Anatoly Solonitsyn (the Writer) – ‘Stalker’ by Andrei Tarkovsky
“Keep awake, keep awake, artist,
Do not give into sleep…
You are eternity’s hostage
And prisoner of time.”
~ Boris Pasternak
The film ‘Stalker’, made in 1979 by Andrei Tarkovsky, is an absolute wonder. As usual with Tarkovsky, every shot in it is unique and intrinsically harmonious. As usual with Tarkovsky, you will have your breath taken away. And you will be bored too. And puzzled. Searching for a meaning that will elude you. For his cinema is not about entertainment, plot, revelation, or resolution. His cinema is about poetry, beauty, and the search for bringing forth art’s ultimate purpose, which is the uncovering of the core and substance of our being. With ‘Stalker’, you will feel what it is to be locked in a maze. And as usual with Tarkovsky, amidst the shallow words are pearls. And amongst the mud and the stagnant waters is the eternal truth.
The Stalker is a simple man living with his wife and his little girl in an undetermined country. His job is to guide people who want to enter into a mysterious place called ‘the Zone’, protected by barbed wires and police forces. This is a green, lush, deserted land where stand some vestiges of settlements. Maybe this is the consequence of a fallen meteorite. We don’t know. There is a place, concealed in the Zone, where desires come true. But as one of the protagonists finds out, “it is not merely a desire but one’s most secret desire that is granted here. Here will come true that which reflects the essence of your nature. It is within you, it governs you, yet you are ignorant of it.” As a result, many people want to reach this place in the Zone called the ‘Room’, and they need guides to lead them to it. This time, the Stalker is on again for a new trip with two men called the ‘Writer’ and the ‘Professor’.
Don’t expect to find some kind of excitement in their endeavour. For this journey is like the journey of life. It has its drawbacks and unseen traps. And the protagonists will spend most of their times in conflicts and bitter complaints. Suffering is lurking. And yet it is a wonderful journey at times, as is indeed life. The ultimate purpose of art is not within the demands and insecurities of mind. Its raison d’être is to reflect the truth, to celebrate the inner beauty of the world, and to give us a taste of what is eternally present here and now, as the very canvas on which the world is painted, or the film on which the reflection of reality is impressed. This is the role of an artist. As Tarkovsky wrote in his book ‘Sculpting in Time’: “Such an artist can discern the lines of the poetic design of being. He is capable of going beyond the limitations of coherent logic, and conveying the deep complexity and truth of the impalpable connections and hidden phenomena of life.”
Going through ‘Stalker’ is like falling into a well without end. And there is eternity at core. The end of the journey is for the lazy ones. Here, the journey itself matters the most, and the aim of it lies in the endless, absolute, infinite core that is hiding at, and as, the very heart of our life. Ungraspable, and yet present and at hand at every moment. Unavoidable, and yet that we keep missing at every step of a journey whose existence is only apparent for thought, as an airy image, or a fleeting vision. There is no journey. Journey is an impediment. Journey is a crutch that prevents us falling back into the utmost reality of our Self. For this endeavour requires some dying, and we don’t want to die. We want to keep the journey, the story, the endless thoughts, the ‘me’ that I am and which is my ultimate impediment to truth. The Zone is this moment when we vacillate above the precipice of the ultimate realisation of our Self. This moment when the whole story of time and space is about to pass away. This moment when we find ourself on the edge of that eternal place of being from which we have never left.
There is an extraordinary scene in the film that takes place when the three men are sitting in a rail trolley cart, travelling towards the Zone. A long and fascinating tracking shot follows them one by one, in close-up, from behind or sideways, their head filling the whole frame, as to emphasise their inner journey. We hear the repetitive sound of the wheels hitting the space between two rails. There is fear and expectation at stake. There is always fear and expectations. These are like our companions when we live as separate entities travelling on the rails of life. What the film offers though is a timeless moment, when we are dragged towards this place that lies behind our constant war between fear and expectation, between death that lies ahead and the longing for a better life. From this moment on, the narrative of the film will only be an extrapolation of what is contained and conveyed, beyond words and description, in this magnificent sequence.
