Another brief interruption in my Studio Ghibli series…
Stalker is a film from 1979 by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. His films are generally considered art films, that is, not easily accessible to the layman. I have at times struggled to keep awake during some of his oeuvre, and have immediately afterwards felt that while meticulously framed and containing some striking images, the stories themselves have not been all that. However, as time has passed I have found myself thinking back on his films, and so large portions of them have remained in my mind, that I’ve come to realize that the fault lies entirely with me for not recognizing their greatness at first view.
Now I feel his masterpiece is his portrait of the iconic painter Andrei Rublev – iconic in that he painted icons (duh!) – and I can find myself shuddering whenever I recall the fantastic spectacle of the resolution to that film. The effect is achieved by having the three hour film unfold slowly in black and white, with the protagonist toiling in mud and darkness for the last half of the film, only to reveal at the very end his art in glorious colour.
However, I digress, as the point at hand, is Tarkovsky’s maybe most famous film, Stalker.
The director (in)famously shot the film two times (with different script, props and for almost no money the second time) as the first version was ruined in the processing, maybe due to a sub quality Kodak-stock or maybe because of sabotage. It is rumoured that the first version stuck more closely to the science fiction element of the story, while the re-shoot necessarily was more transcendental due to the lack of money. The story can be summed up briefly: In a post-war country, if there is such a thing, some happening – be it a meteor or extraterrestrials – has created a mysterious zone. The government of the small country in which the action takes place, has decided that access to The Zone is forbidden. There are those few, though, that specializes in smuggling people through the army-lines into The Zone, and after having gained access, guides them to “the room”, which is a place our innermost wishes come true.
Tarkovsky claimed that the Zone had no further meaning than its literal representation in the film: “The Zone doesn’t symbolize anything, any more than anything else does in my films; the zone is a zone, it’s life, and as he makes his way across it a man may break down or he may come through. Whether he comes through or not depends on his own self-respect, and his capacity to distinguish between what matters and what is merely passing”. First of all, Tarkovsky contradicts himself as he does indeed say that The Zone is life, and as such he already has offered an interpretation. Secondly, as Tarkovsky was a believer in audience participation in his films, to say that a thing means only itself seems to be contrary to his purpose: “Anyone who wants can look at my films as into a mirror, in which he will see himself”.
And herein lies much of the power in Tarkovsky’s best work. While he is so adept and meticulous in presenting strong images, images that stay with us long after the witnessing, he also leaves us with a basic void: The images does not mean more than themselves unless we choose to look into ourselves for answers. We can feel that they strike a chord in us, but are often unable to explain exactly why or how. It is first by our active participation that the void can be negated, so to say, that some meaning can occur. This is also, I think, why his films stay with us, even though they at first impression fail to convince us that we have seen something truly worthwhile. They take time, as reflection takes time, and even though the films may be long, the period of contemplation must always be longer. The reward is bound to not be immediate.
Stalker is perhaps the best example of this. In my next post I shall try to suggest a few reasons why.