Last spring, as a matter of friendly procedure, KQED Arts asked the British writer Geoff Dyer which movie he would choose to live inside. In retrospect it seems obvious that Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker was Dyer's answer.
Stalker is a long, slow, metaphysical Russian film from 1979. ("Andrei Tarkovsky" in Russian means "long, slow, metaphysical.") It involves three men on a trip to a forbidden place, each for private personal reasons. Stalker is the name of the character who leads expeditions to this place, where deep desires are said to get fulfilled.
Today, what's so special about the film, aside from it being a great cine-poet's mesmerizing road movie of the Soviet twilight, is the fact that Dyer has written a book about it. Dyer is one of those rare geniuses who writes well about everything because he always winds up writing about himself. The navel into which he gazes is the world's as well as his own. Thus is he very possibly the only living English-speaking person who can hold forth at length on Tarkovsky without boring the hell out of you.
Zona, the newest of Dyer's nimble nonfiction category-busters, describes itself as "A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room." It is that, and also an essay about wish fulfillment, the management of time, and the variable likelihood of perception-expanding cinema, among other art forms, to exist in our lives. In short, it is Dyer's characteristically digressive memoir of what Tarkovsky's movie has meant to him, which is a lot.
Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky, 1980.
Historically, Stalker was a beleaguered beast, heavily rewritten, reshot, and, fatefully, relocated to just downriver of a chemical plant whose toxicity may later have caused the filmmaker's fatal cancer. Tarkovsky also had a heart attack during postproduction, and was prone, as Dyer gently puts it, to "megalomaniacal uncertainties."
Aren't we all? One of the real joys of reading Zona, thanks to its peculiar candor, is picking up on how even Dyer's most enthused engagement still seems a lot like fidgety reluctance. Another of Tarkovsky's trio is a washed-up writer seeking inspiration. "Maybe by going to the Zone he'll be rejuvenated," Dyer writes. "Man, I know how he feels. I could do with a piece of that action myself. I mean, do you think I would be spending my time summarizing the action of a film almost devoid of action -- not frame by frame, perhaps, but certainly take by take -- if I was capable of writing anything else? In my way I am going to the Room -- following these three to the Room -- to save myself."
Dyer's own stalkers surely will have noticed Stalker references piling up in his previous writings, and maybe even presaged a whole book coming on. But then, who ever knows? He's flighty. One of Dyer's earlier books is called Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It. Another, Out of Sheer Rage, is a biography of D.H. Lawrence by an author who couldn't be bothered to do it. (Of course, in the end, he did. Sort of.) One essay in his recent collection, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, extemporized the proto-book proposal for Great Pastries of the World: A Personal View. Was that a threat, or a promise?
Anyway, Zona is here now, and briefly so is its author, for a panel discussion at the Stanford Humanities Center, a book signing at the Cerrito Theatre in El Cerrito, and, in between, a dialogue with fellow brilliant Brit and exhaustive film commentator David Thomson at Tosca in San Francisco (this last courtesy of Litquake's Epicenter series of author events, here co-presented by The Believer).
Like Dyer's book, these events demand no previous familiarity with the film he describes as "synonymous both with cinema's claims to high art and a test of the viewer's ability to appreciate it as such." All that's required, to get a conversation started at least, is merely the "capacity to survive at the challenging peaks of human achievement." Zone into that.
Geoff Dyer reads from and discusses Zona at 5:30pm TONIGHT, Tuesday, March 13, 2012, at the Stanford Humanities Center in Palo Alto; 7pm Wednesday, March 14, 2012, at Tosca Cafe in San Francisco (more info at litquake.org); and 6:30pm March 15, 2012, at the Cerrito Theatre in El Cerrito. For more information visit geoffdyer.com.