Arkadiy Strugatskiy; Boris Strugatskiy; Andrey Tarkovskiy
Alisa Freyndlikh; Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy; Anatoliy Solonitsyn
A writer, a scientist and a ‘stalker’ go into ‘The Zone’- a deeply spiritual place with a conscience of its own – in an attempt to find ‘The Room’, a place where your innermost wishes and desires will become fulfilled if you enter it.
After watching ‘Stalker’, I didn’t know if it was one of the worst or one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen. It left me confused and not knowing what to think. It’s a difficult film, and this is completely besides the fact that it is 154 minutes in length. Tarkovsky has a gift in drawing out meaning in every single shot. Scenes play out slowly, and this is only added to the fact that each shot is long in length – most lasting multiple minutes: this gives the film a dreamlike and real-time quality, which only adds to the film’s philosophical power and deeply mysterious atmosphere. Basic things about the characters are stripped away, and we only know of them by their occupations: a writer, a scientist and a stalker (a person who guides people into The Zone).
We start off in a bleak, run-down town in some form of dystopian landscape. The opening shot is of a bar: the floor is leaking water, the walls are covered with dark and light patches, some of the fibres of the wallpaper are scratched away. Outside, there is lots of mud, and barely any plants, we also see the occasional plank of wood or scrap of metal. The setting feels very industrial and I was reminded of the locations in Eraserhead and the excellent book-to-film adaptation: 1984. Perhaps the characters live in is a direct representation of Soviet Russia at the time: bleak, despairing and ruled by violence and an authoritarian government. It is no surprise then from this landscape that our main characters are searching for something to love and hope for. They believe that The Room will provide them with this. Indeed, when they are escaping from where they live, the film has a kind of noir-like quality. Shadows and inventive lighting, characters sneaking around trying to be quiet and avoiding gun-fire, and the film then morphs into some kind of slow-paced thriller when the characters go on a rail heading towards The Zone: constant long shots of the foreboding depressing landscape and shots of the characters looking depressed, anxious and fearful – all of this shot in a brown-tinted monochrome.
This is one of the oldest visual techniques in the cinematography book: shooting bleaker scenes in monochrome and scenes with a sense of hope (when they’re in the zone) in colour. It works surprisingly well. Tarkovsky’s cinematography manages to blend reality with fantasy, like he’s stylizing and painting over real life itself. He manages to make the ugliest things look oddly beautiful, and perhaps this is a key message of the film as the film is about searching for hope in the most difficult of times. Cate Blanchett said of the film that “every frame is burned into my retina”. She has a point.
Once the characters are in the zone, the film unfolds like an adventure movie – but in a more pretentious artsy kind of way. Characters wonder around the barren, dangerous landscape slowly, occasionally being naive and running into traps, or going round in circles – all the while discussing the meaning of life. Going back to the length of the film, it is 154 minutes long, and due to this factor, this is a movie which you should watch when you’re in the right mood. Tarkovsky’s theories about film where closely stringed to the idea of time; indeed he wrote a book about it with the artsy portentous title Sculpting in Time. His theories were about how watching a film was about time. How the audience spent time in a cinema, how cinema was like “time recorded in metal boxes”, and how time should be used to intensify a scene or atmosphere to transcend narrative into an emotional/spiritual experience. This theory definitely comes across in this film. He has a skill to make ten seconds feel like a minute, and I don’t mean this in a negative way, Stalker wasn’t a film where I was screaming at the scream, sobbing, begging and pleading the damned thing to end. The best way to describe it is like one of those dreams you have which feel so real and feel so long in length, and so good that you don’t want it to end. As the film unfolds, it gets progressively more mysterious and more interesting: we discover more about the characters, new ideas are put forwards, and every so slowly the characters begin to clash against each other.
Of course, time is well-spent in this film. The characters feel real and are three-dimensional, and the long ‘real-time’ takes further adds to this. The film asks difficult, challenging questions about the meaning of life, what our inner-most desires are, whether hope really exists, whether it is pointless to imagine hope, whether having dreams and desires is a positive or a negative thing. The sheer length of the film allows these questions to be asked multiple times, and to be developed and reshaped into new questions. Sometimes, it is difficult to be asked so much, and even more difficult because we don’t usually expect this from a film. Stalker asks too many questions to the extent that it almost becomes unbearable – to the extent that the film’s positive traits simultaneously become its negatives. But questioning everything and anything is one of the most important things in life, and is arguably what makes you human. This is why Stalker is one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen.
A challenging film due to its length and its questions. But for those willing to be patient, the seconds all add up in the strangely beautiful, ambiguous film.