Stalker

Stalker

Since my first watch a few years ago, Stalker has become one of my favorite films. Before and since that first watch, I’ve had several life changes that included moving, getting a full time job, falling out with friends, among others, all in time with ideas that’ve been on my mind for years, making those events seem epochal or at least reconfigured by inner and outer circumstances. I was “in the zone,” both ostracized and stubbornly focused by circumstance. At the time I was making music that was, I thought, very private and insular from what I had been reading and thinking; I still deal with racing thoughts, every path they make can’t be trusted. Something pointed me to Stalker and the accompanying book Zona by Geoff Dyer. The film rewards repeated viewings and the book was slim but able to spark my own ideas about film and, if only to fill in the gaps, I began writing them down and found a kind of synchronicity between what I’d been writing, playing and thinking. They weren’t as separate as I thought.

¤¤¤This is why this is the first Letterboxd review with an accompanying soundtrack, available completely free of charge.¤¤¤

amphitheatreofpause.bandcamp.com/album/spurt

(Any downloads that come with a donation will automatically get you entrance to the afterlife of your choice.) To be listened to with or without the reading, really. I’m not sure I can expect anyone to finish this, but for any time you spend listening to or reading my work, I thank you. Now let’s take a walk.

PART ONE ¤ camera eye & landscapes unseen ¤

In Zona, it’s distinguished that one of the main themes of the film is showing differences between route and road. As someone who always got great joy from leading others to music, films, art I like (I’m thinking of a wonderful response I got from a friend after an Acid Mothers Temple concert), I think I instantly connected with Stalker in his kind of debased celebrity, getting vigor from helping the few that actively want more, or are at least curious. I think the film itself, the camera’s eye, is most sympathetic of any character towards the Stalker because it shows his necessity: stray from this course and you may pay the price. Our roads are a literal space, often all brush and detritus has been cleared; it’s safe and inviting, so much so that our Writer takes the opportunity to disobey and head straight for the room. Straight is very safe, the road often-taken is cleared of danger, is what we think. The clear-cut, scientific worldview is valued above all in the outside world of Stalker. The Writer introduces himself with this. All ideas that are learned in childhood are often thought of as most reasonable, and the film plays on these ideas to brilliant affect. “There is no telepathy, no UFOs,” the Writer intones. If the way paved, the road, is safest, then the route, here taken by our titular character, is a re-evaluation of that safety. It isn’t being obtusely contrarian or stubborn, an opposite. Rather, apposite. Tarkovsky mandates you know this. The zone is manifested as it is witnessed.

“See for yourself the summer fields” — Coil, “Bee
Stings”

The nature of the image, put to the scalpel of this scientific world, is fascinating to me. The faith needed by the two companions to trust the Stalker is directly analogous with our faith in trusting our own eye; our leader, our camera lens. It’s mostly how we take in information. Yet the way we’re told images work (inside the head) is a mostly new idea brought by the scientific revolution and its proceeding pedagogy.

The world of the zone is a world of images, telepathic landscapes and symbols. The actual border is constricted by sharp lines, razor wire and weaponry, but the zone is a void of those things, a land of breathing semiotics in defiance of the tangible world. To children of the western world, we’re all of us conditioned out of our rational and empathetic states of mind at a young age. To see how Tarkovsky sees, let’s work around this.

To Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, many children he worked with seemed “primitive” in their visual acuity (quotes here because it’s anything but) until about the age of 10 or so where they learned what he called the correct view: images are inside our head(1). The inward movement of light into the eye is common knowledge. And yet no one has ever witnessed an image or thought inside another's mind, or their own. What I think, and what Tarkovsky promotes in his film, consciously or not, is so simple that it slips through the fingers of those of us taught to think materially. Simply: the mind is projecting itself outward to where it [image] seems to be. This blog post isn’t behind your eyes. “Dare to be stupid,” I say! It’s in front of your eyes, just where it appears to be. Most of science purports the opposite, that consciousness is a byproduct of the brain and the mind is tethered to the grey matter. To an extent they are correct. Sight is deeply rooted in evolutionary processes and the fact that close connections are favored by natural selection won’t be disputed here, but listen: when I play guitar or keyboards on this album, my fingers are closely linked to the sounds the notes make, but it does not mean that I am the guitar. The fact that the mind and brain are closely linked and that this link dates back to who-knows-when does not mean that the mind is the brain. The Stalker is here as a kind of telecomunnicating psychoactive mind for the other two characters inside a morphic field you could say is its own mind (this isn’t a carryover from Solaris as much as it is another redefinition of then-common Soviet thought). He shows us that the materialist view of the brain is in direct violation with our own experience, here in the Zone one of apposite and sometimes vague but abjectly dangerous phenomena. We see wrecked tanks and skeletons and we know the Stalker isn't merely an unreliable narrator. We experience images and thoughts outside of ourselves, not just inside our skull. “Direct experience is not irrelevant to the nature of consciousness; it is consciousness”(2). Our most hallowed sensei are teaching theories of identity and mind that go against our most obvious intuitions. In the zone, impurities like this are dissolved away. The shadow worlds of scientific theory are burned away until the knowledge that we’ve pushed aside with education rears its sleepy head as if to say, "Finally! What you’ve been missing isn’t shallow fantasy mitigating pain, but psychic atavism necessary to the human condition. Oh, the things you will now see."

“The map is not the territory” — Alfred Korzybski

If the nature of our projecting eye is alchemical, then the camera-eye is similar in that it brings us into complicity with its projection. Think about the word projection. It isn’t stealing subjective reality. With the standard theory of the mind, neurology goes on just fine without a need for consciousness. Tarkovsky eschews science by constantly showing us the need for a Stalker, a guide. Neurology tells us the mind’s mechanisms would go on just fine without a guide, our consciousness, but there it is. We’re given a quick jab when we think we’re seeing things first-person, only to be shown we’re wrong, this isn’t only their journey the camera says. There are specific shots in the film that seem to come from a fourth viewer, the first I can think of is the look Stalker gives the camera in the bar, he seems aware you want to come, too. The other is through the irradiated husk of a vehicle, where the camera seems to be first person perspective for the Professor, until we see him walk into frame from the side. Another would be Writer's speech in the room of dunes, asking “You of course want to know whose design.” His friends are yards away, he's talking to you; there is no other explanation. And Stalker's wife will talk with you even more later on. The camera itself is an eye looking in, projecting the image of the characters in foreign spaces; this is in direct relation to the alien feel of the film. The immediate reference called to mind here is the “kino-eye” movement— Dziga Vertov’s montage that was supposed to remove the staged perspective of soviet film to “[see] life more accurately than the subjective eye of a human”(3). It still seems up for debate whether the kino-eye movement was one of epistemological revolution or scientific inquiry but taking Tarkovsky for the sculptor of time we know him to be, the hyper-kinetic montage form isn’t necessary here when you think of the zone.

Form and force, the elements of chaos, constantly at work in the kino eye, themselves topical of the world the kinoks brought about in their films. Tarkovsky is here again the outsider. His films are known for their methodical administration, the pace (wearing suits of lead at that), but as they say, stillness is his brush, and I’ve not found a wasted frame in any moment of this film. It’s at least always great to look at (and the blu-ray with its sepia tones seems the definitive version). The direction in journeying, the land, the frame: it’s all actively questing, and I know dick about cinematography, but I’d guess you could write this number of pages entirely on how the Stalker stalks through the frame. It’s not a simple cinema tool of right=forward/left=back kind of thing, it’s multidimensional, and it’s more psychological, nearly tangible in its Jungian synchronicity. "These gates are symbols. Each new gate is at first invisible; indeed, it seems at first that / it must be created, for it exists only if one has dug up the spring's root, the symbol"(4). The most brilliant example of this comes right after the Professor forgets his rucksack at the dry tunnel. In tracking the camera right, then left over virtually identical terrain, we feel we've come around the corner of something, some globular stone room maybe. Following this is the dream scene where the camera moves only from south to north. Following that is an immediate combination of both rhythms, the camera mapping out some dimensional terrain from all movement, too intangible to be captured with a single shot or a single eye.

