Recently, I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky for Shiny New Books (see here), on the occasion of the Folio Society producing a beautifully illustrated reprint of the 2012 Gollancz restored translation. Not only a book I’ve long wanted to read, but to receive a review copy of this lovely edition was very much appreciated.
Roadside Picnic was the novel that inspired the Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky to make the film Stalker, released in 1979, which may spark a memory in some of you; alongside his earlier SF epic Solaris (adapted from the Stanislav Lem novel) is regarded as his best work.
There are some films that will stay with you forever, being watched and rewatched, memorised, analysed, music hummed, dreamed about. Todd McEwen writes about Chinatown, which he’s seen over 60 times, in his recent collection of essays Cary Grant’s Suit (reviewed for Shiny here). For me, that includes John Boorman’s Excalibur, seen at one of Leicester Square’s big screens on its opening weekend in 1981. Stalker is one of those films for Geoff Dyer. Having read his more recent dissection of the much-loved war film Where Eagles Dare, published in 2018 (reviewed for Shiny here), which was full of wit, film lore and love for the medium but also formed a commentary on the film from start to finish, I was prepared for a similar approach to Stalker in his earlier book about the film, Zona, published in 2012.
Before I get into Zona in detail, here’s a very quick synopsis of Roadside Picnic: Aliens have visited Earth but not stopped to say hello, just left all their rubbish behind them in the ‘zones’ where they landed, full of hazards and danger and now guarded and protected by the military. Red is a stalker, one of those those who go into the zone to recover alien artifacts. Sections about his life outside the zone and all the theories you could want about the zones are interspersed with the two trips that he makes in the novel. The second of which is in search of the fabled sphere which can grant your wishes, and this quest turns it all very philosophical.
After reading Roadside Picnic, I thought I ought to watch Stalker before tackling Zona. Although a student when it was released – my geeky crowd including me, weren’t into foreign films at all, even foreign SF (although as we’ll discover there is very little of that left in the film), so watching it now was a first for me. I tried to watch it, but it’s very long and slow by modern standards, as nothing much happens in its 2hrs 41mins. I certainly missed the most formative time to see it being 19 when it was released, I think:
Soon people will not be able to watch films like Theo Angelopoulos’s Ulysses’ Gaze or to read Henry James because they will not have the concentration to get from one interminable scene or sentence to the next. The time when I might have been able to read late-period Henry James has passed […]. But I do know that if I had not seen Stalker in my early twenties my responsiveness to the world would have been radically diminished.
And later Dyer makes a further distinction about seeing the film for the first time.
I saw Stalker within a month of its release, when Tarkovsky was at his artistic peak. I saw it, so to speak, live. The this means that I saw it in a slightly different way from how a twenty-four-year-old might see it for the first time now, in 2012. […] The thing, the product, the work of art stays the same but by staying the same it ages – and changes. It exists now in the wake of its own reputation…
Stalker strips down the story of Roadside Picnic to just one trip which is a mix of the two in the novel in which Stalker takes Professor and Writer into the zone to search for the ‘room’, which will grant wishes to those who enter. It begins in monochrome with Stalker in bed, arguing with his wife then going to the pub, where he agrees to the trip. They meet up and set off, using a trolley on tracks to make progress,
There then occurs one of the miracles of cinema, […]. It’s not a jump cut or fade but suddenly and gently – the clanking and echoey clank of the music and trolley are still on the sound track – unambiguously, we’re in colour and in the Zone.
I did like the nod to the Wizard of Oz, which amazingly Dyer comments in one of the many digressions in footnotes, that he has never seen!
Halfway through making the film, Tarkovsky ran out of money and fell out with his director of photography…
It was also during this interval that Tarkovsky ditched the science-fiction element of the film. More exactly, Tarkovsky manoeuvred Arkady Strugatsky – already worn down and frustrated by endless rewrites – into proposing that he get rid of the science fiction from his own Sci-fi story: ‘There! You suggest it, not I!’, said Tarkovsky. ‘I’ve wanted it for a long time, only was afraid of suggesting it, so you wouldn’t take offence.’ […] Stripped to its bare bones, the script became a parable with Stalker as an apostle, a holy fool.
Dyer goes on to analyse the film scene by scene, commenting on the dialogue, the cinematography, the images. But it is in the footnotes, some of which ramble across pages, that his wit and humour really come out. Dyer is quite opinionated:
That list of things and people I won’t watch on TV does not stop at Top Gear and Jeremy Clarkson. It also includes . . . Stalker. One cannot watch Stalker on TV for the simple reason that the Zone is cinema; it does not even exist on telly. The prohibition extends beyond Stalker, to anything that has cinematic value. It doesn’t matter if the TV is HD: great cinema must be projected. It is the difference, as John Berger puts it, between watching the sky and peering into a cupboard.
I won’t say more about what happens in Tarkovsky’s Zone, it’s quite different to the book. By the way, the girl on the front cover is Stalker’s disabled daughter, Monkey, . As the trip ends, the film cuts, back to the bar – again no explanation.
The bar door is open. Across the stretch of industrial water we can see the power station, looking all Didcot and grey because – oh yes, we’re also back in black and white, here in the world that is not the Zone.
I had to get the Didcot quote in – I still miss seeing those cooling towers in the distance, signifying you’re nearly home, as you come through the cut on the M40.
This book is so quotable. If you’re a film fan, particularly of foreign films, many of which classics appear in Dyer’s discussions and footnotes, you’ll probably enjoy this film even if you’ve never seen Stalker. I certainly appreciated it more after skimming the film, but Zona is a hugely entertaining book, combining essay and reportage with personal anecdote. Dyer is a thought-provoking but always accessible writer of non-fiction and I shall definitely search out more by him, including his novels.
Source: Own copy from a charity shop. Canongate hardback, 2012, 228 pages.
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