Me­an­der­ing off track

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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