Tarkovsky's Stalker: A Poet in a Destitute Time ~ theatre notes

Friday, September 21, 2007

Tarkovsky's Stalker: A Poet in a Destitute Time

Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker is more like a poem than any film I know. I watch it every few years, and on each viewing it is more profoundly uneasy, more beautiful, more luminous with sorrow. There may be greater films than Stalker - although surely not many - but I know of none that touches me more personally; it lives beneath my skin and quickens my sense of what it means to be conscious and alive.

Tarkovsky's films often have a nimbus of prophecy, and Stalker is no exception. It is commonly pointed out that the landscape of the Zone, shot near an Estonian chemical plant in the late '70s, uncannily prefigures the abandoned homes and rusting tanks of post-catastrophe Chernobyl, but there is more to the film's haunting power than its glimpses of a post-human world littered with the detritus of civilisation.

The Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) is a man whose dangerous vocation is to guide people to the Zone, an abandoned village under heavy military guard. Something strange happened some years before (the story is that a meteorite crashed, although the incident is never fully explained) which caused drastic changes in its substance. It is now a place of deserted ruins and luxuriant natural growth that is full of strange but fatal traps for the unwary. In its centre is a place called the Room. If you make it there, the Room will grant you your deepest desire.

The Stalker guides two men, known only by their own professions, Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and Professor (Nikolai Grinko), who between them represent two major means - science and art - through which human beings seek knowledge and truth. The Writer is disillusioned and cynical; for him the world no longer holds any mystery, and his worldly success is meaningless. He claims, with a bitter flippancy, that he is seeking inspiration. The Professor is more inscrutable, but we find that he would rather destroy what he doesn't understand.

Next to these two, the Stalker is a naif. In the face of their open mockery, he prays for their belief; to answer their different despairs, he offers an ambiguous and possibly fatal hope. He can guide them to the door that will open on their deepest desires, but he cannot enter the room himself: that understanding is forbidden him.

It is tempting, although I think misleading, to think of the Stalker as a Christ figure: in a long single shot where the camera tenderly floats over a stream in which are submerged the discarded apparatus of civilisation - scrolls, icons, guns, syringes - he quotes the passage from the Gospels where Christ, returned from the dead, walks with two of his disciples, unrecognised by both of them. This recalls the passage in TS Eliot's great poem of modern spiritual desolation, The Wasteland:

Who is the third who walks beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you.

In fact, the film is full of Christian iconography - the underwater scrolls and fish, the crown of thorns on an unforgiving Christ, prayers and Biblical quotations, allusions to Renaissance paintings of love and death. But it seems to me that these do not reconstruct religion so much as they mourn its ruins. Tarkovsky is rather expressing the faith that people attempt to explain by inventing God, the numinous desires that darkly inhabit us, and which we can neither explain nor wholly ignore. The film is so moving because Tarkovsky does no more than articulate this faith: its meaning and purpose are beyond the purview of the film, indeed, beyond the purview of our own vision.

The Stalker is a man haunted and obsessed by the possibility of belief, although he never explains what it is he believes in. He is an anachronism, a holy fool in an unbelieving world. He has nothing to offer but hope, and he doesn't even know what the hope is for, except that only the most wretched can reach for it. He is a guide through a landscape of corpses and ruins. It's a world that offers glimpses of an unsettling beauty that flourishes beyond human desires and yet can provide a home for the unsayable, unattainable longing that reaches beyond the confines of the self.

Stalker's beauty is woven out of its limitations, its finitudes. When I watch a Tarkovsky film, I am always aware of the literalness of his medium; he is never doing anything more than making a film. Out of his refusal to aggrandise his medium he forges a profound poetic. The effect is something like the Anselm Kiefer work in the NSW Art Gallery, Der Ordnung der Engel, (The Angelic Order) in which an enormous lead propellor sticks out of the canvas. On its three blades are written: faith, hope and love. This preposterous propellor will never fly, it is too heavy, and for a moment I want to laugh at its sardonic commentary on human virtues; yet somehow the words burn into me the fact of their existence, their persistence in the face of their manifest impossibility.

The very crudity of Kiefer's work moves me, because its elements - the lead, the thick paint, the scrawled words - are poised with such delicacy. And unexpectedly I am filled with a very different impulse, a feeling that doesn't erase the initial mockery, but rather incorporates it into an acutely painful double awareness of human possibility and finitude. It's a recognition akin to, but not the same as, the joy you feel in first touching the child who embodies at once your vitality and your mortality.

I suppose it's no accident that the artists who most profoundly affect me are inspired by poetry: Kiefer, for example, has made many works inspired by the poetry of Paul Celan. Tarkovsky's films are full of poems, mostly written by his father, Arseny Tarkosvky: Stalker contains two, by Arseny Tarkovsky and Fyodor Tyutchev. Poetry influences the hypnotic rhythms of Tarkovsky's editing and the composition of his image-making, which draws from the imagism of Japanese poems. But these aesthetic decisions are merely symptoms of his real concern, which is to dare to risk the raw matter of poetry itself.