The Stalker tells the Writer this zone is a gift for our happiness, irresponsible though it is to come here. Until we get to the room, his companions seem doubtful, even as they experience the zone itself. The military presence gives some credence to the zone’s power, and as everything from science to faith shows us, the belief in such an existence can bring it into being.
The brilliant effects of the zone comes from disorientation, misdirection literal and mental; a lack of effects and synesthesia (though the dry tunnel and the meatgrinder does give us some of this, too). Instead it builds its presence from a distinct lack of any immediate danger, a certain “nothingness” that invades with a negative presence and subtle terror. The constricting anti-nature of the zone and the camera as a machine-eye enhance the landscape as something foreign, a place where belief is manifest, or even a being-in-itself. “As soon as humans enter, it changes,” Stalker says. Films that fill the screen with effects seem positively tame by comparison. In the zone you feel there is space to breathe and that breath is somehow suffocating.

PART TWO ☆ horror + extant faith ☆

Inside the zone, the horror of “passing over” is constantly a theme. Yes, the military embargo is itself physical representation of the Jungian symbol-gate, but once we pass that we feel the liminal presence of the zone is all-pervading. Take the road and you could be lost. Take the root and crawl through the limen undetected. The entire zone is the edge of natural science and philosophy. I found Pre-Anselmian thought from one John Scottus Eriugena to provide a strong analogy to the divinity and faith Tarkovsky is hiding behind his characters. “For everything that is understood and sensed is nothing else but…the manifestation of the hidden, the affirmation of the negated, the comprehension of the incomprehensible”(5). Like the film, it’s a lack of things that gives the horror its thingness, its ontological manifestation of non-being as something quantifiable, terrible. This isn’t some ‘nothing’ that you’d equate with a lack of existence, a void(11). It’s really counter-that, like A.O. Spare’s Neither-Neither, a summation of everything non-physical and anything non-void which “murmurs in the depths of nothingness itself we shall designate by the term there is…The rustling of the there is…is horror” and this horror “turns the subjectivity of the subject inside out"(6). The room, and the Zone as a whole, is that non-being of the natural world we see, itself only a vast swatch of greens and browns that work as a symbol for what we can’t see. A subharmonic organ drone. A telepathic landscape. Films that follow in the Stalker-style (I’ve seen a few labeled as such, I think it only hurts them) pick up on this sort of “idyll horror” but always take it past the margins of telepathy by manifesting actual monsters (thinking of Annihilation, blech) that seem to invoke a more Lovecraftian or even Universal-monsters kind of tone. That’s fine if that’s your thing, sometimes it's mine, but it misses the fundamental “otherness” of Stalker’s horror, even of Lovecraft, by going past suggestion into corporeality. A story like “From Beyond” holds to ephemerality as its source of fear, but still forms it in typical monster-horror. This type of fantasy, holding the natural world as symptomatic of the divine, while not itself divine, I rarely even see in film, which is partly what attracted me to Stalker so strongly on first watch. It’s literary/visual. In fiction, something like Arthur Machen’s “N” is closer to Tarkovsky’s ideas of ontology, having a single character removed from reality in an unearthly, enthralling new nature that belies a kind of cosmic horror from its non-existence. It requires a kind of faith that I hope I can now speculate on.

I’ve now said that a kind of immanence is what gives the zone its feeling of non-attributable horror. But to what do we attribute to the Stalker himself as guide among the horror? I pair the Stalker and the whole film with many Eastern ideas—from the original filming locations to the immanence versus transcendental worldview (zoneview!) to the use of a Persian tar on the soundtrack—but despite that I think a kind of aseity (divine individualism) breaks with the atheistic view of his outer world. The Stalker's companions reiterate this frequently. I’ve wondered why Stalker is so dismissive of bringing a woman into the zone at the beginning of the film, and I have no concrete answers, but it may be because a woman would too easily replace him as a believer*. The Stalker thinks only the hopeless are allowed zone passage. People who identify with the feminine seem to have closer contact with otherness. It’s something I’ve noticed personally and has plenty of evidence in fiction and myth. Ignoring all that, it's still reiterated by the Stalker. Softness is strength, but not only in the zone.

