Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker starts from an image of almost total stasis, where the camera moves past a pair of double doors to find the Stalker (a self-appointed guide into the alien-created forbidden Zone) in bed, with his wife beside him. Cut to a high angle shot of a bedstand: a water glass trembles, starts to slide; the camera glides sideways, finds the wife gazing at the bedstand, the daughter fast asleep, the Stalker trying to gauge his wife's wakefulness; glides back (past gazing wife) to the water glass in original position, as if it had never moved.
The Stalker rises, fends off his wife's demands that he stay and mind his family (classic domestic situation whose emotional tone Tarkovsky pitches halfway between comically irritating screed and tragically pathetic plead), eventually joins two other men (a Writer and a Professor) at the local bar-cafe.
Actually, no--the film starts at the bar-cafe, with one of the men (the Professor) arriving early to sip a cup; Tarkovsky then cuts to the the bedroom. The purpose of starting here (cafe) instead of there (bedroom) I'm guessing is twofold: we learn of the Stalker's home life; we also learn that he doesn't consider home and family the center of his life, that he can't wait to extricate himself from his wife's arms to initiate the real start of his day, at the cafe where all his tours originate.
Before entering the Zone however Stalker, Professor, and Writer must sneak past a patrolman on a motorcycle; pop in and out of buildings (Tarkovsky's camera turns the Stalker's little game into an elaborate three-way chase as it pans and peers around corners, catches sight of the Stalker and his friends, of the patrolman on his bike, sometimes both at the same time). The jeep surges out of hiding to clamber onto railroad tracks just as gates open and a train carrying industrial-sized ceramic insulators rolls past, the patrolman's automatic rifle chattering disapproval from behind.
And then they're in the Zone, and Tarkovsky gives us a Wizard of Oz moment with our first view in full color, all thick emerald grass and trees draped in deep green, the verdant carpeting interrupted by electrical poles jutting out at odd angles.
Tarkovsky's second science fiction film came about presumably because he was impressed by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's short novel Roadside Picnic, presumably because of his unhappiness with Solaris four years before; he considers the 1972 production "the least successful" of his works because all the trappings of SF--the space station, the rockets, the zero gravity--were a distraction from his true intent, to focus on the human drama.
Tarkovsky's probably happier with Stalker. The film is if anything even quieter, stripped of the props and scenery the genre is known for--instead of an alien planet we have streams and vine-choked buildings; instead of deadly alien booby-traps we have an ominously dark sewer tunnel; and instead of (as in the Strugatsky's novel) a golden orb that grants one's dearest wish we have a mysterious room, the half-flooded antechamber filled with floating plastic junk, plus a side chamber with a telephone that happens to be ringing.
For all his avoidance of SF's hoary trappings, Tarkovsky does realize the essence of the Strugatsky's novel: the aliens landed some years ago and left behind a series of artifacts that have created the Zone, the orb, the deadly 'meatgrinder.' How do these artifacts work and why? We don't know; the novel's title comes from a metaphor concocted to explain the aliens' behavior, of a picnic where people have left behind all manner of detritus, which curious ants find either somewhat beneficial or utterly dangerous. The point being the disparity between humans and ants, aliens and us: we can't understand the significance (if any) of what they've left behind, and they're unaware of our puzzlement (couldn't care less even if they were aware).
Tarkvosky not so much reminds us of the situation as immerses us, practically drowns us in it: the three men slowly progress (the Stalker tossing metal nuts tied with cloth before him, Hansel-and-Gretel style, as a precautionary ritual) through a series of abandoned ruins, rusted cars, derelict tanks, a landscape of waste. The aliens are not the only intelligent beings guilty of littering the planet; if anything human beings have been at it longer, with more enthusiasm.*
* (In fact not all the pollution is metaphorical, or the result of production design: Tarkovsky shot in Tallinn by the Jagala river, downstream of a chemical plant, unaware that the snow seen falling or foam seen floating in some of the scenes were possibly toxic. The director, his wife Larisa, and Anatoli Solonitsyn (who plays the Writer) later died of lung cancer)
Beyond that of course the Zone is a metaphor for the hostile nature of life itself--always bizarre, often incomprehensible, sometimes dangerous, on occasion wonderful. Adding to the disturbing sense of whimsy, the sense of not-quite-rational forces at work are the games, each sequence shaped like a childish amusement that the Stalker seems to be playing not just with family but fellow travelers.
