on March 1, 2012
I came to this book as a Tarkovsky fan, and as a fan of Stalker in particular, so I was thrilled to discover an author who had taken on a book length study of the film. Unfortunately, that's not really what this slight volume turned out to be. As Dyer (who I was previously unfamiliar with) notes, it's essentially just a scene-by-scene summary of Stalker, generously peppered with personal anecdotes and asides of varying degrees of relevancy. Describing the film rather than discussing it is a hallmark of bad film writing, so I'm not sure what to think of an author who readily aknowledges this around midway through doing just that. Detailed plot summaries haven't been useful or in any way necessary since before the advent of home video. And it seems unlikely that anyone unfamiliar with the film would find much of interest in the book. The whole exercise feels self-indulgent and--to put it bluntly--slightly stupid.
Dyer delights in revealing his bias against cinema's most revered giants--he has no patience for Bresson or Bergman, Godard is dimissed as irrelevant, and he goes on at length about how much he detests Antonioni's l'Avventura. Some contemporary filmmakers are hauled out for a bit of snark for good measure: The oddest bit of criticism here is when the Coen brothers are labeled as "witless." On the other hand, Quentin Tarantino is singled out for praise on a few occasions, and cited as one of the rare filmmakers who is doing "something new," a laughable claim that even the most ardent Tarantino fan knows is untrue.
If I hadn't first looked at the author photo, I'd have guessed that Dyer was half his actual age. The Tarantino stuff, the strained references to lowbrow pop culture artifacts (Bumfights? really?), the repeated need to relay how terribly booooring all that old crap is (he admits that he "only skimmed" Lem's Solaris), the embarrassing passages lamenting the potential three-ways that Dyer failed to act on, the drug experiences, etc.--it all would make much more sense if I turned to the back of the book and saw a 20-something too-cool-for-school hipster rolling his eyes at me. But no, Dyer is apparently a decade older than I am. Embarrassing. The Guardian describes all this as Dyer "rescuing [Tarkovsky] from the clutches of the arthouse crowd," which is just a ridiculous concept altogether. Does Tarkovsky really need the bored hipster stamp of approval?
So what does Dyer actually have to say about Stalker? Not much, in the end. Despite his professed admiration for the film, he reveals--142 pages in--that he was bored and unmoved by Stalker the first time he saw it. This bit of info would have been somewhat baffling if relayed earlier in the book, but it's unsurprising after page after page of Dyer being bored and unmoved by various things. And unfortunately, the book reads as if Dyer has come back full circle to being bored by it all. He confesses that he has no desire to see the film again, and whatever curiosity he once held about the film's magic seems to have disappeared. He casually breezes by many points of interest along the way, determined to simply get through the shot-by-shot synopsis. Most frustrating of all, Dyer seems to misunderstand some of the basic plot points that he's summarizing. For instance, he writes a page admitting that he's baffled by the title character's practice of tossing a bandage tied to a nut to mark the party's path ahead of them. Dyer's best guess is that the stalker is somehow randomizing their route, but he then admits that this explanation doesn't make any sense. As the character helpfully explains in the film itself, the nut is used to detect traps.
And now that I feel I've put way more thought into Zona than the author has, I'll just conclude by saying that I have no idea who the audience for this book would be, or even what Dyer was trying to accomplish by writing it.
In Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, an outlaw and holy fool leads a Writer and a Professor through the perilous Zone, where they hope to be granted their deepest wish. In the end, though, both discover they may not want to know what it is they most want, and the Stalker despairs for the future of his navigating art. The film itself, however, continues to fascinate and a large part of Dyer's project in this work is to explore the power this film has exerted over him. In the process he develops a quite compelling interpretation of the film and its broader implications regarding life and art and hope, that can at the same time feel somewhat like a highbrow version of Mystery Science Theater, whose critics obviously love what they're laughing at (or with). I know I couldn't put it down - Dyer writes well and is easy to read, and manages to make even difficult insights feel straightforward and fresh. Even more, it brought the film back to life for me, and made me think things about it I hadn't considered any of the several times I've seen it.
I'm not sure there are any books out there this can quite be compared to. Dyer may have invented a new genre, and one that on the basis of this book at least can be said to have a lot of promise. It's not quite criticism or scholarship - even if it's clear that Dyer's done his homework and read pretty much everything there is to read about Tarkovsky's work, and seen or heard about pretty much every major cultural reference to Stalker that has appeared. It's more like a personal essay, a work of personal non-fiction, that talks us through in ample detail the moments of the film, as a way of talking about a great deal more than just a film, some of it highly personal, but a great deal of it showing its implications for thinking about important themes, relating to the creation of art, the difficulty of writing, the search for meaning, and the elusive and unsettling nature of our deepest desires which are unsettling precisely because they may turn out to be quite shallow and superficial. It reads like a conversation with an old friend, or a stranger whose common affection creates an immediate bond, about a place I remember fondly.
