Mitch Capps’s review published on Letterboxd:
There's an episode of Dax Shepard's Armchair Expert (It's at around 20 minutes in if you want to avoid Dax's drivel) where he's speaking with Ethan Hawke and Vincent D'Onofrio and Hawke says, "I think that Richard Linklater, Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac are responsible for inspiring more bad art...because you read Bukowski you think, 'I fart! I could write a great poem.' You read Kerouac and you think 'Oh I could write a novel about my friends, that'll be awesome!' Richard Linklater makes a movie about growing up you go 'I can grow up!' They put that in your brain." And so we go on producing potentially mediocre and lifeless imitations.
That wisdom didn't stop me from texting a pal after watching Stalker to say: Let's take a weekend--you location scouting and me typing philosophical poetry and we'll make something like Stalker. My hubris is worse than Bukowski acolytes as filmmaking requires much more in the way of technical proficiency. But perhaps the fact that I had this thought--that I could do something like Tarkovsky--is telling. Of what I'm not sure.
The movie puts forward such wide open symbolism, such basic narrative governance, such archetypal characters, such proximity to the realia of our mundane days, and such deceptively flourished versions of our thought life that it comes across as an accessible endeavor.
Is there anything triumphant about creating something that doesn't feel impossible? That feels replicable? Hawke points out its hazard. But if you ask the Writer character in this film it moves humans that much closer to existing unselfishly. To their ultimate purpose. The Stalker expounds on this idea insisting that the creation of art must consider the questions "Why?" and "For whom?" perhaps elliptically implying the forerunner "If not for self then...?"
Without answering outright, he precludes the response "Nothing" and "Nobody." For everything has a purpose, "both the meaning and the cause." Again the question: Is making great art appear or feel reproducible an added merit? In college I spent hours in bars and diners, Bukowski volume in tow, attempting facsimile after facsimile of his style. It's not as easy to discern which filmmakers were telling me similar lies; films being much more ubiquitous and mainstream than poetry, but based on early efforts and personal timeline I'd guess It was Shane Carruth's Upstream Color, Richard Linklater's (Hawke is right again!) Tape, Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation, and Richard Schenkman's The Man From Earth, and if you can believe it Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. As one grows older they grow more difficult to fool.
But whatever it was that conspired to deceive me, I tried. I actually tried. I made the bad art Hawke refers to. And I can't swear my motives were unselfish but there was something in my core trying to send out messages. Trying to make a landing or emit or remain somehow. Like Hawke says in the same conversation, "I wanted to contribute and be a part of whatever that mysterious thing called the arts was..." And really I can say with certainty that I was not in the camp of nothing or nobody. I was squarely in the zone of why and for whom. And yes it is with intention I bring to bear that word zone.
Because for 150 minutes, Andrei Tarkovsky is our Stalker, in careful steps revealing the path by which we might find our way into the process of imaging God through creation. Over and over he bids us watch our step, don't turn back, have faith, and position your heart and mind that the desire itself isn't selfish or meaningless but for something and for somebody. But remember, "rock n' roll is a risk!" Not everyone will step into the Room of artistic peril. (Embedded in this going thesis is a sub-theory which explains why Tommy Wiseau named his doomed but gutsy opus The Room).
And, as the Professor's fear goes, not everyone will step into the room with good intentions. But as the Writer counters, one can't truly know their intentions. So we are left less with the Stalker's "why?" and must lean on the all important "for whom?" Our only shot at emerging with the happiness we so desired is that our aim might somehow come to be aligned with a desire to image and honor God. The Westminster Shorter Catechism begins with suggesting that "Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever." One tossed bolt at a time, Tarkovsky is the holy fool slyly convincing us to persevere.
We will fail to make a masterpiece as Tarkovsky has. We will fail to walk the earth without sin as Christ has. But the standard prevents us from falling awash to what is truly bad art. That is art which is soulless. Art as commodity. "And they do think every minute how not to be sold too cheap, how to sell themselves for a higher price! That everybody paid them for every movement of their soul." Indeed there are some who come to the Zone as poorly intentioned. Don't think for a minute that the suits at Scholastic Press aren't watching my favorite scene in the movie--where the water pans upward over various forgotten artifacts, antiques, and rubbish in perfect visual poetry--and rubbing their hands together asking their assistant to get ahold of Tarkovsky for a big budget adaptation of the I Spy books. We'd reduce him so fast to dactylic tetrameter and thematic collage it would make his head spin.
We will fail, but it will have been worth it. Like with Christ. We know, like the Stalker's wife, that he is "a condemned man." But she knew she would be happy with him. It's better to have sorrowful happiness ("sorrowful but always rejoicing") than a dull, grey life. Like with the disciples, "He simply came up to me and said: 'Come with me' and I went. And I never ever regretted after that."
In this world the only artist is still the tortured artist. The Stalker says, " It seems to me, that it lets pass those who have no more hope left. Not the bad or the good, but the ... unhappy?" And the Writer says, "...for me [writing] is a torture, an illness-like, shameful occupation, something like hemorrhoids. And I did think earlier that somebody becomes better because of my books. But nobody needs me! I will croak, and in two days they will forget me and begin devouring somebody else." And so he comes close to the right conclusion that the "for whom?" can't merely be for others.
Symbolically, too, the only Christian is the tortured Christian. "For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him." The Professor and the Writer are declared in soft quotation to be the two fools on the road to Emmaus who can't recognize the savior they lament having lost. The Writer tries on a crown of thorns for size and the Professor comes close to a misguided 20 kiloton crucifixion, but neither will set foot into the Room.
I love when the Stalker chastises the Professor for trying to return for his backpack. He tells him, "Your forget the room will grant you anything you like" adding an interesting entry to "The Kingdom of Heaven is like..." series of parables. The Professor, like Esau, wants to trade his birthright for a single meal. In a separate retort, the Writer proclaims himself as the Wandering Jew of legend; as one unable to find peace in death because of his mockery of the Good Shepherd.
And at last beneath a Bethesda-like pool, the Stalker prays "May everything come true. May they believe. And May they laugh at their own passions for what they call passion is not really the energy of the soul but merely friction between soul and the outside world. But above all May they believe in themselves and become as helpless as children for softness is great and strength is worthless" recalling Matthew 18.
Never mind the ongoing worm wrestling once again can-opened regarding the recitation of John's Revelation and all the ongoing confusion I have regarding what the day of the wrath of the Lamb must mean. Despite its thematic connections to nuclear war, it isn't exactly an apocalyptic film. However, more and more the last book of the Christian Bible strikes me as a parable for the human experience in toto rather than a specific futuristic outline for what will happen directly prior to the Savior's return. And that's how the movie works too. It's a revelation of its own. There's nothing new under the sun.
That's where I had to land as I could no more write up an argument for Writer, Professor, and Stalker as Id, Ego, and Superego or which was which of three cups coasting coasterless across the table or a flawed Trinitarian treatise than I could convincingly argue this is a live action film version of Ed, Edd, n Eddy. There is no shortage of interpretations. I can't chase everything from the Porcupine to "Ode to Joy" to the tagalong dog to the roaring train right here, right now. That's the magic of poetry anyway. There's no limit to returning to it if it's available to you.
For now, at last, I had to land somewhere in the ebb and flow of dual essays about art and the Christ. After all--and here's as much a thesis for Tarkovsky's body of work as I can of yet imagine--"All this poetry writing and walking around is a new original way of apologizing." Or, repenting as throughline in our attempts of imaging Him. Lord come soon. And may our faith not atrophy in the waiting. So as people of the Book, we might with childlike belief move mountains from here to the sea....or cups from here to the floor below.