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The film needs to be slower and duller at the start,” said Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, standing up to Soviet officials who felt the opening of his 1979 fantasy drama Stalker was too lugubrious, “so that the viewers who walked into the wrong theater have time to leave before the main action starts.” Critic Roger Ebert has said, admiringly, that Tarkovsky’s films are “more like environments than entertainments,” and the stillness of Stalker has attracted its own rarefied cult. For German director Wim Wenders, the film took cinema “into utterly new terrain” where “every step could be your last,” and Cate Blanchett has said, “Every single frame is burned into my retina.”
From his first feature, 1962’s Ivan’s Childhood (one of Ingmar Bergman’s favorite films), through such mystical movies as Solaris and The Mirror, Tarkovsky, who was born in 1932, built a reputation as an uncompromising, image-driven auteur with a penchant for metaphysical themes told through long takes. Stalker takes place in an unnamed small country, in the heart of which lies a mysterious forbidden “Zone” where one’s deepest desires supposedly come true. The story takes place in a single day, during which the eponymous stalker smuggles a writer and a scientist into the Zone.
Now, English essayist and novelist Geoff Dyer — known for books about jazz, D.H. Lawrence and World War I — has penned Zona, about his slow-burning obsession with a film he discovered in his early 20s while on LSD and without which he says his “responsiveness to the world would have been greatly diminished.” Although Dyer is in awe of Tarkovsky’s talent, his writing is not in the least reverential; rather, it’s playful and freewheeling. In Zona, he combines a comprehensive making-of with footnotes in which he makes astute observations about pop culture and how it ties into his own childhood spent playing in an abandoned railway station.
For Dyer, who writes with a distinctly English admixture of intellectual rigor and flippancy, everything in Stalker boils down to the Zone: “One of the few territories left — possibly the only one — where the rights to Top Gear have not been sold.” In other words, the Zone is the rare unspoiled place that, like Tarkovsky’s vision of cinema, is not beholden to the cliches of popular culture.
Not every slow-moving masterpiece cuts the mustard for Dyer. He dismisses Antonioni’s L’Avventura as “the nearest I have ever come to cinematic agony.”
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