New York

Stalker

Directed by Andrei Tarakovsky; script by Arkady and Boris Strugatzky; produced by Mosfilm Studios

A number of contemporary American films seem anxious to catapult humanity out of the supposed archaisms of the body into the flawlessly estheticized terrain of future time and space—a landscape of smooth surfaces, stainless interiors, and humanoid heroics. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker is a Russian view of coming attractions, but unlike its American counterparts it shows a future returned to the idea of embodiment (consideration of the physical organism). The film suggests a cyclical link between primordial ooze and the sludgy remains of a disemboweled Machine Age. Like the American variety, however, Stalker is also a landscape film, a slow horizontal stare at the purported decay of the Enlightenment and at the invasion by industry of the refuge of the pastoral.

The Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) lives with his wife (Alice Friendlich) and his mutant daughter in a state of atrophied industrial squalor. He is a self-appointed guide to the Zone, a desolate rural terrain pocked with the detritus of civilization; at its center is the Room, a place where all one’s wishes are granted. As the film begins the Stalker is departing for the Zone with his latest clients, two disenchanted intellectuals, the Writer (Anatolii Solonitsin) and the Scientist (Nikolai Grinko). Dodging police patrols and bullets they hop a railroad handcar and make their way into the forbidden territory. When they enter the Zone the film is transformed from a grainy sepia to color. Although their destination, the Room, sits only a few hundred yards from where they stand, the Stalker informs them that the journey must be a circuitous one. Indeed, it is this obstacle course, this dance with force fields and threatened oblivion, that comprises most of the remainder of the film. Shot with a romantic, oblique mastery which some might call poetry, this protracted sequence is an erratic enravelment of folly and grace which engages the body in the anxiety of calisthenics and the mind in an onerous trial by fire. Whether crawling through mud or stashed in the shelter of lush, verdant foliage the travelers are enveloped by the stuff of the “natural,” tainted though it is by the debris of technology. As they near the Room their arguments, which have punctuated much of their journey, escalate into grandiosely sloppy ruminations on philosophy, art, and faith, the closures of which guarantee the characters’ failure to pass into the supposedly magic space. This verbal rummaging and the cadences of dripping water are the aural accompaniments to the film’s variegated tour of arresting visuals, which ends with the trio leaving the Zone. The dejected Stalker returns to his family lamenting his pragmatic clients’ inability to suspend their disbelief.

Stalker’s visual overture is a formidable accomplishment, invoking the recondite without the use of special effects or the lascivious accelerations of novelty. Its depiction of the Zone and the Room as forbidden encapsulations which link desire with the closure of pleasure suggests a relationship to the purported salvations of both the West and the institutions of religion. But there is also a suggestion that the allure of the Zone is a construction of pretense, its dangers and flashes of magic never materializing. One is tempted to dismiss the specificity of the scenario (the incantations extolling the meek’s inheritance of the earth, etc.) and to surrender to the seduction of its imagery. If Tarkovsky’s earlier film Solaris has been called a Russian response to 2001: A Space Odyssey, then it seems apt to suggest that Stalker is a strange amalgam of El Topo, Eraserhead, and all of Steven Spielberg’s close encounters with the inexplicable, from Duel on down the line. It pits the acerbity of laboratorial enlightenment against the turgid fecundities of the metaphysical, and Tarkovsky’s sentiments seem to be with the latter. The result is an Olympiad of warring structures of belief, with only the Stalker left to mourn the results. Stalker’s elaborate visual panoramas suggest that in a postindustrial civilization sightseeing is the revenge of the true believer, and that the only available spectacle is that of the autopsy.

Barbara Kruger