Alexander Kaidanovsky (the Stalker) – ‘Stalker’ by Andrei Tarkovsky
“In this film I wanted to mark out
that essentially human thing
that cannot be dissolved or broken down,
that forms like a crystal
in the soul of each of us
and constitutes its great worth.“
~ Andrei Tarkovsky (‘Sculpting in Time’)
The photography is breathtaking, navigating between moments in sepia tones, and others in colour. The instant when they enter into the Zone is a stunning one. It is marked by the sudden appearance of colour, and acts as the ending of their long, silent expectation. The Stalker rejoices: “Here we are… home, at last. How still it is. It’s the quietest place in the world. You’ll see for yourself. It’s so beautiful.” We are now familiar with Tarkovsky’s long takes and slow camera movements. The soundtrack is exquisite too, with natural and electronically produced sounds melting harmoniously. Sound is not in the background. It is an intrinsic part of our being and we are married to it in a touching and pregnant way. As the Stalker beautifully remarked, “although music is made of merely sound without associations, nevertheless music penetrates your very soul. What chord in us responds to its harmonies, transforming it into a source of delight uniting and overwhelming us? Why is all this necessary and, above all, for whom?”
Now comes a long process when the three companions move forward into the Zone, with careful steps. Interspersed within the dialogues, and unannounced, are recited a poem here, a quote from the Tao Te Ching there, or passages from the Bible. The Stalker is guiding them in the best possible way. He describes the nature of this place in a way that reminds us of the nature of life itself: “The Zone is a very complexe maze of traps. … I don’t know what happens without humans, but as soon as humans appear, everything begins to move. … This is the Zone. It might seem capricious but at each moment, it’s just as we’ve made it, we and our state of mind.”
The Room, this place they are now proceeding to find, where your innermost desire is granted, has to me all the attributes of consciousness. For what does awareness grant but the desire to end all desires? What is our true being but the place of desirelessness? And what more could we possibly want but to be without craving, wanting, begging, praying; to be therefore at peace, happy, contented, at home. But such letting go can be frightening. How rare it is to experience such a desire! For we usually rejoice in having desires, all kinds of them, and we strive to make them happen. To have the desire to end all desires is not at the top of our priorities. The Stalker warns that not everybody is accepted into the Room: “I think it lets those through who’ve lost all hope. Neither the good nor the bad, but the wretched.“ We need to have suffered sufficiently.
The protagonists are afraid of having their innermost desire granted. For “who knows what desires a person might have,” worries the Professor. To which the Writer answers in an echo: “How can I give a name to what I want? How am I to know that I don’t really want what I want? Or that I really don’t want what I don’t want? These are intangibles the moment you name them. Their meaning evaporates like jellyfish in the sun.” That’s where the realisation of our true being has a dire flavour. So accustomed are we to see ourself as a person separate from the objects of our desires that our quest for happiness in such objects has become our very first nature. But in this endless quest for objects is hiding our innermost desire. The one that runs true for each one of our many desires: namely the desire to end all desires, all quests, all cravings, and to rest in the peace of our own precious and already fulfilled being.
We hear in the film this passage excerpted from the book of Revelation in the Bible: “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!” This paradoxical attitude, that we fear to recognise our most cherished desire and have it granted, reminds me of this wrath of the lamb. This is what the film evokes in me. Because awareness is empty, silent, never asking or grappling, totally allowing and accessible, with an open and welcoming door, it can paradoxically appear stern and threatening to whoever comes to it with a view, a motive, and wants to make it as an object to gain for his own petty interest. It will let you in if you’re as soft and welcoming as it is. It will let you down and become an impassable barrier if you are wilful and greedy. It will then show you its wrath, which is only your own that you have projected onto it, and that is reflected back to you.
So the fierceness of the lamb is our own. Consciousness is all love and beauty. It welcomes all things equally, opposes no resistance whatsoever. So how come that we approach it with difficulty? That even with the gift of a great eagerness for truth, we make it into something unattainable. We transform a lamb into a lion. We make the direct and the simple into something tortuous and difficult. Awareness has no attribute. It is utterly vulnerable. Yet it can withstand and embrace our crudest fears or violence, our blind refusal to let go, and the tragedy of our misunderstandings. This is the extent of God’s love for us, of His infinite compassion, of Her unabated courage. We have all the freedom to go astray with our thoughts, bodies, feelings. We are in a playground where we can project all possible stories into the blank screen of consciousness. We have made creativity, love, beauty, understanding, into personal attributes. All mine. And we cling to them. Or when they seem to elude us, we feel the cruel bite of disappointment and unfairness. And this leads to all possible forms of violent or inappropriate behaviour.
The wrath of the lamb — the fierceness of truth — comes from its capacity to be killed and to kill, while being itself indestructible. Its total allowance permits it to absorb all possible things into itself. Its absolute emptiness and transparence allows it to be left unnoticed. While its eternal and inescapable nature makes it incorruptible. This is the strength contained in its utter vulnerability. This is majestically expressed in these few simple words by St. Augustine: “Why a lamb in his passion? Because he underwent death without being guilty of any iniquity. Why a lion in his passion? Because in being slain, he slew death. Why a lamb in his resurrection? Because his innocence is everlasting. Why a lion in his resurrection? Because everlasting also is his might.” Truth appears to be cruel, fierce, something to be afraid of. Awareness is both a lamb and a lion. Withdraw all that is superimposed on your true Self by your false identification with all that is objective in yourself, and you will be taken into the loving embrace of the lamb. Cling to your false beliefs and identifications, and you will be rewarded with the lion’s fangs of suffering.
