In the Zone

Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, by Geoff Dyer, Canongate Books, RRP£16.99, 240 pages

I was born in the same year as Geoff Dyer and attended the same university. We almost certainly sat in the same cinemas in the late 1970s, the most charismatic of which was the downtrodden Penultimate Picture Palace in Oxford, engaging with some of the most leaden-paced films in history. Those Bergman double bills, the rainy afternoons falling in love with shapely and gnomic Italian actresses, masterful studies of cultural alienation from eastern Europe: these are what shaped us, and what persuaded our pliant young minds to reach for what could not be grasped.

Their oblique subject matter was of no concern; indeed, it was a temptation, with potentially rich rewards. There was no better feeling than leaving the cinema tired, a little confused, uncertain of your opinion on a film, only for its key images to start popping into your mind, days or weeks afterwards. We believed that cinema was the most oneiric of the art forms, and not just because of the struggle to stay awake during those sprawling late-nighters. The moving image was the thing but the more slowly and surely it moved, the better we liked it. It gave us the time and the space denied us by the real world outside.

The Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky had a special place in the canon of the must-see impenetrables. His were the most difficult, and yet the purest, of those cinematic works. Zona is an extended essay on one of those films, Stalker.

Stalker is, as described in Dyer’s bathetic subtitle, a film about a journey to a room. It is an infinitely complex work. To summarise it is to traduce it. A writer and a professor are taken by an envoy – the stalker – to visit a “Zone”, which may or may not exist, and which has the apparent power, when found, to grant the visitor’s greatest wish, which may or may not turn out also to be a curse.

Released in 1979, it is considered one of Tarkovsky’s greatest works. Quite apart from its technical accomplishment, it has also acquired cultish admiration for its premonitory qualities. The film’s “Zone”, desolate, menacing, post-industrial, prefigured the Chernobyl disaster by seven years, and Stalker can be seen as a harbinger of that terrible event.

Dyer’s approach to the heaviness of Tarkovskian cinema – and this will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his previous work – is to treat it as lightly as possible. The book takes us through the film in a straightforward, descriptive style, as if recounting its episodes to some impatient friends in a pub. The jokey, blokey reductionism takes us aback. This is one of the epic works of world cinema. Surely it deserves better than this?

But, of course, there is deft method in Dyer’s fluent playfulness. He uses the film as a springboard to philosophise more generally about life and art. His footnotes, spread over entire pages, brusquely bump us off his central narrative. Each scene in the film is scrupulously examined and then digressed upon. There is nothing so crude as a search for meaning, just a kaleidoscopic array of reference points. Many of these are autobiographical, and most reflect shrewdly on the relationship between watching a movie and living a life.

Dyer’s eclecticism of sources – names checked include Heidegger and Bo Derek – and lightness of tone are deceptive. This is a rigorous book, and one that celebrates properly a lifelong devotion to an artistic masterpiece. But it is also entertaining. As such, it is almost revolutionary in form. It is often said of contemporary culture that it has lost its sense of hierarchy, but that is something to be applauded rather than regretted. This is actually how it feels to engage with great art: one minute you are rapt with admiration, the next you chuckle to yourself because a prop in the corner of the frame reminds you of a naughty school friend. There is always randomness amid the reverence. To pretend otherwise is to submit to pomposity.

That is not to say that Dyer’s elegant diversions always succeed. He treads a fine line between clever imaginative leaps and self-indulgence. There is an uncomfortable section on watching the Hollywood remake of Solaris in which he is taken aback (at some length) by his wife’s resemblance to the film’s leading actress, Natascha McElhone: “I whispered to my wife, ‘She looks incredibly like you.’ ‘I know,’ my wife whispered back.” How lovely for them both.

A certain pleased-with-itself quality in Dyer’s prose is at odds with the agonised quests described within it. Of all the Christian values to be detected in Tarkovsky’s films, humility is among the most powerful. It is not notable in Dyer’s writing. Certain cutting judgments come dangerously close to glibness. It is like reading AA Gill on Schopenhauer. And the author is surely too scathing, considering the absence of supporting argument, on Krzysztof Kieslowski, Luis Buñuel and Lars von Trier. Another book, perhaps.

But it is the way Dyer handles the climax of Stalker that ultimately converted me to his cause. Describing a magical sequence, which he rightly describes as “one of the all-redeeming moments of any art form”, he submits to Tarkovsky’s almost supernatural powers of evocation, and finally tells his story straight. There is no interpretation offered, no larky digression, just the relaxed confidence of a man who has surrendered to the transcendent effects of a work of art.

Like me, Dyer has reservations about the DVD age, missing the days when, if you wanted to see a film again, you had to wait for weeks and comb the weekly film listings. When you found a screening, it was an event that would shape your week. That was part of the pure joy of watching pure cinema. Don’t even think, says Dyer, of watching Stalker on the small screen: “One cannot watch Stalker on TV for the simple reason that the Zone is cinema; it does not even exist on telly.” There really was a time when cinema mattered that much.

Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer

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