Dyer strikes a fine balance between taking the film seriously, a film that he considers (like me) to be one of the greatest works of cinema, and avoiding the trap that some devotees fall into of treating it (and other works by the late Tarkovsky) as sacred and beyond all criticism. While Dyer takes on the role of a travel guide through this remarkable film, talking us through its twists and turns, pausing here and there at various landmarks to provide context or to relate anecdotes, his persona throughout is less like that of the Stalker, the true believer, and more like that of the Writer, who with some reluctance in the end is forced to admit belief in the power of the Zone. He exhibits the dark wit of the Writer, while retaining some of the capacity for wonder of the Stalker. In some ways the book reads as if it were the book that the cynical, world-weary and sarcastic writer was compelled to write, upon leaving the Zone, if in spite of himself and his unwillingness to enter its mysterious Room, he nevertheless was gifted with the discovery that overcame his writer's block and his journey of discovery gave him something else to write about than (what he, at least, considered to be) the entertaining drivel he was selling. Unlike the Stalker, Dyer doesn't preach. He relates, he explores, he laughs at himself, he's cynical but in a way that is not incompatible with the hope that is the heart of the Zone.
I've read several books about film, including a number by and about Tarkovsky. Some may have even been more illuminating and insightful than this one. Most developed their arguments with more overt attention to the demands of precision and rigor. None, however, were nearly as entertaining as this one. None had the power of this book to take me back to a film I love and bring it to life, to make me want to take the journey of the film once again. Highly recommended for anybody who's seen Stalker, and even those who haven't. It really could be read as if it were a kind of fictional walkthrough of a non-existent film, that then you'd be happy to discover really exists. For those who have seen it, even if you didn't like it this will make you want to see it again and give it another chance. Those who haven't are sure to be enticed to give the film a try. I hope at least to have enticed a few to give this book a try.
I enjoyed Geoff Dyer's "Zona" as a film buff myself and a Tarkovsky fan, as in the present age of ultra-technical, academic writing, one is hard put to find a record of one man's sheer enthusiasm for a film, an enthusiasm I share. The film is indeed like a series of paintings passing one by, every visual itself a still. This is made more remarkable by the bleak, dystopic vision Tarkovsky is creating. As one talented writer's meditation on life and art I love the book.
On the other hand Dyer gets bogged down in his own adolescent views of cinema which are bound to make some devotees of film a bit confused. He had a "difficult time" getting through Robert Bresson's "Diary of a Country Priest" but found a new mecca in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction". Godard and Bergman are dull and ponderous to him. Perhaps he is as idiosyncratic as Tarkvosky seemed to be with his taste in film, as the famous director once praised "The Terminator" which Arnold Schwarzenneger as a "vision of the future and the relation between man and its destiny is pushing the frontier of cinema as an art". Obsessing over the last scene in the film with the spitting on the Bringer of Hope (a great scene indeed) he fails to mention throughout the entire book that Tarkovsky's movies quickly turn towards an explicitly religious faith.
All these formidable flaws taken into account, I liked it quite a bit. If we had more talents like Dyer writing about their personal tastes in such an innovative style we might have a better glimpse into how the mind of a true artist works.
Seeing Andrei Tarkovsky's 1977 film STALKER, where the eponymous guide leads his charges to a room in the wasteland called the "Zone" (the aftermath of a meteor strike? an alien visitation?) that promises to fulfill their innermost desires, is one of the handful of experiences that has changed my life forever. Tarkovsky's slow and careful pacing that he called "sculpting in time" and the film's recognition of a human instinct to commune with the Unknowable make it profoundly moving. The writer Geoff Dyer has also been touched by the film since he first saw it as a young man in the 1970, and in ZONA gives a scene-by-scene description of the film along with the flights of fancy it provokes.
While Dyer makes a few insightful remarks on Tarkovsky's work and films by other auteurs, the charm of this book ends quickly. The scene-by-scene synopsis continues, but Dyer starts getting lost in his own dull anecdotes that have little to do with the film and hold little interest on their own, such as his love of a Freitag bag, his desire for a threesome with two women and the chances he squandered in his younger days, and his mother's relationship with eating steak.
