Stalking A Dream

~ short essay on the 1979 Russian film Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.

What is ‘The Zone’, the mysterious area so aptly-ambiguously-named within the bleak Russian landscape depicted in the Soviet-era Russian film Stalker (1979)? The inexplicable existence of this strange, seemingly supernatural, perhaps extraterrestrial “Zone” — and what may lie within its innermost recesses — makes up the primary conceit of the journey of the three major characters: The Stalker, The Writer, and The Professor. Each of them brings their own ideals and ambitions into the cordoned-off area, concerning their careers and livelihoods; the latter two serve as clientele to the Stalker, the eponymous physical {and spiritual} guide into the desolate yet dangerous landscape. The two men also bring with them a hope and a wish, respectively — a hope that they may make it to the final ‘Room’ of The Zone intact, and then so speak their innermost desire into it in the form of a wish to be granted by its strange powers. This is their quest; Stalker leads them on competently, respectfully, and with a passion worthy of the undertaking.

…What was it?
Did a meteor fall down?
Was it a visit by citizens of the vast space?
So or otherwise in our little country appeared the greatest miracle of miracles the ZONE.
We sent there the troops immediately.
They did not come back.
Then we surrounded the ZONE with police cordons… And, I suppose, that was the right thing to do…
Actually, I don’t know, I don’t know…
~ From an interview with Professor Wallace, the receiver of Nobel’s prize, by a journalist of RAI.

Stalker, as a narrative, is almost entirely landscapes, atmospheres, moods, shadows and silhouettes, unspoken musings and untold mysteries. As these three men journey through an abandoned, rusted world, once more overtaken by nature’s greenery, they speak little. Beyond Stalker’s enigmatic commands and the Writer’s philosophical pondering on the nature of his purpose there and what the ideal wish for a creative type might be, there is interminable silence. Some music, few words, a minimal filling-in of the scenery with context or candor from character or concept. Astride all of the sameness and the long shots of the men constantly surveying their surroundings with unerring fear and building dread, there is a blank subconscious canvas. In the tedium of the characters’ worlds, these still-scapes cause the viewer to think, and think, and to wonder and wander right alongside each of the travelers upon the screen.

What the hell is going on in The Zone?

What is this place? Where did it come from? “What was it?”
Why don’t the flowers smell?
What do the traps do?
How does it change its courses? Why can’t travelers effectively backtrack?
Why didn’t the initial regiments of soldiers return? Why are these military vehicles and tanks still here?
How do the Stalkers survive multiple trips?
What is the wish-granting power within the final room? Why hasn’t the Stalker used it? Do we know he hasn’t?
What happened to “Porcupine,” the Stalker’s previous mentor who committed suicide after becoming rich, presumably from being granted his wish…
Why does Stalker say this place ‘wants’ to be respected?

What is actually in The Zone?

~

Answer: Nothing.

We come to find The Zone is an idea more than it is a reality, and the three travelers each use it to their own ends. Namely, the Stalker, who evangelizes its power and speaks to its dangers in the form of traps and altering pathways to necessarily alight his wayfaring significance to the ends of his employment, and his life’s purpose. The film is titled ’Stalker’ and not ’The Zone’ for good reason. Ambiguous and psychological {and of course, highly open to interpretation} Stalker is a purely existential experience in the sense that The Zone is devoid of meaning; it is an utterly blank canvas of nothingness – and the wondering, wandering travelers there fill it with their own necessarily unconscious aspirations.

For the Writer, The Zone is a way for him to escape. He wishes to be away, in physical and imaginary space, from the normalcy and the sheer tedium of the world’s peoples, systems, and events, as he sees them. The world has become a boring dystopian hierarchy in which all of the arguments have been had, all of the great events past. The Writer proclaims to wish for inspiration and an end to desperation in his art. But really he wants something new, something unexplainable, something impossible.

“A man writes because he is tormented, because he doubts. He needs to constantly prove to himself and the others that he’s worth something. And if I know for sure that I’m a genius? Why write then? What the hell for?” ~ Writer

For the Professor, The Zone is an opportunity for observation, and for redemption. He wishes to regain his fallen stature within the scientific community by discovering the truth of the place and reporting back to the world what he finds. The Zone’s power to grant men their innermost desires in the form of open-ended wishes is perhaps too good to be true, and he must affirm its veracity first himself with direct experience. Alternatively, he must ensure it is never used by any outside of himself. Acting as a potential saboteur, the prof considers destroying The Zone’s purported room of wishes with a bomb so as to protect the world from future megalomaniacal rogues wielding dark wishes. But he is reluctant, he hesitates. The Professor is confused and perhaps has no idea what he wants, or what to do with the bomb or his potential wish. Thusly, he is so caught in his own worldly ambitions and God-complexy questions that he never thinks twice about the scientific reality of The Zone’s power so told to him from a stranger…

