Andrei Tarkovsky, an acknowledged master of the long take, wasn’t afraid to attack other perceived virtuosos when it came to handling them less well. Watching a couple of films by Miklos Jancso in 1980, Hungarian Rhapsody and Allegro Barbaro, Tarkovsky states in Time within Time: “we didn’t stay to the end. Monstrous rubbish. Tasteless, pretentious…inferior and vulgar. He is some kind of crazed pupil of Paradzhanov, without any kind of talent.” Tarkovsky was a great filmmaker and a fine theorist of his own work, but he wouldn’t have made much of a critic: Paradzhanov, or Paradjanov, was no more, nor anything less, than a contemporary of Jancso’s, and their formal differences marked. Paradjanov was an Armenian/Georgian filmmaker interested in the ritualistic focus on local cultures and myths, while the Hungarian Jancso was usually concerned with the sweep of history, of making long take epics like The Round-Up and Red Psalm that would ritualise political action without end. He showed power struggle as rhythmic form, creating films illustrating political absurdities when no first principle underpinned them.
Jancso was, then, chiefly a political filmmaker, where Tarkovsky’s paramount interest would be spiritual. Where Jancso absences subjectivity for the purposes of a structural politics, with the individual absorbed into the pattern of the political, Tarkovsky is someone who may have been like Jancso a filmmaker out of the Soviet Bloc, but who wanted nevertheless to ignore the political animal and focus on the quizzicality of being. “Man has existed for such a long time and yet he is still uncertain about the most important thing of all – about the meaning of his existence; that is what is puzzling.” (Time within Time) Tarkovsky’s attack on Jancso was surely one of sensibility as much as an issue of Jancso’s talent.
But what was this Tarkovskian sensibility in both form and content? Perhaps to give form to the intangibility of feeling, to try and find a method in which the documentative can meet the subjective, and stretch towards the infinite. “How does time make itself felt in a shot? It becomes tangible when you sense something significant, truthful, going on beyond the events on the screen; when you realise quite consciously, that what you see in the frame is not limited to visual depiction, but is a pointer to something stretching out beyond the frame and to infinity.” (Sculpting in Time) How does this function in the film upon which we’ll focus, Stalker?
Here we have a film about an impoverished figure with a wife and child living on the edge of a wasteland who makes a living taking people towards what is called the Zone – an area of devastation wherein which one’s innermost wishes might come true. As we hear quite early in the film, one character, Porcupine, went into the zone and became hugely wealthy only to commit suicide a week later. The two characters willing to risk all on reaching the zone in this expedition are a writer and a professor, but are they capable of the fearlessness required, and can one reach it simply by actions alone? At one moment Stalker, who is their guide, and Writer pass through a passage only to see Professor already having arrived. They ask how he got there, and Professor replies that he didn’t think he had: he’d forgotten something and gone back instead of forward, yet somehow reached the destination before the others. It seems to be an area that defies time and space and cause and effect; which might be a good way to describe Tarkovsky’s work also.
This isn’t to say there is no story, since part of the film’s fascination lies in the nature of a journey. Tim Pulleine wrote an intriguing article in Movies of the Seventies called ‘The Wanderer’, and invoked Stalker, Zabriskie Point, Aguirre, Wrath of God, Apocalypse Now and others to talk of films that were “odyssey movies”, films that “concerns a quest or search, a journey in which the landscapes mirror the soul of the restless wanderer.” In most of these films, though, the landscape contains characters within a realist context despite the surreal moments within them (as in the boat in the tree in Aguirre, Wrath of God and Apocalypse Now). Tarkovsky creates a space that manages more than most films to imagine what literature calls the ‘subjunctive mood,’ the possible rather than the actual. This is easy enough to do in fiction, where one can say that a character “would perhaps think of going to his friend’s if he thought that his friend happened to be in, but knowing that he was probably elsewhere he decided not to do so”, but that isn’t quite so easy to film. Film, being so literal a medium, so given to capturing time and space, often struggles when creating abstractions that come easily to fiction. It was something Tarkovsky’s predecessor and compatriot Sergei Eisenstein struggled with when he wondered how he would film ideas, how could he adapt Marx’s Das Kapital into film?