The Stalker is debased in their world, but kind of this divine presence on the inside world. But in keeping with this film’s dualism, he’s also seen to be completely disabled by it. The zone manifests itself even as it hides itself, and in turn the Stalker is birthed annihilated rebirthed many times, the god from the egg. Back to aseity: he’s a prime-mover, an unmotivated (vaguely motivated by the responsibility and guidance of taking others into the zone) champion for the zone and until the very end doesn’t seem to desire anything but the zone. More Jung: maybe because he's in full balance with his shadow (femme) side? More likely it’s his drive against the ‘real’ world that pushes him away from his family, past gunfire, into the only thing he feels connected to. It’s part of the beautiful paradoxical nature of this movie. He’s hopeful among all who’re doubtful (inside the zone and himself), and doubtful in his real world, one which the camera projects as monochromatic (or sepia), without any spurt of growth, at least until the penultimate scene.

PART THREE ■ the room and poetry ■

The Room itself. We, the viewer, our camera eye in the zone, are the only ones to ever enter the room. Desire, it implies, requires a faith that our three travelers don’t possess. The room acts as a magical site, a site birthed from the already popular idea of magic circle, one of history’s prevailing occult forms in pop culture. From Anselm to Agrippa back to the Mahabharata and before, “play” and its playfield have been emblematic of the universe and its cosmic structures. Tarkovsky has about his characters an occult playfulness, nearly childlike, from the way the Stalker spiritually regenerates after the cart ride, to the way he cites an incantation poem when stuck in a rut about his desire; the play, the ritual, similar in their practice, convey the motions of the characters as something focused by the zone. It’s a playground is what I’m saying! It has rules that cannot be broken, or else…

All the zone seems to be an anomaly of natural science. The looping path of the dry tunnel, the backwards reverberations of footfall in the meat grinder, and an owl shifting morphic phase in time before the room. Likely evidence for the room being the center of the zone, or its etheric node with the most power over terra firma. I'm sure it’s covered in more detail in the book Roadside Picnic (which I haven’t read) but based on what little we see, I think the room was the ground zero for the zone, which has since expanded like some Geiger-counted big bang. So the zone is a magical site, as grown from the previous, the magical circle. The circle always provided a barrier between the viewer and the action emanating from the spell. The site has blurred the circle, blurred the boundary, blurred even the magus who cast the spell. It would’ve been easier to have the entire film inside the zone, like some Mad Max thing, or like Kurozu-cho from Uzumaki, no entry or exit. But the effect would be like the psychologist defining the conscious mind as merely epiphenomena of the brain. It would’ve killed the whole movie. You must know that you—no, we—have crossed over some boundary that is far wider and more difficult than a pentacle chalk line.

If the room is the locus, the zone the circle or site, what then is the spell it seems to be casting over its residents? The men seem more broken, drained the closer they get to the room. From the Stalker we learn that this is its axiom: “weakness is great and strength is nothing”. Hardness and rigidity are death’s accompaniment, whereas a newborn is pliable. There is some power in lowering your defenses, it seems. After many stubborn attempts at writing: “I wanted to change them, but they changed me,” the Writer says, dropping a large rock into a well, standing in front of some great web of castled strings, an alien glow emanating behind. They made him in their image and after he’s dead they’ll move on. Maybe Writer just wants to be a good writer, maybe there’s something else here; as he complains of the present-future, it’s ultimately unclear.

