Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Auteur Files #5: Some old notes on Tarkovsky's STALKER

The text below was saved to my hard drive shortly after watching Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 masterpiece at The National Gallery of Art back in 2007. As an intial insight into the work of this Russian giant, I think my writing falls somewhere in the ballpark of just adequate. Additional viewings would certainly aid in enriching my perspective into this director's unique and sprawling genius. Get cracking, right?

One of the most impressive things about the film is how it proposes a story of the fantastic in such an open, direct way. That is, Tarkovsky presents his images with two of the basics of film form; camera movement and long takes. There is no slight of hand, no reliance on special effects, or rapid fire editing to help ease the skeptical into suspending disbelief. Instead, the camera documents the proceedings in a restrained (yet at times quite beautiful) manner. Certainly Tarkovsky's approach is an aesthetic one, yet it also feels like a matter of ethics. There is honesty in how the film progresses, as if the filmmaker is saying- 'I'm simply going to tell you a story. You can choose to believe in it or not. No smoke and mirrors'.
Long takes and slow pacing of narrative very often go hand in hand, but here the pacing seems to especially infuse the long takes with much of their power. Adding to this is the often subtle, occasionally intense camera movements (in particular the deliberate back and forth that provides the viewer with sustained moments with the three characters heads while they travel on the railcar). Often these movements seem to exist to provide a sense of perspective, of space and surroundings. Other times they seem more overt in their intention to infuse beauty into a landscape that's stricken with desolation, emptiness, and despair. There is mastery in how these three elements- pacing, long takes, and camera movement- are combined. The assurance with which the story unfolds is quite striking.

The scene in the bar that indicates the return of the three men is quite important. Without the presence of the dog, it would be difficult initially to tell if they had actually ever left for the Zone. But they did go, and in the resulting dialogue between the men and the Stalker's wife, there hangs a feeling that little or nothing has changed, that in spite of the surreal atmosphere and science-fictive events the men experienced on their journey, they were still the men they were before. There is no longer any doubt about the trip to the zone; they were there and felt all of its strangeness and pressures. But the return is quite melancholy, and in the subsequent scenes it's hard to shake off the lingering impression that in this particular cinematic world, engagement with the fantastic may be thrilling (and taxing), but doesn't give much of lasting value to the character's lives. The Stalker's despondency over the perceived futility of the trip only heightens this feeling.
The last scene of the film, upon consideration, is simultaneously mysterious and a very direct (re)statement of the filmmaker's position in relation to his characters and also to the mystical, the unexplainable, the paranormal. While the film is a story of the three men, an extended examination of their difficulties, shortcomings, and ultimately their failures, its ending exists as an artist's statement about human potential and the power of things that are beyond our comprehension. The Stalker's daughter, a girl who cannot walk, can move things with her mind. Her unnatural ability, her haunting presence (which to me seems to be infused, upon reflection, with an almost unnerving purity), and her solitude in this last scene appears to ultimately vindicate humankind from the neurosis, the coldness, and the misery which was such an intrinsic part of the film. Tarkovsky is emphatically saying that the aforementioned maladies are not a foregone conclusion, nor are they terminal. Furthermore, his ending is a passionate defense of belief, of what human beings can hypothetically achieve when they are not burdened by the emotional baggage and difficulties of communication which are so frequent in the modern world. Instead of a reactionary response to the harshness of modernity, in the end Tarkovsky posits that human beings are capable of overcoming their current malaise and can move forward, can triumphantly evolve to a new plateau of knowledge and capability

The innocence and alien-ness of one child shows what we can, what we should, hope and strive for.

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