Wednesday, September 21, 2011

PopMatters Feature: ReFramed No. 10 - Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker

Perhaps best known for his sci-fi magnum opus, Solaris, the ReFramed team celebrate another brilliant genre effort from the Soviet movie master.
Calum Marsh: Andrei Tarkovsky is certainly no stranger to critical acclaim, and, unlike many of the other filmmakers whose largely misunderstood works we’ve deigned to celebrate in these pages, his oeuvre’s place within the annals of cinema continues pretty much unquestioned. As far as reputations are concerned, Tarkovsky towers above even the most widely respected luminaries of the industry, and vocal detractors, if he could be said to even have them anymore, are few and far between. And so there’s a sense in which Stalker, Tarkovsky’s slow-burn sci-fi masterpiece and what I consider to be his supreme artistic achievement, is something of an unusual selection for us.

But I think you’ll agree with me, Jordan, when I say that our ReFramed series isn’t just about notably divisive films—it’s also about films which for one reason or another ought to be considered and approached in a new way. And Stalker is just such a film. Though it’s widely respected as an arthouse classic, and though it routinely appears on critics’ best-of lists and film school syllabi (and likely will for generations to come), I get the sense that for many viewers, Stalker has lost the freshness and vitality which makes its greatness so enduring.

Tarkovsky is, of course, the master of arty minimalism, and long takes are Stalker‘s bread and butter. But it’s what he invests in those lengthy silences, the energy and dynamism which come to fill the empty spaces, that makes this such an unforgettable experience. I worry that while students and cinephiles will be trained to “appreciate” Stalker in the abstract, we as viewers will forget to love Stalker for what it is: one of the purest distillations of the power of the cinema ever produced.

Jordan Cronk: It’s true that Tarkovsky needs little help from us to bolster his rep at this point, but yes, with such an slim catalogue (seven films in total) it sometimes feels as if there’s little to turn over at this point that hasn’t been discussed ad nauseum throughout decades of essays and critical readings of the great Russian auteur. I guess what I’d eventually like to see is Stalker stake its claim as Tarkovsky’s greatest work. Though its very well respected, I still get the feeling that Stalker is thought of as the imposing centerpiece of a career that many are content admiring from a distance in lieu of engaging with the carefully drawn humanism that Tarkovsky imbues in his characters.

The characters in Stalker have real gravitas whether Tarkovsky’s aesthetic takes precedent over his storytelling or not. To that end, I don’t think Stalker would be the devastating experience it is without this drawn-out sense of longing which Tarkovsky meditates on in a style that turns the cold and cerebral in on themselves until these vessels we see traversing a Russian future-shock landscape become both symbols and unique personalities unto themselves. Tarkovsky asks more of the viewer than most any canonized filmmaker, and though Stalker can look challenging on the surface, the personal contours beneath reveal a director sympathetic to character and audience alike.

Marsh: Absolutely. We discussed this idea a little when we were on the subject of Kubrick some weeks ago, but it applies just as well to Tarkovsky and Stalker in particular: there’s a pervading myth that his (admittedly overwhelming) stylistic prowess somehow precludes the possibility of humanism in his work, as though the formal scope of his films necessarily made them “cold” or overly cerebral. And of course Tarkovsky’s films are cerebral, in so far as they encourage you to think about what you’re watching—but, as you’ve noted, this is still very much a character-driven film, regardless of its intellectual heft or formal bravado.

That’s something many people fail to understand about Godard’s later work, too; often you’ll read about the political or intellectual depth of a film such as, say, In Praise Of Love, but then the critic will either neglect or outright deny the film’s emotional depth, as though it couldn’t possibly be both intellectual and emotional simultaneously. But for me that’s central to the appeal of a movie like Stalker, which I don’t find cold at all—in fact I find it very moving and very, very sad. It’s strange that this false dichotomy of “cerebral/emotional” has persisted for so long. And it’s strange that Tarkovsky’s work is almost exclusively relegated to the cerebral side.

Cronk: He wrestled with some ambitious themes and the ‘70s were certainly the decade where his canvases grew so vast that to the untrained eye character can become not simply secondary but non-existent. However, it’s the accumulation of thoughts, ideas, and performance which lend Stalker its lasting effect. Of course, from a strictly formal standpoint, the film is one of the most impressive ever constructed. The fact that Tarkovsky offers other layers for those willing to engage with his process and motives strikes me as generous, despite the fact that a nearly three hour film alternating between long silences and overwhelming streams of dialogue can pose problems for the uninitiated.

To me though, this is where everything came to together for Tarkovsky in the grandest sense: the epic narrative gait of Andrei Rublev, the enigmatic emotional pull of Solaris, and the personal touch of Ivan’s Childhood and Mirror all refracted and refined within the film’s hypnotic forward momentum. In a sense, Tarkovsky would simply continue to till similar thematic soil for the remainder of his career. And by that rationale Stalker really does feel like a centerpiece, both an arrival and jumping off point for a twilight run in the ‘80s which saw Tarkovsky continue to thrive within a solidified aesthetic. Do you have any thoughts on Tarkovsky’s career arc as it were, Calum?

Marsh: Well, I think perhaps because Tarkovsky left us with so few films, and also because each of those films feels so fully realized and singular, I don’t have a particularly strong impression of a defining arc to his career—at least not in the same way as I do with other, more prolific filmmakers from the period, with whom it might be easier to isolate periods or movements within a whole. But, having said that, Stalker does stand out to me as something of a centerpiece, at least in so far as it does, as you’ve pointed out, both summarize his earlier tendencies while suggesting the beginnings of later ones. Solaris is probably the Tarkovsky film closest to Stalker in conception, but I think Stalker emerges as the more sophisticated work because it marries its conventional genre-picture roots to its serious artistic ambitions more effectively.

