Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker at the Russian Centre


The noted Russian film director Andrey Tarkovsky left for posterity a small number of works which are unmatched for their power, depth, and artistic merit. Nearly all those films are notable in that they are all accessible to the viewer at large, and do not require any special abilities for a reasonable appreciation. Stalker, the last film he made in the Soviet Union, stands out as the one movie everyone likes to either love or hate blindly. There can be no ambiguity about a viewer's position once he rises from his seat after watching this movie: he is either in love with it or completely hates it. Hence this little review.

was the last film Andrey Tarkovsky made for Mosfilm; it was the last in which his favourite actor Solonitsyn acted in, and it is the most powerful film Tarkovsky has left behind. Stalkeris unique in many respects, and one could only wish for another film like this: emotionally draining, powerful, a sort of celluloid pilgrimage. You can ardently watch any of his other films and store it away in your mind for safe-keeping; but in Stalker, the moment you get the flow of the film (after the initial ten minutes that you spend with the Stalker and his luckless family), you realise Tarkovsky is conclusively dealing with some wrenching issues, and by the time the film is over, you know that nothing more need be said about these things. Stalker addresses all the issues it raises both convincingly and comprehensively; no more nails are left.

On a personal note, and perhaps more importantly, Stalker is the one film that I'd been waiting to see all these years. I first read about Stalker in 1986, when I was nine; I do not regret that it took so long, because I'm not so sure how I'd have taken this ten years ago, or even two years ago: it might have driven me mad. You can let a kid watch Andrey Rubyov and it would make sense to him at a primitive level, it has a few stories to tell; but this film calls for the most strident mind at the best of its powers. The things it says are not very evident except for those that have pondered it themselves. The film communicates its story simply, but it is an excruciating movie. A lot many viewers are unable to last the initial ten minutes. You can take away every film, everything, but this one film will make you feel complete, and give a justification for all your torture, all your suffereing, and all your silent guilt. It is an answer to all those things you have endured in torment and assures you that suffering is a sign of strength. Stalker presents Tarkovsky's unfettered views on life, faith, love, and art, and for that reason alone, it is one of its kind.

To narrate the story is simple enough: Tarkovsky's loathing for the plot is well-known, and so he ritually has the plot narrated to you by the protagonists themselves. [In case you need a capsule, go for the footnote at the end of this document]. This removes any unnecessary confusion, and allows the viewer to concentrate on the particulars, which in this case has to do with the immense resistance our intellect puts up against redeeming faith. Faith, or modern man's incapability for faith, is one of the themes of Stalker. (The other being the importance of self-dignity). It is one of the recurring themes set in motion in Andrey Rublyov, and the wheel comes full circle in Stalker.

Stalker opens with striking imagery: in black and white we see naturally framed images (Tarkovsky has a leniency towards naturally framed images, and this is evident in Zerkalo), moving images of the decrepit poverty in which the Staker is living. A passing train causes a glass of water placed on a tray to tremble and shake, and the Stalker's family—husband, wife and daughter—are all lying awake. Why? It is the sound of the Stalker's train, and soon he'll be away on one of his hideous errands. Why hideous? That, we shall see in the course of the next couple of hours. The Stalker tries to leave silently, but is accosted by his wife at the door. She accuses him of trying to steal his watch, a clumsy way to say she wants him not to go. Despite her remonstrances of the abject poverty, the Stalker makes off hurriedly.

Stalkers are branded men who volunteer to take despondent people to their last hope, a site where meteorite had impacted a few years ago, forming what is known as "the Zone". A meteorite had landed at the place some twenty years ago, setting of weird events. This place is the Zone, and in the Zone there is a room, where, it is rumoured, a human being's most sincere and innermost desire will be granted. The journey is filled with perils, death-traps, and once the Stalker smuggles you inside the heavily cordoned-off site, you are at the mercy of the elements. Or so it seems. The Stalker however clarifies that in the Zone, you are at the mercy of your own wit, and if you are wretched enough, if your sould has been tormented enough, you will be granted permission to enter the Room. His teacher, nicknamed Porcupine, was among the first stalkers, and had told him the truth about the Zone and revealed a few of its secrets. Stalkers treat the Zone with respect, as if it were a living thing, and our very own Stalker dreads even the thought of harming it.

Once inside the confines of the Zone (sepia images make way gradually to full-colour, indicative of the brimming life in the Zone), where it is lush green everywhere with grass and moss. We are guided almost casually through remanants of human settlement. It turns out that a military bunker once stood where the Zone is located, and there are remains of human habitation: empty canisters, broken pistons, coins, some burnt pages of a book, can Eyck's triptych, rotting trees, worms, stakes driven into the ground, wells, and so on. There is no straight path in the zone, so the Stalker advises his two clients to take the longest detour possible, and warns them that no-one ever returned by the same path they went in. The terrifying description of the Zone gives the journey all the characteristics of a pilgrimage, and at least for our Stalker, that's exactly what it is: his private pligrimage, the Zone his holy Land, and the Room, his holy manger. He is alarmed by the disrespect of his companions, but there's little he could do about it other than terrify them with his own versions of enigmatic death traps. Stories of an incredibly powerful and treahcerous Zone that however answers the most heartfelt desire is essential to sustain the Stalker's faith: and the ensuing journey is like one to the Holy Grail. To all appearances the Zone is an innocuous dilapidated bunker with none of the characteristics being attributed to it, but it is the Stalker's asylum.

