Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Danger! High-radiation arthouse! - Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (1980)

Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (1980) came second, behind Blade Runner, in a recent BFI poll of its members' top movies. In outline, it's one of the simplest films ever made: a guide, or Stalker, takes two people, Writer and Professor, into a forbidden area called the Zone, at the heart of which is the Room, where your deepest wish will come true. It is this simplicity that gives the film its fathomless resonance. If Tarkovsky's previous film, Solaris, seemed like a Soviet 2001, was Stalker Tarkovsky's take on The Wizard of Oz?

The starkness of its conception did not prevent the production traumas that seem integral to the creation myths of other favourites: the likes of Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo. Plans to shoot in Tajikistan had to be abandoned because of an earthquake. Having relocated to an abandoned hydroelectric power station in Estonia, Tarkovsky was dissatisfied with the cinematography and decided to shoot a pared-down version of the script all over again - in the same place. The price paid for this pursuit of an ideal is incalculable. Sound recordist Vladimir Sharun believes the deaths from cancer of Tarkovsky (in 1986), his wife Larissa and Anatoly Solonitsyn (who plays the Writer) were all due to contamination from a chemical plant upstream from the set.

The film itself has become synonymous both with cinema's claims to high art and a test of the viewer's ability to appreciate it as such. Anyone sharing Cate Blanchett's enthusiasm for it - "every single frame of the film is burned into my retina" - attests not just to the director's lofty purity of purpose, but to their own capacity to survive at the challenging peaks of human achievement. So a certain amount of blowback is inevitable. David Thomson included Stalker in his pantheon of 1,000 memorable movies, but was dubious about the notion of the Room. Perhaps it's "an infinite, if dank enclosure in which an uncertain number of strangers are watching the works of Tarkovsky. Equally, it may be that as malfunction of one kind or another covers the world, we may have a hard time distinguishing the Room, the Zone, and the local multiplex."

Sometimes wry scepticism is a more appropriate tribute than po-faced reverence, especially given that Tarkovsky leaves ample room for doubt. Any claim made for the Zone ("the quietest place in the world," says the Stalker) is countered by the suggestion that it's a bit disappointing ("smells like a bog," says Professor). In an interview Tarkovsky even raised the possibility that the Zone did not exist and was merely the Stalker's invention.

Though it's easily forgotten, there's often a touch of comedy - even slapstick - in Tarkovsky-land. Deep in the Zone, on the threshold of the Room, the three guys are pondering the mysteries of existence when a phone rings. The professor answers: "Hello? No, this is not the clinic!" Was this the inspiration for those Orange-sponsored "Don't let a phone ruin your movie" scenarios?

I've seen Stalker more times than any film except The Great Escape. I've seen it when the projectionist got the reels in the wrong order (I was the only person who noticed), I've seen it on my own in Paris and dubbed into Italian in Rome, I've seen it on acid (remember that sequence when the solid ground begins to ripple?) and I've seen it on telly - and it's never quite as I remember. Like the Zone, it's always changing. Like the Stalker, I feel quite at home in it, but whenever I see the film I try to imagine what it might be like, watching it for the first time when it seems so weird.

Consider the first 15 minutes. After a credit sequence showing an oldish guy drinking in a gloomy bar, we peer through an interior set of doors into a room. Inside already, the camera takes us deeper indoors. It's as if Tarkovsky has started off where Antonioni left off in the penultimate inside-out shot of The Passenger and taken it a stage further: inside-in. It's slower than Antonioni, and without the colour. It has a kind of sub-monochrome in which the spectrum has been so compressed that it might turn out to be a source of energy, like oil and almost as dark - but with a gold sheen, too. The camera pans across the people in bed and then tracks back. Not a long take by Tarkovsky's standards, but still, one takes the point. "If the regular length of a shot is increased, one becomes bored, but if you keep on making it longer, it piques your interest, and if you make it even longer a new quality emerges, a special intensity of attention."

The rumble of heavy transport - accompanied by an anthem to Homo Sovieticus - causes a glass to rattle across a table. The man wakes up and gets out of bed. Unusually, he sleeps without his trousers but with his sweater. Another weird thing is that, although trying not to wake his wife, he puts on his trousers and his boots before clomping quietly into the kitchen. His wife was awake, it turns out, or has been roused by his movements.

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