Tarkovsky rather famously said that Solaris would have been greatly improved had he excised its science-fiction elements entirely, but I can’t imagine the same thing being said for Stalker—so much of its emotional and psychological impact comes from its subversion of convention, and most of its most effective dramatic moments arise when the film toys with our expectations for the genre in which its ostensibly based. And as far its influence on his later work is concerned, you can see some of its thematic conceits crop up in both Nostalghia and his final film, The Sacrifice—the latter of which, of course, takes the threat of nuclear war suggested in Stalker as its principal subject, though it does so without genre trimmings.

Cronk: Yeah, his filmography is so unusually consistent and as you say, singular, that like post-Paths of Glory Kubrick (or Bela Tarr or more recent Lars von Trier, Tarkovsky’s two foremost identifiable descendants) the catalogue begins to take on a grander context wherein each film seems like either a refinement, continuation, or simply another piece in the larger puzzle that is Tarkovsky. Hence, we probably could have chosen any Tarkovsky film save de-facto beloved Andrei Rublev and made similar arguments for their merits as his defining work. I can certainly see why many feel Mirror is a watershed, simply because of its direct insight into the soul of the man himself, or The Sacrifice, for its ostensible arrival at something pure and it’s aura as something unmistakably final. But you’re right when you say that Solaris and Stalker are the two Tarkovsky films “closest in conception” (which could be why these are his two best films in my view): the more openly emotional Solaris leaves the grim journey of Stalker in a desolate and precarious position where character motivation is often times obscured and subverted by actions or dialogue.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Tarkovsky keeps females mostly out of the general narrative until the closing act. The three male protagonists speak of significant others and in the case of the titular Stalker in particular, of his daughter who has contracted an undisclosed physical ailment through her exposure to “The Zone,” the film’s destination and draining eye-of-storm set piece. The final image of the film—one of the most fascinating and enigmatic endings I’ve seen—is thus a release and a further probing toward the audience to re-think what, who, and how the events which have transpired co-exist and on what plane of reality does the mind eventually overtake the body.

Marsh: Yes, and let’s not overlook the importance of the scene which directly precedes the final one, in which the Stalker’s wife addresses the camera directly and speaks about her history with her husband. Both sequences depart rather surprisingly from the loaded and suggestive naturalism of the rest of the film, and both confound everything that’s come before them—the supernatural element introduced in the film’s closing moments, in particular, complicate our ideas about “The Zone” and what it can and cannot do for its visitors. Throughout the film we’re told by the Stalker that “The Zone” is rife with danger, and our protagonists’ journey seems always on the verge of disaster, or of finally encountering some of the menace suggested by the Stalker’s expository remarks. But disaster never strikes, and “The Zone” is never revealed to be anything but tranquil.

As the film draws to a close and the characters return to the “safety” of home, we’re never convinced that “The Zone” has any supernatural properties at all, and in fact that seems to be Tarkovsky’s point. And yet the ending suggests otherwise: sitting at a kitchen table, the Stalker’s daughter is shown with what appears to be some sort of telekinetic powers, moving glassware across the countertop with her mind (although this isn’t entirely clear either). I think the idea here is that suggestion can be more compelling than depiction, and that what we invest in an image is often more significant to the formation of meaning than what we derive from it. “The Zone” is transformed into a place of power and reverence because the Stalker projects those qualities onto it, not because it elicits any particular response itself. Similarly, the images we’re shown are either foreboding or innocuous depending on what Tarkovsky casts upon them, whether that be awe or doubt, and the qualities we find in these images are never inherent to them.

Cronk: I think you’ve pretty well nailed the kind of reciprocal relationship the audience must have to images being shown, even as they reshape as the film proceeds and then eventually transform into something we may not have even anticipated. Like the characters it depicts, Stalker seems to change meaning or illuminate itself in different ways with each viewing. The experience of watching Stalker is just that, an experience unique to viewing conditions and state of mind. Depending on perspective or hindsight or simply mood, the film can speak to different aspects of the viewer’s emotions or subconscious.

That’s why the cerebral tag doesn’t hold up beyond surface aesthetic with regards to Tarkovsky or Kubrick or Tarr or whoever else falls in this lineage; perhaps if these characters didn’t display such wrenching acts of determination and longing, then a dimension would be lost and charges of cold formalism would stick more thoroughly. As it stands, one’s reading of Stalker can say as much about the viewer as it does about Tarkovsky’s ability to facilitate these thoughts and emotions on such an acute level. There’s probably not one “correct” interpretation of Stalker, but it’s that very characteristic that makes it such an endlessly fascinating talking point and emotional cinematic journey.

Marsh: Yeah. I mean, in a sense that’s always been a virtue of minimalism—it lends itself to interpretation, and it’s more conducive to the kind of ideally even relationship between author and reader that postmodern art seeks. But with Stalker we’re not just talking about abstract symbolism that can be interpreted differently; that’s not the kind of “meaning” Tarkovsky’s interested in, even if symbols and motifs abound in his work.

I think a deeper engagement with the material is being encouraged here, and the construction of meaning, in the sense of what kind of intellectual or emotional experience one can have with this thing, is ultimately collaborative—which means that if you aren’t really willing to put in the work as a reader, you’re likely to walk away thinking that it’s a cold formal exercise to be admired or appreciated but not loved. But it also means that if you are willing to give, the film has a lot to give back, and you’ll find that it’s about as deeply rewarding as the cinema gets. [PM]

No comments: