also tosses metal nuts and bolts, tied with pieces of cloth and handkerchiefs, down paths before he leads his clients down them, as if the paths were booby-trapped with landmines.

Stalker is also clearly the most religious of the trio, constantly berating them with Biblical ideas and quotes, as well as slowly building a mythology of the Zone as a dangerous place, a mythos that is never fulfilled. After the film enters Part Two, after an hour or so, the trio continue on, indulging in very Beckettian conversations.

Finally, they emerge at the beginning of a subterranean tunnel Stalker calls the ‘meat grinder.’ He makes his clients draw lots; Writer loses, and has to go first. There are many visual oddities along the way, but no real dangers, even when Stalker admonishes Writer for bringing a gun on the journey, just as they near the room that fulfills the innermost desires of his clients – the room that stalkers can never enter.

While waiting, Professor gets a call from a colleague, whom the Professor dismisses. He then reveals that he has brought or found a 20-kiloton nuclear bomb and means to destroy the Zone, whose powers, he fears, could be harnessed by future Hitlers or Stalins. The trio struggles, and Writer sides with Professor. Yet Professor relents, and in a single shot that lasts five or more minutes, the three men simply sit pondering what to do. They never enter the room. A sun shower fills the dank anteroom with water and light. It ends a few minutes later, with no cuts, and then we revert from the color of the Zone to the sepia of life outside it.

The trio, now back in the bar where they met, go their separate ways. Stalker’s wife and child are there; they return home, and he goes to sleep, as at the beginning of the film. The shots of Monkey, however, revert to color, suggesting she is even more intimately tied to the Zone than her father. After tucking him in, his wife speaks to the camera about her life with Stalker, good and bad. Then we see Monkey, bored, sitting at a table in silence, head resting sideways upon it, as Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” ironically plays, and she telekinetically moves three glasses on her kitchen table.

This odd ending, however, is one of the film’s most manifest failures, even if the Kino DVD cover calls it ‘one of the most enigmatic and tantalizing endings in the history of cinema.’ It does not rank with the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, nor even Solaris, for it is rather dull.

Critics tend to imbue the end with a lot of meaning, but it’s really a dud, a non-ending in the worst sense. After all, we know that Monkey is related to the Zone, not only by the aforementioned visual cue, but because Writer and Professor have talked of her being possibly a genetic mutant, or unearthly. Thus, the viewer is expecting something to occur when we see the girl alone. What do we get? A cheap parlor trick.

Compare this to a truly enigmatic ending, like the final scene of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. In that film, the lead character, a psychotic young murderess played by Catherine Deneuve, is taken away from the apartment she left to ruin, and the camera pans around very slowly until it stops upon a family portrait in a shaft of light in the otherwise darkened room. It then pulls slowly in to the figure, then the face, then the eyes of a little blonde girl who is looking off to her left, away from all the others in the photo. Her look is fearful yet detached. Is it the Deneuve character as a child? Does this suggest some long and deep psychosis rooted in her past? Perhaps abuse, physical or sexual? We are left hanging, but in the best sense, since we had no idea that such a finale was coming. The scene tantalizes the viewer into reading from the character’s past to explain her present.

The end of Stalker does not do this. We are led, from the rest of the film and from Beethoven’s ecstatic “Ode To Joy,” to a buildup that something profound is in the air – and then we get nothing. Nor is anyone really compelled to imagine, for, if the best the Zone can impart to its ‘offspring’ is cheap parlor tricks, then Writer and Professor were right in their doubts about it.

Stylistically, Tarkovsky indulges in long takes a la Theo Angelopoulos, yet whereas Angelopoulos’s long takes are almost always filled with poesy and the mixture of past, present, and future, Tarkovsky’s are focused more on little things. He lingers on them, often pulling tightly in to reveal some deeper thing, often a fractal echo of something seen earlier in that same long shot. Whereas Angelopoulos achieves poetry on film through contrasts, Tarkovsky penetrates one thing until it is ready to throw open its meaning, naked and singular.

The cinematography by Aleksandr Knyazhinsky is sterling, and the contrast, in several scenes, between the sepia and color is jarringly effective, owing much to the editing of Lyudmila Feiginova. There are also bravura scenes that are simply lovely, such as a series of dust devils that whirl before a camera recording the heat waves emanating from the ground.

Many of the shots are also direct quotations from the frame-within-a-frame shots that dominate the films of Yasujiro Ozu – with many characters barely lit, hovering in doorways, tunnels, or windows as the camera frames them from afar. The soundtrack, by Eduard Artemyev, is not the equal of the imagery, but is at its best, oddly, in its silences, rather than the more bombastic and overdone clanking steel train wheels alternating with electronic sounds.

The screenplay, by Boris Strugatsky, Arkady Strugatsky, and Andrei Tarkovsky, is generally effective, especially in the superb dialogue scenes, but not so effective in the scenes where revelations are expected, as in the ending. The Kino DVD has two discs. The first has the film, with no extras, not even a theatrical trailer, much less a film commentary. Even worse, there is no English language dubbing, just subtitles, or bad English voiceovers which are not real dubbing, with actors simply narrating the dialogue over the Russian language soundtrack. Given the film’s length, and the scenes with heavy dialogue, this becomes a problem. Even worse, the translations are often in bad English, using wrong verbal or transitive tenses. Perhaps the most humorous poor translation comes when a character speaks of his boss ‘overrun by a car’ when clearly they mean ‘run over by a car.’

The second disk has three interviews with Tarkovsky collaborators: composer Eduard Artemyev, cinematographer Aleksandr Knyazhinsky, and set decorator Rashit Safiullin. Then there is a five-minute excerpt from The Steamroller And The Violin (Katok I Skyrpka), Tarkovsky’s 1960 student film, and a five-minute film on Tarkovsky’s home, Memory, directed by Serghei Minenok. There is also a photo album of production images and behind-the-scenes stills, as well as cast and crew filmographies.

Recently I watched Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music In The World, and while it used some of the same visual techniques as Stalker (sepia, black and white, color mixtures), it was narratively and conceptually antithetical – from its MTV-like editing style (vs. Stalker’s pacing, which has to be taken on its own merits), to the caricaturizing of the characters, to its casual dismissal of real humanity. Stalker has many virtues, and illustrates the old concept that a great artist, even when not at his greatest, is still far greater than a non-great at his best.

Of course, there are the usual misreadings by critics, who praise the very things that do not work, like the ending, or impose their own interpretations of Stalker as a Christ-like figure. Being a religious character doesn’t make him a stand-in for a religious figure, especially when the film is surprisingly lacking in religious mumbo-jumbo (humanist philosophy and religion are not analogues), and the three lead characters are in no way merely symbols – of Christian Wise Men, the Trinity, nor any tripartite invocation.

Do they bear some symbolic interpretation? Of course, since they are known only by their professions. But, each is a unique character, not a caricature. Thus Stalker achieves a rare intimacy, one absent from most films, Hollywood or foreign, and if it is not a great film, it is certainly an excellent one, and one of the most unique visions committed to screen. See for yourself how even failure can fail better than most.

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