For decades, critics and enthusiasts have picked apart Andrei Tarkovsky and his 1979 film Stalker, ranking both in the highest echelon of cinematic storytelling. Three men – Stalker, Writer, Professor – set off on a quest through the Zone, an area cordoned off for reasons unclear – “A meteorite? A visit of inhabitants of the cosmic abyss?” Within the Zone exists the Room, a space capable of fulfilling your innermost desire once you enter it. Yes, the goal of wish fulfillment is straightforward, but the journey is some radiation-deformed origami, its surface simplicity obscuring inherent and dizzying complexity navigable only with the aid of a Stalker. The Zone is active, intentionally teasing and taunting those with temerity enough to think they can compete in its game of self-discovery, a game the visitor can never win because the Zone knows exactly what it is, and it also knows exactly what its challengers are: humans.
Geoff Dyer’s Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room apotheosizes Stalker. Though he pays extraordinary detail to everything from cinematography to gossip about the making of the film and elements of culture and landscape, like Communism, mud, and humidity, Dyer makes no claim that his musings unpack some undiscovered interpretation of these grimy details. Rather, Zona evidences how films, books, music, any artistic creations of the highest order, make unshakeable impressions on viewers, readers, and listeners.
Dyer’s keen sense of humor propels the book, though Stalker is not a funny film. Mysterious, fantastical, depressing, revealing, allegorical – the list of adjectives could go on and on but funny would never make the cut. Yet right off the bat Dyer sets the tone by yukking it up about the dingy bar in which the film opens. Literally, starting from page one he takes pot shots at a flickering light and the barman’s dirty jacket, though nothing about the sepia-tone setting, obstructed by yellow “sci-fi Cyrillic,” conjures laughter, or even a giggle. In fact, Dyer didn’t laugh when first he saw the film on Sunday, February 8, 1981. That’s right, he remembers it to the day. He also remembers feeling “slightly bored and unmoved,” though the movie stuck with him, so much so that he attended a third screening almost exactly a year later, on February 4, 1982.
Before beginning anything, still on the book’s first page, Dyer proclaims that we are “already in the realm of universal truth” and what becomes clear very quickly is that Stalker is Dyer’s religion, as channeled through William James’ oft cited The Varieties of Religious Experience and spiritual wanderer Alan Watts, who wrote “Belief clings, but faith lets go.” Dyer has complete faith in Stalker as a vessel of self-discovery and proves it with the nakedness of his thoughts, which he parades around with the bashfulness of a stripper.
Whether or not you’re familiar with Stalker matters not; as Dyer describes it, Zona “is the opposite of a summary; it’s an amplification and expansion.” Rich with dramatic nuance but sparse on action, the film moves slowly, methodically, but Dyer breezily free associates and his diversions and frank admissions candied with self-deprecation tunnel into your own thoughts. In doing so, the book transcends being an examination of a film or an established author’s confessional, anecdotal indulgence.
We first see Stalker as he wakes and sets to his morning ablutions. Dyer calls to our attention that Stalker has slept in his sweater, but is without pants. Within the context of the film there is no greater significance to this fact. According to Dyer, “in Stalker, there is nothing symbolic about what occurs,” yet this detail matters to him, linking to a childhood belief that American men always wore underwear to bed. All of the sudden, I’m thinking about the scene in Animal House where Donald Sutherland answers the door wearing nothing but a sweater and how we eventually see his ass. Even for such a slapstick movie, this scene has always stayed with me, in the same way Dyer is haunted by Stalker’s lack of trousers.
Again and again Dyer’s caroming thoughts trigger your own associative leaps that take you away from Dyer’s text. But it works. What is memorable about this particular reading experience is that even if you’ve never given a second thought to quicksand, tried LSD, or watched The Wizard of Oz (Dyer hasn’t), his read of Stalker permits you to square your life with a film that you may or may not know anything about. For him, the film is shamanistic in its ability to dip in and out of time; he is “struck by the film’s reach, its ability to bathe events – both actual and cultural – in its projected light.”
Such illumination, however, has its limits, the blind spots of fanatical personal taste. Sometimes too much information is distracting. Do we need to know that Dyer so adores Burning Man that when he arrives he is brought to tears? Or, for readers familiar with Stalker, what do we make of his omissions? In the film, the Zone is explained through a text credited to Nobel Prize winner Professor Wallace. Dyer mentions the caption without ever connecting it to Professor, or the fact that he, apparently, goes on to be famous. With so many japes and jabs about personal ambition, it is noticeable that Dyer elects to pass on an element of the film that relates to his overall response to it.
One line in Stalker that Dyer does not address directly cuts to the heart of the film’s role in his life. The camera looks down on black, oily liquid, primordial in its hypnotic beauty as a reflection of the moon welters. Stalker pleads with the Zone to let his companions believe in its power, “And let them have a laugh at their passions.”
Dyer realizes that his infatuation with Stalker borders on the absurd, as the consistently humorous tone indicates. He’s taking the piss out of himself and in doing so accessing the depths of self that the Room brings to the surface for those brave enough to dredge a wish that they might not want fulfilled. As has been noted by the likes of T.S Eliot and Robert Musil, humans have never been the biggest fans of reality. The Room’s power is ultimately its greatest pitfall, as Dyer notes: “Not to have to face up to the truth about oneself is probably high up on anyone’s actual – as opposed to imagined – wish list.”
Zona is not about a film or a writer’s personal life. It’s about the power of art. It is a case study in how something created by anyone but you can seem like your creation, so deeply does it resonate with the details of your life. This is what Stalker calls the “unselfishness of art” and it is Geoff Dyer’s gift to his readers.