Tarkovsky's 'Stalker': You'll Need a User's Manual (and Here It Is)

Still from “Stalker”/Photo: Mosfilm
Still from “Stalker”/Photo: Mosfilm

“It was not a case of love at first sight: The first time I saw ‘Stalker’ I was slightly bored and unmoved. I wasn’t overwhelmed,” explains Geoff Dyer in Zona, his play-by-play examination of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film. I can empathize.

Stalker,” considered by some to be Tarkovsky’s best work – and possibly one of the best films of all time – is the story of three men on a journey to a room. The leader of this quest is called Stalker (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy), a man whose job is that of tour guide through the Zone, an abandoned, mystical place – real or imagined? – that was perhaps hit by a meteorite, or perhaps struck by some kind of fallout. There’s not much we know about the creation of the Zone, but we do know that ultimately, people went there and “started disappearing [until] the authorities surrounded the Zone with barbed wire to stop people coming.” Barbed wire is a conquerable obstacle, though, and Stalker is a man paid to get people in and to the room where your deepest wishes will come true. Along on this particular trip are Professor (Nikolay Grinko) and Writer (Anatoliy Solonitsyn).

For two-plus hours, the journey goes on. On first viewing, the action is slow, the events are seemingly inconsequential; superficially, not much really happens. Some viewers (ahem) may even find themselves falling prey to the doze-wake-rewind method of movie watching. But it’s worth the time and the attention spent. There’s so much more than meets the eye upon initial screening, and is worth, as Dyer has done, watching it repeatedly.

Throughout Zona, Dyer’s references to films and other work inspired by and nodding to “Stalker” are plentiful. Dyer highlights so many moments and call-outs across culture that point back to “Stalker” both overtly or slyly; the movie itself is loosely based on the Russian novel Piknik na obochine (Roadside Picnic) by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. (Interestingly, the Strugatskys were inspired by the screenplay -- again, based on their own novel -- and went on to write a novelette based on the screenplay.) Among those many moments in culture that reference “Stalker,” Dyer’s knack for noticing the small stuff is especially appreciated with his recognition of the sound of a glass scraping across a table followed by a dog whimpering in the song “Requiem for Dying Mothers, Part 2” on an album by the somewhat obscure Stars of the Lid. This glass scraping and dog whimpering is part of the closing scene of “Stalker,” and the audio without the visual attached would go unrecognized by most.

But beyond these idiosyncrasies tucked into Dyer’s book, beyond the inside scoop on the making of “Stalker,” beyond Dyer’s much-welcomed sardonic sense of humor, the question at the heart of the matter is this: Do we need an entire book to explain a movie to us? Do we need to be held by the hand and walked through each scene of a movie? Do we need someone to point out what is humorous, what is symbolic, and what just is? Frankly, when the movie in question is Tarkovsky’s “Stalker,” that’s exactly what we need. Zona will have you, finally, nodding in time with the flow of the film and understanding the story in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise upon cold watching. Here’s what I suggest: If you’ve not seen “Stalker,” see it. Invest the two-plus hours (or more, if you nap intermittently). Then, read the book. After that? See the movie again. And like Dyer, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to stop at second viewing.

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