Complicated System of Traps

Michael Wood

  • Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room by Geoff Dyer
    Canongate, 228 pp, £16.99, February 2012, ISBN 978 0 85786 166 5

If we leave aside some notes and references at the back, Zona seems to close, appropriately, with a description of the end of a film: ‘her eyes, her watching eyes, and her face and head, resting on the table, watching us watching her, fading to black’. The film we have been seeing through these two hundred pages of Dyer’s memory and prose is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), a science fiction movie that doesn’t so much transcend the genre as pervert it, turn it over to the history of religion – or perhaps the history of doubt. The eyes belong to a girl described in the film as ‘a victim of the Zone’. Dyer has used the Russian word for his title, I take it, both to keep a touch of strangeness in the air and to avoid the echoes the English term might haphazardly call up: the name of a sci-fi magazine, various shopping centres up and down the country, a game show, and an early Britney Spears album. Tarkovsky’s Zone is another place.

But the words I have quoted are not the end of the book. We turn the page and read a quotation from the American novelist David Markson: ‘Or was it possibly nothing more than a fundamentally recognisable genre all the while, no matter what Writer averred? Nothing more or less than a read?’ We can take the question as referring both to the described movie and to the describing book. When the writer in the film is asked what he writes about he says ‘the readers’. But the question does more work in relation to Dyer’s essay/memoir. Is this ‘a read’, and is a read a genre? How recognisable is the genre supposed to be, and how disappointed would Dyer be if it turned out to be downright familiar? And what’s the difference between a read and a reading?

Dyer occasionally says his book offers a summary of the movie: ‘Do you think I would be spending my time summarising the action of a film almost devoid of action . . . if I was capable of writing anything else?’ ‘So what kind of writer am I, reduced to writing a summary of a film?’ But then he decides that what he is after is ‘the opposite of a summary; it’s an amplification and expansion.’ In the next sentence he calls the work a summary again, so it’s clear he’s not going to give us any more help with the name of the genre. In fact, the book isn’t a summary or its opposite, and it isn’t a commentary either, although that term gets us closer to what’s going on. Dyer doesn’t say this, but he has understood – in the way good readers and viewers always do – that description is interpretation, which is why, if you’re inclined to show films during lectures and classes, it’s helpful if the technology lets you down now and again: then you have to say what you have seen, instead of assuming everyone sees what you do just because they’re looking at the same screen. Zona is an intimate, engaging, often brilliant, sometimes slightly windy description of Stalker, with digressions that are only rarely real digressions, and are mainly casual but integral parts of the description itself. The book is a read in a double sense: a form of words that allows us to experience a version of Dyer’s experience but also to glimpse or remember the film that provokes and exceeds that experience.

Take Dyer’s personal analogy for the world of the Zone, for example, his case of what a ‘site of decayed meaning’ looks like:

The windows of the disused station building had been smashed and the rain had seeped in … Faded, rain-buckled, the timetable was still displayed – a memorial to its own passing. An empty packet of Player’s cigarettes, the ones my mother smoked, with the face of the bearded sailor on the front, gone to a watery grave at the bottom of a puddle: frog-spawny, rust-coloured, pond-size, cloudy with gnats. The tracks had rusted, were overgrown with weeds, grass, stinging nettles, dandelions.

This kind of writing is very risky. Can an abandoned railway station in Cheltenham really be any sort of analogue for the apocalyptic Soviet dump Tarkovsky shows us? It depends on what we are claiming for the equivalence, and Dyer is commenting on the moment in the movie when three men on a trolley in sepia suddenly emerge into a startling green landscape and what feels like another film. Just before this, in a magnificent sequence, we have watched their heads in close-up, one after the other, as the unseen vehicle carries them along, in shots that allow us to see nothing of the landscape going by except a few logs and the odd bit of broken machinery. Dyer calls the moment ‘one of the miracles of cinema’, and in spite of his well-argued scepticism about miracles elsewhere in the book (ending with Nadezhda Mandelstam’s ‘The only good life is one in which there is no need for miracles’), it’s good that he let the phrase stand, because it’s true to a feeling: ‘You can watch the trolley car sequence again and again, can refuse to succumb to its hypnotic monotony, and you can never predict where it will come, this moment of subtle and absolute transition.’

It’s important too that we think we know the place we are suddenly seeing, that the revelation has the force of a memory, a return to some sort of wreckage of Eden. ‘Here we are,’ the stalker says. ‘Home at last. How quiet it is.’ Perhaps it only feels like Eden because it’s wrecked, but Dyer’s insight works for that perception too. We have to have been there, and this is what Dyer means when he says that even on his first viewing of the film he ‘must have recognised or at least been familiar with a modest and local variant of this kind of landscape – which perhaps accounts, in part, for why the film has made such a deep impression on me’. ‘This kind of landscape’: neglected but flourishing in its non-human way, and littered with signs of an outlived industrial revolution. One of the most subtly memorable features of the film is that there is always something under the characters’ feet, some forgotten accumulation of rubble for them to step on or tramp through. Just as the omnipresent water of the film is full of broken instruments and scraps of paper. It’s as if the phrase ‘vanished without a trace’ has been systematically inverted: there are more traces in the Zone, it seems, than any culture could possibly leave. At another point Dyer speaks of ‘the magic of the discarded ordinary’.

