Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979)

“Everybody asks me what things mean in my films. This is terrible! An artist doesn’t have to answer for his meanings. I don’t think so deeply about my work—I don’t know what my symbols may represent. What matters to me is that they arouse feelings, any feelings you like, based on whatever your inner response might be. If you look for a meaning, you’ll miss everything that happens. Thinking during a film interferes with your experience of it. Take a watch to pieces, it doesn’t work. Similarly with a work of art, there’s no way it can be analyzed without destroying it.” (“Tarkovsky’s Translations” Sight and Sound 50, no.3, Summer 1981, 152-53, Reprinted in Andrei Tarkovsky Interviews, ed. John Gianvito, University of Mississippi Press, Jackson, Mississippi, 2006, p.71) I didn’t like the looks of that cover. Its shadow wasn’t right. The sun was at our backs, yet its shadow was stretching towards us. Well, all right, it was far enough away from us. It seemed OK, we could get on with our work. But what was the silvery thing shining back there? Was it just my imagination? It would be nice to have a smoke now and sit for a spell and mull it all over—why there was that shine over the canisters, why it didn’t shine next to them, why the cover was casting that shadow. Buzzard Burbridge told me something about the shadows, that they were weird but harmless. Something happens here with the shadows. But what was that silvery shine? It looked just like cobwebs on the trees in a forest. What kind of spider could have spun it? I had never seen any bugs in the Zone. The worst part was that my empty was right there, two steps from the canisters. I should have stolen it that time. Then we wouldn’t be having any of these problems now. But it was too heavy. After all, the bitch was full, I could pick it up all right, but as for dragging it on my back, in the dark, on all fours…If you haven’t carried an empty around, try it: It’s like hauling twenty pounds of water without a pail. It was time to go. I wished I had a drink. I turned to Tender. (Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, 1977, Macmillan Publishing Co., 2007, Great Britain, p.25)“What does ‘Stalker’ mean?”
“It’s a made-up word that comes from the English verb ‘to stalk’: to approach furtively. In this film this word indicates the profession of one who crosses the borders and penetrates a forbidden Zone with a specific objective, a bit like a bootlegger or a smuggler. The Stalker’s craft is passed on from one generation to the next. In my film, the forbidden Zone represents the places where desires can be satisfied.
“The spectator may doubt its existence or see it merely as a myth or a joke…or even as the fantasy of our hero. For the viewer this remains a mystery. The existence in the Zone of a room where dreams come true serves solely as pretext to revealing the personalities of the three protagonists.” (From “Stalker, Smuggler of Happiness” Telerama, no. 1535, June 13, 1979, Translated by Deborah Theodore, Reprinted in Andrei Tarkovsky Interviews, ed. John Gianvito, University of Mississippi Press, Jackson, Mississippi, 2006, p. 50)"The perception of colour is a physiological and psychological phenomenon to which, as a rule, nobody pays particular attention. The picturesque character of a shot, due often enough simply to the quality of the film, is one more artificial element loaded onto the image, and something has to be done to counteract it if you mind about being faithful to life. You have to try to neutralize colour, to modify its impact on the audience. If colour becomes the dominant dramatic element of the shot, it means that the director and camera-man are using a painter’s methods to affect the audience. That is why nowadays one very often finds that the average expertly made film will have the same sort of appeal as the luxuriously illustrated glossy magazine; the colour photography will be warring against the expressiveness of the image.
