The Sneaky Brilliance of Geoff Dyer’s “Into the Zone”

Still from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.

 

I recently fell asleep in a movie theater. I think the movie is a masterpiece. An hour in, the three main characters, on an expedition into mysterious territory called simply the Zone, have just emerged from a slog through an aqueduct, shouting over the sound of crashing water. They each lie down, exhausted, on the brown-green moss that blankets the water’s edge. The characters speak with each other about where they are going, and for what. It is a late-night road-motel talk—fatigued, but searching. A character called Writer begins a monologue about fame, the future, technology, and soon it doesn’t matter, because he is talking to himself, in the shorthand that exists only in each individual head, using big, meaningless, opaquely personal words like “Life” and “Art.” What matters is the tone of his voice—soft and drifting and stretched seemingly over one long yawn. He is talking himself to sleep. A guitar drone intensifies. And as he went on, I found myself becoming heavily tired, too, and I slumped over. I had a dream that I cannot remember, except that it feels like a kernel lodged under my tongue, and involved a river. I woke up only when a tall man sitting next to me gently tousled my hair and told me in a stage whisper that I had spilled popcorn all over my lap. The characters are sitting up, awake now, listening to a voice telling them about his dream. In my memory of the film, there is a blank.

The movie was Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, recently remastered and finishing its months-long run at the IFC Center. Geoff Dyer wrote about the film and his relationship with it for our Fall 2011 issue, in “Into the Zone,” an excerpt from his full-length book Zona. “Into the Zone” is, as much as an essay can be like a movie, an imitation of Stalker. The essay proceeds by summarizing each scene of the movie chronologically. Each scene summary takes on the pace and tone of the scene being described. When the pace picks up, so does Dyer’s prose, and his thoughts come quick and abbreviated. When the movie slows to a pan, or arrests on a static shot, so does Dyer, and he takes the placid moments to tell us things he knows, stories, about Tarkovsky: about Tarkovsky and his relationship with Michelangelo Antonioni, about the fights Tarkovsky had with Mosfilm over the meditative pace of Stalker, about Flaubert and style, inventories of films shown in other films, about time as it exists and is manipulated by movies, about his desire for a drink when he sees characters drinking, and finally, during the scene Dyer calls “one of the great sequences in the history of cinema”—the long, seemingly unbroken shot of the trolley ride into the Zone itself—about himself and things he wants and can’t have. “Into the Zone” is Dyer’s thought, in all its allusiveness and wit and sneaky brilliance, welded inextricably to the rhythms of Stalker. This is the only narrow path to Stalker—a film that is both direct and maddeningly slippery.

The plot is simple, even generic—three men are on a journey to a room in the Zone that grants the deepest desire of anyone who enters. The room is a MacGuffin that refuses any set dressing. And yet, it is this nakedness that makes the film so evasive, for the room and its intentional abstraction opens a void at the heart of the film. The room is withheld—to engage with Stalker the viewer must give something of ourselves over, must subject ourselves to the question of what the room would find in us. The room, as the characters come to realize, is, in its power to reveal, more of a trial than a gift. What if they do not actually want what they tell themselves they want? In the end, they do not cross the threshold, and the room remains purely potential. “Into the Zone” is Dyer giving himself over unabashedly to the film, expressing himself in its strictures, letting the film guide his intellect, subjecting himself most of all to Tarkovsky’s time. Dyer acknowledges the anxiety of this exercise: “I mean, do you think I would be spending my time summarizing the action of a film almost devoid of action—not frame by frame, perhaps, but certainly take by take—if I was capable of writing about anything else?”

There is the question of whom Dyer is addressing in “Into the Zone.” He consistently asks questions to a “you,” while at the same time invoking “we,” the communal viewing audience—a viewing audience that, of course, is not at the moment watching the movie. He also at points speaks directly to the characters of Stalker—he yells “attaboy!” to one of the characters chugging a beer. I remember learning that the Romans were incapable of reading silently, that even when alone they would read aloud to themselves. Any good Roman home had a designated reading room where the learned could read without disturbing the rest of the house. Dyer is not addressing anyone—he is simply speaking.

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Stalker has a reputation for prophecy in regards to the USSR. Seven years after the movie’s release, the Soviet authorities would cordon off the irradiated area around the Chernobyl nuclear plant and name it the “Zone of Exclusion.” And twelve years after Stalker, the room would come to the USSR in the wake of its collapse—suddenly the freedom to pursue desire, and to find out what is desired. The bursting forth of countless notions of life, each endlessly idiosyncratic. Secondhand Time, Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history of the collapse of the Soviet Union, published last year, is constantly striking Stalker-ish notes: “Freedom turned out to mean the rehabilitation of bourgeois existence, which has traditionally been suppressed in Russia. The freedom of Her Highness Consumption. Darkness exalted. The darkness of desire and instinct—the mysterious human life, of which we only ever had approximate notions.” “The world shattered into dozens of colorful little pieces. We were so terribly eager for the gray Soviet everyday to turn into a scene from an American movie!” The moment the characters cross over into the Zone, Stalker switches from sepia to full color, like The Wizard of Oz. Dyer notes this parallel, and then admits he has never seen The Wizard of Oz. “Into the Zone” is not an exercise of authority. He is not trying to convince us of anything.

As the characters slip into the Zone, Dyer approaches his private room, the personalized Stalker, a place where things are revealed privately: “I am as badly in need of the Zone and its wonders as any of the three men on the trolley as they sit there and the blurry landscape clangs past. The Zone is a place of uncompromised and unblemished value. It is one of the few territories left—possibly the only one—where the rights to Top Gear have not been sold: a place of refuge and sanctuary.” The pure Top Gear is a perfect detail, his madeleine—if we could unspool it, the rest of Dyer would follow. Nostalgia for Top Gear is Dyer speaking impenetrably to Dyer in the dark of a movie theater.

 

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Matt Levin is a writer in New York.

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