It was heartening to see this event at the New School's Tishman Hall played to an overflow crowd. I mean, yeah, it did feature a literary intellectual superstar hosting a panel of other well-known, well-respected writers and artists, and yeah, it was free, but still, the whole thing was attached to a screening of a nearly three-hour Russian movie that is referred to in certain smarty-pants corners as a "cultural vegetable." And while the argument has been made that the very notion of screening this film, Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 Stalker, in the piecemeal way specified by the program, with hinterstitial discussion, constituted an act of contempt for if not outright sacrilege against the movie, this overflow crowd paid the film a great deal of respect I think, responding with obvious receptivity.
Whatever one thinks of the writer Dyer and his book Zona, on Tarkovsky's film, it would take a churl indeed, after seeing him in person, to deny that he makes a great host. Casual but not fake-ebulliant or smug, he kicked off asking the audience how many in the film were first-time viewers, and how many had seen it before, and was both slightly nonplussed and more than a little chuffed to see the division was practically 50/50, ideal conditions for such an experiment. The experiment itself was the idea, apparently, of writer and New School prof Lawrence Wechsler, who introduced Dyer. It figured, I thought; this writer on aesthetic convergences has a knack for making seeming kockamamie ideas come to life (and making them work) and is one of the relative handful of souls with the pull to get the likes of Walter Murch to show up in the service of a seemingly kockamamie idea.
Murch made some astute comments, but if you'd brought along a bottle of Jack Daniel's and played a drinking game with yourself that required you to take a swig every time he brought up his frequent collaborator Francis Ford Coppola, you definitely would be passed out before part two of the film started. Francine Prose mostly brought her novelist's passion to her observations, and made some pertinent remarks about icon painting (her Tarkovsky gateway drug was Andrei Rublev, which she recounted seeing every night for a week the first time 'round) and its relation to Tarkovsky's imagery. Philip Lopate spoke eloquently on the long-take aesthetic and how it "doesn't guide you the way quick editing and music does," which quasi-paradoxically led me to ponder just how much music there actually IS in Stalker (a LOT). Some of the most interesting comments came from Michael Benson, a polymath who worked with Malick on the cosmology sequences for Tree of Life and whose experience living in the U.S.S.R. in the '80s gave him some really spectacular insights. Speaking of the early scene in which Professor restricts Writer from going back in the bar, Benson noted that the word Professor uses, "nilsya," literally means "it is not allowed," and had a very particular resonance in Soviet society. Murch then compared the trolley sequence to an 1897 Billy Bitzer film Haverstraw Tunnel, and cited a review of the film from the New York Mail Express that said "[t]he way in which the unseen energy swallows up space and flings itself into the distances is as mysterious and impressive as an allegory." Moments such as these really brought the proceedings to life, and made the kockamamieness of the idea somewhat less so.
It wasn't perfect. Yes, the film was screened from the subpar domestic DVD (Dyer assured the crowd that every effort had been apparently made to find a print, and these efforts had failed) and you could see the damn interlacing; I'm pretty sure the wrong sound mix was played back. When Lopate described the ways in which he is resistant to Tarkovsky (Philip is a neighbor and friend and after the event proper I had an amiable chat in which we reflected that neither of us should be surprised that he chafes at Tarkovsky's evangelical side), this emboldened Slate's Dana Stevens, whose contributions up to this point had been inoffensive enough to be ignorable/forgettable, to chime in about the "weak writing" in the film. I don't think I said "Oh, shut up" loud enough to be heard. I do have SOME manners, you know. (Okay, I didn't even really say that. My hostility towards Stevens—or, more to the point, everything I believe Stevens stands for—notwithstanding, the "problem" is not with the "writing" per se but with its content, the earnest philosophizing, which can get, in keeping with Tarkovsky's evangelical side, a little strident; but which, as Dyer points out rather well, is offset by cinematic nodes of deep ambiguity. A fallback position for superficial quasi-urbane critics such as Stevens is to pin-prick obvious dialogue and conclude that it constitutes what the film if "saying." Feh.)
And believe it or not, even in the subpar projection, and with all the interruptions, the film still maintained a power that is simultaneously spellbinding and deeply disruptive. Makes me MUCH hungrier to see it in a more pristine form and presentation though.