Now Tarkovsky often disagreed with the late Eisenstein, and perhaps did so for some of the same reasons that he disliked Jancso: that they were both interested in the politicisation of cinema over the exploration of being in film. Yet he also disagreed with Eisenstein over issues of form. Eisenstein believed in montage as the basis of film; Tarkovsky the long take. “The idea of ‘montage cinema’ – that editing brings together two concepts and thus engenders a third one – again seems to me to be incompatible with the nature of cinema.” (Sculpting in Time) It is as though the problem Tarkovsky consistently set himself was how to create a subjunctive mood in film, without relying on montage to resolve the problem, how to film, in a very different way from Eisenstein, thought, and not just thought as one might think of ideas in the discursive sense invoked by Eisenstein, but the further reaches of thought? As the excellent novelist Emmanuel Carrere put it in a youthful article on Stalker and Tarkovsky generally, “Tarkovsky’s metaphysical reverie abandons anthropomorphism. He speaks to us of man on a quest for himself. Very well. That is a beautiful and vast subject. But also about man on a quest for what is not himself, and also for that which is not man, and of which man cannot even dream, toward which he would have a great deal of difficulty even beginning a quest.” (Positif) If Eisenstein’s project was to film ideas for the purposes of political amelioration, Tarkovsky’s was to film thought to explore metaphysical possibilities.
For the purposes of expressing an idea we can see why montage would be paramount, and can see it frequently in discursive documentaries about the dying planet where the film wants to convey ideas with the aid of visual examples. When the voice-over talks of the slow erosion of the planet’s natural resources, it will often cut to a series of brief scenes showing oil running out, streams drying up and children starving. The voice-over might not say the words “for example”, but that is what the brief clips function as: examples of the general argument presented in voice-over. It might merely say the planet is dying: and cut to various images that exemplify it. This is power point lecturing as documentary polemic: useful but hardly art, and not at all metaphysics. One chooses to compare Stalker with the eco-documentary far from arbitrarily, since of course Stalker invokes environmental disaster in its detrital mise-en-scene, and is often seen as one of the metaphysical masterpieces of environmental catastrophe alongside The Red Desert and The Devil, Probably. These are films not so much concerned with the planet, but with one’s being in relation to it. As Tarkovsky says in Time within Time: “Our lives are all wrong. A person has no need of society, it is society that needs him. Society is a defence mechanism, a form of self-protection. Unlike a gregarious animal, a person must live in isolation, close to nature, to animals and plants, and be in contact with them…we have to forget this insignificant world and live for something else – but how, where?” When a documentary filmmaker like Joe Berlinger talks of Crude, about oil spillages in central America, he may admirably insist: “I still want to tell a balanced story, but this was the first time in a long time in my filmmaking career that I decided to make a film to help people as opposed to being attracted to a story…”, but the being question is not at all his concern. Tarkovsky must find a first principle that allows for the environmental to be secondary to the metaphysical: that questions of being are more important than the socio-political.
However, it is one thing to quote Tarkovsky’s remarks, but it is more important still to show how he contains the environmental within the metaphysical through the very form. A commonly used image in Stalker is the low overhead travelling shot that passes over land and water, a shot that counters the anthropocentric look of most film images. We might often have camera angles from humanly impossible perspectives, but curiously this does not undermine the human look. Even if an image is clearly not a point of view shot, it can feel like it. Whether it is the commonly used curving steadicam that draws a semi-circle round a character in films like The Matrix or The Dark Knight, or the helicopter shots that equally curves round skyscrapers in Blade Runner or The Fan, one feels we can easily locate ourselves in both point of view and in cinematic purpose. We could be smoothly moving round a character, sizing him up as in the former films; we could be in a helicopter viewing a cityscape as in the latter. In each instance, as well, one has a clear sense of narrative purpose: the former often introduces a character of some magnitude, the latter a city of some majesty. Tarkovsky’s smooth gliding shots possess neither alibi as they create both an unusual perspective, and fail to further narrative. When the camera glides over water in the tunnel Stalker and Writer pass through, it is as though the camera has decoupled from narrative purpose and concentrated on the elemental over the eventful, on the mystery of the zone over the mysterious possibilities in the journey. Equally, there are similar shots drifting over water shortly afterwards and seem even more dislocated from narrative intent. When Geoff Dyer in Zona intriguingly quotes Merleau-Ponty, he manages in the quotation to capture something of Tarkovsky’s aim through the philosophical observations of a phenomenologist. “Once I was a man, with a soul and a living body, and now I am no more than a being…I hear and see, but no longer know anything…I now live in eternity…The branches sway on the trees, other people come and go in the room, but for me time no longer passes.” Tarkovsky’s imagistic digressions allow the camera an infinite presence, a portentous claim perhaps, but useful in trying to comprehend the type of cinema Tarkovsky was interested in making. If Jancso would utilise the long take but did so to indicate the historical, and Eisenstein montage to analyse the historical also, Tarkovsky uses the long take not to capture the rhythm of history, but the rhythm of being.
Hence his notion of the rhythm of the shot contains within it a specific metaphysical purpose, a purpose that utilises the tangible for the demands of the infinite. Though one suspects Schopenhauer wouldn’t be Tarkovsky’s philosopher of choice (probably Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger are more generally relevant), there are some useful passages in The Will to Live that can help make sense of Tarkovsky’s attempt to bring together the physical and spiritual world. “However great are the advances which physics understood (understood in the wide sense of the Ancients) may make, not the smallest step towards metaphysics is thereby taken, just as a plane can never obtain cubical content by being indefinitely extended.” One cannot possibly know the metaphysical through the physical, but equally one can, in acknowledging the physical through an angle that removes the anthropocentric, hint at a presence beyond the physical realm. Tarkovsky realised that, by concentrating his gaze upon the physical world, by capturing the appropriate rhythm of the shot, and in a willingness to drift from human agency and urgency, he could allude to a world beyond the physical.
For this purpose dialogue proves surprisingly necessary also. When Writer talks about his creative ambitions, and his career despondency, he does so as a character contained by a broader problem than his own concerns, no matter the egotism of his thoughts. If David Mamet has often claimed a person only talks to get what they want, this is relevant to the agency and urgency of many a film character, but in Tarkovsky’s work dialogue serves the metaphysical conflict and not the central conflict. This is not the conflict Mamet is automatically alluding to in his remark about people. “people only speak to get something…that’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage. They may use a language that is revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because they are trying to accomplish an objective.” (Paris Review, Spring 1997) Where central conflict shows characters wanting something and fighting to get it, this is a conflict concerning being in the world. When the characters talk about Porcupine, the figure that committed suicide after gaining huge wealth, the characters muse over whether he did because he knew his deepest instinct was not compassion, but egotism and even maliciousness. His final central conflict was about his own selfishness, a selfishness it seems he couldn’t subsequently live with. He gets what he wants, but doesn’t want to live in a world where such egotism is the best one can hope for.
What is interesting is that Schopenhauer claims in The Will to Live that man is driven by three forces. The first is the most common, egotism, the others less so: malice and compassion. Now perhaps why Porcupine kills himself is because he may have thought his deepest wish would have been to make amends for the murder of his brother: for compassion to compensate for his earlier malice. Instead what he finds is that his deepest wish was to become rich, to feed the ego, and it is as though such a realisation drove him to kill himself. When the thoughts and feelings of the characters, and the back story of Porcupine, are discussed, is this dialogue in the Mamet sense of everybody speaking to get what they want? One thinks not, and it again gives the film space for questioning being without relying on the ready assumptions of characterisation.
Though Stalker is clearly a very well designed film, it is also designed in such a way that the notion of design gets called into question. When we think of numerous science fiction films from Blade Runner to Alien, from Logan’s Run to 2001, what we have are designed worlds, worlds created as alternative realities that have a visual coherence. Tarkovsky’s is par-designed rather as in par-baked but without the negative connotations. It is as if Tarkovsky wanted to reflect the crumbling world in a partially created universe. When John Orr in The Art and Politics of Film compared and contrasted American sci-fi with Soviet film as a kind of filmic arms race, he did so by saying, “two great sci-fi movies gloss the height of the Cold War I. Two equally defining movies mark the start of the Cold War II. Yet each pairing is decisively split by the Cold War Divide. Soon after 2001, Andrei Tarkovsky made Solaris. A decade later the order was reversed. Soon after Stalker, Ridley Scott made Blade Runner”. Orr then notes “for many sci-fi buffs, Tarkovsky’s films were an affront to the genre.” The American sci-fi invested in mise-en-scene, in the deliberate evocation of a future; Tarkovsky was more interested in invoking a world slightly different from our own, but not especially futuristic. Some of the scenes even seem to mock sci-fi expectation, with the moments where Stalker insists Writer and Professor don’t touch certain objects, playing on the awe so often found in science fiction film where the magnitude is inclined to scare anybody off. Here they are disused blocks of concrete, yet when Writer and Professor touch them, Stalker yells at them asking if they’re mad. There is little sense of “TechGnosis” in Tarkoksy’s film, a term coined by Erik Davis, where we have Gnostic belief through technological means: “the new material form”, as John Orr describes it, “has in this particular cast of American optimism, a vast spiritual, payoff that faces down the gloom of modern scepticism” as the technology is filled with awe. Out of this material optimism comes a fully evolved mise-en-scene. Even if the narrative contains a high level of pessimism (and most sci-fis are dystopian visions), they nevertheless usually possess a visual universe elaborately revealing modern man’s technological evolution. Tarkovsky’s par-designed world instead indicates a constant wariness in the face of technological development. If Kubrick in 2001 and A Clockwork Orange was the great metaphysician of American science-fiction, asking questions of evolutionary consciousness in the first film and personal freedom in the latter, he also contained his questions within a visual design that was consistent with the can-do idea of yankee know-how. After all Kubrick’s production designers included Ken Adams (on Dr Strangelove) and John Barry (A Clockwork Orange), the former responsible for various Bond films, where the latter would go on to do Star Wars and Superman. The production design on Stalker is credited to Tarkovsky himself.
Yet what Tarkovsky lacked in budget and training, he made up for in visual acuity. The shot from within a well has all the mystery of another filmmaker creating a faraway planet. Just as at the end of Solaris he defamiliarised the earth to create a mysterious object that happens to be our planet, so here Tarkovsky defamiliarises a splash in water to create an unusual orb without in any way proposing the need for single-minded technological admiration. “A true artistic image gives the beholder a simultaneous experience of the most complex, contradictory, sometimes even mutually exclusive feelings.” (Sculpting in Time) To generate too specific a sense of awe would be to defy the purpose of the work: to create not singular feelings but meditatively ambiguous ones Tarkovsky wanted to create images that would not be singular, nor for that matter readily deciphered.
It is partly why Tarkovsky had problems with symbols, and quotes Thomas Mann. “Let us put it like this: a spiritual – that is significant – phenomenon is significant precisely because it exceeds its own limits, serves as expression and symbol of something spiritually wider and more universal, an entire world of feelings and thoughts, embodied within it with greater or lesser felicity – that is the measure of its significance.” (Sculpting in Time) If Stalker can be defined as obscure then what might be taken as an insult by another filmmaker would surely serve as a compliment for Tarkovsky, but of course one might also insist that since the symbols aren’t categorical then they can meaning nothing at all. Yet meaning is neither given nor taken, but rather suspended. Up to a point this is consistent with Roland Barthes’ take on Antonioni: “your art consists in always leaving the path to meaning open, one might say undecided, on principle.” (Cahiers du Cinema, 311) But Antonioni and Tarkovsky suspend meaning in quite different ways. While Antonioni hints at the emptiness of the world, Tarkovsky hints much more at the presence of the spiritual. Antonioni’s “proper feeling for meaning”, in Barthes’ words, lies in trying to comprehend the gaps between humans, and finds visual correlatives for this attempt: partial framings, characters small against large buildings, shots from one character to another that don’t smoothly match. Tarkovsky constantly finds new approaches towards accepting that God isn’t present, but at the same time doesn’t necessarily fail to exist. Shortly before Stalker declares that the Room is awaiting them, and that the most important thing is to believe, the writer has casually put a crown of barbed wire on his head resembling of course Jesus’s crown of thorns. The writer does so with nonchalance, and we might wonder whether such a man can really find meaning in the Room if the relatively evidential symbol of Christ lacks spiritual gravity. The difference between Antonioni and Tarkovsky is often the difference between the difficulties of loving a fellow human being and loving a higher one. It isn’t that one has to pick off symbolic meanings in Tarkovsky’s films; more that one has to try and exist within the spiritually suggestive landscape Tarkovsky creates. The symbolic and the awe inspiring must be contained by a metaphysical dimension that can’t quite be named, can’t quite be expressed except in an abstractly visual universe. As he says in Time within Time, “an artist needs both knowledge and the power of observation only so that he can tell from what he is abstaining, and to be sure that his abstentions will not appear artificial or false. For in the end it is important to confine yourself within a framework that will deepen your world, not impoverish it.”
But what does this abstractly visual universe in Stalker consist of, and isn’t it paradoxical that this film, mysterious and obscure next to many a mainstream science-fiction, nevertheless utilises much more than they often do, an actual world, a world that is not set-designed but a ‘found reality’? Tarkovsky filmed around Tallin, in Estonia. At one moment Dyer, in Zona, comments on how the director asked his production design team to pluck out the few dandelions that were blossoming, an aesthetic gesture in defiance of nature equal to Antonioni painting the grass greener in Blow-Up. Yet much of Tarkovsky’s work here plays on the contrast between nature and the man made. On the one hand there is the dip of the green valley that the characters are in as they move towards the Zone; on the other the disused tanks littering the landscape. It is nature versus the terribly nurtured, with man’s impact on earth one of detrital insignificance. No wonder the characters foetally seek opportunities to stay literally close to nature. In various scenes the characters lie down as if trying to wrap themselves in the warmth of a planet they’ve helped to destroy, and helped destroy as if for no other reason than being human.