A book where one skilled writer relates to an earlier cultural masterpiece could work if the insights were deep enough, but I daresay that ZONA is parasitic on Tarkovsky's work, only using STALKER to gain sales for Mr Dyer's inane observations. The kind of literature on offer is like a throwaway blog post, only to extreme proportions and sold to you for quite a price. Avoid.
on May 9, 2013
So dull, so self-congratulatory, so flatly written, so lacking in insight. All the (barely) tolerable moments involve Dyer cribbing from those "academic" authors for whom he droningly proclaims his contempt elsewhere, in heavy narcissistic thuds. The book is like a long Tarkovsky tracking shot as attempted by your local boomer-aged once-and-future-hipster who suddenly decides he can make movies. Just watch Tarkovsky's films.
on July 21, 2012
Zona opens with an atrociously written sentence ("An empty bar, possibly not even open, with a single table, no bigger than a small round table, but higher, the sort you lean against--there are no stools--while you stand and drink."), and it's all downhill from there.
The author, while sitting in his easy chair and watching a dvd of Tarkovsky's greatest masterpiece, sketches a superficial synopsis, interwoven with unbelievably meaningless, trivial, self-indulgent, and annoying vignettes from his life, and extolments of Quentin Tarantino (!) and Harmony Korine (!!), among other cinematic and literary figures.
The self-referential irony is clearly lost on him when he writes, in response to one scene, "I am reminded of the time, in Big Sur, when a friend and I were perched on the edge of the cliffs, overlooking the fog-shrouded Pacific. Perhaps the fog sealed in the sound of the ocean below. It was absolutely quiet. We were the only people there until a family turned up and the father, eager to articulate the charm of the place, boomed out, 'Must be real peaceful here'." Um, dude...that's you!
More than anything, this monograph comes off as just plain disrespectful, this author a boor. Skip it.
on March 18, 2012
Like Dyer, I have a special affection for Tarkovsky's film, and though I didn't expect (from reading the first few pages, which were good enough to get me to buy the book) a serious analytical tome, I certainly didn't expect a drawn-out, chatty, and generally shallow exploration of Dyer's relationship to Stalker. It is an interesting idea, to write about how our relationship to any particular work of art grows or changes, and while Dyer is no moron, the book left me a bit bored and cold, and at other times outright hostile to the author's handling of the material. I cannot really recommend the book, but it wouldn't hurt anyone who is in the mood for some casual, easy reading.
on October 17, 2013
Finished every page and note in the book with patience and care...this book is horrifically misguided and superficial. Absolute failure to resonate on the esoteric and sublime level of the film...WRITER attempts humor in place of his fear to admit he still does not grasp the film after 30+ years of viewing it.
on April 1, 2013
Dyer claims that a work of art that changes your DNA can only be experienced at a young age, typically in your teens or twenties and can not happen later in life. That art for him is the 1979 cinematic sci-fi masterpiece Stalker, directed and written by the legendary Russian Tarkovsky.
I wasn't particularly interested in reading about the movie Stalker since I hadn't seen it, but when I picked Zona up in the bookstore I could not put it down.
The influence of this film on Dyer is evident as he passionately and carefully summarizes the story and its meaning. He has not only analyzed every reel of the film but the challenges, and there were many, in making the film.
His love of this film is the basis for analogies and metaphors and associations with art and life. The film leads to Burning Man, Nabokov, Kafka, Antonioni, Fitzgerald, Nosferatu, Brother's Karamazov, Solaris, L'Avventura, The Italian Job, Henry James, Hopi Indians, Buster Keaton, Flaubert, Roland Barthes, Daniel Day Lewis and on and on.
He suggests that this film with its slow pace has given him a deeper appreciation for art and allowing a story to unfold. This is not something available in movies today he laments. But he also did not love Stalker when he first saw it; in fact, he was a little bored, but "it was an experience I couldn't shake off."
The title Zona refers to the mythical zone in the film where your innermost desires will be granted. Dyer's deepest desire appears to have been sleeping with two women at once. I mention this because it's revealing and humorous, but also reflects the wild honesty in his writing.
If you haven't seen this film, I suggest you read this book before you do. If you have seen it, this book will change or reinforce your impression of a fascinating movie.
There's a sense of going over the edge in Dyer's writing--that is often like reading a revealing memoir--he is so original that I can't think of another writer who can reach his state of unforgettable madness.
