Forty years on, Tarkovsky’s Stalker remains a great example of movie-poetry, easier to experience than explain

Baradwaj Rangan

Jul 11, 2019 11:26:58 IST

In 1972, the brothers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky published a Russian sci-fi novel titled Roadside Picnic, which centres on an extraterrestrial event called Visitation. This event results in “Zones”, mysterious (possibly supernatural) areas that have been cordoned off by the respective Governments. Instead of a single exposition dump, the properties and qualities of the Zone are parcelled out through lines like this one (from the translation by Antonina W Bouis): “I don’t like those trucks! They’ve been exposed to the elements for thirty years and they’re just like new… That’s the Zone for you!” Here’s another passage: “We were in the Zone! I felt a chill. Each time I feel that chill. And I never know if that’s the Zone greeting me or my stalker’s nerves acting up. Each time I think that when I get back I’ll ask if others have the same feeling or not, and each time I forget.”

That’s the novel’s protagonist speaking: a “stalker” who sneaks into the Zone and steals artefacts to sell in the black market or else takes others inside, like a freakish tourist guide. His nickname became the title of a film by Andrei Tarkovsky, released on 25 May, 1979. The Strugatsky brothers wrote the screenplay, loosely based on their book. The premise sounds like a sci-fi adventure: “If you come back (from the Zone) with swag, it’s a miracle. If you come back alive, it’s a success. If the patrol bullets miss you, it’s a stroke of luck. And as for anything else, that’s fate.” The “plot” revolves around Stalker leading two men (named Writer and Professor, after their professions) into the Zone, which begins to sound like a malevolent living being. Stalker says, “The Zone demands respect, otherwise it’ll punish you.” It sounds like the setting for an Indiana Jones adventure.

But the film is more about ideas than action, and it’s very deliberately paced. You may find yourself drifting off during parts and coming back during others and each time you see Stalker, you may find yourself, well, zoning out and in, during different portions. This adds to the enigma of this very enigmatic movie. Each time, it becomes... new, slightly different from the Stalker you saw earlier. Naturally, it’s not for everyone. Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (2012), a superb “journey” through the film by British writer Geoff Dyer, quotes Cate Blanchett as saying, “Every single frame of the film is burned into my retina.” Some might say that’s the only way one can absorb these two hours and forty-one minutes, without nodding off into... another zone.

But for the patient, Stalker offers many rewards, especially if you are inclined towards spirituality, metaphysicality, or questions about faith. (Remember persevering through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a teenager? Stalker could be the adult equivalent.) When Stalker is negotiating a particularly treacherous path (which is the stuff of adventure), this is the voiceover we hear (which is the stuff of philosophy): “Softness is great and strength is worthless. When a man is born, he is soft and pliable. When he dies, he is strong and hard. When a tree grows, it is soft and pliable. But when it is dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death’s companions. Flexibility and softness are the embodiment of life. That which has become hard shall not triumph.”

Or take the point, about 38 minutes in, where Stalker, Writer and Professor enter the Zone. The film, so far in shades of sepia, now blooms into colour — but it’s no wonderland. The first image of the Zone is just wild reeds, a couple of telephone poles, a few trees in the distance, and the outlines of more trees beyond. Stalker calls it the quietest place on earth. The flowers have no scent. We learn that there used to be many flower beds, but a stalker named Porcupine trampled all over them and wiped them out. When Stalker asked why, Porcupine said, “One day, you’ll understand.” You can turn this scene around like a kaleidoscope and each time, you’ll see something new.

For a while, Stalker appears to follow a traditional structure. For instance, in a traditional narrative, we might wonder why Writer and Professor want to undertake such a dangerous journey. And, as in a traditional narrative, we get an answer. There’s a place — called The Room — where one’s “most cherished desire… your sincerest wish, the desire that has made you suffer most” will come true. Writer expresses his wish: “I’ve lost my inspiration. I’m going to beg for some.” But a little later, he says, “It’s all a lie. I don’t give a damn about inspiration. But how can I put a name to what it is that I want? How am I to know I don’t want what I want or that I really don’t want what I don’t want? These are intangibles where the moment you name them, their meaning evaporates like jellyfish in the sun.”

He could be talking about Stalker. The film is intangible, too. It takes shape in the mind, but the moment you try and talk about it, the “meaning” evaporates — in the sense that it becomes literal and reductive. It’s like poetry, which is easier to experience than explain. I have many favourite scenes. I’ll leave you with two. First, the one where we see a waterfall. Usually, a film’s sound design would alert us, by slowly amping up the sound of water until we reach the waterfall and hear the full roar. But here, we begin to hear the waterfall only when a character passes by it. There’s nothing; the next instant, it’s the full roar. It’s one of the most beautifully eerie stretches in all of cinema. And two, this very funny line from Writer: “My consciousness wants the triumph of vegetarianism. My subconscious longs for a juicy steak. So what do I want?” It’s the very mystery of existence.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

Updated Date: Jul 11, 2019 11:26:58 IST