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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Tarkovsky’s Stalker

Posted by Adam Roberts on 02/19/09 at 12:41 PM

Over at his excellent Ruthless Culture blog, Jonathan McCalmont picks up from a slightly gushy Guardian full-page piece on the UK cinematic rerelease of the film to post ‘Some thoughts on Tarkovsky’s Stalker of his own.  It’s worth reading the whole piece.  A snip:

As Cocteau put it, for some style is a very complex way of saying something simple, for others it is a very simple way of saying something complex.  Consider the footage of Stalker contained in the Zizek clip linked to above.  In particular the panning shot of the shallow river filled with junk.  This scene flawlessly conveys the impression of semiotic depth.  A gun?  a box?  what could it all mean?  it is like a cinematic trompe-l’oeil that gives an amazing impression of depth whereas in fact there is none.  The fact that there is a gun in that stream rather than any other type of object bears no relation to the meaning of the film or the scene, but a gun is so richly symbolic that we cannot help but look at that scene and try to work out what it is that Tarkovsky is trying to tell us.  The power of Stalker comes not from its use of symbols to tell a story, but from its technical expertise at inducing what can only be described as cinematic empathy.  The relationship between us and the film is akin to that between the stalker and the Zone.  We see it as being rich in possibilities, we might even try to make some kind of sense out of it as Dyer does in his article by suggesting that it’s about Soviet culture or about immigration, but in truth, the film is not really about any of these things.  The room has no secret nature, there is no true reading of the film and yet we cannot help but try and wrap our minds around it, just as the stalker tries to articulate his deepest desire without success.

In the comments I responded ’Stalker: it’s one of my core texts, holy writ to my imagination’:

Absolute semiotic specificy is, I agree, not the film’s currency; and it would be fatuous to ‘decode’ the images, as if it were all some rigid allegory. But guns figure in particular ways in this text that give the appearance of the gun here greater than just random-noise symbolic heft … the Stalker’s horror that his charges have brought a handgun into the zone, the shot where the abandoned weapon is in the water and the Stalker nudges it to push it deeper in. This gorgeous pan along the water connects with this (as, I suppose, with the gunfire the three brave to get into the Zone in the first place; and with the Professor’s bomb).

Jonathan’s reply (’I’d actually forgotten about the bit with the hand-gun’) caused me to go on:

It’s interesting, isn’t it? The seems exactly the way Stalker works, at least in my experience. I watched it again recently and there was a whole bunch of stuff I simply didn’t remember from when I last saw it. This, I think, isn’t because the film is unmemorable (of all the films I’ve seen, this is the single most memorable, I think, in lots of ways) but because it seems to play peculiar tricks with memory, as the Zone does with the protagonists. So for instance: I’d forgotten that the Professor goes back for his rucksack, despite being specifically told not to go back by the Stalker … and then somehow ends up ahead of the other two. It doesn’t seem to me coincidental that my memory took some kind of perverse short-cut past that part of the narrative. And now, as I write, I can’t remember if it’s the Writer or the Professor who brings the pistol into the Zone … presumably the latter, I suppose. But the movie lives in a much more fluid, sinuous way in my mind than most films I’ve seen.  I wonder if part of the thing here is the way Tarkovsky’s cinematic technique, his scrupulous way with lighting and cinematography, his famous slow pans and long-held takes, encourages us to pay much closer attention to the quiddity (if you’ll pardon the pretentious language) of the world of his films. He is the great visual poet of attentiveness to the world. What this means, I think, is that when he puts a gun on screen we’re much less likely to respond to it on the level of crude symbolism (as it might be: that representes ‘violence’ or ‘power’ or ‘intimidation’ or whatever) and much more likely to respond to its materiality as a thing; its colour and shape; the texture of its metal and the way its material responds, especially under water, to light.

I’m not sure I can think of another film I’ve seen that’s had so massive an impact on me and that nevertheless maintains so evasive, hard-to-pin-down a quality the way Stalker does.  This latter fact may go some way towards explaining that former, of course.


Terrific post, Adam — you’ve grasped firmly the experience of a viewing a film it’s impossible to grasp firmly. If that makes sense.

By on 02/19/09 at 03:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Writing is a mugg’s game sometimes. I think I have something to say about Tarkovsky, I make notes like crazy, shuffle, cut, rearrange, condense, and finally end up with a stupid one-liner. Meanwhile I spew fifty quazillion words on a couple of forgotten comedies by Lubitsch and Tashlin.

Another odd thing about my Tarkovsky experience is how much it depends on a big screen—much more so than, say, Barry Lyndon or Leone’s Westerns. On television I only really enjoy Ivan’s Childhood; my personal soft-spot, Nostalgia, loses all its oomph, and Andrei Rublev‘s pretty much unwatchable.

By Ray Davis on 02/20/09 at 08:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Stan Brakhage is another one who doesn’t work on DVD. It’s like watching video Yule log. Which hints that the theater’s advantages might be (A) the quality of projected light and (B) our lack of mobility.

Or it might just be me.

In the not-just-me category, it’s not easy to remember the exact sequence of shots in Brakhage films, either—but then most of us nowadays aren’t trained to recall silent non-narrative sequences.

By Ray Davis on 02/21/09 at 11:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I thought of the handgun as a reference to the Stalker’s practice of working with rather than against the Zone. The gun seems to sit in the stream as a dangerous potential ready to disturb a delicate balance the moment it is picked up. At the same time, hazards can have aesthetic allure. Perhaps memory is playing tricks with me too though, and if I go back to the film I will pay closer attention to how the gun is (un)used?

By D. Coys on 03/04/09 at 07:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It was fascinating how as soon as the Professor reveals the bomb, a cascade of images fell through my mind.  returning for the rucksack, the Writer and his gun, the gun in the water...Stalker asking Professor if he had anything like the gun, he responds, “just implanted poison” or something like that...in a way, it functions like a mystery, all the clues fall into place. The thing of it is, is that they only seem to fall into place, or, what place do they fall into?

By on 10/01/09 at 01:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adding that ‘diet’ to the end of my quotation is a brilliant move in many ways, sasa ‘dietspam’.  I salute you.

By Adam Roberts on 10/22/09 at 11:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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