To be free of desires, from the point of view of the entity that is pursuing them, is equal to being non existent, an airy figure whose search for happiness has been called off. This is death. Such is the demand of awareness. Such is the wrath of the lamb. By being empty, He makes himself as something that can be unseen, forgotten. But by being incorruptible, She forces the false to eventually surrender its existence. Awareness’ softness is its indestructible strength. Remember the Tao Te Ching, as it is quoted in the film: “May they become as helpless as children, for softness is great and strength is worthless. […] Hardness and strength are death’s companions. Flexibility and softness are the embodiment of life. That which has become hard will not triumph.” The fear to let go and merge with our Self is what makes consciousness appear to be fierce. For it is a blank canvas on which we have the freedom to paint our own projections.
‘Stalker’ by Andrei Tarkovsky
“The LORD has His way
In the whirlwind and in the storm,
And the clouds are the dust of His Feet.”
~ Nahum 1:3 (The Bible)
The men in the movie prove to be wanting, desiring, knowing, but fall miserably in the claws of doubt, desperation, and fearfulness. No one wants to come back from a journey without a reward. But here, what is given is an objectless reward, which is hardly a reward for somebody whose existence rests on objective experience, on possessing, acquiring, proving his self-worth, on the highs and lows of duality, the pleasure and suffering, the likes and dislikes of our habitual way of thinking and apprehending the world. When we stop stirring the mind with all its expressions of our wrongly understood beliefs and identities, our original being reassert its absolute presence and stillness effortlessly. This is exemplified by a wonderful scene towards the end of the film, when a pond is stirred by a sudden shower, but reassess its mirror-like stillness as soon as the water stops falling.
At the crucial moment, the two men are faced with the Stalker’s invitation: “We’re now standing at the threshold… This is the most important moment in your life. You must know that your most cherished desire will come true here. Your sincerest wish! The desire that has made you suffer the most.” Who knows what they will decide? For should the truth of our being be here, attainable, only behind an open door, would we would want to enter the Room? Would we want to lose all our precious ideas, and die by the wrath of the lamb?
Let’s have the courage to see the canvas of consciousness untouched, virgin and innocent as a lamb. And through this non active action be ourself the very canvas on which the paint of our life can adopt the colours of love, peace, happiness and beauty. Let’s not shy away from having our innermost desire granted. The desire to be without desires. To let go and breath. To give ourself to a truer reality. Let’s enter the Room. Let’s be the Stalker that guides ourself to our true home, to our most cherished, though sometimes unbeknownst desire: pure Being. Let’s not decline an open door.
Film by Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986)
All photos are from the film ‘Stalker’
Text by Alain Joly
‘Stalker’ (1979) – Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Based on the 1972 novel ‘Roadside Picnic’ by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Music: Eduard Artemyev – Director of photography: Alexander Knyazhinsky
(With actors Alexander Kaidanovsk, Anatoly Solonitsyn, Alisa Freindlich, Nikolai Grinko…)
Andrei Arsenyevich Tarkovsky (1932-1986) was a Russian film director, but also a writer, film editor, and theorist of cinema. He made seven feature films in his career: ‘Ivan’s Childhood’, ‘Andrei Rublev’, ‘Solaris’, ‘Mirror’, and ‘Stalker’, all produced in the Soviet Union. His two last movies, ‘Nostalghia’ and ‘The Sacrifice’ were produced respectively in Italy and Sweden. ‘Stalker’ won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the Cannes Festival. Tarkovsky died in 1986 in Paris. Ingmar Bergman said: “Tarkovsky for me is the greatest [director], the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.”
The film ‘Stalker’ is available here on YouTube…
Check Paula Marvelly’s wonderful page ‘Andrei Tarkovsky: Cinematic Genius’ on her blog ‘The Culturium’…
– ‘Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room’ – by Geoff Dyer – (Canongate Books Ltd)
– ‘Perfect in Weakness: Faith in Tarkovsky’s Stalker’ – by Colin Heber-Percy – (Cascade Books)
– ‘Andrei Tarkovsky’ by Sean Martin – (Kamera Books)
– ‘Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema’ – by Andrei Tarkovsky – (University of Texas Press)
– ‘Andrey Tarkovsky: Life and Work: Film by Film, Stills, Polaroids & Writings’ – by Andrey Tarkovsky – (Distributed Art Publishers)
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