“Perhaps the effect of colour should be neutralized by alternating colour and monochromatic sequences, so that the impression made by the complete spectrum is spaced out, toned down. Why is it, when all that the camera is doing is recording real life on film, that a coloured shot should seem so unbelievably, monstrously false? The explanation must surely be that colour, reproduced mechanically, lacks the touch of the artist’s hand; in this area he loses his organizing function, and has no means of selecting what he wants. The film’s chromatic partitura, with its own developmental pattern, is absent, taken away from the director by the technological process. It also becomes impossible for him to select and reappraise the colour elements in the world around him. Strangely enough, even though the world is coloured, the black and white image comes closer to the psychological, naturalistic truth of art, based as it is on special properties of seeing as well as of hearing.” (from Sculpting in Time Reflections on Cinema, by Andrei Tarkovsky, translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1986, 2008, p. 138) “Redrick walked in his bare feet to the entry hall, took the basket and brought it to the storeroom. Then he looked into the bedroom. Monkey was sleeping peacefully, her crumpled blanket hanging on the floor. Her nightie had ridden up. She was warm and soft, a little animal breathing heavily. Redrick could not resist the temptation to stroke her back covered with warm golden fur, and was amazed for the thousandth time by the fur’s silkiness and length. He wanted to pick up Monkey badly, but he was afraid it would wake her up—besides he was dirty as hell and permeated with death and the Zone. He came back into the kitchen and sat down at the table.” (Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, 1977, Macmillan Publishing Co., 2007, Great Britain, p.59)“What matters to me is that the feeling excited by my films should be universal. An artistic image is capable of arousing identical feelings in viewers, while the thoughts that come later may be very different. If you start to search for a meaning during the film you will miss everything that happens. The ideal viewer is someone who watches a film like a traveler watching the country he is passing through: because the effect of an artistic image is an extra-mental type of communication. There are some artists who attach symbolic meaning to their images, but that is not possible for me. Zen poets have a good way of dealing with this: they work to eliminate any possibility of interpretation, an in the process a parallel arises between the real world and what the artist creates in his work.
“What then is the purpose of this activity? It seems to me that the purpose of art is to prepare the human soul for the perception of good. The soul opens up under the influence of an artistic image, and it is for this reason that we say it helps us to communicate—but it is communication in the highest sense of the word. I could not imagine a work of art that would prompt a person to do something bad…Perhaps you have noticed that the more pointless people’s tears during a film, the more profound the reason for these tears. I am not talking about sentimentality, but about how art can reach to the depths of the human soul and leave man defenseless against good.” (“Against Interpretation: An Interview with Andrei Tarkovsky “, Framework, no. 14, 1981, Reprinted in Andrei Tarkovsky Interviews, ed. John Gianvito, University of Mississippi Press, Jackson, Mississippi, 2006, p.68-69)While I am typically long-winded in writing about films, I felt that writing about Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) was, at least for me, an exercise in futility. I began with the intention of writing a very academic post, detailing production history and the like, before realizing that I was heading into the Dissertation Zone before I knew it. Instead, I thought a collection of some thought-provoking quotes from Tarkovsky and from Stalker’s source novel would be far more interesting. I selected them, and the images from the film, based upon primarily the emotions that they elicited from me. Stalker is a cinematic masterpiece from one of cinema’s masters. Here’s a final quote from Roadside Picnic (also a beautiful work of art), and quite possibly my favorite:“He had never experienced anything like this before outside the Zone. And it happened in the Zone only two or three times. It was as though he were in a different world. A million odors cascaded in on him at once—sharp, sweet, metallic, gentle, dangerous ones, as crude as cobblestones, as delicate and complex as watch mechanisms, as huge as a house and as tiny as a dust particle. The air became hard, it developed edges, surfaces, and corners, like space was filled with huge stiff balloons, slippery pyramids, gigantic prickly crystals, and he had to push his way through it all, making his way in a dream through a junk store stuffed with ancient ugly furniture…It lasted a second. He opened his eyes, and everything was gone. It hadn’t been a different world—it was this world turning a new, unknown side to him. This side was revealed to him for a second and then disappeared, before he had time to figure it out.” (Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, 1977, Macmillan Publishing Co., 2007, Great Britain, p.67)


