Geoff Dyer’s Tarkovsky’s Zona

Geoff Dyer, Zona: A book about a film about a journey to a room (Canongate, Text 2012)

1zThis book about Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker came with plausible recommendation from the Book Club. Ignoring the back cover’s reassuring assertion that the book ‘fascinates from start to finish – even if you haven’t seen the film’, I decided to fill a yawning gap in my cinema-literacy and watch the movie before reading it. And I was underwhelmed, not to say bored. It may be one of the greatest films ever made, but for this viewer it’s mostly laboured, inconsistent, portentous and yet inconsequential, and dreary. ‘I do know,’ Dyer writes on page 10, ‘that if I had not seen Stalker in my early twenties my responsiveness to the world would have been radically diminished.’ So I guess it’s too late for me in my mid 60s. Admittedly I watched it on a small screen, but I suspect that if I’d gone to see it in the cinema when it was first released I would have quickly and irreversibly nodded off, and only partly because in 1979 I was a sleep deprived parent of a one-year-old.

Still, I’m always fascinated when someone I respect differs wildly from me about a book or movie, so I settled down to read, expecting to have fun. (I’d heard Geoff Dyer read hilariously from his Geoff in Venice, Death in Varanesi at the 2012 Sydney Writers’ Festival – at a time, it seems, when he was going on the Stalker marathon that led to this book.)

Zona isn’t a learned dissertation. It’s pretty much a blow by blow account of the movie, interspersed with making-of anecdotes, snippets of autobiography, descriptions of how other films have been influenced by Stalker or referred to it, comparison to other films (Dyer found Antonioni’s L’avventura intolerably boring, and perhaps this kind of book about that film just wouldn’t work at all), and reflections both serious and self-mocking on his own lifework as a writer. He probes at the reason the film has fascinated him so much: hallucinogenic substances may have something to do with it, though not, in his opinion, because they impair one’s judgement. In true essayist style, he chases off on detours, airs his snobbery (noting that Stalker has been compared to The Wizard of Oz, he tells us he hasn’t seen the latter film and ‘obviously’ has no intention of seeing it now), throws harsh adjectives at films he doesn’t like (Godard’s Breathless is unwatchable, Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control is vacuous, Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist is absolutely repellent and silly), and quotes more or less casually from a vast range of cultural touchstones: Kundera and Wordsworth, Rilke and Billy Collins, Coetzee and Nadezhda Mandelstam, Cate Blanchett and Igmar Bergman, Bob Dylan and Bjork, Christian Marclay’s The Clock and James Turrell’s light sculptures. There’s a very funny account of his idiosyncratic response to Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake of Solaris, and an amusing account of some missed sexual opportunities.

I can’t say the book ameliorated my indifference to Tarkovsky in general or Stalker in particular. I don’t know that I’d enjoy going to the movies with Geoff Dyer, and even less watching television with him. But I have enjoyed spending a little more than 200 pages in his company as he engages with a movie that he has watched many times and been fascinated by for more than 30 years.

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