For Stalker, The Zone is his dream. It is his purpose, his haven from reality — his God. And he is its ultimate proselytizer. The Zone, and the fraught pathway to its innermost room where wishes may be spoken and guaranteed via transcendent power, is the Stalker’s tao. It is the path that he chooses to walk out of an unspoken desire for self-discovery, self-actualization, self-importance. He projects onto The Zone’s passages pitfalls and impossible shifts in order to create harrowing journeys. For himself and for those that he guides, he turns this post-industrial wasteland — void of conscious activity and material value, reclaimed by an indifferent, chaotic natural world — into a consequential adventure, one to which he is an experienced, reliable veteran yet still enmeshed in fear unto its life-or-death stakes. The Zone is the Real world, to him; if we imagine the film is being told from Stalker’s eyes and mindspace, it is telling that the scenes are not colorized until we enter it… Consciously or unconsciously, Stalker has envisaged a meaningful path for his life, and for all who may follow him within The Zone, by inventing a variable and inviolate path to enlightenment ~ ‘a magic room within a mysterious landscape beyond mortal obstacles which grants the adventurer their innermost desire.’ It is a microcosm of their world at large — unbounded, capriciously dangerous, progressed upon — but now so manifested with meaningful engagements so as to practically promise a form of truthful self-discovery, and to his mind, happiness.

However, none of it is real. The creation of this ‘wish room’ by Stalker, or maybe his mentor in Porcupine (if he really existed), is like the nascent imaginings of a naively hopeful child raised on benevolently-concluded fairy tales. It is what someone in the bout of a desperate mid-life crisis, or one merely hyper-imaginative and daydreaming before grueling labor, would cook up for what an alien zone landed onto Earth wrought from outer space might bring, and only to discerning explorers willing to brave it.

The Zone is perhaps super-natural in the sense that it is a harsh and forceful recovering of a component of human civilization from our primal counterparts on the planet — wild plants and animals; it is potentially a Soviet err in nuclear power, an eternally radioactive disaster site from a man-made mistake hidden from the rest of the world (Stalker pre-dated Chernobyl by seven years and yet eerily predicted an alternate reality example of such aftermath). What it is not is a mythical, metaphysically impenetrable land of extraterrestrial presence or power — there is no evidence of any of what Stalker promises to be true. One can trust only what can be seen amongst the strident scenery — and we see no Porcupine, no other travelers with their accounts or their wishes fulfilled, no traps set off, no infinitely reforming landscape of one-way passages, no aliens, and no magic.

In this ‘dream’ of Stalker, he humbly guides weak and ‘wretched’ creatures like himself, like Writer and Professor, towards salvation. By his words, a man’s wretchedness is crucial to the whole endeavor’s consummation. Weakness and desperation cultivate belief, and belief in the impossible fairy tale of wish-granting made real is key to it all working in the end. In their respective molds of desperation, the marks initially buy-in. They do seek some form of magical salvation, they are ready to see something beyond their imaginations. And despite the actual experience being cross to their expectation, the harrowing journey into the maw of The Zone’s mystery is efficacious in this regard: by the end of their journey together, painstakingly musing with anticipation of their innermost desires, self-discovering truths ungiven save for their seemingly mortal ventures before the final room, the two men do appear to achieve a slice of enlightenment. But it only comes after their rejection of the divine room of wishes at its very threshold, a rational revocation of “the most important moment of their lives,” a dismissal of the Stalker’s desperate dream.

There is no wish, no future glory for either of them — only realization. And even though Stalker despairs as a failure willfully performing as disciple to The Zone before them, he has succeeded in a way that he cannot comprehend. Just like him, The Zone has gifted the Writer and the Professor its own special, secret wisdoms, borne of their singular experiences in the traversal — and in their strange and transient companionship to him. ~

“Let everything that’s been planned come true. Let them believe. And let them have a laugh at their passions. Because what they call passion actually is not some emotional energy, but just the friction between their souls and the outside world. And most important, let them believe in themselves. Let them be helpless like children, because weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing. When a man is just born, he is weak and flexible. When he dies, he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it’s tender and pliant. But when it’s dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death’s companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being. Because what has hardened will never win.” ~ Stalker