As the trio undertake the excruciating journey where they fear accompanies every trembling step, we are guided, as it were, into the mindscapes of three grown men with different purpose and faith. The scientist is clammed-up, as is usual for him, but this time quite purposefully. The writer goes on and on about his mediocrity and how sick he is with this life, while the Stalker keeps silent, listening intently but never participating in the conversations. But once—just once—he stuns his two companions by bringing out his case for life and its meaning. He uses the well-known case of music. Music, he says, has no natural associations (being entirely a learned language), but it is meaningful, sometimes more meaningful than even words, and profoundly moving. He makes his point that in the final reckoning everything has a meaning and a purpose, there's nothing accidental. In a nutshell he presents the case for faith: everything that has a name has validity, and its existence is not accidental (Hari, 1998). These are however just words for the Scientist and the Writer, who must devise their own protection against the debilitating dread that grips them in the journey to the room. It's the fear that kills: what's out there is just life, reality. And on the way, they have to pass the metal tube.

The metal tube is a small circular pathway looking much like a the guideway of a particle accelerator, and, by some luck, the writer is 'chosen' to lead on. He does not like it, but either he or the Scientist has to go, because they will not make it back if something happens to the Stalker. The Stalker, as always, will stalk his clients and see that they come to no harm. As the Writer leads them in, the Scientist and the Stalker are beside themselves with dread. Though he has been there many times before, the Stalker still cannot believe that the all-powerful Zone will not throw a new death trap at them, so he cowers behind the Scientist. Finally, after much philosophising and hesitation, they reach what seems safe ground, and the Stalker congratulates his companions on their success. They are now at the threshold of the Room that grants the most sincere and innermost desire of a human being. At this point, the three men, held somewhat together by unity of purpose, break their three ways: the Scientist immediately assembles a powerful bomb, the Writer does not want to go inside the room because he has found out the truth about himself, and the Stalker, thwarted in his attempt to get rid of the bomb, is called upon to make a tearful defence of his position.

In the heart-rending sequence, the Stalker reveals himself: he does not go into the Room for personal reasons (which he does not reveal). but we know why: he wants the Zone to exist as a symbol of hope for himself and his wretched family, and he does not want to ask of the Zone the gift that would make him acceptable to the cruel, senseless world bereft of love or wisdom or compassion or faith. But the world, too, though it undertakes the most harrowing journey to get to the room, does not want to enter it: for quite different reasons, though.

The Room (in the Zone) is a gift to humankind, and it can grant the innermost desire of the wisher. But most of those who reach the threshold break down for dread or from guilt, or from a lack of faith; they never use the room, they do not fullfil the object of their arduous journey, they simply go back with a vacant expression, content in their wretchedness. But for the Stalker, and for others wretched like him for whom there is no other hope, the Room is the only hope, it is what they live for. Here he is not a louse, but he has dignity. It is his home. He even wishes to bring his wife and child to live here in the Zone, because no one else lives here, so nobody would make fun of them, and they would not envy others. At this point, the viewer (at least this reviewer) felt this what what he had been living for, this moment, where all wretchedness and self-torment is glorified and given a reason, for this, the moment of truth. One is not moved to tears, but one instanly recongizes what the Stalker stands for: a well-trained, immaculately intellectual young man forced to wretchedness by the enormity of the sin he has been contending with, the huge lie called civilization. At this point the whole film slips away from the language of words and directly descends into our heart, our soul, and seeps into our very being. The threesome realise they are one, doomed to civilization, and they make their peace. The scientist disassembles the bomb and throws it in the muddy water, where its fumes poisons a chance passer-by, a loitering fish. They make their way back. A dog from the Zone accompanies them (hints of the seven youths who slept together in a cave, or even of Yudhishtira's ascent to the world of the spirits?).

In the final sequence we are allowed to have a close look at the Stalker's family. Though she often resents her lot, the Stalker's wife is actually contented with his eventful life. She is his sole confidant, she knows how hard it is for him, who knows so much (a casual shot of his library shows possibly hundreds of well-thumbed books) to comprehend imbecility from so-called intelligentsia; as he dozes off on a few pills, still breaving his rotten luck in having to guide faithless ones to the room only not to use it, she turns to us,the viewers, and tells us what it's been like for the Stalker family. It's been hard, but she doesn't envy anyone, and it's real, it's fate, it', it's "us."

