Film Reviews

Stalker Andrei Tarkovsky

Rating - 9/10

Andrei Tarkovsky's unmistakable gift for crafting mystical imagery from naturalistic properties cannot be better exemplified than in his last film of the 1970s, Stalker.  Intelligently drawing from the psychological aspects of writers like Philip K. Dick and neo-realism of cinema idols Robert Bresson and Ingmar Bergman, Tarkovsky subversively demonstrates his interest in the inexplicable effects of one's environment instead of well-ascertained threats.  Due to this elusive emphasis, Stalker unfurls much like his other 150-minute-plus masterwork, Solaris, in a two-part sluggish, poetic and boundless manner.  Loosely adapted from the novel Picnic by the Roadside by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, the film reveals the story of a nameless geological guide or "Stalker" and his two clients, "Professor" and "Writer," who traverse a conscious shape-shifting wilderness known as "The Zone."  By excluding official character names, Tarkovsky severs an emotional link with audiences, but in exchange, he personifies landscapes in unconventionally beautiful manners. Utilizing both color film stock and sepia tone (captured with a high contrast brown monochrome filter), Stalker highlights the many shades of a unfamiliar environment's adverse or auspicious relationship to the human psyche and the physical act of survival within it.  In many regards, the film emerges as a post-modern dystopian Wizard of Oz update.

Analysis of The Zone is an indefinite, impenetrable and multifarious process as the concept in the film itself.  Throughout the course of its two parts, Stalker attempts to portray The Zone as a kind of humane entity with possession of a vision and will of its own.  At the first part's conclusion, he makes several allusions to possible classification.  "The Zone wants to be respected.  Otherwise it will punish..." Moments later, he nearly negates his own musings by declaring it as a deadly and "complicated system of traps....  The moment someone shows up, everything comes into motion....  Safe spots become impassable.  Now your path is easy; now it's hopelessly involved.  That's The Zone."  Each of these notions, however, is united by the idea of a consciousness beyond rational explanation.  In a final first act remark to Writer and Professor, Stalker speculates that The Zone "lets those pass who have lost all hope."  These implications are instantly transferred to his two envoys who immediately take extreme caution when roaming the potentially treacherous wilderness, yet each of them remains utterly reliant on his advice.  In the film's second part, Stalker more intricately develops the mystical nature of The Zone through rambling philosophies complementary to the director's subtly surreal camera methods.  In response to Professor's desperate attempts to destroy a mystic section of The Zone with a bomb, Stalker describes a former stalker named "Porcupine" who vanished when he wandered The Zone with ulterior or dubious motives.  The unrelenting discussion of The Zone as a physical yet unidentifiable presence rather than an extension of nature is a testament Tarkovsky's calculated processes.  Beyond that, the director probes the realm of psychoanalysis by including a celestial place called "The Room" within The Zone itself, which supposedly grants human wishes.  Its functionality remains unclear in the end, but its mere nature suggests a revelation of the innermost self (or the "id") that may awaken dormant truths of the human spirit.  Additionally, it's possible that conceptualization of The Zone is derived from a core ideology of Zen Buddhism, a favored philosophical outlet for Tarkovsky at the time of constructing the film.

The cyclical nature of Stalker is equally reliant on movement of images and colors as well as the moral deliberation of its three characters.  The film begins in the brown sepia tone of a post-industrialized-apocalyptic society and hurtles through an obscure lore about the creation of The Zone through a catastrophic meteorite that burned a settlement and effected human disappearances.  The shift to a green palette of color in the last sequence of the first part suggests an optimism that is obscured by foreboding silence.  Sepia once again intrudes the film when the characters encounter exhaustion and initially impassable areas in part two.  Stalker clings to faith from the New Testament ("Weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing."), and Writer rejects technology in favor of artistic pursuits ("Technology is a crutch and artificial limb.  Mankind exists in order to create works of art").  Professor is more reserved in his musings, although he expresses a will to destroy "The Room."  "This place will never bring happiness to anyone... As long as this plague lies in the open, accessible to any scum, I get no peace, no sleep," he  affirms.  Professor regrettably changes his mind as he deems The Zone part of nature and therefore a representation of hope.  Ultimately, though, it's the overarching aspects of Stalker's musings that dominate the film; through the amorphous and perilous landscape, the unification of human faith between the three characters emerges as a cornerstone of survival.  A sense of irony arises as Stalker remains as indefinite and speculative as the other men yet intends to lead them to certain glory.  It's this ethical and vulnerable interplay that promotes the characters' completeness and augments the sense of intellectual filmmaking.  While perhaps not intellectual in a strictly essay sense, Tarkovsky's films, unlike those of Jean-Luc Godard, are often statically meticulous visual poetry rather than hyperactive barrages of juxtapositions.

The intermittent and sparse utilization of music in Tarkovsky's films can often be misconstrued to suggest that his view of the medium is one of ignorance, when in actuality it is related to the distortion of the visual image.  While Tarkovsky often stresses that musical tones alter the emotional qualities of images, his artistic inspiration is lifted from the works of classical composers like Bach and Beethoven.  Because classicism adds a timeless quality, he believed this period of music strengthened the overall resonance of cinema as a young art form.  Ironically, in Stalker, Tarkovsky enlisted composer Eduard Artemyev to develop a comprehensive orchestral score that he ultimately rejected.  To adequately complement the surrealist leanings of the film, Artemyev thereafter developed a non-thematic soundtrack illuminating the coexistence of Eastern and Western music, as he describes in an interview on the Kino DVD release, primarily written for the tar, a traditional Persian instrument.  The end-result is a mystically new age non-intrusive droning; it initially plays over the title sequence and gently and sparingly recurs in the remaining 150 minutes.  Artemyev further utilized the instruments and improvisational philosophies of Indian classical music, like the tambura and block flute, to create the remainder of soundtrack, which perhaps unintentionally (and unknowingly to Tarkovsky), distorts Stalker's sense of time and place; Artemyev's world influence remains an asset to the prevailing dazed mood while maintaining a sense of comfort.

Most remarkable about Stalker is the sense of nostalgia and warmth it generates while remaining detached from usual conventions.  The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue by Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie reports that the average shot length in the film approaches the one-minute mark (152), which leaves the impression that entire sections of the film were made in a single uninterrupted shot.   These methods provide Stalker with a distinctive immersion that allows audiences to reciprocate the nameless characters' concerns about their treacherous terrain.  Rather than producing a montage of different viewpoints, Tarkovsky, akin to his previous films, usually prefers to objectively showcase environment.  While the less personable approach can remove emotive elements, Tarkovsky's presentation of characters remains genuinely compelling and authentic.  It's actually the image of humanity and family that initially propel the film rather than a detached still-life of a horizon.  While the familial impressions are broken rather quickly, the film is careful to return to those same consoling images by its end, aligning with the vast beauty of landscape and poetry of Fyodor Tyutchev as read by Stalker's wife.  True to the neo-realists before him but diverting from their focuses, Tarkovsky proves that he doesn't need an exorbitant budget to craft a mysterious and technologically-oriented film.  It's nature that bestows the illusions, and Tarkovsky's ability to manipulate it with his rare gift of concentration lends a tremendous sense of emotional and literary power to the work.  Perhaps the idea of wish fulfillment in Stalker is an extension of cinemaphiles' desires to witness another filmmaker as profound, poetic and real as Andrei Tarkovsky.