15 April 2012

Stalking Tarkovsky: a review of a book about a film about a journey to a room

My review of Geoff Dyer's fascinating book Zona, published in Indian Express.
A still from Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979)

If the regular length of a shot is increased, one becomes bored, but if you keep on making it longer, it piques your interest, and if you make it even longer, a new quality emerges, a special intensity of attention.” This is the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky describing the aesthetic that drives his films, films like Stalker (1979). But it could just as well describe the aesthetic choice made by Geoff Dyer, who has written not an 800-word review, not a 5,000-word chapter, but a whole 200-page book devoted to Tarkovsky’s 163-minute film.

By movie standards — actually by any standards — not much happens in Stalker. Two men (referred to as Writer and Professor) are taken by an anguished-looking third man (the Stalker of the title) to a post-apocalyptic area called the Zone, in which there is a sub-area called The Room, where one’s secret hopes are realised. Even less “happens” in Zona, subtitled “A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room”. The book is nothing if not Dyer’s deliberately provocative, wry response to a twenty-first century world in which, as he points out, we are moving “further and further away from Tarkovsky-time towards moron-time in which nothing can last — and no one can concentrate on anything — for longer than about two seconds”.

But Dyer, who has to his credit some four novels (including the memorable twin novellas of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi), several collections of essays and one-off pieces (the most recent being the marvellous Otherwise Known as the Human Condition) and other award-winning, uncategorisable books — such as But Beautiful, which is a book “about jazz” as well as a make-believe account of the lives of jazz musicians, and Out of Sheer Rage, a book about Dyer writing his book about D.H. Lawrence — is the sort of writer whose effortlessly clever meanderings move between being profound and exasperating. Dyer will find an obscure novel to check whether a line in Tarkovsky’s film version was in the original novel — but then he’ll skim it because he really couldn’t be bothered. As one reviewer recently put it, “He’s like the most brilliant boyfriend you ever had in grad school — though sometimes you wonder whether he’ll ever finish his dissertation.”

The first book by Geoff Dyer that I ever read was Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. In the first part of that book, a middle-aged British journalist called Jeff Atman goes to Venice to cover the 2004 Biennale. All Junket Jeff (as one acquaintance addresses him) wants from the trip is to plough his way through a succession of Bellini-filled parties. But his cynicism is swiftly punctured by falling in love-lust, on his first night in Venice, with the lovely Laura from Los Angeles. The affair, fuelled by much sex and more cocaine, and Laura’s subsequent no-fuss departure — neither too cold nor overly emotional — robs Atman of his couldn’t-care-less aura: “The traditional way of these things was that men came and went, leaving women weeping in their wake, but he was the one being left behind and, if he was not careful, he could easily start weeping.”

Needless to say, Jeff is not Geoff. But it is hard to escape the echoes of the fictional Jeff in Dyer’s non-fictional writerly persona: the unstoppable urge to be clever, the self-aware quality that tempers the worst of the cleverness by making fun of it, the roundabout return to the same topics — middle age, sex, laziness, procrastination, ambition or the lack of it, the purpose of writing, or of living, even references to the things that make him weep.

Zona — more than most of his books, which is saying something — lends itself to Dyer’s free associative brilliance. If Tarkovsky’s cinematic style, founded on impossibly long takes with minimal cuts that the viewer could not possibly predict, was seen as idiosyncratic, Dyer’s book is even more so. As he did so often in his D.H. Lawrence book, Dyer gestures repeatedly to his inability to write a more traditionally structured book, or even stick to the non-traditional structure he set himself to start with. “I had intended breaking this little book into 142 sections […] corresponding to the 142 shots of the film. […] it worked well at first but then, as I became engrossed and re-engrossed in the film, I kept losing track of where one shot ended and another began […] this book is an account of watchings, rememberings, misrememberings, and forgettings; it is not the record of a dissection.”

So we get is a scene-by-scene account of Stalker, but the grimness of Tarkovsky’s murky, dystopic universe and the painstakingness of Dyer’s description of it are leavened by Dyer’s deliberately droll style. “Another hail of bullets, but harmless, Where Eagles Dare–ish in their harmlessness.” Sharp-eyed connections — to more Tarkovsky, to films that reference Tarkovsky, to other books and films — alternate with long digressions, sometimes teetering on the verge of banality without quite falling in. So Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris stars Natasha McElhone, who Dyer thinks looks like his wife. Ah, and other people do too. But it’s not clear whether it makes any sense at all to call these passages digressions, when in fact the book is precisely a stitching together of digressions. The overgrown industrial wreckage amid which Stalker unfolds reminds him of the disused Leckhampton station near which he played as a child; the Professor wanting to go back to get his knapsack makes Dyer think of his lost Freitag bag, setting off one of his characteristically deadpan-but-profound meditations: “But it would be nice if, at the end of your life, the locations of where you lost your most beloved ten or twenty possessions could be revealed to you, if you could see a film that showed your younger self walking away from the table… in Adelaide, slightly drunk, while your Freitag bag, discreetly stylish in grey, sat there neglected…”

In Zona, Dyer — while ostensibly speaking of overpriced choc ices — quotes Camus, who said that “a man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened”. Dyer clearly has more than two or three. But whether they’re the eerily melancholy frames of Stalker, or remembered Freitag bags, he does manage to make them feel like a life’s work.

Zona: published by Canongate Books, 228 pp., Rs 650.

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