A Writer, a Professor and a Stalker walk into a bar, what happens over the next three hours is either the longest punchline in history or one of the greatest films ever made.
Since premiering in 1979, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker has gone on to forge swollen streams of analysis, flooding books, blogs and many tired conversations. Like a ball of putty rolling in our hands, great films are in a perpetual state of metamorphosis, evolving through our changing fears and desires. As time has passed, watching Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) now feels like a crash-course in catfishing, while Dirty Dancing (1987) – once my teenybopper crave – has fermented into a Freudian free-for all.
They say time heals all wounds – and by ‘they’ I mean people who either have too much time on their hands or too many wounds on their heels. But the same can’t be said for cinema. Time, in this case is the unclipped fingernail, picking at the scab to grant fresh access. Watching Stalker now, 41 years to the day of its release, I can’t help but draw comparisons between the film’s story and our own global narrative: the eerily titled ‘new normal’ of theatre lockdowns and halted releases. We’re effectively living every cinema-goers’ nightmare: sitting through a never-ending flux of commercials as we wait for the lights to dim.
I’ve become stuffed with ‘content’ and starved of cinema, and nowhere is this hunger more sweetly expressed than in Stalker, a film which essentially chronicles a mates’ trip to the cinema (“The Zone”). No one seems to really know what the Zone is: a government experiment gone wrong? An alien visitor center? But we do learn that inside the Zone there is a “Room” where our subconscious desires will be magically realised. But getting there is the tricky part. The Zone is on lockdown indefinitely. You’ll need a guide, a “Stalker”.
Floating somewhere between outlaw and monk, Stalkers lead treacherous expeditions into the Zone. They know all the shortcuts and radiate all the shamanic glow of a friend bringing you to your first arthouse theatre when phrases like “mise en scène” and “Lynchian” seemed the peak of exotica. Leading two men, known only as Writer and Professor, Stalker trudges through a variety of slippery terrain all the while eluding military patrols hellbent on keeping the Zone boarded up.
Upon trespassing, our three overcoated commandos do what any renegade would do, they take a nap, and who could blame them? One of the Zone’s defining characteristics is its distortion of time. The laws of the natural world bend beyond its threshold where seconds drag and hours zip by. It echoes a feeling akin to entering the cinema on a sunny afternoon and leaving at nightfall. We slip through a wormhole on a belly full of popcorn only to become intruders in a new world.
However, Tarkovsky’s ‘new world’ does away with overt sci-fi elements, preferring to let his camera do the work. And whatever shiny vistas we may have envisioned for the Zone soon give way to something resembling a dilapidated industrial park, understated and overgrown. But you can’t deny its shabby-chic appeal. In-fact, if I have one weakness, it’s my love for those flea-bitten “we don’t serve popcorn here” independent theatres that offer as much comfort as a renovated borstal. There’s an unspoken intimacy at play, one lost in the sleek design of multiplexes.
Cut to: The “Meatgrinder”, the most dangerous part of the Zone: it’s damp, dark and makes you grateful that Smell-O-Vision never really caught on. It’s also the entrance to the Room, get through this, and it’s all peaches and cream from here on out – a diet not so far-fetched now that your wildest dreams are within grasp. Writer scouts ahead through the murky tunnel, tip-toeing his way past floating debris, using all the caution of a late-comer groping past rows of outstretched limbs and sticky floors as the opening credits play.
After such a perilous journey, it may come as a disappointment that in the end, neither Writer, Professor or Stalker enter the Room. The fear of having their deepest wishes come true stops them just a step shy. Instead, we watch them hunker down and huddle up, lamenting the ‘what ifs’ of life. It’s only when the camera slowly tracks back, framing our characters within the Room’s doorway, do we come to realise that we (the audience) have passed the finish line, we have entered the Room.
That image of the three men sitting back to back, framed like a silver-screen is enough to induce a full-body breakout of goosebumps. When Stalker says “this is the only place to come to when hope is gone”, he may as well be referring to a movie theatre, a place where the Ganges and The Fountain Of Youth meet.
Our picturehouse pilgrimages have been put on hold for the time being. A postponement causing many to reflect on why we go to the cinema at all. For Tarkovsky, cinema is time: ‘time lost, spent or not yet had’. Now, stuck in quarantine, all we have is time, and I’ve built up a lot of credit on the clock, credit I’m looking to spend, so once cinemas reopen and the lights dim, I’m going all in.