Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tarkovsky's Stalker Is Haunting, Monumental

Last night I viewed Stalker, a film by legendary Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. I have read much about the film, and was very excited to finally see it (thanks Greenville Public Library). Spielberg and Lynch (to name just two directors) both have publicly discussed how the film has influenced their work, which I can definitely see in the more recent works of Spielberg and the entire oeuvre of Lynch. I didn't start it until 12:30 am, when the house was dark and quiet, which is most likely the best environment to watch this film. For a film that is over 2 and half hours, is mostly silent, is completely in Russian, and has an average shot length of over 1 minute (some uninterrupted shots go over 4 minutes) you would think that late at night would be a bad time to watch it. But the film holds a unique, hypnotic quality that held me in rapt attention for the entire running time.

So, what's it about? From

Twenty years ago, a meteorite fell to Earth, and decimated a provincial Russian town. Villagers traveled through this curious area, now known as The Zone, and disappeared. Stories purport that there is an inner chamber within The Zone called The Room that grants one's deepest wish. Fearing the consequences from such an inscrutable resource, the army immediately secured the area with barbed wire and armed patrol. But the desperate and the suffering continue to make the treacherous journey, led by a disciplined, experienced stalker who can stealthily navigate through the constantly changing traps and pitfalls of The Zone. A successful Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn), perhaps searching for inspiration or adventure, and a Scientist (Nikolai Grinko) searching for Truth, enlist the Stalker (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) to guide them through The Zone. The Stalker has been trained by a renowned stalker named Porcupine, who, after an excursion with his brother into The Zone, returned alone and infinitely wealthy, only to commit suicide a week later. Soon, it is evident that reaching The Zone is not their greatest impediment, but the uncertainty over their deepest wish. As the men approach the threshold to The Room, their fear and trepidation for the materialization of their answered prayers leads to profound revelation and self-discovery.

I know, it sounds intense. And it is intense, profoundly so. It must be noted that this is one of the most visually beautiful films that I have ever seen, a cinematic masterpiece in the category of Malick's Days of Heaven, Jarmusch's Dead Man, and Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc. The first portion of the film is shot in a sumptuous sepia tone, and looks incredibly similar to the work of (one of my favorite photographers) Anton Corbijn. The second portion of the film is in full colour, and the intense over-saturation causes the film to look like many contemporary films do, as has become the big-budget Hollywood norm of late. Way ahead of it's time on both counts.

The film was shot at several nuclear/chemical disaster sites in the former Soviet Union, much of which were toxic. It is believed that many members of the crew and Tarkovsky himself all died early deaths due to exposure to radioactive/harmful chemicals. So many died shortly after the release of this film that there is believed to be a "curse" associated with anyone who was involved in the process of creating it. There is a scene where the characters pass a river, a river covered in foam, as snow falls around them. This is not a special effect—they were filming downstream/inside of a chemical factory. This scene is horrifying to witness once you realize that many of them died following the wrap of Stalker, as it is evident that they all were being infected before your eyes.

Yet my favorite aspect of the film is that it is extremely open to interpretation. It left me with many theories - is/was the Zone a medical facility? Is the Stalker a former patient of that facility, and still can only find comfort and support there, while the "meteorite" that crashed there is a Soviet cover up for a Chernobyl-like disaster? That is my strongest interpretation (which I won't go into further, should you actually seek out this film, I don't want to ruin it for you). Yet I can't help but feel that perhaps the Zone isn't there at all—that there is no actual danger. This is only the beginning—you could compose several books just based on the symbolism of the film. Brilliant beyond words.

The ending is one of the most intriguing ends to any film I have ever seen - the hair was literally standing on the back of my neck. The feeling is similar to the end of J.D. Salinger's short story, Teddy. Amazing - I had to get out of my seat and walk around the house it left me so charged with thought.

This viewing led to an odd night of sleep for me, with bizarre dreams. Apparently I was talking and searching the bed in my sleep, which is strange because I never do either of those things. But it was that kind of film, a work of art that functions on subconscious levels and haunts you. Tarkovsky succeeded in creating a work that is open to interpretation, uncomfortable, and moving simultaneously. Truly, this is one of the great masterworks of cinema, and a must-see for any cinephile.

BTW - You can watch the entire film online for free here. This film is worth the time investment.