Stalker ★★★★★

We are viewers. We view movies, which act as windows, mirrors, lenses, even memories or premonitions. We sense them to receive an effect that extends beyond them: they enter our beings in a physical way, and the best ones leave in an intangible way. Stalker focuses prominently on doors, gates, thresholds, from its opening moments to its anticlimax. The film understands that it is about portals and that it itself acts as a portal, but in an artistic way that forges its own meaning, rather than becoming self-referential. We peer into the Stalker’s room, in a way that feels impossible for a camera and film; we stare down a haunting pipe, whose mystery is perceivably inconceivable; we spy into a claustrophobic little room where three perspectives personified fight with the deceptively powerful weapon of words… We view images and hear sounds, but one of the many miracles of life is that they do not stay images and sounds, and our perception bears a fruit that cannot be limited by them.

Stalker exists on an uncomfortable plane, demanding virtues like patience, reflection, and introspection from the viewer, and one of its best attributes is that its characters take a physical journey representative of this shift in headspace. The Stalker, Writer, and Professor are not the only ones entering the Zone. Despite the film’s adaptation from a novel, Tarkovsky’s mastery of film-specific vocabulary makes the experience just that. We are lulled by the practically comatose sepia and get used to the monotonously repetitive clanks of wheel against rail, until we are brought out to the other side with vivacious color and silence. Humanity has a complicated relationship with its environment, a complexity that translates insightfully to how the Stalker and his team are variables in their own adventure, elements comprising the very phenomena they sought only to spectate. They are victims of the land’s traps, but their very presence in this No Man’s Land makes them something like traps themselves, making the environment their victim.

Characteristic also of writers like Dostoyevsky, the screenplay allows the characters to speak their minds and souls seemingly without inhibition. Our central trio bears their souls to two essentially strange companions, presumably due to the nature of the Zone. Just as their journey continues, so does the film’s beckoning for a deeper reading, a mental journey just as taxing. If you let it be. In a post-apocalyptic world where everything is “tedious” and people place less and less emphasis on things like imagination, soul-searching, or even things like hope, the Zone has the power to untie these characters’ minds. If they let it. The Professor and the Writer are blatantly resistant to this opportunity despite their newfound honesty of their souls, the former concerned primarily with material possessions (for both covert and overt reasons) and other trifles, and the latter unwilling to make something of the hopelessness and sorrow he articulates more profoundly as the film progresses. The Writer doesn’t know and the Professor doesn’t care. They are trees at the end of their lives, strong in the eyes of the world that shaped them, hesitant to place value on hope or appreciation.

We live in a harsh and unloving and (in some ways) apocalyptic world not unlike this film’s futuristic setting. The people inhabiting this world of ours are lost and confused by nature, and possess some curious innate qualities. I’m reminded of a psychological concept discussed wonderfully by David Foster Wallace and brought to celluloid just as wonderfully by Paul Thomas Anderson, namely that our minds are far better servants than masters. When we serve ourselves, we satisfy that itch to give ourselves to something, to be that cosmic servant, but autopilot ourselves into the dirt in our horrible ability to sustain that servanthood. Selfishness is unstable naturally and at the very least morally. The Stalker is a servant, but he wishes for a master beyond himself: he can satisfy others, fulfill their fates, bring them to humanity’s psychological conclusion in the Room, in the Path, in the Zone. He is a Stalker because a Stalker is who he is. The Professor views life with a myopic, unwise lens. The Writer’s view is obstructed by a wisdom derived from a self-serving and therefore self-destructive world. The Stalker’s vision (and this is what makes the film so beautiful) is not some Goldilocks balance of all human virtue, nor is it a perfect, exemplary view to which we viewers should aspire. Instead, the Stalker is equally lost. But he is looking. He is meticulous of every step of the way, disciplined and flawed, and he is not the Right world view as much as he is the “best” way to HAVE a world view. His focus is on others (and when it is on himself, i.e. with his family negligence, we watch him struggle with this), and he does not have it all figured out, but he believes. He is inspired. He is interested. In him we may have a kindred spirit. (If we let him be that)

Another thread common to the Stalker and most viewers is his fear. Even at the end of it all, he is still terrified that his labors are in vain. A harsh reality of the world (that this movie aided me in first realizing) is that settling comfortably into one environment, physical or mental, does not eliminate discomfort. I know no one who is 100% satisfied as long as they are in this broken world, but that is what makes people’s striving attempts more commendable and more relatable. I am reminded constantly by verses in Matthew, Isaiah, Revelation of the fact that doubts exist in the firmest Believers, but once one is reminded that the power and validity of the most steadfast concept or figure or belief is not totally contingent on the strength of its supporters, things change. We are not going to be perfect at believing and hoping, making it matter all the more WHAT we believe in and THAT we believe. It is apparent in this film’s setting and it can be apparent in our own time and space. This world of ours has felt harsh, unloving, and apocalyptic for centuries, and the environment depicted in Tarkovsky’s film only becomes more apt as the years go by.

Comparing the time of this film’s release to the time of its setting, to present day, and to the past is an interesting concept that even the characters entertain. I was fortunate enough to watch this film today with one of my closest friends, who offered the perspective that one of the reasons people in the past have not opened their minds to the philosophical, interpersonal extent encouraged by artistic works in the realm of Stalker is because they by and large had more physical needs to fulfill—the struggle for basic survival was more common than introspection and reflection. He pointed to the fact that in our current day, it’s something of a privilege that we can have access to other world views at all, that we can be inspired by thought-provoking art and productive media and the words of great minds. This can go underused, however. People can be focused on a higher standard of living that treats privileges and luxuries like essentials, emulating that previous need for “survival” that is now arguably just preoccupation with happiness, creating more physical battles to fight in place of mental or spiritual ones, that are addressed via products and “success.” Please do not let me be misunderstood—a higher standard of living can be a great thing and not all societal/economic progressions are bad (obviously), but perhaps we are not as busy as we believe we are, and more spiritual thinking is not as out-of-reach as it seems.

None of this is meant to excessively exalt films like Stalker or laud just how unattainably transcendental it is. On the contrary, I’d like to emphasize that the transcendental, contemplative, beautiful nature of this movie does not have to be commodified as it often is. The way it takes the time to really sit with harsh realities and essential yet unwanted questions can and should be applicable to any unique life watching it. If we let it. We are the viewers. What do we view?

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