What kind of book is this? The cover says it’s a book about a film about a journey to a room. And to those unfamiliar with the works of Andrei Tarkovsky – and more specifically, Stalker (1979) – Zona by Geoff Dyer (Pantheon, 2012) reads like an informal memoir about Dyer’s memories (and fantasies) about what is undoubtedly one of the finest and most obtuse works in Russian cinema.
As a film, Stalker is loosely based on Roadside Picnic, a old, obscure, and fairly tedious Russian science fiction book by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Like any great auteur would do, Tarkovsky took a few basic conceptual elements of the book and filtered them through his own self-consciously poetic schemata. This caused some drama between him and the Strugatsky brothers, but nothing too meaty beyond a few ego bashings. Dyer sheds a bit of light on this and other backstories throughout his narrative, but most of the ‘behind-the-scenes’ factoids in Zona are offered anecdotally. Any serious film nerd would do better to read the primary gossip sources, and consider Zona one fella’s take on the whole deal.
It’s best for me to come clean here: Tarkovsky is one of my favorite directors of all time. He’s up there with Bresson and Bergman. His films are philosophically complex, visually rich, and downright trying. As did Dyer, I came across Tarkovsky in my college years. My head fecund, full of naive ideas about art, beauty, and God. In many ways, I felt Tarkovsky was addressing these things, and though his own self-formulations are mired in artistic pretense, his films are sincere – and beautiful. He’s one of those directors who treats film as an art form, rather than a vehicle for art. Like Bresson, his films are like prayers, and Stalker is like a self-deprecating, pantheistic homage to the abject human soul – or something like that. If I would have come across Tarkovsky earlier or later in life, he would just seem like a hack, or old-fashioned, anyway.
Dyer walks us through the movie in this book, occasionally breaking the flow with a multi-page footnote or rabbit-trail reflection on his life at this or that time, way back when. At one point he interjects about a fairly universal unfulfilled sexual fantasy, among other things. None of it directly related to Stalker – on the surface. But this is what Tarkovsky does – he make us think, and this book is something like a verbal processing of Stalker. It’s a 163-minute movie, and it says a lot without saying much at all. And that’s the magic of it.
My guess is that Tarkovsky would be flattered by Dyer’s homage, but he probably wouldn’t give it his Seal of Approval. But who am I to speak to that? Dyer writes well as a cultural critic, and he has an impressive knowledge of cinema. But we’re of the same blood, so of course I enjoyed these things. Someone whose favorite movie is Wicker Man likely wouldn’t dig this book, but this Wicker Man fan likely wouldn’t dig Tarkovsky either, and that’s fine with me (us).