Sunday, April 18, 2004


I was having a very blank day yesterday, so I decided to watch Tarkovsky's film Stalker. I think the last time I saw it was around five or six years ago, when I made Emma Lew watch it with me. I think Emma was bored beyond description. However, I find myself totally compelled by this film; I guess one aspect is its extraordinary visual beauty. The opening scenes, in black of white, of the camera tracking through the doors to a room in which the Stalker and his wife and child lie sleeping have something of the baroque poverty of Bill Henson's photography, all its splendour lent by the light itself, which both reveals and hides. And the sheer theatricality of many of the sets...the abiding element of water, always dripping or raining or splashing, that amazing scene where it begins to rain inside the room and the light glitters on the water, a rich gold, while the three men sit exhausted, waiting passively for this strange plenitude to pass... or that bizarre room full of tiny sand dunes, where birds sweep through and vanish into thin air. Maybe I just like it because it's full of poetry. And I suppose also it's the compulsion of this simple parable: the one who seeks, the "Holy Fool", who guides the artist and the scientist to the place where they may realise their secret desires. The Room is where people go "when there is no hope left". And what happens? The writer is so full of self-disgust that he dares not discover his most secret desire, and the scientist wishes to blow it up: so neither enter the Room, and its secret remains secret.

And the Stalker, who is forbidden to enter, returns to his wife and strange child full of despair: because even though these two intellectuals are devoid of hope, which is a necessary precursor to coming to the Room, they have destroyed any possibility of belief within themselves. Though whether it is belief in God is a moot point. The Room itself is totally ambiguous, just as desire is ambiguous; it might be a symbol of death, and is certainly deadly. There is much Christian iconography: the Stalker quotes the Bible, including the Book of Revelations, and also the part of the Gospels in which two are walking and there is a third with them, who is Christ returned from the dead, and we are clearly supposed to see the Stalker as a Christ figure who returns from the dead, who takes suffering upon himself in order to liberate others from despair. Perhaps it is simply my predeliction; but I do not draw a Christian moral from this film, and it doesn't seem to me that the faith which the Stalker speaks of is faith in a Christian God. The film seems to be speaking of something much more immanent: maybe the part which most moves me is the monologue by the Stalker's wife at the end, where she fiercely claims her unhappiness, because without sorrow there would be neither joy nor meaning in her life.

The reason why I wanted to watch Stalker again was that I looked at a site about a motorbike trip by a girl called Elena through Chernobyl. As in the film, Chernobyl is a Zone cordoned off by the military, forbidden to the public because it is dangerous: there are haunting pictures of abandoned cars and firetrucks and helicopter and army trucks, much like the overgrown tanks and cars in the film, or empty buildings full of the rotting detritus of human existence, and many photographs of a lush natural world made strange, obeying laws outside those which we understand. There is, Elena says, a forest that glows at night, and wild wolves and boars and horses have bred and multiplied; but nobody knows what effects the radiation has had on them. She writes, on entering the Dead Zone: "As I pass through the check point, I feel that I have entered an unreal world. In the dead zone, the silence of the villages, roads, and woods seem to tell something at me....something that I strain to hear....something that attracts and repels me both at the same time. It is divinely eerie - like stepping into that Salvador Dali painting with the dripping clocks."

This is not a bad description of the kinds of effects Tarkovsky creates with time and silence, and the image in Stalker of a deadly Arcadia, a post-human world. Of course, drawing a further parallel, Cherobyl might represent the desire hidden in our civilisation, its impulse towards apocalypse (Elena also quotes Revelations). The film predates Chernobyl by about ten years. Well, it's not that art is prophetic, so much as it often sees the present clearly. Chernobyl was present long before it happened.

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