Andrei Tarkovsky directs Aleksandr Kajdanovsky, Anatoliy Solonitsyn and Nikolay Grinko this arty Russian sci-fi about a man who illegally guides a scientist and a writer into a forbidden zone that defies the laws of time and physics.
As of the start of the new year, I have been making a more regimented effort to watch classic and foreign films I have missed out on so far. Many of these will be works considered “the greatest” by critics, that I always suspected might be too pretentious for me. My tastes are rigidly populist and I primarily judge a movie’s merits based on how well it entertains and what risks and successes it creates with that audience aware intention in mind. I do think good cinema should make you think, increase your understanding of the world and the human condition, manipulate your emotions… but never at the expense of being… for want of a better word… fun. Stalker, and from what I’ve experienced so far of Tarkovsky’s work as a whole, isn’t “fun”. It is obtusely and intentionally pretty much about as far from fun as you can get. Stalker ponders philosophical concepts of belief, need and existence… often with oblique didactic arguments between the three scraggly, desperate middle-aged men who take this quest. Then leaves you with longuers of the men standing in desolate scrubland or industrial ruins, giving you a chance to ruminate on what depressing concepts their last round of bickering has churned up. They are a depressive, overly nihilistic bunch, terrible company for three grainy hours, they probably smell of turps and salted fish. And although the pace is intentionally deadening, the grimly poetic imagery it leaves us languishing in is often grotesquely beautiful. The rain soaked wasteland, the crumbling chambers of generators and sewer tunnels have an otherworldly aesthetic. Whether filmed in exquisitely framed sepia or deep focus, almost breathing pans, the tableaus these explorers are trapped in are unforgettable, even to the casual viewer. And while nothing really happens during their search of The Zone, an air of constant threat and cosmic danger is imbued and maintained in every movement. That’s quite masterful for a three hour film with little true incident. Merely by calling a dank tunnel ‘The Meat Grinder’ we fear for the trio’s eventless, five minute walk through it. Tarkovsky might never prove to be my cup of tea, he cares to give little of what I desire from a movie. But if he wanted to gift it to us, I get the feeling Stalker could have easily been a gripping genre exercise.