Book Review by John A. Riley

Geoff Dyer, Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room
(Canongate: Edinburgh and London, 2012)

John A. Riley is a writer, scholar and English language educator whose PhD thesis focused on Tarkovsky. He has written about film for a wide variety of publications including Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal and Desistfilm.

Tarkovsky liked to receive "fan mail"; letters from admirers. He even began his book Sculpting in Time with a selection of letters that had moved him the most, and which seemed to vindicate his uncompromising search for cinematic perfection. Reading Geoff Dyer's latest book, a 200 page fan letter to the film Stalker, it is impossible not to ask one's self what Tarkovsky would make of this.

Known for his exacting, serious personality, Tarkovsky would likely pour scorn on an author who writes books with titles as facetious as Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. But a more attentive read would reveal an underlying seriousness and a reverence for Tarkovsky's work. Stalker was the first Tarkovsky film Dyer saw, while an impressionable undergraduate. The present commentator could tell you a very similar story. Indeed, Dyer's book has helped to rekindle the slack-jawed amazement I felt when I first encountered Stalker. Further, as an academic who has written on Tarkovsky in the past, Zona made me wish I'd done what Dyer has done. It's a personal account of Stalker — A blow by blow account of the film intermingled with his thoughts, memories, personal reflections. It's a simple idea, perfectly — and honestly — achieved.

Few people have written in English about Tarkovsky's work with such candour, such personal clarity, since the first book on Tarkovsky by Mark Le Fanu. Here's the very opening of Dyer's book, describing the opening sequence of Stalker, which I still remember with a chilling clarity, from my first viewing on a VHS tape in the tiny student box room I kept in Norwich, while studying film there:

"An empty bar, possibly not even open, with a single table, no bigger than a small round table, but higher, the sort you lean against — there are no stools — while you stand and drink. If floorboards could speak these look like they could tell a tale or two, though the tales would turn out to be one and the same, ending with the same old lament (after a few drinks people think they can walk all over me) not just in terms of what happens here, but in bars the world over. We are, in other words, already in a realm of universal truth."

In what follows, Dyer simply describes everything that happens in the film, breaking off to make a general observation, a literary allusion, to tell a personal anecdote or to talk about other films (Zvyagintsev's The Banishment and The Return are considered as contemporary attempts to build on Tarkovsky's aesthetic, for example). Extensive footnotes sometimes creep up halfway up the page, demonstrating Dyer's rhapsodic need to cram in all of the things that Stalker evokes for him, and hinting at the problems of writing about a film in a strictly linear way.

Dyer's anglicisms and colloquialisms are refreshing in the context of discourse about Tarkovsky, which is usually highly reverent and/or academic. An epigram from Albert Camus is evidence of Dyer's view on the subject: "the best way of talking about what you love is to speak of it lightly." Some may find his conversational style irritating and his references to alternative rock music, to LSD and three-way sex jarring. But in the context of a room that grants you your deepest desire, Dyer's reference to the latter seems appropriate. Sardonically, Dyer notes that rather than hedonistic abandon, the universal wish of most people in the Western world is "that they'd got on the property ladder earlier."

There's a sort of elitism too, or at least, a denouncement of vulgarity which Tarkovsky himself would no doubt have approved of. It is most evident in the following passage:

"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."

But here, in Dyer's hands, the disdain for mass culture is less about its perceived cheap, importunate showiness and more about its ubiquity, a distrust of a world where a film can instantly open globally, already designated a "blockbuster" before critics and audiences have had a chance to see the film, let alone to give it some thought.

Stalker itself is perhaps the perfect film to use in opposition to all this, as evidenced by the above quote. The film's journey narrative and slow accumulation of detail, lend themselves brilliantly to Dyer's approach. His attention to detail, for example, is formidable. You will feel the need to re-watch the film to check up on the small but poignant details that Dyer notes. But Zona promises more than just an extended film synopsis, it delivers reflections on one man's life spent watching films, and on why we go to the cinema, on what we expect to get out of the experience when we sit down in the dark to watch a film like Stalker. end block

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