Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker

Stanislaw Lem's acclaimed science fiction book, Solaris, made a huge impression on me twenty years ago. As a rule, I read little science fiction, but this book seemed to say something very meaningful about the nature of knowledge and communication, to say nothing of life in outer space. Unlike most boilerplate science fiction, Solaris is about the failure of species or civilizations to communicate with one another. Resistant to all analysis, the alien presence on Solaris remains inscrutable, subject to human speculation but little more.

Literature in general seldom acknowledges that good will and good intentions doesn't always lead to positive results. But remember E.M. Forster's brilliant exception, Passage to India? In that book--if my hazy memory serves me--the heroine sets out to understand a foreign culture, India, but is soon overwhelmed by the exotic magnitude, feinting in a cave and then, in her confusion and fear, falsely claiming that her Indian minder had raped her. There is a field of human inquiry and action, or several overlapping fields, that deals with the science or perhaps art of compromise, communication, and conflict management. The theory is that negotiation is a skill that can be learned and shared in order to mitigate or end conflict between warring groups.

I've always wondered whether this field is a sham. Aren't there some conflicts or human divisions that cannot be mitigated or bridged? More often than not, spousal wars end only when a brutal external force, the court, intervenes. And when did the Irish really come to terms? Wasn't this great compromise really only the recognition of colonial exhaustion and a different balance of power?

Andrei Tarkovsky is famously concerned with communication, or the limits of communication. His film, Solaris, is his masterpiece on the subject. Yet an earlier film, Stalker, deals with a similar theme. Stalker, a 1979 film loosely based on the short science fiction book, Roadside Picnic, follows three men, "Professor," "Writer," and the Stalker, as they enter a mysterious area known as the Zone. The Zone, cordoned off from surrounding areas by military forces, is alleged to contain an area that grants visitors wishes.

In the movie, as opposed to Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's book, the Zone is not clearly defined. We know little about it. It's unusual, deserted, eerie, awesome, and dangerous. It's also thoroughly unknowable. The Stalker, a term used to denote those unique individuals who risk their lives to take visitors into the Zone, has some rough familiarity with this area. Yet his knowledge is generally not positive. This is to say, the Stalker, for all of his journeys into this center of almost religious mystery, has only learned that the Zone requires its supplicants to behave with humility and respect, if not awe.

The film, I think, acknowledges the wisdom of the Stalker's worldview, which is essentially a religious one. The world is unknowable: we cannot do more that accept the mysteries of life reverentially. As we've said, at the heart of the Zone lies a room that grants its visitors their innermost wishes. However, in order to enter the room, one adventurer--the first to enter the space--must be sacrificed in the "meat-grinder," a space in which the normal rules of physics are suspended long enough for a man to be twisted and crushed by invisible forces. Just as worrisome, the room grants someone their innermost wishes, but these wishes are not their conscious ones, but rather their subconscious ones. And who, after all, can vouch for the health and goodness of one's unconscious?

The Stalker seems to understand the problem. Unlike the men he leads, he personally refuses to enter the room. Does he intuit that in the last analysis people don't know themselves, let alone their fellow human beings? According to Wikipedia, the book upon which the movie is based, Roadside Picnic, gets its title from a striking metaphor. According to the Strugatsky brothers, the Zone is one of six sites of alien visitation, a place of extraordinary mystery. How can human being possibly come to terms with the refuse that the aliens left behind when they departed from the planet? The Zone is like a roadside picnic: when humans stop by the side of the road to eat, they leave behind debris. The human picnickers don't notice the insects all around them when they eat, and the insects don't know what to make of the garbage and other artifacts left behind. The result of the picnic--the Zone--is mystery, the mystery of incomplete communication, which is perhaps the most typical kind of communication on planet Earth.

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