Much terrible writing about film and literature resorts to the kind of recognition Dyer is practising here. Nabokov, in Pale Fire, created what was among other things a parody of this readerly possession of someone else’s property. Phrases like ‘I must have recognised’ often mean I’m taking over now, inserting my own memories into the film or the text, the story is mine. But much good writing rests on the same principle, and it’s hard to see how alien images and anecdotes can touch us deeply if we don’t add a discreet analogical sympathy drawn from our own world to whatever we can learn about their distinct actuality. This is what Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man means when he suggests that ‘on the lower frequencies’ he speaks for us.

Stalker is, as Dyer’s subtitle says, ‘about a journey to a room’. A stalker, or someone called Stalker (since the men in the film have the names of their jobs – Stalker, Professor, Writer – while the woman has no name and the girl is called Monkey) takes people to this room. He is a sort of metaphysical tour guide, a Hermes for people who wonder if there is anything left to believe in, and it’s not much of a job. His wife, late in the film, has a long, intimate soliloquy on how awful life is for him – and her. Well, it’s not exactly a soliloquy, it’s a confessional chat she has decided to have with the camera, like a character in a Godard movie. She married Stalker knowing he was, in her mother’s phrase, ‘an eternal prisoner’. The prisoner, he would say, of a belief in the need for belief, a man made desolate by the unbelief of others. But there is a kind of energy in his desolation, and his wife is very clear that she has no regrets. Her arguments are rather thin – if you don’t know misery you can’t know joy – but her steady, thoughtful confidence as she delivers them is very convincing, and the combination of his distress and her affection keeps a form of life going where everything else seems dead. There are also the telekinetic powers of their daughter, but we’ll return to those.

The room is in the Zone, a post-industrial space of the kind we’ve just seen, which has been depopulated by a meteorite (or perhaps by an even more mysterious cause) and is the location of such strange phenomena that the government of the ‘small country’ where the film is set has closed it off. It’s supposed to be empty, and one has to duck the bullets of patrolling policemen even to get into it. Once there, after the trolley ride and the shift to colour, the men wander in the long grass, failing to reach the ruined house that stands just in front of them – it’s the Zone, you never know what might happen if you try to do a thing directly. ‘In the Zone,’ Stalker says, ‘the longer way means less risk.’ And: ‘The Zone is a complicated system of traps, all of them deadly.’ Even when the three men do get into the house they walk through a ruined tunnel to find themselves outside again. Then they start philosophising. Dyer says this is ‘the one part of the film that seems to lack conviction and momentum, as if Tarkovsky is trying to make up his mind what to do’, and charitably settles on the mimetic fallacy as an excuse. The movie feels lost because it is lost. ‘This is not necessarily a bad thing, strengthening the impression that the film is in some way about itself, a reflection of the journey it describes.’ ‘In some way’ is a little desperate. This is one point where Dyer seems to be wondering whether his own passion for the film will survive the sustained description. Elsewhere he is quite clear about what’s wrong with Tarkovsky’s messianic intentions. Maybe the idea of the messiah getting lost is one degree too ordinary.

The men finally make it into the ruined house to stay for a while, and pause on the threshold of the magical Room, the place where, we have learned from their conversation, a person’s deepest wish will be granted. We now see that Professor’s deepest wish was not what he thought it was. He had come into the Zone, it turns out, with a plan to bomb the Room out of existence, because he and his colleagues believe the world should contain no such pockets of ancient superstition. He doesn’t want to commit this act now, dismantles his bomb, tossing the pieces into the Room as it fills with rain. Does this prove the Room’s power, or indicate that the mere thought of its power provides all the power the Room needs? But then why would it have to be located at the undistinguished heart of a now verdant industrial wasteland? Is this a way of saying it could be located anywhere? Tarkovsky is not going to answer these questions for us, or for Writer, who doesn’t enter the Room, or for Stalker, who is apparently barred from the Room by virtue of his job as conductor of souls. ‘None of the humans has made it into the Room,’ Dyer says, ‘only the camera whose deepest wish has been realised before our eyes.’ This remark relates to an earlier, more technical observation: ‘The characters are all the time stepping into shot, into an already established frame: screen and Zone are there waiting for them.’ Waiting, in the case of the Room, for the characters not to arrive.

