Andrei Tarkovsky has something of a personality cult in cinematic circles. He brushes shoulders with the other masters like Kubrick, Bergman, Kurosawa and Fellini – the sorts of filmmakers who often feel beyond reproach. To criticise their work would cause frowns to burrow and eyebrows to rise; it may even invite vicious ad-hominem attacks, especially back in the good old days of the IMDb message boards.
Tackling their oeuvres can therefore be a daunting task, particularly when the chosen film is 2 hours and 40 minutes long. This needn’t be a problem, though. Just look at Seven Samurai, Lawrence of Arabia and The Godfather – none of these films feel as long as they are, and I don’t even particularly like Seven Samurai. Tarkovsky, however, forces you to endure every doggone minute of Stalker.
Indeed, when Tarkovsky screened the film to producers, they urged him to tighten the film up, which infuriated the auteur so much that he made it even slower. So, when you soporifically consider the meaning of one of Stalker’s many gratuitously slow shots, just remind yourself that it is the result of petty self-indulgence, not ‘genius’.
Despite this, the pacing is not an immediate problem. No, Stalker makes a fairly strong impression in its opening with the depiction of a bleak industrial backwater, which is made even worse by a yellow filter that gives this dystopian vision a compelling other-worldly quality. During this sequence we see the Stalker (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy) meet with two men who want to travel to the Zone – Pistali (Anatoliy Solonistyn) and Professor (Nikolay Grinko).
Alas, the three men’s voyage into the Zone is quite the opposite of compelling. There’s no real sense of adventure or intrigue, and the tension-free car chase sequence is utterly bereft of any danger. There’s not an awful amount of chemistry between them, either. What should be a fascinating descent into the wilderness and these men’s minds turns out to be 160 minutes of three boring Russian men falling over sand dunes and wandering around fields of elderflowers and Himalayan balsam.
So, what does it all mean? Well, according to Criterion, Stalker ‘envelops the viewer by opening up a multitude of possible meanings’. This is the problem with the film – it is entirely up to you to assign meaning to it. Obviously, there are scores of films and books that do not have definitive interpretations and many of them are brilliant. Indeed, some would argue that there is no such thing as a definitive interpretation for a piece of art can have so many different meanings to so many different people. However, when an artist puts the ball wholly in the audience’s court, this strikes me as artistic laziness. Now Tarkovsky may well have had a clear and distinct vision with this film, but I neither know nor care what it was because the end result is so dry and wantonly slow.
Ultimately, it seems that Stalker is a film that you really have to try to love. Just look at the experience of Geoff Dyer, the English author who provides a lengthy interview in the supplements of the Blu-ray. He admits that he ‘didn’t know what he was looking at’ when he first watched it, but that he has grown to love it since he ‘subjected it to forensic scrutiny.’ I’m sure all of us could muster some sort of meaning if we re-watched the film time and time again, but why bother when there are countless films out there that are so much more interesting? One suspects that the spectre of the Emperor’s New Clothes motivated this ‘forensic scrutiny’.
Dyer’s most interesting observation is how the cinematic experience alters your perception of the world. We’ve all had that absorbing feeling of pensive adjustment as we leave the sanctuary of the auditorium or turn the lights of our living room back on, and Dyer eloquently remarks that the ‘shittier’ the film, the shorter that altered perspective lasts. For Dyer, the impact Stalker had on him was anything but temporary, it expanded his sense of what film was possible of and permanently altered his view of the world. High praise, indeed. I can only hope that Stalker will one day affect me in this manner.
Dir: Andrei Tarkovsky
Scr: Arkadiy Strugatskiy, Boris Strugatskiy
Cast: Alisa Freyndlikh, Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy, Anatoliy Solonistyn, Nikolay Grinko
Prd: Aleksandra Demidova
DOP: Aleksandr Knyazhinskiy
Music: Emin Khachaturyan
Country: Soviet Union
Run time: 163 minutes
Stalker is available now on Criterion Blu-ray.