Andrei Tarkovsky: Stalker (1979) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Andrei Tarkovsky: Stalker (1979)

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"Лучше иметь горький счастья, чем серая, скучная, жизнь."

Andrei Tarkovsky leaves the autobiographical and reenters the realm of science-fiction.  In Stalker,  a mysterious place, "The Zone", that defies the laws of physics is under constant guard by military forces.  Inside The Zone there is said to be a room that grants the entrant's strongest desire.  The stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) knows how to get to this room, and leads the writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and the scientist (Nikolai Grinko) through The Zone.

The guardianAndrewCommentaryBannerWhen I finished watching Stalker, my thoughts drifted back to the quote that Ingmar Bergman gave on Tarkovsky's work.  Bergman said, "Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream."  Now that we are two films away from finishing his catalog, I understand why Bergman felt so strongly about Tarkovsky.  From his early films on Tarkovsky's world has been filled with organic spirituality that informs the images and dialogue instead of becoming consumed by them.  His world stands in almost direct rebuke to Bergman's, much like Stalker feels very much like a response to Winter Light.

I was in rapture for all of Stalker.  The last time I felt this captivated by a film was when I watched A SeparationStalker is so totally allegorical without feeling like it is preaching down to us at all.  I think it's telling that we have rarely seen Tarkovsky's camera going into a God's eye view or distance.  The ending of Solaris is the strongest example I can think of as Dr. Kelvin became embraced into the God-like consciousness of the planet's ocean.  Instead Tarkovsky makes sure we are right down there with them.  The mortals are the one's floating through existence, as we floated along before with the exuberant inventor at the beginning of Andrei Rublev, and literally drift on through the streams and structures of  Stalker.

With little special effects, Tarkovsky created a world where physics no longer matter and private thoughts become free to roam.  When the Stalker and his two companions rest in The Zone I was amazed at the way Tarkovsky used the frame to make it seems as though each man was resting in a different part of a loosely assembled collection of nature and human construct.  He associates each man with a different attribute, one floating on a small patch of land, another resting against a stone facade, and the other in the grass.  Tarkovsky trust in the camera so implicitly that we accept that the man on the stone façade seems to be sleeping on the wall.  The audience is allowed to piece the moment together where gravity abandons them instead of in that other landmark sci-fi film 2001 where great pains were taken to show the weightlessness of space.The dunesI like to think that Tarkovsky is part of the inspiration for Ebert's comment about how black and white is the color of reality and colorization makes things feel alien.  The oppression of the first act as the Stalker leads the men to The Zone does not for a second feel silly due to the uniforms and structures because of his decision to show this world in black and white.  Compare that to Truffaut's use of color in Farenheit 451 and how that pulled us out of the world because of how the unreality was unwittingly emphasized in that near-Technicolor silliness.  When Tarkovsky let's the color burst forth I felt relieved and this is also when the unreality of the Zone has entered their lives.  This new-found freedom expresses itself in another way, where in the scene with the three men laying down we don't see any of them talk, but we hear their words.  They are in a place of fantasy now and can speak without fear.

When we finally get to the penultimate chamber leading to The Room and we see those large dirt mounds I felt the taste of chalk in my mouth.  Before that I felt chills and saw goosebumps on my arm as they went through The Meat Grinder.  Tarkovsky continues to be the most tactile of filmmakers, letting this realm of the mind and saturation of color further entice our senses as they disappear into themselves.  I must stop myself for now in case I start treading into your thoughts as well, because I know you were a bit hesitant on The Mirror and this feels like fully realized cinematic perfection.Tavern on the edge of oblivionKyle Commentary BannerI love Stalker, and I was surprised but glad to see that my experience of it this time through was new compared to the memory I had of the film from 4-5 years ago. In my mind, the black and white/sepia tone of the beginning scenes transitioned thematically to the rest of the film. The things I remembered about the men's trip through The Zone were the trek through the water-filled tunnel, the room full of sand, and the dark, wet, foreboding image of The Room itself once they come to it. While all of this was still there, I was thrown a bit at how much of the movie is actually devoted, as you say, to the freedom and tenuous comfort of The Zone.