"After one has abandoned a belief in God," runs a famous aphorism of Wallace Stevens, "poetry is that essence which takes its place as life's redemption." Stevens expresses one of the tenets of secular modernity, that art might be a means of redemption, a place where, after the death of God, our desire for the sacred might be met.

Tarkovsky is not so sanguine; his vision is closer to the tragic existentialism of Anton Chekhov. In the polluted and degraded world the Stalker inhabits, faith promises neither redemption nor consolation. It offers something more precious and more elusive: the transitory experience of life itself. Faith is the means by which meaning might be wrought out of an existence which gives human beings no prior purpose. The Stalker - the "louse" who is mocked by the intellectuals for his awkward naivety - finds at the end of his quest only the bitter humility of failure. He cannot persuade those he guides to take the gift that he offers them: they are incapable of the final courage of acceptance.

The Stalker is not Christ, but an artist; perhaps specifically a poet. Although the crumbling, decayed splendour of his home is lined with books, he is not like the Writer, who writhes against his wordly disgust and self-loathing, his willed self-blindness. The Stalker's desires are at once more humble and ambitious than the public life of the Writer and the vanities of his concern with fame and posterity. Unlike the Professor, who seeks to control or destroy what he doesn't understand, he embraces otherness and uncertainty. He is a mystic, but this mysticism is located as much in the ordinary details of his domestic life - its material poverties and emotional richnesses - as it is in his quests to the Zone.

The German lyric poet Holderlin once asked: "What are poets for in a destitute time?" It is the same anguished question the Stalker asks at the end of the film. "The time is destitute," says the philosopher Martin Heidegger, "because it lacks the unconcealedness of the nature of pain, death and love." Heidegger says that the poet is a person who refuses self-will - which turns objects and people into "merchandise", objects for commercial exchange - and instead ventures his being in the most human of qualities, language. There, paradoxically, he discovers his "destiny" by embracing his mortality: "what is presumed to be eternal merely conceals a suspended transiency, suspended in the void of a durationless now".

Artists are more straightforward than this; they know that ideas cannot be abstracted out of the things and bodies that express them ("No ideas but in things!" admonished William Carlos Williams). This is why artists make bad philosophers. In his diaries, Time Within Time, Tarkovsky says brusquely: "Of course life has no point. If it had, man would not be free." And elsewhere: "To attain greatness within our own limits is to illustrate that we are merely human ... What an inspired idea is the notion of infinity in juxtaposition with the brief span of human life!" Our most ambitious strivings only reveal what we already are. Tarkovsky's point is that without these struggles, we can never discover even this.

The Stalker is doomed by his belief and his vocation: he brings his death home with him, in the shape of a gentle black dog he finds in the Zone. "Nobody believes," he says despairingly at the end of the film. "What's most awful is that no one needs it. No one needs that room. And all my efforts are just in vain."

In the face of the Stalker's despair, his wife names her love for him. It is this love - not only hers for the Stalker, but their love for each other, the “dull flame of desire” of the poem that their daughter Monkey reads in the final scene - that is the luminous core of this film. "It's better to have a bitter happiness than a dull, grey life," she says. "We had a lot of sorrow, a lot of fear, a lot of shame. But I never regretted it, and I never envied anyone. It's just our fate, our life. And if we hadn't had our misfortunes, we wouldn't have been better off. It would have been worse. Because in that case, there wouldn't have been any happiness. And there wouldn't have been any hope."

In his diary, Tarkovsky recalls a university debate about another of his films, Andrey Rublyov. "God, what a level [of debate]!" he says. "Abysmal, pathetic!" He quotes a mathematician called Manin, who answered some of the criticisms:

Almost every speaker asks why they have to be made to suffer all through the three hours of this film. ...It is because the twentieth century has seen the rise of a kind of emotional inflation. When we read in the papers that two million people have been butchered in Indonesia, it makes as much impression on us as an account of a hockey team winning a match... The channels of our perceptions have been smoothed out to the point where we are no longer aware. However, I don't want to preach about this. It may be that without it, life would be impossible. Only the point is that there are some artists who do make us feel the true measure of things. It is a burden which they carry throughout their lives, and we must be thankful to them.

A sense of the "true measure of things"... that is what Tarkovsky gives me, with a grave simplicity that illuminates the mysteries of being alive. He is indeed a poet for a destitute time, and I am thankful for his restless struggle.

I suppose revisiting certain works is a way of registering the passing of time. It is the same work, but you are not the same person. Each time you are a little closer to death: perhaps a little more knowledgeable; certainly, a little more sad. As the prophet says darkly in Ecclesiastes: "For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow".

Stalker reveals that sadness is the inevitable texture of our joys. And yet Tarkovsky discovers a rich beauty in this apparent impoverishment, a strength in this fragility, a fleeting grandeur in our limited and human mortality. Yes, the possibility of immortality exists for as long as we keep breathing, as long as we do not believe in our own death; but all the time the black dog is trotting towards us, across the glittering waters where we dream.


