J. Hoberman ended his excellent and largely admiring review of Geoff Dyer's new book, a lengthy, discursive, highly personal exploration/exegesis of and or "riff" on Andrei Tarkovsky's 1978 film Stalker with a backhanded compliment that's all but unimprovable, as such things go. "Zona is extremely clever — and that’s one thing Tarkovsky never was." Upon finishing the book itself, it occured to me that Hoberman was being slightly unfair there, but unfair in a way that Dyer kind of invites. I enjoyed the book to a degree that surprised me, maybe in part because I was prepared for it. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen Stalker, but I imagine it has to be at least as many times as Dyer has, and under as varied a set of circumstances. Hence, while his descriptions/evocations of certain scenes made me eager to revisit those scenes, never did I feel the actual need to put down the book and pop in the (problematic available) DVD of the movie to get my bearings.
And Dyer's got some things to say about the movie. The offhand style of his prose voice notwithstanding, he's done some heavy lifting, thinking-wise, on both Tarkovsky the artist and this particular work. Dig this: "One of Tarkovsky's strengths as an artist is the amount of space he leaves for doubt. In Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog looks into the eyes of the bears caught on film by Timothy Treadwell and decides the chief characteristic of the universe—or 'the jungley' as he metonymically termed it in Burden of Dreams—is 'overwhelming indifference.' For Tarkovsky the artist, despite his Russian Orthodox Christian faith, despite his insistence that the epic scenery of Utah and Arizona could only have been created by god, it is an almost infinite capacity to generate doubt and uncertainty (and, extrapolating from there, wonder). This, it hardly needs saying, is a far more nuanced position than Herzog's. The story of Porcupine, Tarkovsky said later, may have been a 'legend' or myth, and spectators 'should doubt...the existence of the forbidden Zone.' So to give oneself entirely to the Zone, to trust in it as Stalker does, is not only to risk but embrace betrayal by the principle from which he draws his life. That's why his face is a ferment of emotions: everything he believes in is threatening to turn to ashes, the ledge he clings to is poised to crumble beneath the weight of his need for it, the weight that also supports it."
That's my favorite passage in the book, I think, and it encapsulates what Dyer is capable of: his formidable intellect seems fully and unselfconsciously engaged with what is, at least in part, a philosophical work of art, and he's getting some stuff out of it. In other sections of the book his other masks serve him less well, and there's an example of what brings him up short in the above passage. While I don't really have any kind of personal objection to Dyer's never capitalizing the word "god," this insistence can't help but come off as a bit of an affectation and just the sort of thing that would go down a storm when he's a guest at one of those mythical Park Slope literary dinner parties that the folks who dream about them always complain about. Dyer's made an admirable career in part out of his insistence on fluidity viz his identification, self and otherwise, as a writer. And of course as a working film reviewer who wants to be, spiritually and practically, an actual film critic, this stance is going to abrade me somewhat. By "stance" I specifially mean a "them" (film critics writing about Stalker) versus "me" (disinterested polymath Geoff Dyer writing about Stalker) hierarchy, although to his credit Dyer only applies it implicitly. (It is perhaps no accident that the only English-language film critic he cites in the book is David Thomson, who is similarly albeit more explicitly imperial.) But the multiplicity of masks this fluidity affords him doesn't always rescue him from glib disingenuousness. As salutary as the average cinephile may find Dyer's admiration for Stalker, other aspects of his taste apparently stubbornly remain other aspects of his taste, as they say. And when he deigns to dismiss "the witless Coen brothers" or allows that, on revisiting, both The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie AND Belle de Jour "sucked," he comes off like the know-somethingish head of a homicidally hip ad agency trying to get a rise out of a nerdy junior exec.
Other times his cleverness serves him much better. Addressing the mystery of the Zone's mysterious Room (no relation to Wisseau's, I hope I don't need to say), which reputedly grants whoever enters it his or her greatest desire, Dyer asks "is one's deepest desire always the same as one's deepest regret?" "If so," he continues, "then my greatest regret is, without doubt, one I share with the vast majority of middle-aged, heterosexual men: that I've never had a three-way, never had sex with two women at once?" At this point I was, I admit, seized by a desire to throw the book across the room, and then Dyer keeps pushing: "Is that pathetic or is it wisdom?" and in a little while I thought, "Oh, okay, I see what you did." Whether Dyer is being honest or "honest" or not, he's playing purposefully with a theme of the film, which has to do with the venality of human desire, or the unaspirational nature of our aspirations. Which he doesn't tell of but shows, in some slightly mortifying family reminiscences that would be poignant if Dyer didn't relate them with such coolness.
It's the coolness, finally, that is not off-putting or even confounding but a little...I don't know the word. Dispiriting? Stalker is a work of art of an unstinting and unawkward earnestness; its daunting complexity notwithstanding, it's also painfully sincere. Dyer's voice doesn't convey so much a distrust of sincerity as an evasion of it, and one isn't sure during the passages wherein he makes himself look rather silly, as the bits in which he bemoans the loss of a beloved Freitag bag made of recycled tarps and seatbelts, as to where the effect he's going for breaks off from, you know, actual silliness. (My advice to him here is: you're a year older than me, pal. Forget the Freitag thing and next time you're in Paris go to the A.G. Spalding store on Rue Bourg Tebourg and pick yourself up a nice leather murse, you can totally afford it.) "Stalker has long been synonymous both with cinema's claims to high art and a test of the viewer's ability to appreciate it as such. Anyone sharing Cate Blanchett's enthusiasm—'every single frame of the film is burned into my retina'—attests not only to Tarkovsky's lofty purity of purpose but to their own capacity to survive at the challenging peaks of human achievement." As a fellow lover of Stalker, I don't find Blanchett's enthusiasm in the least bit fulsomely stated; Stalker is in a sense an INVASIVE work of art, and for all the ambiguity it contains it's also suffused with a proud Russian Orthodox defiance; it's not, "this is my truth, now you tell me yours," it's "this IS true." As for Dyer though, well, can't yousense his discomfort in the above passage? I really wonder just what the hell he's afraid of. Like, if he truly gets off the pot and yells I LOVE THIS, the kids at Slate are gonna like him less? Who knows? Of course, the very act of writing this book itself can be seen as getting off the pot and yelling I LOVE THIS, but...upon reading the book entire, one can actually be less convinced of this somehow. Weird.
This Saturday at the Tishman Auditorium in Manhattan, Dyer will head a fascinating panel (Walter Murch, Philip Lopate, Francine Prose, Michael Benson, and, sigh, one of the kids from Slate, Dana Stevens) for "Tarkovsky Interruptus," where Stalker will be screened in installments, which the assembled will discuss interstitially. An interesting idea. I will attend and report; details on the event are here.