Wednesday, 23 May 2012

A post about a book about a film about a journey to a room

My brother, who saw Tarkovsky's Stalker back in the 1980s, recommended that after I watched the film myself (finally!) I should read Geoff Dyer's book about the film, Zona. So when in London last month, I bought the book, and read it - twice. If a book grabs me particularly, if it be so replete with insight and memorable quotes that I'll read it a second time as soon as I finished it, pencil in hand. The last time I re-read a book this way was Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything.

The trouble with reading Zona like this was that my pencil finds itself underlining about half of the text.

Some of my copious underlinings are there because Geoff Dyer's observations about the film are so dazzlingly perceptive, some because his world view (born like me in late 1950s England, bright boy, liberal arts education) squares with mine, and some because his appreciation of film and literature rings so true that I find myself learning some essential truths about cinema and art itself.

The book is a scene-by-scene dissection of the film, interspersed by a continual flow of witty asides, personal memories, details of the film's troubled production and historical digressions. The informal, chatty format draws you in. Were there more books in this style about the films I love!

Dyer is well-versed and has done his homework; he understands the Soviet Union, that spawned Tarkovsky and Stalker, he understands the Gulag and the Bolshaya Zona outside it.

Essentially, Dyer is interested in why the film resonates with him the way it does. What is the Room? Is it Cinema itself? Does it even exist? What are our most innermost wishes, that the Room may - or may not - fulfil? We run into philosophy and ontology - Dyer is convinced that through Stalker,  Tarkovsky poses mankind's most eternal questions.

Ars longa, vita brevis est. There are so many great books, great films, great works of art - and only so much time in which we have to appreciate them. Should we try to cover as much ground as we can, in the time we have left, or should we concentrate, as Geoff Dyer has, on watching and re-watching (or reading and re-reading) that which we hold to be the very best?

Stalker deals with a powerful meme or trope - the zone - a forbidden area, abandoned post-industrial space left to nature, within which the human spirit finds something - freedom, expression, detail, aesthetic wonder. It is a meme that clearly resonates with me; it is a reason why I find so much delight living in Jeziorki, in Warsaw, in post-communist Poland.

Dyer makes one glaring mistake - he calls the Coen Brothers 'witless' - suggesting that he's only seen Raising Arizona or Ladykillers and both with a bad hangover and overfull bladder. A couple of viewings of The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou, No Country for Old Men, The Man Who Wasn't There or A Serious Man should convince him otherwise.

If you are a regular visitor to this blog, I would heartily recommend watching Tarkovsky's Stalker; if it holds your soul, if you can relate to it - watch it again - and then read Geoff Dyer's book. You shall join the Enlightened.

This time last two years ago:
Mr Pheasant trumpets his presence

This time three years ago:
Balancing on the Edge of Chaos

This time four years ago:
Zamienie and the encroaching tide of Development

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