Still from Tarkovsky's 'Stalker'
At first glance, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 Russian sci-fi film “Stalker” isn’t that complicated a movie. According to English novelist and essayist Geoff Dyer, the three-hour art-house staple can be summarized in two sentences (“Stalker, who’s a guide, takes these two clients, Writer and Professor, to a place called the Zone. At the heart of the Zone is a place called the Room, where it’s believed your deepest wish will come true.”). But that didn’t stop Dyer from writing a whole book about the movie, which turns out to be more complex than its summary.
Geoff Dyer’s Zona details the action of “Stalker” scene-by-scene, veering off to explore the art of cinema, memory, desire, writing, as well as muse on Dyer’s disdain for certain TV shows and missed opportunities in his youth for threesomes. Dyer recently chatted with Word & Film about writing Zona, the legacy of Tarkovsky, and why watching a movie in the theater is still the best way to experience it.
Word & Film: How did Zona come about?
Geoff Dyer: It started … with me bunking off from the book I’d been contracted to write, which is this book about tennis. I found that I didn’t want to, or couldn’t be bothered to, or was just incapable of writing this book about tennis. And then “Stalker” was shown … and I remember feeling so pissed off they hadn’t invited me to join them in the debate [after the screening]. So I arranged to write an article, whereby I — instead of saying on a panel why I liked the film — would sort of write it out. I wrote the article and then just kept sort of summarizing the film, ostensibly in this inappropriate tone — just to keep myself happy. I just kept going and going … until eventually I realized there was certainly a book’s worth of material.
W&F: A lot of people classify your work as “genre defying.” Does that ever get annoying?
GD: I liked this idea of being genre-defying back in the day, whenever it was that they started calling my books that. The problem is now that there’s a lot of this stuff about, “genre defying” as itself became a genre … I was much happier being “genre defying” before a category was invented or so named.
W&F: Not only is Zona on quite a few “year’s best lists,” but it’s also on a lot of lists compiled by other writers. How does that feel?
GD: It feels great! I’m slightly pissed off that I’m not on more of them [Laughs] … I want people to like my books and if writers like them that makes me happier. I’m really relieved because there were so many years where [my] books would come out and the literary richter scale would register not even the faintest of tremors.
W&F: Was it intentional for Zona to get so personal or did that just kind of come up as you were writing it?
GD: It was inherently going to be incredibly personal because that film had meant so much to me. But also it’s the only way I can go about things. I can’t really imagine writing about much without it being personal … All the different times I saw “Stalker,” there was some kind of experience that went beyond sitting there watching the film. It was taking place in a particular city, going to the cinema at a particular time. Whereas now, you can watch everything at home.
W&F: I watched “Stalker” on my computer at home. Did I miss out?
GD: There’s pluses and minuses. There might have been a film with some mythic reputation and you might have had to wait five years for a chance to see it. So that was drag to have wait. On the other hand that meant it was a real special occasion when you saw it. And also, it meant you’d be seeing things in the cinema.
W&F: So are there now whole generations of people who are missing out on the full experience of not only “Stalker” but also other classic films?
GD: There’s something about the concentration demanded by being in a dark room and giving yourself to something — that’s important. In the case of “Stalker,” because it’s about “What is the zone?” And the zone is about cinematic space. There’s something about the radiance of the imagery. I’ve been to a number of screenings when they’ve projected from a DVD and it just doesn’t look right. It really is a different experience watching it from a print.
W&F: Tarkovsky’s legacy seems to be on a bit of an upswing in the last few years; would you agree with that?
GD: I feel like there’s been a sort of revival of his fortunes. I think when Sight and Sound asked a bunch people to list their top films, I think both “Stalker” and “Mirror” came pretty high up the rankings. So yeah, I think his reputation is growing at the moment.
W&F: There’s also the aspect of Tarkvosky being an artist that kind of benefited from being in the Soviet Union, which is unique.
GD: Yeah, he had all sorts of difficulty with the state, but the thing is raising the money to make a film like [“Stalker”] in the West would have been almost impossible. And also once he got his hands on the money, he was given an awful lot of freedom to do pretty much what he wanted … but when he came to the West and was able to do whatever he wanted with all sorts of resources and freedoms he had nothing left to say.