Anonymous said...

perhaps its appropriate that there hasn't been a response to this beautiful meditation yet, but nevertheless i wanted to thank you for confessing your connection to this exquisite film, one of my all time favourites too.


Anonymous said...

Thanks - an extraordinary review. I want to see it - where does one get such films?
Love the conjuring up of Celan and Kieffer - btw I notice when you were discussing Clive James recently you talked about having no desire to read his latest opus. I've only glanced at it, and you're right - he reveals his own weakness by his inability to relate to anything other than Todesfugue - finds the later poems obscure - their complex beauty evades his tired imagination.


Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Dan and Adrian. It used to be hard to find Tarkovsky - we own some very degraded videos that cost a fortune - but the age of DVD means that you can get ALL his films at JB HiFi, re-released, for average DVD prices. Or even cheaper: I found Solaris for $17. Possibly the worst cover art I've ever seen for Stalker, but don't let that put you off.

Pildit said...

Excellent article. Straight into my bookmarks :)

Alexander M. - Serbia said...

Great review. Though Tarkovsky's films have many different layers of interpretation (not by the concious decision of their maker), I feel that you've managed to give one of the most meaningful ones so far.

wild swan said...

Thanks a lot for this meditative article. Very recently I watched this film and for a few days I was in a complete daze!Once again, its a wonderful review and it has made my understanding of the film only better.

Genaro said...

Beautiful text, I am going to cry right now.

JBranch said...

Though I'm far from feeling able to explicate a stance on this film, which I saw only last night, I might disagree with one or two points of your reading. But on the whole, yours is the most articulate and coherent view of the film I've found yet, as I work my way down the Google search results. Interesting that a number of (apparent) film specialists seemed unable to say half as much about what they see in the film as this post does. Thank you, Alison.

Alison Croggon said...

My pleasure, John! I'm glad you have caught up with this wonderful film! I'd love to hear what you think of it, if you find the space.

JBranch said...

I just re-read your commentary and remain undecided about the black dog. I wonder whether it might be read as (to literalize the symbol) something that dogs the Stalker, something that settles on him and follows--despair, perhaps? (Which is how Churchill used the term "black dog," as I recall.) But perhaps I'll come to prefer your reading.

If I attempt to write anything broader about the film, I think it'll have to come after another viewing later. For now, I'm content to be guided by your illuminating thoughts.

Incidentally, since someone earlier asked about how to view such films, I've found that in the States, four of Tarkovsky's are available as DVDs for rental from Netflix. The subtitles on the Kino DVD of Stalker that I saw left something to be desired, but that's not a major impediment.

Thanks again.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi John - I think we've got the American edition of the DVD. It certainly has a trashy cover!

There's no reason why both interpretations can't be true. They're certainly profoundly related!

John Branch said...

I re-read this yesterday while pondering Tarkovsky and Russian SF for a review of a recent Russian film. Again, I felt it was beautifully sensitive to the film. I'd call it inspiring too, except that I don't feel capable of rising to its level, no matter what the inspiration.

Alison Croggon said...

John, thank you. Nice to know you're still reading!

Anonymous said...

Thank you.
Many excellent points you've made. It's a great help to my understanding of the film.
And, of course, it's always good to know that there are others who appreciate Stalker as much as I do. It lives beneath my skin too.

Gil said...

I enjoyed reading your very comprehensive and enlightening comments on Stalker. I was lucky enough to see it again recently, and was surprised to find the theatre completly full: indeed, this brilliant man is more recognised than I had thought. Each time I watch Stalker, I find things I hadn't seen or perceived before, as in any more profound artwork. I think one of the important questions is why can neither Stalker (who possibly represents knowledge or justice, or both) nor his charges - art and science - enter the room. I think the answer is that all three, in some way sense that what they think they want is really far from their true inner desires, and that to allow the room to reveal, and perhaps act on, those subconcious desires would be far too dangerous for them, and indeed for all of humanity. I've just started reading Roadside Picnic, from which some of Tarkovsky's ideas for Stalker derived, and recommend it, as I do Lem's Solaris.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Gil - thanks for your comment. Roadside Picnic is an amazing novel, but an entirely different work of art to Tarkovsky's! His adaptations were free, to say the least, although you can see the outline of the original story in what he did in the film. If I recall rightly, the writer and the scientist and the Stalker couldn't enter the room for different reasons: the Stalker because it was forbidden to him, the writer because he hadn't the courage and the scientist because he had no intention of doing so and wanted to destroy it. But yes, at bottom is the question of the mystery of desire.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Gil - thanks for your comment. Roadside Picnic is an amazing novel, but an entirely different work of art to Tarkovsky's! His adaptations were free, to say the least, although you can see the outline of the original story in what he did in the film. If I recall rightly, the writer and the scientist and the Stalker couldn't enter the room for different reasons: the Stalker because it was forbidden to him, the writer because he hadn't the courage and the scientist because he had no intention of doing so and wanted to destroy it. But yes, at bottom is the question of the mystery of desire.