The final effect of all this lingering, this ultimate inaction in a territory of fear and expectation, is not a portrait of the kind of existential void that seems constantly to be in the offing (and would declare itself if Tarkovsky was Bergman). Professor and Writer don’t have any great illumination about what they no longer want, and the emotional energy of the film leaks away towards Stalker and his despair at their shallowness. But something has happened here. We have seen instances, we have lived slowly through the encounter with what the mere thought of the Zone and the Room can do to people. You can hate this power, like Professor, while regarding it as an illusion; you can come at it, like Writer, with an idle curiosity that turns out not to be idle, only inescapably ironic; and you can live by it, as Stalker doubly does, since it’s both his job and the object of his faith. The Zone, we realise, is both source and product of the stories that are told about it. And as long as the stories are told, it will meet all the needs it is supposed to meet, including the need to attack as untrue everything that is claimed for it.

As Dyer says, it’s part of the style and authority of the film that ‘pretty much anything can happen, even if that anything is nothing.’ After the rather diffuse non-conclusion of the men’s adventure in the Zone, we are abruptly back in the bar where the film started, and back in the sepia tones of the opening too. We get the wife’s confidential talk to us, and what Dyer calls the ‘all-redeeming’ scene of Monkey quietly reading, and then gently exercising her skills in telekinesis, moving a glass along and off a table. ‘By “all-redeeming”,’ Dyer says, ‘I don’t just mean in the context of this film. It redeems, makes up for, every pointless bit of gore, every wasted special effect, all the stupidity in every film made before or since.’

Dyer here sounds like a writer who got into the Room – or at least one who needs to believe that a place like the Room must exist on some level of reality. He notes the possibility, ‘occasionally endorsed by Tarkovsky’, that Stalker has invented the Zone and the Room, taken the other two men into an alternative world of his own as the object of ‘some sort of faith’, but Dyer’s heart, quite rightly, and for the reasons I have sketched out, isn’t in this reading. He speaks of being ‘able to believe in something blatantly untrue’; that is, being able to grasp the special truth of certain modes of overstatement or fabrication, in this case ‘an amendment to the idea that men were put on earth to create works of art: that the cinema was invented so that Tarkovsky could make Stalker, that our greatest debt to the Lumière brothers is that they enabled this film to be made.’ The very announcement of this hyperbole is hyperbolic. Dyer doesn’t actually ‘believe in something blatantly untrue’, since he identifies it so blatantly, but there may be no other way of getting at whatever truth is lurking here and won’t translate into literality.

Such fictions (about the invention of cinema, about all-redeeming moments, about rooms where our deepest wishes are granted) are not only fictions, and can’t cheaply be explained away. We may not believe in Greek gods, but we see their various powers at work everywhere. In Stalker, Dyer says, ‘we are in another world that is no more than this world perceived with unprecedented attentiveness.’ Not actually unprecedented, perhaps, but unusual enough to require just this sort of excited emphasis. If there are other instances, before or after, they too will be exceptional enough to need the same language.

At the core of Dyer’s attention to Stalker is a devotion to the possibility of extreme revelation, even if the revelation turns out to be extremely banal. This is where the question of the recognisable genre recurs, and where Dyer courts and even tumbles into bathos as a way of making his point. After some subtle and strenuous thinking about what a deepest wish might be – what if avoidance of this very desire were really what we wanted, since ‘not to have to face up to the truth about oneself is probably high up on anyone’s actual … wish list’ – and some intricate speculation on retrospective as distinct from prospective wishing (‘Is one’s deepest desire always the same as one’s greatest regret?’), Dyer bravely confesses, as his method requires of him, what he regrets most. This is not the same as what he most wishes, which is to be able to keep writing books about what his or anyone’s deepest wish might be. His greatest regret, which he believes he shares with ‘the vast majority of middle-aged, heterosexual men’, is not to have taken his chance at three-way sex when it was offered to him. This is a little sad, as Dyer well knows (‘You think this is unworthy of the moment and the mystical opportunity of the Room? Well, that’s for the Room to decide’), but it’s no sadder than the fantasy that one could have been a concert pianist if one had practised a bit more. What is sad, or rather both sad and comic, is Dyer’s fear that this confession of the worst may not be the worst. What if his deepest regret had been ‘something really embarrassing’, like wanting to have ‘got on to the property ladder earlier’? I’m sure Dyer doesn’t think this is a genuine possibility; he’s evoking a bad dream in order to keep it at bay, make it unreal. Even so, the easily embraced assumption that hankering for wayward sex is romantic while wanting unearned money is just vulgar says a lot about what’s respectable in certain corners of the writing world. How could we have thought that Bohemia was dead?

This is not the place to leave the book, though. The risk of bathos was worth taking and we can’t win every round. Here’s another hyperbole, true and untrue at the same time. ‘If I had not seen Stalker in my early twenties my responsiveness to the world would have been radically diminished.’ This statement is necessarily true because Dyer did see Stalker in his early twenties, and it had its effect on him. But this truth doesn’t exclude, as it seems to, the possibilities that another film might have had the same effect or that Dyer is fantasising the effect itself. What Dyer has done here, and indeed throughout the book, is to mime Tarkovsky’s principle of contagious fiction and contested fact, the lie that seems to conjure up one truth after another.