Part Of The Picture: Loftiness and Lightness

Posted on February 5, 2010



FEB 6, 2010 – THREE MEN KNOWN TO US ONLY BY the professions they represent – Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn), Professor (Nikolai Grinko), and the man who will lead them, Stalker (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) – venture into the Zone. The latter is vaguely described in a tract of text at the beginning, from an interview with Nobel Prize winner, Professor Wallace. “What was it? A meteorite? A visit of inhabitants of the cosmic abyss? One way or another, our small country has seen the birth of a miracle – the Zone. We immediately sent troops there. They haven’t come back. Then we surrounded the Zone with police cordons… Perhaps, that was the right thing to do.” Writer and Professor seek entry into a specific part of the Zone known as the Room, where, as Stalker (who’s headed such expeditions earlier) declares, “Your innermost wishes will be made real… Your most sincere wish! Born of suffering!”

Inevitably, the journey through these wastelands is pocked with musings “born of suffering.” Writer, at one point, hunkers down and sighs, “Everything I told you before is a lie. I don’t give a damn about inspiration. How would I know the right word for what I want? How would I know that actually I don’t want what I want? Or that I actually don’t want what I don’t want? They are elusive things: The moment we name them, their meaning disappears, melts, dissolves like a jellyfish in the sun.” These angsty convolutions are already beginning to sound a mite ridiculous, and that’s only in keeping with the borderline absurd tone of the entire enterprise, which plays out like a sci-fi quest filtered through Samuel Beckett’s sensibilities. Writer adds, “My conscience wants vegetarianism to win over the world. And my subconscious is yearning for a piece of juicy meat. But what do I want?” Professor comments dryly, “World domination.”

That sense of, if not quite humour, at least a welcome recognition of the bleak absurdity of its premise, prevails through the film, which alternates silently between loftiness and lightness. Elsewhere, Stalker calls out to his companions, “Where are you? Come here!” When they reach him, Stalker instructs them, “Soon we’ll come to a dry tunnel, after that it will get easier.” As Stalker turns to proceed, Professor asks, “Are we on our way already?” When Stalker says they are, Professor protests, “I thought you just wanted to show us something. What about my knapsack? I left it there. I didn’t know we were going.” Stalker says there’s nothing they can do about it, and when Professor insists, Stalker explains, “Can’t you understand that no one here has ever come back the same way?”

This time, it’s Writer’s turn to comment dryly. “Forget about your knapsack… The room will give you anything you want. Really. It will drown you in knapsacks.” They press forward and reach the tunnel, and they find Professor missing. Stalker assumes, correctly, “He must’ve gone for the knapsack! He won’t be able to make it now.” When Writer wonders if they should wait, Stalker says, “We can’t. Things change here every minute. We’ll have to go.” They drag themselves through the tunnel, only to discover Professor at the other end, calmly munching on lunch in front of a crackling fire. A bemused Stalker demands, “How did you get here?” Professor says simply, “Mostly I had to crawl up here on my fours.” When Stalker asks how Professor managed to overtake them, the latter replies, “What do you mean, ‘overtake’? I came back here for the knapsack.”

Thoroughly confused and exhausted, Stalker grumbles, “I never know beforehand what kind of people I’m taking with me. Everything gets clear only here, when it’s too late. What’s important is that Professor’s bag with his underwear is safe.” Professor says, “Don’t stick your nose in someone’s underwear if you don’t understand it.” Writer, so far silent, has had enough about the knapsack. He snaps at Professor, “What is there to understand? Binomial theorem? Some psychological abysses! You have a bad reputation at your institute. They don’t give you money for an expedition. So you decide to pack a knapsack full of manometers and other shit, penetrate the Zone illegally, and put all these miracles to an algebra test.” Not one to resist provocation, Professor retaliates with all the enthusiasm of a schoolkid picking a playground fight. “You lousy scribbler, a homespun psychoanalyst. You’re only good for painting walls in public toilets, you blabbermouth.” The light bickering continues, until it’s time for the next detour into lofty philosophy.

Stalker (1979, Russian). Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Starring Aleksandr Kaidanovsky, Anatoli Solonitsyn, Nikolai Grinko.

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Posted in: Cinema: Foreign