The Scrybe said...



Very interesting quotes, and goes some way to explaining Tarkovsky's ethos. I've only ever seen a few snatches of one of his films, Solaris, and my initial impression was that it was a pretty drab affair!

It seems the drabness must be by choice though, and his reasoning behind it is interesting. Definitely going to check this out.

But first I need to get hold of that book! It sounds fantastic.

Neil Fulwood said...

An excellent selection of quotes, beautifully juxtaposed with some of the most striking and resonant images Tarkovsky ever captured.

You've made me want to re-read 'Roadside Picnic'.

Hans A. said...

@Scrybe-- thnx!

@Twisted-- Solaris is beautiful, and I hope you check out both Stalker and Roaside Picnic.

@Neil--thanks so much. I don't think cinema, or literature, quite like this is made anymore. Both works are so affecting.

As always, I very much appreciate the time taken to read my entries and the time also to share your thoughts.

MovieMan0283 said...

In a way, I'm less hostile to "dancing about architecture" than Tarkovsky. I think writing about a work like Stalker (or perhaps any film, since the elements a mystical work like Stalker foregrounds inherent in the medium itself) will never reproduce the experience (of course, why should it). It can't "explain" the movie, but it can run alongside it and add to the overall experience. To do so, it has to maintain a balance between lucidity and impressionism, lean too far the one way it will seem to lead as you put it "into the Dissertation Zone", lean too far the other and one may seem to be aping the experience of the movie and notably falling short. I guess this is more a point about criticism/movie-writing in general than Stalker particularly.

Interesting thought (for me at least): I feel like I'm much more comfortable defining and understanding the roles and relationships of film criticism and filmmaking than film-viewing, as that final category is heavily informed by the first two for me. I'm not sure what the "ideal" way to approach a film is, though I tend to think it can contain elements of the critical mindset as well as the creative (which in itself has a critical element, albeit not one that overlaps much with ex-post-facto criticism). But there's also a certain naive, immersive approach desired, which one doesn't want to lose with deeper "understanding."

Final semi-random tangent: it's funny how Paul Schrader described Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer as great transcendentalists. The first two hardly seem transcendentalists at all to me: one is an out-and-out stoic, the other achieves a brief, questionable transcendence at the end of great suffering and poignant but hardly rhapsodic endurance, and the third crafts work with a transcendentalist effect, but subtly achieved. I think someone like Tarkovsky fits the "transcendentalist" label far more aptly than those three (not to say his work is "better", incidentally) - every frame of his work flickers with a spiritual flame and an intensity of experience which goes far beyond the everyday. In this sense, I'd have to disagree with Twisted Flicks: Tarkovsky's works pulsate with such a hypnotic intensity (cultivated by his shot duration, technical mastery, and "staging" to use a word with hugely inappropriate theatrical connotations) than they are the very opposite of drab. But I admit that, for reasons which perplex me, not everyone tunes in to this frequency. (I sympathize in a sense, there are certain directors - Bunuel being the foremost example - whose visceral appeal to others baffle me even as I respect them).

MovieMan0283 said...

I wrote a really long comment - about 3 or 4 paragraphs - going off on tangents about the value of criticism, "dancing about architecture," Tarkovsky's transcendentalism (and why I think many of Paul Shcrader's transcendentalist filmmakers aren't actually transcendentalist), and why I disagree with Twisted Flicks' characterization of Tarkovsky as "drab."

Then my comment got swallowed whole by the Zone and is now gone. Crap.

Suffice to say I like this movie and enjoyed your approach.

MovieMan0283 said...

Ha - saved! For better or worse. ;)

Hans A. said...

@MovieMan--No, your post was recovered. I very much appreciate your insights. I find myself also questioning film criticism. To put it briefly, I adhere, today, to no particular school of criticism and have no particular desire to be consistent with any type of take on film. This is less an intellectual choice, as I think that I'm probably being more wilful than anything else.

My original post started at 3500 words, and I saw that I had only really started writing (my average post is about 900-1000 words). I thought of breaking the posts up, but then I realized that Tarkovsky's own words really were what was important. Roadside Picnic is a totally different art form, but I believe the novel and the film inform each other. Besides, it is a lot of fun putting the novel's narrative side by side with Tarkovsky's images.

Anyway, I cannot adequately express how much I appreciate your comments and the time that you spend reading my entries and sharing your thoughts. Thank you.


@Movieman - You're absolutely right - It was not my intention to characterise Tarkovsky as being drab - after all I've only seen a few mins of his work. I've since quickly scanned through the rest of Solaris (which I will be watching soon), and its certainly not the case.

However, if it was, his quotes would seem to justify it. "The picturesque character of a shot ... is one more artificial element loaded onto the image, and something has to be done to counteract it ... You have to try to neutralize colour, to modify its impact on the audience."

Interesting thoughts .... and I look forward to discovering his films in more detail. Thanks again Hans for the insightful selections.

Stephen said...


I like your approach to the film, here.

The drab and the mystical / spiritual / transcendent are not in opposition.

The "hypnotic intensity" as MovieMan puts it is extraordinary. Tarkovsky, I think, can create an atmosphere better than anyone, can invest every inch of his world with power.

The car journey in SOLARIS is a case in point. A mundane occurrence becomes mesmerising and alien.

He links the visceral and the intellectual better than anyone.

Dismas said...

I would just like to say thank you for an great post with excellent quotes and pictures.

Although more usual interpretations centered around the authors thoughts are not bad, dealing with it like this really captured my attention and evoked my own thoughts a lot more.

- Dismas