Hence: with his wife he plays hooky, with the patrolman hide-and-seek; with the Writer--whose boozing and womanizing he seems to disapprove of--he plays a cruel version of chicken, sending him again and again into dangerous missions, finally down the sewer tunnel into what he euphemistically calls 'the meatgrinder.'
That sequence is Tarkovsky at his most insidious: The Stalker is genuinely frightened, and the idea gradually dawns on the Writer that this is Not a Good Place to Be. The tunnel comes to suggest a large intestine passing muck and waste through a door into the chemical pit of a stomach.
The Stalker springs his most interesting game at the threshold of The Room itself: a particularly intense session of truth or dare. The men stand to the left of the frame, the The Room's opening gaping silently to the right. They have declared their motives for undertaking the journey; now truth comes out, and like walking through the 'meatgrinder' it's an ugly process. Never mind that Tarkovsky has pared away the Strugatsky's artifacts (they're invisible, or--as the Writer points out--possibly nonexistent), The Room is meant to draw out secrets from those standing before its opening (a huge portal, roughly ten by twenty feet, with gigantic grooves on the sides--for an equally gigantic if absent door, perhaps?).
At the same time Tarkovsky saves his most audacious shot for last. The men hang their heads in exhaustion and despair and Tarkovsky cuts to a camera position ninety degrees from previous, slowly pulls back; we eventually see the great ten-by-twenty opening slide past us, the giant slots on the sides, and realize the camera is inside The Room! Tarkovsky has planted us right in the heart of the mystery these men are so reluctant to solve, and of course refuses to explain anything (you mark odd little details, any or none of which may be relevant: an orange sunset glow fills The Room and fades--apparently The Room has windows; later a little rain falls--The Room may grant a man's wish but has so far failed to grant itself a roof; The Room has about a foot of standing water inside with catfish swimming about--what might they wish for, and have any of their wishes been granted?).
At film's end (skip the rest of the article if you intend to see the film!) the Stalker lies in bed, shattered; his faith in The Zone, The Room, his mission as guide and witness has been cast into doubt, and he lies feverish with disillusionment (The Zone has been compared to many things, but anyone noticed how much it resembles the human body? Intestines (the 'meatgrinder'); stomach (the pool of green muck); skin (the guarded perimeter); circulatory system (the river); cranium (The Room); even the soul--if you happen to believe in one--has its analogue).**
**(Think about it: even Dorothy's journey through Oz takes a similarly introverted direction--from brain (Scarecrow) to heart (Tin Man) to courage (The Lion))
If in effect the three men have been diving deep into a visual and spatial analogue of themselves, what have they come up with? Tarkovsky suggests that the film is about faith, that the Stalker's faith created the Zone and that the two men fail to enter because they lack the necessary spiritual value--their doubt in effect has shaken the very reality of The Zone inside the Stalker's head. Tarkovsky in interviews asserts the need for faith in something (not necessarily God; The Wizard, perhaps?), but one might ask: is this the definitive reading on the film?
Perhaps the two men destroy the Stalker's faith and the wife restores it (hence asserting that the film's course is a full circle--the Stalker leaves his family to affirm his faith, only to find the genuine unwavering article back at home where he had left it ("there's no place like home, there's no place like home!")); perhaps the men cure him of his delusions, which the wife passionately--and uselessly--attempts to maintain. Or perhaps they destroy a belief system that has already stopped working (according to the Stalker they should have died several times over, but have not) to clear the way for a new generation (the Stalker's child), full of new possibilities, an entirely new faith.
Who knows? Traveling through The Zone is a process (much as blood cells coursing through a body is a process) and so I suppose is the development of one's thoughts about the film; when one comes to definite conclusions, unshakable convictions, and final destinations then the travelers, blood cells, and one's thoughts have fallen into stasis, decay, death. Movement apparently is all.
First published in Businessworld, 7.30.15