Off’s review published on Letterboxd:
You can’t challenge time to an arm wrestle. All you’re doing there matey, is defeating yourself.
The characters in Stalker all seem to be trying really hard though. They are far less the gallery of rogues envisaged in Roadside Picnic, and more a collection of archetypes. Desperate archetypes. The ennui-stricken writer grasping for inspiration in a drab, squalid, and limpid world. Not to lift that world up with his art, you must understand, but for personal glory. The scientist supposedly chasing the Nobel, presumably for the same reason. And the most interesting of them all: The Stalker. Gifted with a prison haircut reflecting the status of the world around him, this holy fool covets the zone so much he can change the colour palette of the film. To be in the zone is to be ‘in the shit’ as it were, but it grants him a vitality and sense of authority absent from his everyday life. Here is a believer swimming in the source of his belief; a landscape of rules and pathways that provide an uncertain guide around the shifting traps of life.
I imagine that’s also how the Strugatsky brothers felt as artists trying to navigate the absurdities of censorship behind the Iron Curtain, and there are certainly hints of that in the choices of contemporary prison slang (cfr “meat grinder”). However, Tarkovsky takes this concept and applies it to faith. He asks the following:
Q. To be a believer in a world that has already fallen - how does one do that?
This dilemma is extended to the other characters – after all, they only have the Stalker’s word of his competence, and his explanations become more interpretive and less direct as the runtime slowly ekes away.1 And there are pitfalls in faith itself. Sometimes it can be an excuse for disengaging from daily life - as the Stalker’s poor wife can probably attest. Stalker nicks her watch at the start of the film, and this isn’t the only way he’s been stealing time from her; his faith in the Zone stands in stark contrast to his disinterest in everything outside it. Well, almost everything.
Because the only hint of colour outside the Zone comes from their daughter, and when we see her powers, we get a much-needed shot of hope – perhaps the Stalker wanted her cured, but maybe the Zone read his innermost desires and helped her mutate, thereby giving her the means to survive the coming world.
“There's no need to speak. You must only - concentrate and recall all your past life. When a man thinks of the past, he becomes kinder.”
Stalker moves around you slowly, like the silt-coloured water in one of Tarkovsky’s ECU’s. It’s a film rooted with meaning, and in a strange way I can feel this to be true without being able to articulate exactly why. I have taken on The Stalker’s predicament, and I trudge on with my review knowing that I’ll be watching this again next month, if only to try and deepen my understanding.
Occasionally, getting battered by time makes you ask the right questions: how would you fare if someone granted your innermost desires? Not what you think you want, but what your heart desires? Is there a difference? Are you honest enough to know it?
And can I stomach another train journey to Penge?
Answers may or may not arise from a rewatch. But I’m a holy fool now – a servant of the Zone. I know it’s only a matter of time before I make the pilgrimage again.
1 “I think it lets those pass who have lost all hope. Not good or bad, but wretched people. But even the most wretched will die if they don't know how to behave.” Groovy, cheers for that. Stick it in the guidebook.
Not so much a side note as something I couldn’t crowbar-in elsewhere, but my god did the train journey vibe with me. Being on those rails, moving so linearly through space, yet feeling time itself drift away as you take in the unfamiliar terrain. ARE WE THERE YET??!!??!!!????
The ‘Click your fingers every time there’s an edit’ game becomes an exercise in zen concentration with Tarkovsky.
I have to give thanks for Geoff Dyer’s excellent book Zona: On Andrei Tarkovski’s ‘Stalker’. It helped me sort through some of the loose and jumbled thoughts I had on my initial viewing, and it has the bonus of being a witty and entertaining read. Recommended.