Zona: A BOOK ABOUT A FILM ABOUT A JOURNEY TO A ROOM By Geoff Dyer, Canongate, Rs 650
Andrei Tarkovsky, the major Russian filmmaker, was a master of deconstruction, laying bare our cinematic notions of image-making, the importance of trading space for time, as he loved to believe — indeed the very craft of filmmaking. In a rare display of dark humour, Tarkovsky, the auteur — that special Cahiers du Cinéma word that defined a filmmaker’s link to his or her craft — railed against ‘dynamic’ starts in film. They should be slower and duller at the start, he said, so that anyone who had walked into the movie hall by mistake would have time to get away before the serious bits happened. In any case, he said that he didn’t make films for an audience.
But Tarkovsky wasn’t mad, in the sense that Klaus Kinski was. He didn’t conceive, or direct, by instinct and the oeuvre was so highly personal that the first thing you had to do was to climb into his mind, or be left feeling apathetic or worse, dismissive. It is easy to find fault with his work, particularly if you aren’t the Film Club type and sometimes even if you were. Remember that François Truffaut walked out of Pather Panchali after twenty minutes and Mick Jagger called Jean-Luc Godard “a f*****g twat”.
In 1979, Tarkovsky made Stalker, his strange, truth-seeking, sci-fi-ish thriller. Cannes immediately gave it a top award and critics all over, even the known nut- crackers, doled out pluses. The storyline is simple, until you get down to thinking about it. Enough has been written about the film so, briefly, it concerns three men whose lives coalesce in a bizarre Russian landscape that is austere, devastated and ugly. Tarkovsky presents a large part of it in a kind of monochrome he achieved by shooting in colour and printing it in black and white, somewhat like what John Huston did in Moby Dick. This is the Zona, the heavily fortified and patrolled zone, though you’re never told why — but you can guess. Chernobyl? Fukushima, thirty years before it happened? In the middle is a place called the Room where your deepest desires can be fulfilled, though as one of the characters says, “How do I know I want what I want?” The central character, Stalker, has decided that he’ll take a Writer who isn’t finding anything to write about and a Professor with an unexplained knapsack through this weird terrain, which confuses because it keeps changing. But the Stalker obviously knows where he’s going.
The Room itself is a tribute to Tarkovsky’s superb imaging; he creates a revolting place by covering the floor with an evil, ankle-high, possibly radioactive slime and strange detritus; the walls drip with decay, the light is insipid and you can almost smell the foul air inside. It’s more unsettling than the Zone itself. Tarkovsky shot close to an abandoned power plant near Tallinn in Estonia, and it’s believed that the chemically contaminated atmosphere killed first his lead actor, Anatoly Solonitsyn, then his wife, Larissa, and finally the director himself. Earlier, half the film had been destroyed in a fire that incarcerated its editor, Lyudmila Feiginova, who had cached away some reels in her apartment. Tarkovsky wanted to trash the project but finally reshot the ‘bewitched’ film, which was perhaps different from the first version, more angsty.
Geoff Dyer does an inspired job with Zona, which is “a book about a film about a journey to a room”. Dyer persists in keeping everything simple, but to do that he layers his narrative with more than one leitmotif, chasing one another across its pages. This type of non-verbal ballast could only happen if one’s controls are in place and working well. Dyer, some say, is the best living writer in Britain, so he hasn’t a problem here. For me, his writing on Tarkovsky’s Stalker brings to mind Bruce Chatwin’s classic reporting on Patagonia. There’s that same expressed surrender to the subject, yet the same reluctance to allow this adulation to ambush the story; the same well-managed writing, which earned both of them the E.M. Forster Award.
Dyer knows that he can’t define Tarkovsky’s luminosity by dwelling on things we conventionally talk about in cataloguing cinematic genius simply because the man is a game-changer. But something has to be said, some nuance that marks out the man; Dyer picks out two, with great effect. First, how Tarkovsky gets his frames, sometimes, though not all the time, to reduce and expand imperceptibly as he holds the shot, which thus seems to breathe on its own. Then, towards the end, as the Room beckons and all three are incredibly tense and distressed and questioning, each in his own way, this whole tangled affair they are now a part of, Dyer writes how the camera moves closer to each in a manner which says, “I’m here now, close to you. Tell me what you have to.”
The predominant mode, of course, is an almost shot-by-shot narration of the film. This is interspersed with not so much an analysis as a monologue on the particular segment being narrated. A third sub-text contains Dyer’s references to the work of other writers, poets, filmmakers meant to limn his own retelling. Finally, he revisits the experiences of his younger years that had an impact on his viewing of cinema and this film. Dyer moves smoothly between, sidesteps artfully, borrows from one and lends to another to get to his personal Room in the book.
This is, without doubt, a difficult read; difficult because he expects the reader to go with the flow that looks, at different times, to be driven by adrenaline or mescaline or endorphin, or just free-range erudition. Yet, nothing seems contrived or stretched beyond the believable. He knows he has an absurdist drama on his hands without a Pinteresque or Beckettian linearity, where the protagonists are “determined to have faith when there’s hardly anything left to believe in” and has to deal with not only Tarkovsky but also with Geoff Dyer for meanings, for verities and so on. He segues nicely from Thomas Bernhard, Milan Kundera and Rilke to Wordsworth’s Prelude: “I gave a moral life: I saw them feel,/ Or linked them to some feeling: the great mass/ Lay bedded in a quickening soul, and all/ That I beheld respired with inward meaning.” Perhaps in the end, it’s got to be this.
So, do you watch the film, or read the book? I suggest you do both.