Not So Mystified by Stalker

I had always heard a lot of talk about Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, but I had never seen it for myself until very recently.  Some people described it as one of the greatest ever science fiction movies; others described it as one of the greatest ever movies, period; the BFI ranked it #29 on their list of the “100 Greatest Films of All Time”.  More, though, I had heard people discuss what the film was about.  What does it mean?  The nature of consciousness?  The importance of religion?  Human desire?  No one seemed to agree, other than to agree that the film had some deep, hidden meaning, not immediately accessible.

The film is based on the book Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, which was first published in 1972.  Incomprehensibility was a popular trope of the time: Jodorowsky and Tarkovsky; a tradition carried on by Greenaway and Lynch.  It was cool to be enigmatic; apparently, the more impregnable the movie the more it was supposed to be infused with a meaningful subtext.  I remained to be convinced.

Celluloid Philistine that I am, my favourite science fiction movie is Aliens.  I am more likely to equate ‘enigmatic’ with ‘pretentious bullshit’ than I am with ‘hidden genius’.  And, it was in this already biased frame of mind that I first watched Stalker.

So, it came as something of a surprise to admit that I rather enjoyed it––not as much as Aliens, but more than The Holy Mountain.  I thought the cinematography was tremendous––shout out to Alexander Knyazhinsky––and I remained interested, sometimes even in suspense, throughout most of the 2 hour 43 minutes running time.  Did I think that it conveyed some great hidden message to humanity, deserving of volumes of closely reasoned critical analysis or stoned post-pub discussion?  Not really.

For what it is worth, here is my take-away from my viewing.  It reminded me of my childhood.  Not that my childhood was one of sepia-tinted, psychokinetic, dystopian authoritarianism.  Far from it.  It reminded me of the ‘70s in the ‘burbs; innocent days of summertime adventure, playing down my local park with my mates from school; and the endless games of imagination that we would invent.  There were the no-go zones, which had to be circumnavigated; the pretend hazards; the Crystal Maze-style obstacle courses, which we would create from the most harmless of landscapes.  The paths, which ran with molten lava; the stream, which was filled with man-eating crocodiles; the puddles, which were bottomless pits of quicksand.  And all these ‘perils’ leading up to an end-goal: Stalker’s room where innermost desires are made real; my homemade den in the woods, constructed of sticks.  Stalker’s Zone; my childhood playground, and one thing holding them both together: belief.

For me, the most revealing scene of the movie was when the Stalker’s two companions––the Writer and the Professor––round on him, threatening to pop the bubble of his make-believe world.  Exposed and stripped of his identity as a Stalker, he is left with nothing.  Just another grown-up man-child crying in the park.

© Bradley Dunbar

Bradley Dunbar is a suburban Stalker.

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