For me Dyer lifts Tarkovsky up to the level of a Homer in the sense that Stalker encompasses history, myth and a fantastical journey that only art can communicate.
on February 15, 2015
Zona, Geoff Dyer's `book about a film (about a journey to a room') by Tarkovsky, reminded me of Out Of Sheer Rage, a book about the failure to write an academic book of criticism about the work(and life) of DH Lawrence. That was a marvellous book written in a fresh way about a writer, who the reading classes had thought it best to forget about. A remarkable approach which was enlightening about DHL without getting over formal and academic like FR Leavis. Similarly, he has written about a film by a visionary of cinema without getting pompous or over academic.There is a hint of a jazz musician riffing.He goes through the film scene-by-scene,disclosing much about his early cinematic experiences,other films, his own early experience of life, in a light-hearted and humorous way. He frames Zona as a failure to write anything else. It's like a schoolboy, who's bunked off writing the essay(on tennis) he set himself, and starts rapping on the iconic images and scenes of this major SF film, which he'd really rather write about.
This was no plot analysis(sure death), it was an exploration of themes of art and death,poetry,wonder,truth, writing and memory. What is the idea of the'Zone' and the `Room'?- one a psycho-social landscape of an industrial wasteland, mixed in with wild nature; the other a place of absolute stillness where you encounter your innermost wishes. Dyer gives us a work of commentary which can be as valuable as the work of art. He's treading in the footsteps of John Berger and Walter Benjamin, both great Europeans. He writes about the characters, Stalker, Writer,and Professor, as if they were real people. Stalker(1979) stakes its claim along with Solaris, and Mirror to be amongst Tarkovsky's masterpieces. Stalker was freely adapted from the novel Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers, who rewrote a lot of the story according to Tarkovsky's specifications,stripping out a lot of the SF story. Dyer makes passing mention of this, but doesn't tell you if he read the novel. You wouldn't need necessarily to do this to appreciate the film.
The film is about a shaven-headed fool/seer,who's job it is to guide people through to the heart of a polluted, post-apocalyptic government-restricted area called the Zone. There's no human presence, and the laws of nature have been altered, perhaps by the after-effects of an extraterrestrial visitation. (In the novel, it's a Soviet Roswell.) Within the Zone is the so-called Room, a space wherein one's secret hopes are revealed and even realized. Maybe. The Zone and the Room are distinguished by the near-complete absence of anything anyone would consider special effects.There is an attentiveness to detail and atmosphere.The film was largely reshot after faulty film processing ruined half the footage. Tarkovsky suffered a heart attack while "Stalker" was in postproduction, and he had courted catastrophe from the get-go. Originally, the film was to be shot in the wilds of Tajikistan; an earthquake mooted that plan, and the production moved far away to Estonia. The new location was downriver from a chemical plant -- exposure to the toxic runoff may have contributed to the cancer that killed Tarkovsky a decade later.
I love this book for bringing a sense of awe back to writing about great films,as was done before with Antonioni's L'Avventura.The Zone becomes the cinema,the Room becomes where you go to write/talk about what's in your heart. But it does so while talking about 3-way sex(a fantasy of Dyer's )and the Zone where the rights to Top Gear have not been sold. He chats,reminisces,makes footnotes,filters out the clichés of writing about film,in its search for the Eldorado of meanings.The film begins in black and white in a hovel of a bar where the Professor and the Writer will meet the Stalker,their guide to The Zone, a much-prized,fenced-off,desolate land of concrete bunkers and burnt-out tank hulks that has mythic properties,in particular The Room, a place where "your deepest wish will come true." Dyer's mission is to bring to the reader the reverberations `Stalker' set off in him over many viewings. He quotes Tarkovsky's Slow Cinema dictum that if you hold a shot way beyond the point that it becomes boring, " a new quality emerges, a special intensity of attention." he dances around the narrative,avoiding the sequence of the story.The book is thickened by long, embedded footnotes that eat up the pages.
He makes digressions into other subjects, colour theory,the language of the Gulags, the meaning of the Jeep, his personal life, Bresson, thoughts on train stations,Chernobyl. With the reshoot ,money would be needed to recover the cost of shooting what had been lost, the character of Stalker changed from a bandit to a believer(like the director,that inspite of setbacks the film would be made,that the Zone would exist).The new slant made it more about a meditation of the soul rather than the result of science. Dyer's evocations are mostly superb, but the film's hopeful bleakness, its suggestive but secretive landscape makes it impossible to describe. I see the future of radical commentary when Dyer lectures about this film over relevant clips. Only through access can we gain a true foothold. I read the book in conjunction with watching the DVD, reading,watching the film, reading, watching the film. To his associates, Tarkovsky was Stalker-a persecuted martyr taking them on voyages into the heart of the Zone where ultimate truths are revealed.When Tarkovsky died the Room vanished where they could share their inmost truths, be themselves. Monkey's telekinetic powers can be seen as `manifestation of unmeasureable compensation.'