The Last Word

Geoff Dyer, Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room

Canongate, 228pp, £16.99, ISBN 9780307377388

reviewed by Dan Barrow

It's the image, perhaps, of the back of a man’s balding head, bobbing slightly as he creeps towards a building where he neither wholly wishes to go, nor is wholly expected. Or a tracking shot of scattered coins, a Russian icon, lying on black and white tiles, under a glistering layer of water (a similar flicker – a film, notably, of flame in a grate – prompted Coleridge to reminiscence in ’Frost at Midnight’). Or a dog making its way without trepidation through the water on the right-hand side of the shot, paddling, in a sudden switch to colour, around the moored body of an explorer. Or, as on the jacket of Geoff Dyer’s Zona, of a girl in profile, reading – perhaps, given its leather cover, one of the texts quoted earlier, Arseny Tarkovsky’s poetry, or the Gospels – while a wind of dandelion seeds drifts slowly in through the window behind and over her head.

It’s a question not of a film, a classic now absorbed into the canon of European art cinema, nor of the journey that forms its narrative, but of images that emerge from the stream of time, bobbing up to the surface like debris. Zona is ’an account of watchings, rememberings, misrememberings, and forgettings; it is not the record of a dissection,’ and Stalker (1979), a film that conforms more thoroughly than any other to Deleuze’s conception of cinema as a ceaselessly ebbing river of dureé, erases its own temporal tracks: the perceived length of shots blurs, the chronology of events and images becomes unstable, the Zone itself sends the protagonists round in circles. ‘The Zone,’ writes Dyer, ’is film,’ and Stalker and his companions enter into cinematic time like Marlowe going up the Congo. In a certain sense the point of watching Stalker, like reading Kafka, is to re-watch it, to find out where these memories come from and, like the protagonist of Chris Marker’s La Jeteé, to relive such moments in their full reality.

Stalker, when you come right down to it, isn’t – contrary to the earnest viewers overeager to excavate its symbolism, its silences, the fraught meaning of its textures and the cinematic relationship with its environment – a difficult film. You just need to look at it. The film itself is intensely concerned with looking, with the need to divine a correct path through the Zone’s apparently innocuous landscape, a responsibility commuted to the viewer in long takes of quasi-natural scenery, that seem to challenge the viewer to let their meaning arise out of their content, and Dyer is very good on the strange techniques the camera employs – as in the sequence when the camera looks, through the window of an abandoned car, out onto ‘burned-out tanks’, and the Professor, whose POV we assume this is ’comes into his own field of vision’.

With its fixation on post-industrial ruin, disordered and profuse nature, an extraordinary depth-of-field lending a strange lustre to its colours, the film presented an aesthetic that had no real precedents, apart perhaps from certain sections of Tarkovsky’s own Mirror, and Antonioni’s films up to The Red Desert. (The exquisite boredom of Antonioni’s work is a running thread in Zona.) The extraordinary beauty of Stalker is that, as Dyer notes, of ’another world that is no more than this world perceived with unprecedented attentiveness.’ If film was, rather than a technology, a way of seeing, that arrived not with the Lumiere brothers but with Méliès – just as, according to John Berger, oil painting really begins with Holbein – then the mode of attention in Stalker represents a kind of last flourishing of one revolutionary mode of mediation; Tarkovsky’s patient expeditions into the world of the visible are a part, too, of Benjamin’s ’optical unconscious.’ In spite of his disdain for the tradition of Soviet film, Tarkovsky’s achievement belongs with that of Vertov and Eisenstein as much as it does that of Renoir or Bergman.

Dyer’s book, at its purest, is about looking at Stalker: it consists, primarily, of a shot-by-shot description of what we see. Re-watching the film, Dyer’s book reads, to me, as more redundant an exercise than other reviewers have thus far admitted. It possesses less acuity than Dyer’s other exercises in amateur criticism – even than the (very good) miniature essays on submarine films embedded in the dialogue of his novel on twentysomething cinephilia, Paris Trance. What does distinguish Zona is the rhythm of Dyer’s self-interruptions: at first in footnotes, then increasingly intermixed into the body of the text itself, these digressions, though usually far from critical thought, provide valuable reading. He is by turns wickedly funny – as in his dismissal of Lars von Trier’s 2009 film Antichrist (’a highly crafted diminution of the possibilities of cinema’) – droll, gossipy and moving. Most particularly, there’s his discussion of his parents’ strange wish ’to forego the thing ... that she [his mother] claimed she wanted.’ His father’s regret, expressed during his mother’s terminal illness, that ’we didn’t eat more fat’ projects a future in which ’[y]ou can go into the Room and eat all the fat you like from now on.’ What the Room cannot do is alter lived time retrospectively – ’you can’t transform the life you have led into one in which, even during the lean years, you ate heaps of fat.’ (Dyer’s own greatest regret, you’ll not be surprised to learn, is of never having had a threesome.) But, as Stalker observes, that doesn’t mean that they don’t keep coming, to have their desires perhaps granted them – he’s not short of work.

The implicit question then, which comes more and more to the fore towards the end of Zona, is: what exactly do we go to the cinema for? What temps perdu could we recover in this repeated time of dreaming, brought face to face with a world larger than life? Tarkovsky himself seemed unable to answer: during his last years outside the Soviet Union his public mood was increasingly bitter, as he railed against an apparently debased secular west, a film industry predicated on ‘mere’ entertainment. Stalker itself, as Dyer records, was plagued by problems. Footage shot over the course of a year, on experimental Kodak colour stock, had to be scrapped when it couldn’t be developed properly. Tarkovsky secured funding for another attempt, but only enough to cover making Part 2.

Tarkovsky repeatedly fell out with crew members, going through three directors of photography in the course of filming. Shooting was repeatedly delayed by problems, and not everyone shared the director’s monomaniacal concern: during one hiatus, according to cinematographer Georgi Rerberg, Tarkovsky announced a sudden return to work; Vladimir Sharun was then found applying potato peel to Alexander Solonitsyn’s face ‘to reduce the swelling caused by “the two-week binge.”’ Six years away from Glasnost, there was surprisingly little interference from Soviet authorities, certainly less than Tarkovsky would have experienced had he worked for a western studio. (Dyer mischievously notes in parentheses, ‘How we loved making this point back in the 1980s!’) Certainly his defection shortly after Stalker resulted in ever-diminishing cinematic returns: Nostalghia (1983) and The Sacrifice (1986) treat the language of his great ‘70s films as a repository of cliché; they seem almost paralysed by an earnest hopelessness bordering on the comic. Stalker itself answers the question only with, an interior shower of rain, a function of miracle or ruin, like light falling from what David Thomson has called ’the heaven of the lifelike’.

For Geoff Dyer, as he admits, Stalker might be the last time he sees that (‘the projected colour lit up the screen,’ says the narrator of Paris Trance, ‘like Eden on the first day of creation’), might be ‘the last word’. And perhaps not only for him. He is convincing and articulate about the contours of Stalker’s beauty, though the theoretical framework for understanding its significance is almost entirely missing. One is left feeling ambivalent as to how satisfying Zona is in the end. Stalker certainly still lacks the monograph it deserves, and while Dyer’s intuition that it requires a different approach from that supplied by institutionalised Film Studies – and, for that matter, the middlebrow press – is correct, that doesn’t make Zona the book to supply that need.
Dan Barrow is a PhD researcher at Birkbeck, University of London. He has written for The Wire, Sight & Sound, the Los Angeles Review of Books and others.