You’d have to be pretty confident to attempt something like Zona, Geoff Dyer’s 200-plus page account of his experiences of and reactions to Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s solemn and cerebral sort-of sci-fi film from 1979. As becomes apparent fairly quickly once you start reading Dyer doesn’t lack confidence – fortunately he’s also talented enough to get away with what could easily have been a horribly self-indulgent folly. I tend to find books about film to be either impenetrably pretentious or just lists of minutiae and snippets of received opinion and either way I couldn’t imagine reading one start to finish: Zona, on the other hand, I saw off in a couple of sittings.
Of course it helps that I really like the subject matter. Tarkovsky is right up the sharp end of the spectrum of difficult, arthouse, uncompromisingly uncommercial film-makers, and though all of his films are worth a look just for the many beautifully composed and photographed sequences of an opaque and possibly even spiritual nature Stalker‘s the only one that holds my attention all the way through. This may be because its plot is uncharacteristically linear and pared-down for Tarkovsky: in a remote run-down Soviet-style country an unspecified extra-terrestrial visitation has caused the creation of a dangerous and uninhabitable zone, at the centre of which is rumoured to be a room in which one’s deepest wish will be granted, should one be brave and lucky enough to reach it. Only a few individuals (referred to as “stalkers”) possess the gifts necessary to navigate through the zone, though these powers seem to come at the price of a certain amount of physical and mental anguish. Stalker the movie shows the journey of one such man as he attempts to guide a writer and a scientist through various hazards to the room in question. This bare description might lead you to expect to see silver suits, death rays and spectacular explosions on screen – Tarkovsky, however, had a pretty dismissive attitude towards science fiction and its trappings (he considered Solaris his worst film) and made a point of excluding any futuristic imagery or cheap thrills. Other than a short chase involving a beaten up jeep and some Cold War era soldiers and weaponry the closest Stalker gets to an action setpiece is three middle-aged men in charity shop clothing stumbling around and whinging in an overgrown meadow or some dank subterranean passageways. Somehow, it’s absolutely enthralling.
Dyer thinks so too: he’s seen Stalker numerous times in the last thirty years, in cinemas in many cities across many countries, though never on the television (in one of several disarmingly honest and self-aware passages in the book he confesses to being a snob about such a practice). If he knows it’s going to be showing somewhere he’ll make a point of turning up, even arranging his social schedule weeks in advance around a screening. Zona makes clear his abiding love of the film, but he’s not sentimental or gushing about it: the backbone of the book is a hilariously literal transcription of the film’s action (if you can call it that), in which he commendably avoids ascribing meaning to what’s going on, although he does offer down-to-earth commentary on what the characters might be thinking every now and then. Tarkovsky angrily rejected symbolism and attempts to foist interpretations on what his films really “meant” and Dyer respects this, making clear that the associations and memories that Stalker inspires in him are all his own. He’s compulsively readable, even when he’s unapologetically referencing Flaubert or Milton or any number of highbrow directors, because his prose always seems grounded in his own experience, and his matter-of-fact accounts of some of his formative experiences are often quite moving. Only once, when he gets into describing the wish that he’d like the room in the zone to grant from him, does he stray into too-much-information territory, but this slightly seamy detour does underline his commitment to honest reportage where he feels it’s appropriate.
Plus, I got to learn quite a bit about the making of the film, and its troubling foreshadowing of certain tragic events. It was, frankly, a nightmare production, even by the standards of control freak extraordinaire Tarkovsky, what with a director of photography walking out and the bulk of an arduous shoot being rendered unusable due to technical problems with the film stock, thus occasioning what was effectively a full re-shoot, all while the director was capriciously changing his mind about aspects of the script and principal location. There’s the suggestion that contamination in the rivers the crew was filming around later led to the early deaths by cancer of several key players, including both Tarkovsky and his wife. And only a few years later the incident at Chernobyl resulted in a real-life zone of danger and mystery that inevitably colours one’s viewing of the film now. It’s remarkable that Stalker even got finished, and its enduring power and beauty is testament to the fact that even if Tarkovsky was a bloody-minded cuss he knew what he wanted and how to get it. Geoff Dyer would seem to possess something of the same clearsightedness, and Zona is a must-read for any fan of the film (you even get to find out how they achieved that incredible final shot with the little girl moving the glasses across the table via telekinesis).