“Poetry, whose material is language, is perhaps the most human and least worldly of the arts, the one in which the end product remains closest to the thought that inspired it” — Hannah Arendt

Confession: I like writing and literature more than I like movies. I think poetry and prose are closest to the psyche or the human spirit, or whatever it is you believe in, than a recorded image or sound. I disagree with the above quote in one specific way. I think poetry is the least quantifiably human art precisely because its product is so close to the mind that forms it; keeping with the new definition of horror we're going with: the most inhuman. I’m inclined to think Tarkovsky agrees. The Stalker says that music is least connected to reality, empty sound, but then follows that up by complimenting its soul-stirring power, his companions looking up to him (literally and not) for the first time, finding their inspiration in a moment that to me is the most moving of the whole film. Implied is the ineffable spirituality of music. The same with poetry. It is ephemeral, so close to otherness and that is why our zone boys are reduced to verse the closer they get to the room. Much of the film's dialog pauses and continues like broken poem lines, space between is the punctuation. As spacetime is whittled away and leaves the zone between, words are whittled away, and it leaves the thought between. The Stalker himself pulls wonder and life from all the doubt; that of the world, his wife, his companions, and its a deeply personal point of identification for me. He’s hopeful and this gives him a certain pathos that we need; he himself is emblematic of faith, of desire.

There is a Zone whose even Years
No Solstice interrupt—
Whose sun constructs perpetual Noon
Whose perfect Seasons wait—

Whose Summer set in Summer, till
The Centuries of June
And Centuries of August cease
And Consciousness – is Noon.
(7)

I really am not a fan of Dyer’s book, and I’ve done my best to ignore it as much as I can, but he has a few brilliant moments in there I can’t help but steal. For one, I think the correlation between Flaubert and Tarkovsky is sound. In a letter where Flaubert spells his own desire he says he wants to write a book about “nothing…which would be held together by the internal strength of its style, just as the earth, suspended in the void, depends on nothing external for its support”(8). That is the power of a poem, to me and further, Stalker could be this nothingness-book, and like the spirit rising in poetry, it holds itself as separate, though part of a collective whole: genre fiction, in this case. Another is to see the zone itself as a metaphor for body/mind, which I would extrapolate to see in it a kind of ecological body-horror. The pulses and breaths of the zone wheeze in slow modulation around our human eyes. The shot with the undulating sand and small tornadoes, echoes in earth and air. A journey through a burning brain, a shadow that precedes the body, a zone to give bandage for the coming disaster at Chernobyl, and Tarkovsky’s death concurrently, only a few years away.

“The main thing is that you believe,” Stalker says, eyes cast down like some bruised demigod. A bomb is assembled, the Professor fears others (evil) will find the room and casts his decision in justice, and suddenly Western leaders of our world praying over bombs seems both more ubiquitous and terrifying. Immediately the camera switches to view the three from inside the room and we get a good look at the detritus floating in the small pool just outside. It's distinctly scientific. Flasks and beakers floating like dead cephalopods. Just off screen are two skeletons entwined, light and shadow falling over them and a single spurt of veridescent life, a headstone grown like a prayer. Closer up we see a shining ring on the hand of the longer haired individual. This scene of marriage confirms Stalker's story about his previous journey here, but is also emblematic of more. It points toward companionship and community as something that goes beyond death, or is at least conditioned by nature, a necessity. This one moment is soft and pliable and beautiful and a summation for the entire film. Of all the crumbs we're given in Stalker for meting out our life's existence, for all the probably useless analysis I've given you, this may be the only answer I can supply. Back with his family, the Stalker might have found this to be his own truth, his daughter carried on his shoulders like a beacon, no longer brown, she has her own legs now, her self emanating prime-yellow color** a hope-piece on the shore of a hopeless world. The final shot of the film microscopes this further, telling us not even an eye, a guide, has it all figured out, and we should hope for what we can't see but want to see.