One should be wary then talking of Tarkosvky’s vision as necessarily transcendent (as going beyond our world); it is often closer to decompositional: that man sinks into the earth, a biodegradable form rather than a transcendental soul. This is more or less Slavoj Zizek’s take on Tarkovsky when he says in The Fright of Real Tears, “Nature and industrial civilization are here again overlapping, but through a common decay – civilization in decay is in the process of again being reclaimed (not by harmonious Nature, but) by nature in decomposition.” Zizek adds, “The ultimate Tarkovskian landscape is that of a damp nature, a river or pool close to some forest, full of the debris of human artifice (old concrete blocks or pieces of rotten metal).” Tarkovsky wants here neither quite a world of nature nor a world of man, but a world that alludes to decomposition and abandonment: of rusting objects in the land and in the water, of stray dogs without owners. “I spit on mankind. On all of mankind”, Writer says, as the film focuses on a medium close-up of Stalker lying next to a puddle, grass around, the rain lightly drizzling. The film cuts from this colour shot to a sepia overhead track of water before arriving once again, still in sepia, at Stalker. During the shot we still hear Writer’s voice, now saying, “Am I worth anything, or am I shit, like certain people?” As we see the sepia-toned water that looks as if it has turned orange with rust, we might be inclined to think that there is no escape from being worthless; it is man’s inevitable fate when he so systematically destroys the natural world from whence he has come. Like The Red Desert and The Devil, Probably, Stalker muses not only over man’s survival but nature’s also; not only over an individual sense of hope, but its containment within a wider misery. Is decomposition the best one can hope for? At least unlike the military hardware and industrial complexes one can go relatively gently into the dark soil. Much of Tarkovsky’s image structure reflects this need to return to the earth as a Freudian might suggest a desire to return to the womb. Tarkovsky proposes a return to the soil in its most fundamental sense.
Yet at the same time there is in Tarkovsky’s work the opposite of decomposition; and this is going beyond the material realm, evident here at the end of Stalker where the eponymous character’s daughter manages to move the glass with her mind. This isn’t too far removed from her father’s claims earlier when he says one has to believe in the Room, but here given material realisation as the thought wills an action. Where the father’s actions try to will belief, as he takes various people to the Zone, his daughter’s belief wills an action into existence without physical interference. Throughout the film what we have seen are the consequence of actions willed materially, through the detritus that has built up through man’s will demanding material form. It is as if Tarkovsky is asking for a man that is not religiously transcendent, given to God and the heavens, but physically capable of minimising his presence on earth. One of Tarkovsky’s favourite philosophers Nicolas Berdyaev (he is quoted on several occasions in Time Within Time) says, in The Destiny of Man, that “first and foremost, he is a creative being.” “This is implied in a crude and one-sided way in the definition of man as a maker of tools. But man can only be a creative being if he has freedom.” Berdyaev adds that he sees two sides to man: “there is in him the element of primeval, utterly undetermined potential freedom springing from the abyss of non-being, and the element determined by the fact that man is the image and likeness of God, a Divine idea which his freedom may realize or destroy.” Yet can the creative being Berdyaev invokes not be the maker of art more than of tools, the maker of his own spiritual consciousness, and not necessarily in a religious sense?
One of the questions Stalker seems to ask, through the essence of its mise-en-scene and the questions probed by the characters, is what gives things the right to exist. The industrial wasteland Tarkovsky shows forces that question upon us because it is disused, without purpose, and of course the characters wonder if they are equally defunct. Out of the abyss of non-being much is created, but is the word ‘create’ too elevated a term to describe much that man makes? If for example Writer had his dreams come true after entering the Room, would they result in great creativity, or merely great success? Equally, would Professor achieve social glory as a great scientist but actually add nothing to the world? Would, like Porcupine, the ego reveal its true wishes and not the breadth of possibilities within the self? Creativity wouldn’t be achieved, merely self-aggrandizement. It would be a development of mankind still predicated on lowest common denominators rather than the highest possible values. When Tarkovsky says in Time Within Time, a year after Stalker’s release, that for creativity you need to “confine yourself within a framework that will deepen your world, not impoverish it, help you to create it, excluding all pretentiousness and efforts to be original”, he is illustrating the importance of first principle creation, not material for the market place and prizes for the artist. “As far as possible all links with life have to be excluded, with no loss of truthfulness, discarding only the superfluous trash that appears (or may appear to some people) to be a sign of authenticity.” High-minded thoughts, perhaps, but Tarkovsky doesn’t just offer them in jottings in a diary; they are the core to a metaphysical aesthetic that asks us to see that such high, transcendent, mindedness is perhaps all but not quite impossible for the human to achieve. Out of such failure one often settles for a decomposing relationship with the earth, at best returning to that nature we have helped destroy.