An interview with Geoff Dyer about his new book, Zona, which explores a dense, complicated Andrei Tarkovsky film
It's hard to understand why a major publisher would release a book-length study of Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, a film few have seen. But then you look at the dust jacket of Zona and realize it's written by Geoff Dyer. Through various books contemplating photography, jazz, and procrastination, Dyer has crafted a style of non-style—a refusal to specialize, an embrace of free-association. The key to Dyer's work is that it is never simply about the subject in the subtitle. In probing deep into Stalker, a film about three desperate men on a journey toward the ominous Zone, wherein sits a room that will bring to life your innermost wishes, Dyer uses the raw material to craft an engaging piece of writing that asks questions about the nature of art and provides a new way to write about film. I spoke to Dyer over the phone about his early days as a cinephile, boredom and doubt in Tarkovsky's films, and how the structure of the book mirrors the film.
When did you discover the work of Tarkovsky? Was Stalker the first of his films you saw?
It certainly was, in 1981. I saw it when it was first released in England ... Even though that was his fifth film, I hadn't seen any of them before then.
Did you immediately seek out his other films after?
Yeah, sure did, and had varying responses to them. I thought Mirror was amazing. I liked Solaris in places, though it seemed a bit boring in places, to be frank. Andrei Rublev never really did it for me. Then, like many people, I was really excited when I learned that he leaving the Soviet Union for good and was really excited when Nostalghia came out. My Tarkovsky idolatry was at its peak, but Nostalghia really didn't do anything for me. The Sacrifice was similarly disappointing for me. Next thing we knew, he was dead.
In the book, you talk about how important it was that you saw Stalker at the time you did. Where were you at that point of your life, and how far along were you in realizing you wanted to become a writer?
In many ways I was a typical young guy out of college. I was at Oxford, where every night there'd be a late showing of some great film. I was studying English, as you will, in the day, and five nights a week I would be at the cinema. That continued throughout my 20s, which was also the 1980s—there was a lot of really good films coming out then. What was happening is I was becoming, I suppose, more confident with my knowledge of, and opinions about, things. In terms of books, I was getting closer and closer to the moment of publication.
What I find interesting is this idea that seeing Stalker at this period of your life enlarged what you call your "capacity for wonder" but at the same time limited it. You're not in that period of your life anymore. How to do you deal with that?
Do I just say fuck it?
Do you? Or do you still seek out work, hoping to elicit the same kind of feelings you received from Stalker?
One of my great heroes, John Berger, he's in his 80s now. One of the reasons that he's remained young and all-around fantastic is his ongoing receptivity to new things. I think that's important. There is something very special about that phase in one's life. One's whole sense of what these art forms are doing is being formed at that point. At a screening the other night a member of the audience was asking a similar questions and we both said, "Yeah, of course." A film like The Artist comes out and I go to see and of course, it's great, it's a fantastic night at the cinema, it's really clever. I love it. If a film of the quality of Stalker came along now and I saw it, age 53, would it have the same effect on me as when I saw it in my 20s? I don't think it would. I don't want to fall into this, you know, "everything since the death of Tarkovsky has been inferior." Although I can see how easy it is to fall into. My father-in-law, for example, he never reads anything that was written after Stendhal or Proust [laughs].
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Since you wrote a whole book about the film, I was surprised to read that you felt bored the first time you saw Stalker. You quote Tarkovsky about what he calls the "special intensity of attention," of expanding time past boredom toward something more rewarding. Do you think boredom of this kind, in a film, can be a positive attribute?
The boredom you feel is quite often more like a friction between the pace at which things are unfolding on screen and your sense of how they should be unfolding. For somebody like me, of my age, I was quite schooled in this idea that works of art of a certain standard must be difficult and demanding. Going right back to the days of prog rock, which I was a great fan of. The thing about prog rock albums was they weren't as immediately appealing on first listen as a song by The Archies. That was absolutely part of my formation. To that extent, I was well prepared for Stalker. Even so, I found it a bit of a strain. I don't think there is any inherent value in slowness or fastness. Certainly, now, the culture is sped up so much, I reckon Stalker is even more of a strain on people's system because it seems relatively slower than ever. Or, perhaps it will radiate that special quality of attention even more intensely because of the way everything else has sped up. I think that line of Tarkovsky's, by the way, is absolutely correct. You go through these stages of first being bored, and then giving yourself to it entirely.