Reading: Zona (A Book about a Movie about a Journey)

Having recently re-watched the film Stalker, I’m now reading Zona, by Geoff Dyer, an extended essay/meditation/history/all-around treatment of the film. While going through the movie, more or less shot by shot, he brings in all sorts of background material and ideas about the movie and its making and its directors and the book it was based on and the times and places where it was made. It’s all very interesting and well worth it if you’re a fan of the movie.

I wrote a meager post about the movie recently, and mentioned there were many aspects one could talk about, and one I didn’t get around to in that post is the political element. The film was made during the late years of the USSR, when artists still depended on permission and funding from the communist state, and it is pretty amazing a thing like this made it through all that, and with blessings. The trick was, it seems, to disguise it as a science fiction movie, and why not? It was based on perhaps the greatest science fiction book to ever come out of the USSR, and by a filmmaker who was partially famouse for his sci-fi film ‘Solaris’ (also based on a book from an Eastern Bloc country, by the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem). Tarkovsky‘s magic trick in the film was to simply remove everything that was truly science fiction about the book (‘Roadside Picnic‘, by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky). There is mention of a meteorite. That’s all the sci-fi that remained after Tarkovsky got through hollowing out the story, while still pretending to tell the whole thing.

Instead, it’s both a metaphysical meditation on the human soul, and a political film about the Gulag State which still haunted the USSR at that time. Tarkovsky took a mirror to it. The Zone is surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by troops, but rather than these things being there to keep prisoners in, in the movie they are there to keep everyone out. And then, once escaping past the guards and past the fence, the Stalker finds his freedom in that containment, rather than imprisonment. He says the whole world outside is a prison to him. Then, in the middle of the Zone there is a place that can fathom the deepest secrets concealed in the human heart. In fact, the heart of the Gulag was its function as a political prison, established to punish people for the thoughts concealed in the innermost recesses of their minds. It’s a dizzying slight of hand that can easily go unnoticed. We are distracted by “science fiction”, by myth and fairy tale, by suspense and misdirection. The movie is a critique of the world made by turning it inside out. Something else to think about

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