"What really matters,” said Rob (John Cusack) in High Fidelity, “is what you like, not what you are like. Books, records, films—these things matter.”
A version of that line appears in the novel by Nick Hornby, which was published in England in 1995—nearly a decade before the arrival, in a puff of sulfurous smoke, of Facebook. One wonders if Hornby is shocked to see how completely Rob’s sentiment—the sentiment of a fanboy, an obsessive, the kind of guy who handles his possessions with latex gloves and surgical tongs—has been embraced by the mainstream. We are constantly apprised that Facebook knows “everything” about us, when what it really has is an inventory, incomplete and bereft of context, of what we like. (A friendly reminder: What you like, considered in isolation, is meaningless. Why you like and, above all, how you like, are vastly more important because, pace Hornby’s Rob, these are reliable indicators of what you are like. And that still matters most.)
Geoff Dyer, British novelist and critic of photography, books, music, movies, and miscellany (sex in hotels, say, or model airplanes), has written a book about his obsession with Stalker, a 1979 science fiction film by Andrei Tarkovsky. It would be hard to imagine a more convincing demonstration of superfandom than Zona, a book-length panegyric, and, generally speaking, the critics have adored it. (Some, of course, prefer to quibble over which of Dyer’s previous efforts they liked even more.) In the fan section, here is the New York Observer: “Cultural artifacts worthy of this degree of obsession are rare and it’s a pleasure to read Mr. Dyer’s wrestling with one.”
One of those things is true: It is a pleasure to read Mr. Dyer’s wrestling with Stalker. But one could name dozens of films “worthy of this degree of obsession” without even taking a breath. There are many things to love about Stalker: the tormented, expressive face of its star, Aleksandr Kaidanovsky; Aleksandr Knyazhinsky’s gorgeous cinematography; and a host of dreamlike, unforgettable scenes and images. What it has little of, perhaps even by art house standards, is story. When one is reassured that whatever a film or book appears to lack has been left out on purpose, one can’t help thinking of practical productions, like cars: Stalker is a Ferrari without wheels, a beautiful, meticulously crafted thing that doesn’t go anywhere.
Why do Dyer’s fans say otherwise? Some of them do because they mean it, no doubt, and those few, those happy few, must be giddy at finding their tastes aligned with a celebrated critic’s. The rest, frantically clicking “Like,” have missed the point altogether. Whatever Dyer’s intentions, Zona isn’t about Stalker. It’s about appreciation itself, and it works best if you haven’t seen Stalker, if you’ll never see Stalker, if you can persuade yourself that Stalker doesn’t exist—that Dyer invented a movie simply to illustrate the phenomenon of how we fall in love with a work of art.
The plot of the film is skeletal enough to make that plausible. In brief: At the center of a numinous, forbidding, Chernobyl-like Zone, there is a Room in which one’s most deep-seated wish will be granted. The Stalker (Kaidanovsky) is a guide who leads pilgrims through the Zone, though he himself may never taste the fruits of the Room. The entire movie, nearly three hours long, depicts the Stalker and his two charges, Writer and Professor, wandering around in meadows, ruins, culverts, cisterns, and so on, in search of the Room.
The first part of the film is shot in black and white. It turns to color once the principals penetrate the Zone. A footnote says, “The similarities between Stalker and The Wizard of Oz have been widely remarked on.” Dyer relates them—not only the switch to color, but also the anticipation of wish-granting—and then adds, “I’ve never seen The Wizard of Oz, not even as a kid, and obviously have no intention of making good on that lack now.”
A comparison of the two films would have been welcome, but one guesses Dyer raised the specter of one merely to congratulate himself for regarding a classic as dross. Similarly grating is his boast that he won’t watch Stalker on TV or DVD, saving it for Brigadoon-like occasions when it’s revived at the local art house. A Stalker skeptic may think: Yes, well, the shelves of film students are filled with movies it’s easier to be “obsessed with” than to watch.
These cavils are worth mentioning not to cast doubt on Dyer’s ardor, but to underscore that he really is the ur-connoisseur: vain, picky, spectacularly well-informed when he wants to be, and dismissive when he thinks it might add to his mystique. His book is a reminder of just how fraught the business of appreciation is. One loves a work of art, but then, sensing that one’s passion is itself a creative act, one becomes jealous of that passion. Do we not, after all, have a term, “cult classic,” for movies which most everyone enjoys but which some can’t even tolerate without imagining that they got to it first, that they alone really get it, really deserve the credit for getting it?
Stalker isn’t such a movie—most people don’t know it, much less like it—but it’s an ingenious reminder of why the finest cultural artifacts make people feel so proprietary. Great art creates a Zone, a Room, a palace of wish-fulfillment, where one’s desires and expectations are mirrored back, and fulfilled. This might have come across in a discussion of some other film, but in this book, it’s encoded in the subject itself.
“So what kind of writer am I,” Dyer asks late in Zona, “reduced to writing a summary of a film? Especially since there are few things I hate more than when someone, in an attempt to persuade me to see a film, starts summarizing it, explaining the plot, thereby destroying any chance of my ever going to see it.”
It’s a bit disingenuous. The summary is the least part of Dyer’s appreciation—a collage of memories, confessions, and digressions—and he knows it. He knows he’s issued a rebuke to the culture that clicks “Like” and expects a pat on the back. Zona is above all an injunction to slow down one’s responses to all things:
[Michelangelo] Antonioni liked long takes but Tarkovsky took this a stage further. “If the regular length of a shot is increased, one becomes bored, but if you keep on making it longer, it piques your interest, and if you make it even longer, a new quality emerges, a special intensity of attention.” This is Tarkovsky’s aesthetic in a nutshell. At first there can be a friction between our expectations of time and Tarkovsky-time and this friction is increasing in the twenty-first century as we move further and further away from Tarkovsky-time towards moron-time in which nothing can last—and no one can concentrate on anything—for longer than about two seconds.
This may seem like an old-fashioned, even curmudgeonly, complaint, but it’s a necessary one. We like many things, often without thinking for very long or hard about why. Books, records, films—they do matter, when they’ve truly caught and held our attention, when they have acted as a Room in the Zone of our cultural consumption. As Dyer writes, “[E]ven if you keep up-to-date with new releases (books, records, films) . . . you realize that these latest things can never be more than that, that they stand almost no chance of being the last word, because you actually heard—or saw or read—your personal last word years earlier.”
We may be profligate with our “Likes,” it seems, but unless we’re very lucky, we may love only once.
Stefan Beck writes about fiction for the New Criterion and elsewhere.