This week’s screening log is not only late, but also shorter than ever. It’s been one of those weeks. I was all set to write it yesterday and then I couldn’t get into the headspace cause of some non-film things. I’m not really in the headspace now, but perhaps I can take that as a challenge. Of note, the three repertory films (and two current films) marks the first week in which everything was screening in digital. This is sad. If you haven’t, read my piece on the troubling aspects of the North By Northwest DCP.
-2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968: Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Digital 2K Projection at Film Forum.
-North By Northwest, 1959. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Digital 2K Projection at the Museum of the Moving Image.
-Stalker, 1979. Directed By Andrei Tarkovsky. Projected DVD at the New School.
This was the third time I had seen Stalker, which was part of an event called Tarkovsky Interrupts, in which the film was intermittently paused for discussion by a series of six panelists, organized around Geoff Dyer, who just wrote a book on the film called Zona. I won’t give a full overview—someone more astute than me already did that much better than I can—but here are a few of the notes I took and my own thoughts on this film, which remains my favorite Tarkovsky. I was actually expecting them to stop the movie a couple more times or at least speak longer, but the screening went over length anyways (four hours were allotted).
Like Glenn said, the most interesting points were given by Michael Benson, who spent some time in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Writer and Professor were based on very specific public personalities in the nation. And although many write that Tarkovsky seems to be a predictor of the Chernobyl disaster with his use of a dangerous place that is guarded by the military, Benson discussed how Chelyabinsk had a similar disaster in 1957, which was never discussed by the state and only by citizens in private. And the phone joke is apparently a Russian classic. Although Stalker is a film that is so ambiguous that anyone can sort of read it as anything they want (it’s the ultimate metaphor-for-life film, meaning it’s both everything and nothing at the same time), it was this political allegory that interested me. In a way, the Zone could be the West, a place where all desires come true, even if they aren’t the desires they you necessarily know you want.
Phillip Lopate, the great critic (and former professor of mine) mentioned how “simple” many of the shots in Stalker are. There are a lot of close-ups and medium shots, often with the camera behind their backs. Lopate equated this to the same technique Miles Davis used to do. In many ways, the visual aspects of Tarkovsky are less notable for how the camera moves than the images and compositions he builds, though he does of course use the long take quite beautifully. Having recently attended the Bresson retrospective at Film Forum, you can see why Tarkovsky was so in love with him (as well as Bergman). And you can see why Bela Tarr is sort of the next step, taking the long take to extremes.
It was fun to see Walter Murch, who keeps striking me as Michael Haneke’s cousin whenever I’ve seen him speak, though I wish he spoke less about his work with Coppola than about the film and any similarities he could derive. The one thing of note was how The Godfather was one of the first long films to not have an intermission, and that choice came not by the decision of Coppola (who had planned one after the murder in the restaurant), but the great producer Robert Evans suggested against it, because the film was so enrapturing.
Dana Stevens, the film critic at Slate, had a few good points, her most interesting was how we travel through the Zone. She explained, “All the spaces have their own being and flow by some internal logic.” Afterward, my friend Jim Pagels asked about how we keep being told about this danger in the Zone but never actually “see” anything. I think this is one of the beautiful parts of Stalker is that to accept the film you must ignore these “flaws” one might call them (they’d be wrong). Much of the film is about faith and our ability to give into faith despite the little evidence we have (something Lopate, an atheist who has written about it, found somewhat uninteresting). The less we question about how and why the Zone works, the more easy it is to believe it. I mentioned on Twitter that I always feel strange why some critics call out Christian symbolism in a film as a derisive fact (as some also did with Malick’s The Tree of Life). Nobody said that the Bhuddist traditions in Uncle Boonmee made that film less enjoyable. This might be my own Catholic upbringing speaking, but I always fall back to my favorite Roger Ebert quote as a defense, “It’s not what the film is about; it’s how the film is about.”
In terms of my own thoughts, I thought the one of the most interesting moments was during the trip to the Zone. I noted this time how that long take in which we watch the men ride the motorized trolley how the soundtrack worked beautifully (I wish Murch had spoken about this moment; instead when asked about the sound, he discussed making the sound on Apocalypse Now). During the scene, we start with the constant repeated sound of the trolley on tracks. Soon enough, the sounds of the Zone, which sort of repeat intermittently through the soundtrack from there on, seem to pick up and edit the sounds. It was as if the Zone felt the trolley’s presence and echoed the men, calling them to come join the cause.
The other thing I’d like to note is I’ve always a different interpretation of the ending than the ones discussed by the panel. I’ve always seen the moment in which (spoiler!) Monkey moves the glasses telepathically as a sign that she has had her wish fulfilled by the Zone. Yes, she hasn’t been to the Zone, though she carries it in her DNA. How is this her wish? Monkey, from what we can tell, is paralyzed by the waist down. So one might argue that her wish is to walk. But perhaps how the Zone has interpreted her wish is that she doesn’t wish to walk, but have the world move for her. That’s my own take at least, but nonetheless, it is a chilling and curious scene.