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.
The critic J. Hoberman has written about a boredom that transcends boredom.
But then, some of these art films really are just boring. They don't achieve the transcendent quality of boredom. They're just boring. But as I always end up saying, I really hate being bored and nothing is more boring than the action-packed blockbuster, quite often.
I was also interested in the idea of doubt in your writing. In Zona, you question why you are writing a book about Stalker in the first place, which immediately brought to mind Out of Sheer Rage. Tarkovsky also encourages doubt in the viewer.
I think doubt is particularly important with Tarkovsky. He's got this very straight, down-the-line, religious belief. He's Russian Orthodox, so he's a believer. Whenever he comes out with these ex cathedra statements about the films—to me they're not interesting. In Stalker, the remarkable thing is how much doubt there is so that the zone is all the time being advertised as this magical place and it looks completely ordinary. Even the most miraculous things happening can also be seen as ordinary. There's this great saving grace that he has as an artist, this admission of doubt. I suppose then you come back to one of the many traditional definitions of the artist, Keats' idea of negative capability. Although his films are totally informed by his belief system, there is this thing that works for him on the level of being an artist. Aesthetically, in terms of Out of Sheer Rage, the conceit, or the joke, of that is that I was never going to write the academic book that I claim that I set out to write. It was always going to be this mad book. In some ways that book is incredibly confident. It wasn't till it was just about to be published that I started to get all sorts of doubt. Similarly with this book—because I discovered a tone early on it went along quite swimmingly, I think.
You also write about the comic moments in Stalker, something most people would be surprised to come across in a book about Tarkovsky.
I always like comedy when it's unexpected. I never like the comic novel that is spending all its time with a running head on every page saying, "This is funny!" The physical comedy, the slapstick of Stalker, struck me straight away.
Can you talk a little about the structure of the book? The main text is accompanied by the occasional long footnote, sometimes stretching for a number of pages. Did you work through other structures of the book before deciding on the one that ended up on the page? Were you conscious of how it was mirroring the film?
First of all, the book was this long, screed thing, where some of the bits I was very closely describing what was happening on screen and also talking about stuff that was associated to me with watching the film and various bits and pieces that I learned about the making of the film; three different things going on at once. It seemed to me necessary to keep the pace of the summary of the film going and to have this other stuff too. I couldn't have them both in the body, so there needed to be some sort of division. At some stage later on I put brackets around the bits I thought had to be somewhat taken out of the main body of the text. My initial thought is I thought I would do the summary on one page and the other stuff on the facing page. That wouldn't have worked because so often there would be a page of text and a blank on the other page. The footnote option was the least irritating way of doing it.
More broadly, it was a way of trying to reconcile these claims of the successive, the film unfolding over time, and the simultaneous, these thoughts that I want you to have in your mind when this other stuff is going on. The problem, of course, is you can have them on the same page, so they occupy the same moment in terms of your reading of the book, but you can't read them at once. It also had other useful things. For example: that very long shot when they're going into the zone, in close up on the trolley—I could only summarize that for two paragraphs. That sequence needed to be expanded and so one way of matching up the period of time in the book with what is happening on screen is the footnotes. What happens later in the book, in tandem with the literal journey to the room becoming more of a metaphysical or philosophical journey, the distinction between footnote type stuff and summery type stuff breaks down. So you get all types of philosophical reflection in the main body of the book. One of the early reviews of the book said something nice, that the footnotes grow over the main body of the book like ivy up the walls of a ruined place. The idea is that whatever is going on in the book is in some way in step with the film.
When I think of Tarkovsky I immediately think of his focus on the elemental. When you mentioned his use of wind in the book, it brought to mind the scene from Mirror with the sudden gusts of wind.
It's primal. What's interesting is that even these primal things so often end up having a cultural prehistory. That scene in Mirror—which I completely agree is one of the most profound sequences in the whole of cinema. It's just amazing; it seems to go deep into our psyche—has got a cultural prehistory as well. Tarkovsky was always talking about [Alexander] Dovzhenko and there's the incredible opening of Earth, which is just that—wind, whipping through the steps of Russia. Very often, our eyes need to be opened culturally to even that which we are primally responsive to. I was just watching that sequence again the other night. It's just amazing, isn't it?