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stalker (andrei tarkovsky, 1979)

I recently took part in a poll asking for our favorite “road movies”, such films being loosely defined. My top five, in order, were Bonnie and Clyde, Breathless, L’Avventura, Y Tu Mamá También, and The Wizard of Oz. Topping the poll was Badlands. My own fave, Bonnie and Clyde, finished third. Second was Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which gave me an excuse to add another of his films to my list. I admit I was hesitant ... I haven’t exactly loved the ones I’ve seen, and Stalker is almost three hours long.

To recap: I liked Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev, thought less of The Mirror, and have terrible memories of Solaris. For me, Stalker was closer to the first two than the latter two.

There is a plot to Stalker, but I don’t think anyone cared about it too much. It plays a bit like an artier, more philosophical version of Linklater’s “Before” movies. There are essentially three characters, known by their professions ... The Stalker (a guide who takes seekers through The Zone), The Professor, and The Writer (the latter two being the seekers). As they walk through The Zone, they partake in philosophical discussions about not only their own lives, but also the state of all humankind. It’s three hours of existential angst that sinks deep, not only because of the acting and dialogue, but also because of the look of the film, which is at times beautiful but it almost always stark. Add the setting, some kind of post-apocalypse world of blasted landscapes and leftover tanks that look like dinosaurs. It is bleak ... this is a bleak film, with little room for any kind of hope. The vagueness of the narrative, and the lack of explanation for what has happened to the physical world, forces us to narrow our focus to the discussions with the three men.

And it isn’t always easy to remain interested in those discussions. Some are better than others, but eventually you wish the damn thing was about an hour shorter.

As usual, Tarkovsky makes the film he wants, and leaves it to us to come to him ... he’s not coming to us. Take this segment from the film’s Wikipedia page:

Upon its release the film's reception was less than favorable. Officials at Goskino, a government group otherwise known as the State Committee for Cinematography, were critical of the film. On being told that Stalker should be faster and more dynamic, Tarkovsky replied:

“[T]he film needs to be slower and duller at the start so that the viewers who walked into the wrong theatre have time to leave before the main action starts.”

The Goskino representative then stated that he was trying to give the point of view of the audience. Tarkovsky supposedly retorted:

“I am only interested in the views of two people: one is called Bresson and one called Bergman.”

Fine aspirations. But my name is neither Bresson nor Bergman, which leaves me once again in the awkward position of trying to figure out a work by an artist who doesn’t care if I get it figured out or not. And this makes Stalker into one of those films that I admire much more than I actually like it. And my admiration is muted by Tarkovsky’s lack of interest in that admiration. Most critics can get past this ... it’s #59 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

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