Monday, 13 May 2013

Week Nineteen - Jeanette

 Zona by Geoff Dyer (2012)
Recommended by Andrew

‘I’m off to see Tarkovsky’s Stalker tonight’, Andrew texted me last summer. He was in Edinburgh, spending some time at the festival.

‘Oh, Stalker!’ I replied. ‘I have opinions about Stalker. “Enjoy”.’

I shared those opinions when I next saw him. I considered Stalker overlong and indulgent: a great concept frittered away by a director too in love with his own visuals and not with his audience. I related an anecdote that, to me, summed it up: I’d been watching the film, got bored, gone off to make a cup of tea, came back, and exactly the same shot was still on the screen.

Fast forward a few months, and Andrew recommends me Zona, Geoff Dyer’s recent book about his love affair with Stalker. I’m going to have to watch the bleeder again come May, I thought.

However, through Artificial Eye being useless and happily letting important films go out of print (don’t get me started on their treatment of Rainer Werner Fassbinder), Stalker is unavailable on DVD in the UK at the moment. So I did the next best thing; I rewatched another Tarkovsky movie, Mirror.

I first saw Mirror not long after Stalker and vastly preferred it (I’ve also seen Solaris, which I consider the worst of the three). Mirror probably has even less of a plot than Stalker, but there was a warmth to its images: without wishing to sound too pretentious (very difficult to avoid when talking of Tarkovsky), Mirror evoked the curious space of childhood memory and its impact on the present with great sophistication and candour. I liked it even better on a second viewing.

Immediately, in Zona, Geoff Dyer addresses my moans about Stalker.

By any standards it’s a slow start to a movie. Officials from Gosinko, the central government agency for film production in the USSR, complained about this, hoping the film could be ‘a little more dynamic, especially at the start.’ Tarkovsky erupted: it actually needed to be slower and duller at the start so that anyone who had walked into the wrong theatre would have time to leave before the action got under way. Taken aback by the ferocity of this response, one of the officials explained that he was just trying to see things from the audience’s point of view… He was not able to finish. Tarkovsky couldn’t give a toss about the audience.

So I was right about the Tarkovskian arrogance towards the paying public! But how about that static shot when I went off to get a cup of tea?

Often, in Tarkovsky, when we think something is still it’s not; at the very least, the frame is contracting or expanding slightly, almost as if the film were breathing.

Pah. One-all.

Dyer broadly sees the total lack of interest in a cinema audience as a plus point for ol’ Tarkers: it’s exactly because of that attitude Stalker is the achievement it is. Although mostly Dyer was persuasive as to his argument, he annoyed me at one stage:

At first there can be a friction between our expectations of time and Tarkovsky-time and this friction is increasing in the twenty-first century as we move 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.

This may very well have a kernel of truth in it, yet Dyer’s tone and use of ‘moron-time’ smacks of unpleasant superiority. This was its most obvious example, yet there were other hints that Dyer occasionally didn’t care about his audience, either.

Zona – and I suspect this was the reason Andrew recommended the book to me, rather than simply to argue by proxy about Stalker – is part-autobiography. Dyer not only considers his relationship with the film, but how its various ideas and imagery offer insight into his own history.

The football pools: that, for many British people, was their equivalent of the Room, the thing that would make all their wishes come true. ‘All I’d like to do,’ my mum said with a mixture of pride and humbleness, ‘is go down to the supermarket and buy the nicest piece of steak there. That’s all I want.’

Reading these bits, which increase in frequency as the book goes on, was great, and really helped me understand why Dyer loved the film, and perhaps, also, why I did not. It seems to me that if we only admire a movie for its innovation or beauty, cinema wouldn’t work the way it does, and none of us would have a favourite movie at all, even. But those treasured films, those that do touch us deeply, they set in motion a special chemical reaction. Their content pings off our own yearnings or regrets, loves or hatreds. It’s easy when writing – or speaking – of a film to neglect this, perhaps because we don’t think others will be interested, perhaps because we don’t want to unpick our own muddled feelings, perhaps because its simply easier to praise (or criticise) an audaciously lengthy still shot than to analyse why it affects us so. And this is where I come back to Andrew: in the relatively short time I’ve known him, it’s been his unapologetic and intelligent capacity for introspection, along with an unusual and eloquent means of expressing it, that has had a striking effect on me.

So I can see why Zona has resonated with him. Dyer explicitly applies his own narrative to Stalker, and sometimes this means the structure of the book is messy – many will be frustrated with the digressions via footnotes, everything from a bitch about Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels to missed opportunities for ménage a trois – but I found it a price worth paying. Zona has much more in common with House Of Leaves than, say, with a coolheaded Cahiers Du Cinéma anthology.

Another text from Andrew (yesterday):

            If we ever find a copy of Stalker I demand a gala viewing.

And what did I reply? Has Zona convinced me to sit through it again?

            You’re so ON.