Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)


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.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Peter R. Hunt, 1969)

ohmss-3Having recently taken it upon myself to revisit all of the canon James Bond films in chronological order, some for the first time since childhood, one thing became very clear, very quickly: most of these films are thunderingly mediocre on every level, no more so than in their lack of interest in pushing the limits of cinematic form. From the very beginning the series eschewed artistic innovation in favour of middle-of-the-road dependability. In the Connery era, the costumes, sets, colours, gadgets, sex, and violence could evolve with the times, but the means of arranging and propelling them on screen remained prim, efficient, and more or less unchanged.

The template: unfussy and clean compositions, standard high key lighting, pristine continuity editing, rich palettes, and perhaps an occasional Hitchcockian flourish. A certain sequence here or there might allow room to play around with pacing for effect – the train fight in From Russia With Love, or the protracted dreaminess of the underwater battles in Thunderball – but for the most part, business as usual means keeping things coolly focused and more or less tied to the rudiments of establishing Bond in classical cinematic space.

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Columbus (Kogonada, 2017)

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A man and a woman find meaning amidst the ruins of another age: the schematic proffered by Roberto Rossellini in his 1954 masterpiece, Voyage to Italy, remains as vital as ever, constantly spawning successors in that undefinable but all too recognizable strain of modern narrative cinema which makes tourists of disaffected men and women in settings richly endowed with history and forgotten culture. In these films, the setting and its adornments are given the weight of characters themselves, speaking silent truths to those gazing upon them, offering wisdom and comfort to those caught between the contented past and the uncertain future.

It’s a scenario that audiences (mostly festival ones) are by now used to seeing played out in European settings, among mostly European people – Certified Copy, La Sapienza, Museum Hours, and the Before trilogy, to name a few. Tension is often derived from the presence of an interloper from Britain or the U.S. – to say the least, a character containing, unknown to them, a multitude of historical baggage ranging anywhere from the English Reformation and its iconoclasm, to puritanism, capitalism and attendant barbarisms. By coming into contact and meditating upon long-rejected pagan and Catholic architecture, painting, sculpture, and ornamentation, a certain refreshment and cleansing takes place. At its most basic level, as introduced by Rossellini, a spiritual and emotional clarity is ushered in by contact with pre-modern art, and consequently, the sublime, and the cogs of the narrative rumble back into motion, taking our now reborn characters into a new future – a revitalized marriage, the starting of a family, a return to the boring old New World with fresh eyes. It has long been observed that Voyage set into motion a truly modern cinema – that is to say, a cinema of lost people unmoored from tradition, beauty, and community, searching for themselves while traveling – rarely living – amongst its jewels.

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