Meandering off track
exclusion zone set round the destroyed Soviet nuclear reactor in the green landscape of Chernobyl as well as by Tarkovsky’s early death and his posthumous role as the inspirer of a new generation of art filmmakers.
What, though, is the nature of this aura: what gives the film its transcendent lift? Can Dyer help? Can Zona, cleverly billed on its cover as ‘‘ a book about a film about a journey to a room’’, illuminate? It is a shotby-shot analysis and commentary: ‘‘ The camera glides towards the car. Plants sway in the breeze a bit’’ — that kind of thing, and though the text is brief, a little of this goes a very long way.
Of course, the film is just the pretext. Dyer’s point is straying off the point, essayistic, self-conscious digressions on the art of writing, on the difficulties of being a sentient consumer of cultures in a post-cultural world, on living swept up in the grip of beauty and surrounded by meaninglessness. He sketches out the movie’s twists and turns, and the better known of the attendant dramas that surrounded its making, and offers up a set of reflections on the mysteries, moral and philosophical, that it raises.
But the distinctive quality of his personal trudge through the zone lies in the sidemeanderings: not just those provoked by the film itself, and its strange landscapes of abandoned, wrecked buildings and its soundtrack of dropping rain and distant, repeated bird-calls, but those that bud out from the shot-by-shot and blossom into little independent reflections and tales. How the movies of one’s formative years are more potent in the mind than any seen in maturity, how films shift their meaning over time, how LSD opens up one’s being, how there are always deep regrets in life. In Dyer’s case, the tormenting thought that he has on two occasions probably passed up the chance to have sex with two women at the same time plays strongly in his mind.
A free format — but even so Dyer must stay in character, and the essence of his character is to break character, to incarnate multiplicity, to adopt different tones on adjacent pages. He is to be the sincere admirer of a Soviet-era film, to be the avenging critic of Western mass consumerism, yearning for a purificatory ‘‘ zone’’ of his own, to absorb and comment on all topics, until he has proved, along with one of his favourite authorities, Flaubert, that you can write a book about absolutely anything. And that very fluency has seen Dyer newly rewarded with the ultimate plume of the zeitgeist, a column on words and ideas for The New York Times. What an omnivore!
His loss of a new bag at the Adelaide Festival becomes a running sub-theme in Zona, as does the fascination his parents felt for supermarkets. But the plurality sits strangely with the pure impulse that brought Zona into being — a love of art and literature that is constantly paraded, and constantly besmirched. Tarkovsky’s Stalker is chosen for this minute dissection precisely because it is the most elusive, most beautiful film of its place and time, and Dyer brings Wordsworth and Rilke with him to the decoding. But there are things he cannot bring. Stalker is a religious film and Tarkovsky was a religious man, working under great stress and a degree of persecution in an atheistic state culture system. Stalker is expressed in Russian language; it stands in that stream, and Dyer offers up an outsider’s account, very much through a glass darkly. It may, of course, not always be the worst way to see.
But there are other avenues to Tarkovsky, which advance down perspectives closer to the director’s own. He is seen with great clarity in his own country today: there is, for instance, a revelatory account of his work by the star of his science-fiction jewel, Solaris, Natalya Bondarchuk, now a director in her own right. She discusses the filmmaker and his art on camera, in an unbroken narrative, for almost half an hour, pouring out insights and evocations of the culture and the thought-world of Tarkovsky far richer and more illuminating than anything synthesised in Zona.
The disturbing idea forms that the cinematic art of Tarkovsky’s circle and its time deals with a realm that modern critics find hard to reach, because it demands their wholehearted involvement, free from wit and self-reference. This is a zone that may be beyond the kinds of writers who come to Western fame and reputation today.
What we have in this slim book, this book for the times when books are, as Dyer says, something of a distraction, is rather a fan’s account of a film that has moved the writer greatly, throughout his life of film-loving.
It has moved him to tears, wrought great passions in him — and those passions are listed without being conveyed. There is no sense in these pages of what it is to watch Stalker; there is just the experience of watching it, in real time. Art invites appreciation: it attracts profanation as well. Nicolas Rothwell is a senior writer on The Australian and the author of fiction and nonfiction works.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s seminal 1979 film Stalker is the basis of this book