Film and Television Features

Zona - Book Review

The films of Andrei Tarkovsky are not for everyone. Terminally slow, laden with symbolism and peppered with weighty dialogue (in Russian no less!), you should not expect to see his films transferred to 3D and rereleased in multiplexes around the world. He first came to international attention in 1962 with his debut film, Ivan's Childhood, but it was his next two films, Andrei Rublev and Solaris, that cemented his reputation and established the style he would explore for the rest of his short life (he died in 1986 at 54). While he is best known for these two films, a small but devoted cult following has developed around his 1979 film, Stalker. I became a lonely member of this cult the first time I saw the movie a decade ago. I say lonely because living in upstate New York I rarely came across other people who had seen it, and I was reluctant to recommend it to anyone because of the stylistic hurdles already mentioned. 

So imagine my surprise when I found out that noted author Geoff Dyer had just written a book devoted entirely to Stalker. The book is called Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room. The recent trend of subtitling every non-fiction book published has irritated me to the point where I wonder why we even have titles anymore, but in this case it is fitting because it’s so blindingly accurate. Zona is precisely a book about a film about etc., etc. Dyer has chosen to take an approach that may have precedent but not in my admittedly limited experience.  He has written a scene by scene description of the film, taking frequent detours to muse on whatever topic pops into his head. It is very much a jazz performance, with Dyer using Stalker as his theme and then improvising solos off of it. Like a mid-period Coltrane, sometimes he stays close to the theme, and sometimes he spirals off into the ether, but since this is Giant Steps and not Interstellar Space, Dyer never loses the narrative. After a diversion into his college viewing habits or the evils of Lars Von Trier, Zona quickly snaps back into focus with a riveting description of the next scene. 

Dyer is a frank, intelligent and always engaging writer, so I think that whether you’ve seen Stalker or not, as long as you have some interest in film, you’ll fly right through this book. It’s a testament to the ambiguity and power of the film that it can sustain this kind of treatment, though you get the impression that Dyer could have riffed successfully off Revenge of the Nerds II if he felt like it. If you read the book and you haven’t seen the movie, my guess is it will quickly move to the first position in your netflix queue.