Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Stalker

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

STALKER

8/10

USSR 1979 : Andrei Tarkovsky : 161 minutes

Tarkovsky ’s own favourite among his films is a bizarre hybrid of Eraserhead and The Wizard of Oz. In a relentlessly bleak industrial city (actually Tallinn, Estonia), three men come together: Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn), Professor (Nikolai Grinko), Stalker (Nikolai Kaidansky).

Based on the Strugatsky brothers novel Roadside Picnic – a misleadingly mundane title, not least because hardly any food is consumed in the movie – Stalker has an arrestingly original, aggresively metaphorical premise. But, as ever with Tarkovsky, it isn’t so much about what happens – this is largely a matter of subjective interpretation – but the way he presents it to us. Its like a distillation – though a rather lengthy distillation – of his recurring themes and images.

A rudimentary checklist: resonant classical music; dreamy poetic quotations; Anatoly Solonitsyn as an anguished creative intellectual; extreme length; nebulous story development; shifts between monochrome and colour sequences; unexpected outbreaks of (black) humour; a startling opening; a fantastic finale; an emphasis on nature – no horses this time, but we do get a remarkable canine performer instead.

The film is partly about modern urban mans disastrous departure from nature. Opening and closing sections in the city are murky monochrome, but in the Zone everything is a startling green: not for nothing is Stalker often described as Tarkovskys pre-Chernobyl eco-fable. As ever, Tarkovskys camera is happiest trained on natural phenomena – especially water. One of the Zones hazards is known, sarcastically, as the Dry Tunnel – it turns out to be a waterfall surging through the ruins of a house. The film is full of remarkable tracking shots, including long, spectacular sequence over a flooded floor, reeds drifting among the remnants of civilisation.

As ever, Tarkovsky demands trust – more precisely, faith – from his audiences. There are slow patches, or sections of what one of the characters dismisses as sociological drivel, which we have no choice except to sit through. But this faith is exactly what the film is about – its entirely possible that there are no actual dangers in the Zone, and that the Rooms reputation is a result of urban superstition, perpetuated by the Stalker, who could be as much storyteller as pathfinder (hes the most agonised, and also the most artistically sensitive, character on show.) Writer and Professor strain against his continual warnings, but mostly lack the nerve to strike out on their own – when Professor does explicitly disobey Stalkers instructions, to double back and retrieve his rucksack, he suffers no ill-effects. At one stage a bird does appear to vanish into a sand-dune, but its hard to be precise about exactly what has happened. Tarkovsky maintains a careful balance – the power of the Zone, like the movie, depends on what individuals bring to it.

And, as ever, Tarkovsky repays this faith. He ends his movie with one of his trademark long shots that couldnt possibly be the work of any other director. Stalkers daughter, Monkey, is genetically deformed – she has no legs – probably as a result of Zone radiation. But she has other, compensatory powers, and in the films last shot she performs a silent act of psychokinesis that, echoing an apparently innocuous shot from the start of the film, is about as far away from the pyrotechnics of Carrie and The Fury as its possible to imagine, silently manipulating household objects to re-enact the achingly slow progress of the three travellers through the Zone. A progress controlled by Fate? by the Zone? by God? by Free Will? by this child? by Tarkovsky? All of the above, or none? Stalker provides no answers, of course, just astonishing questions, an astonishing way of looking the world.

25th January, 2001

by Neil Young
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