Sunday, April 6, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Stalker (1979)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #29 (tied with Shoah)

There are very few directors who have earned such high acclaim for such limited output as Soviet auteur Andrei Tarkovsky. By the time of his untimely death from a rare cancer in 1986, he had made seven narrative features (five in the Soviet Union, and two in exile in Western Europe). While all seven films have been heralded as masterpieces, three of those films have been in included in the top 50 of the most recent Sight & Sound poll. The only other directors to match that total are Jean-Luc Godard (four) and Francis Ford Coppola (three), and both of those are more fondly remembered for a distinct period in their career rather than their total output. Tarkovsky, though, was a talent who was felled before could build a larger body of work. As a result, it seems all the more impressive that he was able to craft such innovative, completely realized films (though a part of this was thanks to working in the Soviet system, where he spent years developing projects before being given the funds to shoot).

Unlike Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein, the Soviet directors that were previously covered in this series, Tarkovsky spent his short career making films that were subtly subversive of the Soviet government and its policies. Several of his films - including Andrei Rublev and Mirror, which will be covered in later editions of this series - criticized the regime's strict enforcement of atheism, and while nearly all of them rebelled against the idea of "commercial cinema," they weren't necessarily endorsing communist ideology, either.


But as Stalker demonstrates, Tarkovsky's main interest was creating films that could only be described as art, and pushing the form beyond mere entertainment.

More after the jump.
Stalker is based on Boris Strugatsky and Arkady Strugatsky's science-fiction novel Roadside Picnic, but deviates greatly from the premise of the novel. The film is set in an undetermined time in the future, where a strange happening has resulted in a supernatural area known as the Zone. At the heart of the Zone is a room that grants entrants their innermost desire, and it's the job of the Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) to guide people through the perilous journey to the room. In the film, he leads the Professor (Nikolai Grinko) and the Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) there, and through their journey they ruminate on the nature of the Zone and their own lives, and whether it's right to even set foot in the room. All of this the Stalker does against the wishes of his wife (Alisa Freindlich), who wants him to stay home for her and their crippled daughter, referred to as "Monkey" (Natasha Abramova).

When he began working on Stalker, Tarkovsky stated that he hoped he could make the film so that it conform's to Aristotle's three unities. In drama, those unities are: unity of action (one main plot with few or no subplots), unity of place (the action takes place in one location that's not compressed), and unity of time (the action takes place within a 24-hour period). Of course, when Aristotle developed this theory, he was thinking about plays, not films, and in that regard it makes sense. Plays are, essentially, confined to the stage, and therefore can be more economical in their scope. But to apply this theory to film means to understand not to take the mandates literally, but rather open up those elements while still remaining relatively small scale.


The unities of action and place are very well-served in Stalker. The film never strays from the main plot of the Stalker leading the Professor and the Writer into the Zone, and even though there are plenty of moments for the men to offer their philosophies and bicker about the morality of what they're doing, there aren't any subplots distracting from the action. The characters are developed through their relationships in this exact moment, not anything that came before or anything that will come later. Similarly, the Zone is the main location of the entire film. There are some scenes that take place outside the Zone that bookend the film, and Tarkovsky shoots these through a sepia filter to distinguish them from the lush color of the Zone. But the film never presents the world beyond the Zone; the only clue is an epigraph attached to the beginning of the film that supposes that the Zone is the result of a meteor strike and that police brigades guard it. Even within the Zone, we only see what's necessary to the plot; there are no side-trips to other areas.

It's the unity of time, though, that's put to the most intriguing use. Tarkovsky, famous for his affinity for long takes and minimal cuts, had a theory that he called "sculpting in time." Long takes, he reasoned, represented "real time," and would therefore cause the audience to feel the passing of time and be able to better relate one moment in time to the next. What's interesting about Stalker is that even though the action takes place over the course of one day, time seems suspended within the Zone. It's hard to get a handle on how much time has passed from the moment they arrive to the moment they reach the room, but it's implied that it's several hours. Yet there's no indication of this: no changes in light, no mention of the passing time. This is befitting of the otherworldly nature of the Zone, and Tarkovsky's long shots being pieced together without reference to the passage of time only adds to this disconcerting feeling. It may be the most impressive aspect of Tarkovsky's direction.

In Stalker, Tarkovsky does a brilliant job in applying Aristotle's three unities to the art of filmmaking, and the result is a minimalist film that's nonetheless ambitious in scope. Tarkovsky proved here that great science fiction films don't always need far-off galaxies and expansive worlds; sometimes, a simple story with a weird scenario can be just as, if not more, effective.

On the next Sight & Sound Sunday: Close-Up (1990)

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