Is what you desire the same as what you most regret? If I have any criticism of the room and this film’s beautiful anti-climax it’s that this idea seems very contentious to the rest of the film’s nature. I guess that’s alright, thematic even, but it feels, when we’re closest to the locus of the zone, something terrestrial (boring) is shoehorned in. Even the threat of a bombing is too rigid, too strong for what Tarkvosky has told us is worth experiencing. That idea of “the journey is more important than the destination” is the clarion call of the creatively uncourageous and it just doesn’t fit, though my own environment has probably influenced me here. But I’ve always been a fan of journeys. As a kid I would ride my bike down a man-made canyon, its clay pink walls Bryce-like at the steepest section like some natural warning, or even cruel invitation, and I'd think about which path to take once I hit the treeline, if it would or wouldn’t give way to some vein in my neighborhood unexplored and exciting. Even as an adult I thought to design specific routes to smoke on, even naming them such with my friends, using a verbal map if one street was preferred over another. It was the fantasy that gave us something to focus on, and the Professor bringing in a pipe bomb sort of erodes, just for a second, the airtight fantasy world that was built for this movie, the structures of belief we all need(9). It hasn’t reached perfection, but damn, it’s close.

“In the end everything can be reduced to the one simple element, which is all a person can count upon in his existence: the capacity to love. That element can grow within the soul to become the supreme factor, which determines the meaning of a person’s life. My function is to make whoever sees my films aware of his need to love and to give his love, and aware that beauty is summoning him.” (10)

Perfection is fallacious, but I’d much prefer to live in a rose-colored zone-world than one that is wholly logical, some sepiapolis stuck in a cold amber. This movie is an escape from worldly isolation in a landscape of beautiful Martian desolation. Stalker is the anti-hifi-scifi flick. A movie where not a damn laser is fired, and instead sad men sleep on the hard but verdant ground and muse over things in various stages of sleep paralysis while you're given long stretched of time to think about the scenes and how mutable they are before they mutate further; a hypnosis-creation. The past six months as I’ve worked on this music and this essay I’ve thought that there’s still more to say, things I've missed. I like that. It’s not all about me, really. I love thinking there is another opinion for these few moments of hermetic release among flickering nitrate. That inside my own analysis there is space for something I haven’t seen, like a nesting doll of telepathic landscapes, something connected to me but not of me. I have too many paths I want to take. I'm the rhizome. I need to get going. I work on art to make my own sense of the world, but my own world will never feel complete, but I've been thinking maybe it could be added to, made more whole. Maybe it’s something fun, something forbidden: old roots lost soon to be unearthed and explored. Or maybe it’s something given; something for you.
~~~~~

1. Piaget, J. “Psychology and Epistemology: Towards a Theory of Knowledge.” Allen Lane: 1973
2. Sheldrake, Rupert. “The Sense of Being Stared At: and Other Aspects of the Extended Mind” (New York: Random House, 2003) p.28
3. Post Magazine: Havis (www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/arts-music/article/2112052/flashback-kino-eye-1924-dziga-vertovs-cinematic)
4. “Liber Novus: The Red Book of C.G. Jung,” ed. Sonu Shamdasani. Reader’s Edition. W.W. Norton & Company, 2012)
5. Periphyseon: The Division of Nature, Book III
6. Emmanuel Levinas, “There is: Existence without Existents” (London: Blackwell, 1990).
7. Dickinson, Emily. “There is a Zone whose even Years” c.1865 (Johnson: 1056)
8. “A Book About Nothing: The Letters of Gustave Flaubert 1830-1857,” ed. Francis Steegmuller, 1980.
9. www.youtube.com/watch?v=AnaQXJmpwM4
10. Tarkovsky, Andrei. “Sculpting in Time: Tarkovsky The Great Russian Filmaker Discusses His Art”. University of Texas Press, 1989.
11. Thacker, Eugene. “The Subharmonic Murmur of Black Tentacular Voids.” In The Dust of This Planet. Zero Books, 2011.

* I am neither unaware nor unsympathetic to the claims people have against Tarkovsky for his use of women in his films, but as I've only seen two (and Solaris more than a decade ago) I will refrain from commenting further.
** RGB are not prime colors, your schools all lied to you, fucking fight me

Other sources, thoughtforms, love and thanks taken from and given to:
Eugene Thacker
Geoff Dyer
Austin Osman Spare
Nathaxnne
Mircea Eliade
Florian Fricke
And to each person that trudged through the wire and muck of this, I love you

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