Stalker

Stalker ★★★½

Two interpretations I can get on board with:

1. Kafkaesque nightmare of Soviet bureaucracy. The Zone is the unnatural, a-logical labyrinth of communist Russian society. In search of a utopia — the Room — three archetypes navigate a trackless wilderness littered with deadly traps. The rules, the very terrain, are in perpetual turmoil — it's impossible to know where you stand, just as in the factional, ever-changing politics of the party. What's fatal one day, for one person, is harmless or helpful the next day, for another. The mistrust, the paranoid crackups induced by this nauseous society in its inhabitants. The knowledge that some omnipotent and unknowable hand could pull the rug out from under you at any time. Monkey's disability is the physical manifestation of decades of psychic manipulation, her psychic ability the defense against it — for in a world where thoughts are routinely manipulated, why shouldn't thoughts themselves strike back by manipulating the world?

2. Post-nuclear dystopia. It's pretty clear that Monkey's mutation is radiation-based, and the silence, the lushness, the abandoned tranquility of the Zone is strangely predictive of Chernobyl. Nature is reclaiming the land, clothing it in a rich, chaotic raiment; humans are interlopers and probably prey. The randomness of the fates inflicted by the zone on those who enter is the randomness of radioactive decay. The radiation is an invisible enemy; the ground dotted with invisible hot spots which the Stalker navigates by the random toss of his weighted bandage. The zone has a debilitating effect on those who enter — viz. the scene where the trio lie down randomly and doze for about a quarter of an hour (of running time — no other time can be measured).

One I can't:

Faith vs Reason. The Stalker as Christ, asking his followers, emblems of art and science, both of whom aim to explain existence according to some theory or law, to set aside their philosophies and believe in the ultimate objective of the room, i.e. Heaven. The whole exercise is a test of faith, and we have no evidence that the zone is really weird except, perhaps, Monkey's apparent gift, revealed only later. The shifting ground and hot spots are all in their heads, the wrecked armor the debris of some old battle — or all those things are constructed by the Stalker to lend verisimilitude to his spiritual Pied Piper act. The interminable philosophical maundering is actually necessary and meaningful, and the one-dimensionality of the three explorers justified by their presence in an existential fable that doesn't deign to dirty its soles in the filth of the real.

And one I don't want to, but feel like I have to:

Tarkovsky just didn't know when to stop. Large tracts of this film are captivating, but also quite boring. The long disputations and soliloquies don't go anywhere; nothing is decided or resolved. Tarko was caught up in his own vision and dearly in need of a big red pen. I have read Roadside Picnic, and for what it's worth, I think I enjoyed it more, but in a completely different way. But that's irrelevant because Tarkovsky didn't set out to adapt a book for the screen; instead he took the germ of the book and made something very much his own. I loved the sepia-color-sepia structure, I loved the portrayal of the zone, I adored the final scene with Monkey, the objects on the table, the train, and Ode to Joy. On the other hand, I hate it when film-makers insert their own disquisitions on the meaning of life into the mouths of their characters, and there’s a lot of that in Stalker. You have to admire the single-minded vision on display here, but I found Stalker single-minded bordering on onanistic, while still being a multivalent work of art that I'm glad I watched. I'm also glad I got plenty of sleep the night before.

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