I have given a spotty account of what is absolutely necessary to read this document through, because, if you do not keep to the (nonexistent) plot, nothing really will make sense, as the film does not have much meaning for facts. Everything is made to look as we make it, and there's no one endowed with "the true facts." Facts play almost no role in Tarkovsky's films, as in art in general. There are impressions, images, and the images and impressions shift throughout like the fog visiting one secluded tree after another in a flooded forest. When Tarkovsky shows commonplace items and filth, all of it is stripped of its value, there's an impersonal quality to all of it, and everything seems to have the same importance. Filth is cleansed, and beautiful artifacts (like the van Eyck under the water) shorn of all merit, everything becomes the same, just like the shifting imags in a kaleidoscope, it's almost like a village at dawn never quite waking up. Everything seems still for as long as you want, and that is the quality of the film: never rush anything, take your own time to get to the conclusion, but do please have faith!

It's incredible at what all levels the film registers: it's a film about the kulak, it's about oppression and shadowing by KGB; it's about the oppression of the artists and the witch-hunts in a cleansed-up Soviet Union struggling to keep up appearances; but more than the ploticis it's the story of wasted youth having to work in the mines and the military; it's about having to forget the supreme gift of love and faith and forgiveness, and having to grudge your neighbour for what you haven't got. It is, first and foremost, about the purely rational quality of wearing a blank expression as if all of this was natural, and that every man was an island, having no purpose, nothing common to the species but the name, but himself, unique, and with his own problems. It's about making shameful excuses for your ego and defending your pride against a simple call for faith and brotherhood. In this film, and perhaps in this one film only, in the entire body of great cinematic works, all of these things come together in perfect harmony yet stand out in isolation for the enthusiast to sequester and savour: everything is there for you in whichever form you prefer it.

You might also notice that the film has been shot naturally; there is no music except for the electronic sounds of the trolley on rails (where the natural sounds have been chemically tweaked, so to speak). Time, space and action are all unified in one grand, natural design merely by making it all natural: and in this one film it works, and it's a gigantic reality because it makes you feel the zone exists quite close by.

I might also add (while running the risk of ruining a review) that I am absolutely powerless (you can waste a million years of training on me, but it will still be waste) to describe the myriad emotions that engulf you. Of course, when the brook flows, even the birds listen; when the river speaks, the music is silent. And so, with life: when life spawns, you sit up and take note; this film is life. Amid all the filth and desolation, in the eyes of the invalid Monkey (Stalker's daughter with suggested psychic powers), you find life flowing like the still river.

And this makes it unique, and Tarkovsky the greatest film director of all time. Just watch the almost-still river, watch it for all you could, and slowly it will reveal its secrets to it long enough, with tenderness, with faith, you will grow tender, become like the calm river, and realise yourself in the stillness of the river. And that may be why it is called the River of Life...

The Stalker is greeted warmly by his ever-suffering wife, a luxury not allowed to the more well-off Scientist and Writer. They suddenly see there may be method to what the Stalker says when he puts himself at the service of humanity. And when Monkey rests her head against the table and the glasses start to rattle with the passing train, life comes full circle for the doomed townsfolk, as well as for Stalker: it's just another day in the hard life of the Stalker and his family.

I should note that today's crowd had been the best and most knowledgeable so was not brim-full, and there were a few unfortunate fellows who left without seeing the ending, and to them this remark, out of pity: never miss a Tarkovsky finale, you just wasted nearly three hours for nothing.

And for those just curious: imagine all the films and the revenue they generated based on this peculiar quality suggested of Monkey: Matrix I, Night-Syamalan's film, X-Men... Andrey might have been a billionaire had he lived to file a copyright infringement...! But of course, that would run counter to everything...

I shall present a review of Stalker by a film-critic (available at As it is truthful to the story, and as I couldn't have done it any better, I feel it is wise to read it to get to know the story of Stalker.

(..Quoted Text..)
With STALKER, Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky returns to the mind-bending, philosophy-tinged science fiction of SOLARIS. The setting is an unnamed country in an unforeseen postapocalyptic future. A meteorite has landed, and its impact has created a mysterious phenomenon known as the Zone, within which resides a sinister room said to grant humanity’s deepest desires. Only Stalkers are able to enter the Zone, bringing intrepid citizens to test their strength and desires against the Zone’s enigmatic treacheries. The film follows one such Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) as he attempts to bring two characters known as Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and Scientist (Nikolai Grinko) into the Zone. The hapless trio makes a difficult and mud-drenched journey, dodging military guards and invisible traps and enduring extreme psychological strain. While Tarkovsky avoids any direct political reading of STALKER, the film’s allegorical structure presents a powerful and disturbing metaphor for humanity’s loss of and subsequent quest for faith. The Stalker’s struggle to rescue himself and his family while guiding those more wretched than himself creates a physical and metaphysical drama that leaves the viewer breathless. Blending visual, narrative, and cinematic conventions to portray the fractured logic of the Zone, Tarkovsky conjures a universe of despair and desire in which science, rationalism, and technology must face off against love, humanism, and faith.