It isn't that The Zone has no threats—the prospect of losing your way and never being able to make it back out is about as existentially terrifying as it gets, and with traps possible in every room they come to, there's certainly no shortage of anxiety. But the openness and lush quality of the world there does contrast like you said with the life they've come from, and color is a particularly brilliant way to imbue The Zone with a divine quality not only because we process it as a more vibrant place, but because the characters' real world lives seem drained and washed out by comparison. Tarkovsky isn't just making The Zone a mystical middle-ground between reality and the sacred—he's demonstrating the importance of the latter by literally showing it to us as an enhanced version of the former.

That this place is still so dangerous, and that even the familiar man-made structures are worn down and abandoned, could suggest a fairly cynical faith—as if the best we can hope for is rose-tinted glasses through which to view the decay—but with Tarkovsky it comes off as more meaningful for being rooted in some kind of real truth. Suffering has been a major part of his worldview throughout his filmography, and so men trying to find a glimmer of hope in a world where even the sacred spaces are falling apart seems appropriate.Morning vigilThen there's the terror with which he presents this faith once they ultimately reach The Room. They know their wishes/prayers will be answered, but not when or how, and there is the implication that fulfillment will come with unintended consequences. The Room itself is dark, with dripping pipes and browned tile floors—it would take great courage just to enter. Tarkovsky has literalized the uncertain nature of faith in a way that fits with the narrative so perfectly it never feels heavy-handed.

I also like the way Tarkovsky acknowledges in the characters the necessity of their faith. The Stalker himself is painfully aware that guiding people to The Room gives purpose and meaning to his life, and makes a choice to continue doing so even as he questions the possible consequences. Making such an act of faith a conscious choice about how to live and view one's life—as opposed to an ingrained, unquestioned system of belief—manages to make a profound point about religion and spirituality without demeaning or criticizing, and that's impressive.Heavens open

Question time!

Tiny Andrew CommentaryIn my thoughts, I mentioned how Stalker feels like a direct rebuke to Winter Light.  Intentionally or no, they have many similarities.  Both use black and white to create an atmosphere of oppression and cold, and both feature an extended monologue delivered by the love interest of the protagonist directly to the audience.  In Bergman's film the monologue is to persuade Tomas to not ignore his physical self and abandon God.  Tarkovsky's film has the wife of the Stalker explain how important it is for her husband to continue embracing the unknown in spite of the hardships it causes.  Both films are undeniably spiritual, with Tarkovsky hinting at the presence of a God that Bergman outright rejects.

Jean-Luc Godard said that the best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie.  Keeping this in mind, can you think of any other films which serve as a perfect response to one another?  I love this connection between Stalker and Winter Light because they are healthy critiques of one another's philosophy using some of the same stylistic tools to differing ends.

For a slightly harsher example I have to dig back to The Duke and Oliver StonePlatoon was the perfect response for the kind of guts 'n glory fighting that was celebrated in The Green Berets.  The bright colors used to glorify war in The Green Berets become a blanket of death in Platoon.  The noble heroes who give speeches then hold guns to the heads of little girls.  That example is pretty well known, but are there any others you can think of that resonate with you?ExitThe pair tTiny Kyle Commentaryhat jumps to my mind at the moment is Gomorra and City of God. Both deal with everyday life and growing up in communities where organized crime is rooted in the very structure of how said community operates, where the cycle of crime and violence is circular and self-sustaining, and they do it with intense realism. The essential difference between the two (both great films) is that while Gomorra is concerned with showing the cycles of violence perpetuated by the Camorra in a very flat, strictly observant way, City of God converts all the turmoil around the central character into an exciting coming-of-age narrative.

Because Gomorra's point is to show how mob violence infects communities and that those involved in such an organization all have the same end point, its flatness is necessary—we aren't excited to watch it, we know where it's going, and it arrives at the end with a sense of futility. City of God wants to show how one is shaped by the characters and events in their community, but views the circular, self-destructive nature of the crime there from the position of one who has escaped. It's a movie that's brimming with life, finding humanity in even the most desperate of places—Gomorra simply observes as any potential for such life is methodically snuffed out.

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Tarkovsky with text

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  1. Great article, love how you compare Tarkovsky’s films to other director’s. You read my mind?!

    • Thank you for the comment. Tarkovsky is so singular in style that what parallels we can bring to contemporary or other classic directors may bring in other film viewers who might otherwise pass him over. Glad you enjoyed it.

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