A film about a journey to a room: so muses the knowingly understated title of Geoff Dyer’s volume of ruminations on Andrei Tarkovksy’s Stalker, recently restored by Criterion and finishing up its repertory run (including at Northwest Film Forum earlier this summer). Upon revisiting it myself, I was struck by a few elements that flew over me on first viewing. Stalker was my first Tarkovsky and I’ve held out on revisiting it for years until I could see a proper projection.
Stalker has long seemed to me the quintessential entry point to Tarkovsky. Thanks to the starting point of the Strugatsky Brothers’ sci-fi novella Roadside Picnic, on which it is based, it’s a less explicitly personal and esoteric work compared to much else Tarkovsky made in the same time period – even its cousin in sci-fi adaptation, Solaris, is far more up the creek in its willingness to indulge auteurial asides. By comparison, Stalker is a fleet and disciplined narrative, with an immediately compelling dystopian setting and propulsive will for moving from one event to the next.
And then of course there is the camera, which slowly glides apace with its humans. If the only thing one remembers from Tarkovsky is a sense of reverent – or nervous – procession, it’s because of the ability of such moments to impress themselves upon one’s memory. On this viewing, I was surprised at how little the shot I associate with the film actually shows up. You know the one: the dollied camera follows a man at shoulder height from one end of a hallway to another. That shot is indeed there and it is indeed spectacular, but this particular means of following, of anticipating what is ahead, of moving with someone through a space charged with meaning, isn’t scattered throughout as frequently as I’d remembered. Something else, however, is.
Even if there isn’t as much movement as I’d thought, there is a lot of looking outwards. The men of Stalker, especially the Stalker himself, are constantly looking away from camera, outwards from themselves and us. This act of gazing essentially extends the bounds of cinematic space within that space itself even within an already thoroughly mapped out composition. If the concern of most directors is in how to navigate the space between viewer and characters, Tarkovsky seems concerned more with navigating the space beyond his actors’ purview, making these figures intermediaries between us and that infinite distance. The literal spatial distance, whether in a room or a field, matters little; what matters is the act of gazing together.
Ultimately, it calls to mind the ancient posture of liturgical prayer in some Catholic and most Orthodox communities: when celebrating the Sacred Mysteries, a priest faces “east;” the hope of the community is directed towards the rising sun, anticipating the return of Christ. In liturgical terms this doesn’t always mean geographic east, but wherever the altar is located; the altar is the East, and in Eastern Christian communities this itself is usually still hidden by an iconostasis – a screen. Priest and parishioners direct their gaze in one direction, infinitely beyond them.
Is this what Tarkovsky is up to? A cinema of beholding? It’s far from the only possibility of Stalker, but it remains for me the most thrilling aspect, charged with implications for cultivating a community of the moving image.