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Zoning Out

Shivani Radhakrishnan

Zoning OutGeoff Dyer
Canongate, 2013
240 pages
ISBN 978-0857861672




Ingmar Bergman, a serious admirer of Andrei Tarkovsky, describes his discovery of the Russian filmmaker in terms that evoke the mysterious journey of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979):

My discovery of Tarkovsky’s first film was like a miracle.

Suddenly, I found myself standing at the door of a room the keys of which had, until then, never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease.

Travelling to a room—in both the real and metaphorical senses—is the plot of Stalker. Though 163 minutes long, the film’s action is easily summarised: a balding man known simply as Stalker guides two characters, Writer and Professor, through a portentous Chernobyl-esque wasteland called the Zone. The innermost region of the Zone contains the Room, where anyone can have their deepest wishes fulfilled. Blending slow-moving camera pans and criticism of Writer and Professor in equal parts, plot is seldom the focus of Tarkovsky’s art house/sci-fi film. Professor’s flaw is his commitment to scientism; in his pursuit of empirical understanding, he seeks to reduce the irreducible. As for Writer, he’s fit only to march forward, unheeding of warnings, all the while grumbling about something or another. In a fit of exasperation after Stalker’s return from the Zone, he squirms on the floor:

Calling themselves intellectuals those writers and scientists. They don’t believe in anything […] They’ve got empty eyes!

While Stalker goes to great lengths to distance himself from Professor and Writer, one can’t help but see a bit of Geoff Dyer in Writer. For both, to process anything is to digest and communicate it. Dyer has published broadly on subjects ranging from the history of jazz to D. H. Lawrence, and reading him always feels a bit like having a one-sided conversation with a clever friend. In his recent ode to Tarkovsky, Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room, Dyer revels in monologue, quoting Milan Kundera, alluding to Heidegger, and reminiscing about Oxford movie theatres. This is all characteristic Dyer. As he admits in a preface to his essay collection, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (2011), his body of work offers “proof of just how thoroughly my career had avoided any focus, specialization, or continuity except that dictated by my desire to write about whatever I happened to be interested in at any given moment.” This calls to mind another scene from Stalker: Writer, nearly asleep, regales a reclining Stalker with long-winded reflections, even as Stalker has already drifted into a technicolor dreamland. Thoughts of his audience’s attention span do not bother Writer. But Tarkovsky himself has little in common with Writer or with Dyer. Indeed what is most striking about Zona—and perhaps its largest weakness—is just how un-Tarkovskyan it feels. Tarkovsky, known for his slow-moving and deliberative style, is ill-suited to Dyer’s quick neuroticism.

Tarkovsky’s films are weighty, due in part to the context in which Tarkovsky rose to prominence. His first full-length feature, Ivan’s Childhood (1962), benefitted from the thaw in cultural politics in the USSR after Stalin’s death in 1953. Foreign films were beginning to be imported, and up-and-coming filmmakers were encouraged to enter the international festival circuit. Tarkovsky’s well-timed debut met with great success in the West, in part because of his insights into Soviet travails during World War II. A full 17 years and several films later, Tarkovsky’s Stalker again captured the creative and spiritual yearnings of the intelligentsia. The weightiness of Tarkovksy’s films also come from the director’s expectations of the film-goer. Audience members are expected to engage seriously, almost solemnly, with his films. This is part of the profound possibility of cinema. Dyer often brings light to Tarkovsky’s poetic heaviness but sometimes at the expense of Tarkovsky’s aim to, as Kierkegaard puts it, “express the sublime in the pedestrian”.

If Stalker is about the plight of man, Dyer’s book focuses mostly on Dyer. Taking as its name the Russian for “zone”, it is a scene-by-scene recounting of Stalker, though it is far from pure plot summary. We learn more about Dyer than we ever cared to: his trips, to Burning Man [1] and on LSD, alongside his views of other films (Godard’s Breathless (1960) is “unwatchable”; Bu√±el’s Belle du Jour (1967) “sucked”). Dyer’s works are typically associative and filled with allusions to books to read, films to see, places to visit. A critic once described him as a high-brow live-blogger. When Dyer sees an actor drink in a film, he wants a drink too. He’s never seen The Wizard of Oz, and he’s not planning on it. It’s beneath him to read Hanif Kureishi.

Sharp, digressive, and irreverent, Dyer litters Zona with footnotes. At his best, he makes pithy reflections on details of the film, relating them to his experience and by extension to our own. Take for instance his reflection on William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience and Stalker’s faith:

William James writes of people’s willingness to stake everything on the chance of salvation. Chance makes the difference, says James, between ‘a life of which the keynote is resignation and a life of which the keynote is hope.’ Again the impossible paradox of Stalker’s relationship to the Zone makes itself felt. The keynote of his life is hope, but the Zone will let through only those who have lost all hope. Stalkers, we learn later, are forbidden entry to the Room. Forbidden, perhaps, by virtue of their belief—their hope—in it.

At his worst, Dyer is haphazard and clumsy: a footnote about his wife’s resemblance to Natascha McElhone, star of Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), rambles on for well over a thousand words. Elsewhere, he goes on for half a page about “back-of-the-head stuff” in an aside about Stalker’s baldness. He then adds that this might be relevant to Einstein and that whole “space-time thing”.

There are moments when Zona is both entertaining and informative, but for the rest for the time Tarkovosky’s admonition in Sculpting in Time (1986) haunts Dyer’s project: “Clearly the hardest thing for the working artist is to create his own conception and follow it, unafraid of the strictures it imposes, however rigid these may be. It is far easier to be eclectic.” Dyer is left finally in a difficult place. On the one hand, he needs his sprawling footnotes and running commentary to make Zona more than just a summary of a minimalist film. On the other hand, when Dyer moves beyond a synopsis of Tarkovsky’s film (a form which in itself seems to rob Tarkovsky of his brilliance and distinctiveness), Dyer’s style loses what it is that draws people to Tarkovsky—deliberate pacing and otherworldliness. To be fair, reading Dyer is not without merits (not least for compiling a cultural to-do list), but Zona is better suited for lovers of Dyer than of Tarkovsky. The book’s promise to helping us realise our deepest wishes is left frustrated, and fans of Tarkovsky are likely be so too.

Shivani Radhakrishnan [2] is reading for a B.Phil. in Philosophy at Linacre College, Oxford.