Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room
(Pantheon Books, 2012)
Imagine a domain absent of cliché, gratuitous explosions, and Russell Brand, and enter Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room. Zona is a meditation on Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, and similar to the Zone in Stalker, is a sanctuary untouched by genre and traditional narrative. Dyer links Tarkovsky’s vision to Flaubert’s, who in 1852 announced his desire to write “a book about nothing, dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the external strength of its style.” He expounds on each scene of Stalker, sometimes briefly, sometimes at length, and with a refreshingly dry wit. Dyer examines Stalker’s psychic associations with the past and future, and its eerie similarities to passages and images of Postwar Europe, Chernobyl’s “Exclusion Zone,” and writings on the aftermath of 9/11.
For a price, Stalker himself brings clients into the Zone to fulfill their innermost wishes. On this trip are two characters known as Writer and Professor. Dyer recalls John Updike’s opinion that America was a vast conspiracy to make people happy, and in retrospect, that Soviet Russia was its antithesis. There may be no better vehicle for the expression of that bleakness than Stalker, with its characters sloshing about in a backdrop of eternal rain and meager accommodations. Stalker has taken many people to the Zone, but never used it for his own benefit. His redemption is in the responsibility given to him, to be a Stalker. Heavy Soviet bleakness, with subtitles, can require multiple viewings; at least it did for me. But Zona is a smooth ride, Dyer’s words saturated in a haze of literary dope near doubling as highbrow Cliffs Notes. As he takes us through each scene, Dyer wanders off, sometimes in pages of footnotes into pausing over life’s biggest contemplations, which compete with the character’s trajectory. Exploring Stalker seems something he hadn’t a choice in, he was so moved by it.
Just barely escaping a shower of bullets from the guards protecting it, Stalker, Writer, and Professor enter the Zone and everything turns to an Oz-like color, only so vibrant because the place they came from is its total opposite. Tarkovsky may not have intended the experience to resemble an LSD trip, but as Dyer illustrates the Zone’s surroundings as “taking on the internal rhythms of the body, breath and pulse” he wonders if the landscape of fields, abandoned cars, and trees would be as beautiful without Tarkovsky. A transference of sensation is passed from Tarkovsky through Dyer, and I wondered myself if the Zone would be this beautiful without Dyer’s interpretations.
Following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the damaged reactor and debris were sealed into an 18-mile “Exclusion Zone.” Photos taken by Robert Polidori in 2001 of it could be stills from a location shoot from Stalker. Dyer questions whether Stalker shaped Polidori’s aesthetic. Beyond that, Dyer recalls Max Frisch and his writings on postwar Europe in 1946, “a forest might creep over our cities, slowly, inexorably thriving unaided by human hands, a silence of thistles and moss,” and describes the Chernobyl zone, which, since “unaided by human hands” has flourished with species not seen in centuries, like the lynx, wild boar, and the Eurasian brown bear. In 2007 the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was established as a wildlife sanctuary.
Dyer manufactures his own Zone, is a Stalker himself, and most frustrated at the crumbling world around it, which he has certain rules about to sustain his sanity. Jeremy Clarkson, Jonathan Ross, and Russell Brand are not invited into Dyer’s home (perhaps they are the British equivalents to my unwelcomes, Ryan Seacrest and Tyra Banks). They dominate a zone, accompanied by crappy blockbusters and A.D.D.-inducing television, which Dyer labels “moron-time.” He warns that, like the environment, we are not immune to toxicity, whatever form it takes, nuclear or not. Perhaps he is warning us that the visual clichés that shape our culture may not destroy us point blank, but are instead a slow death, weakening our capacity to appreciate work that is stripped down and honest.
If Tarkovsky is difficult to digest for the masses, Zona hangs in limbo between this “moron-time” zone and the realm of great artists. Even in its most sober moments, like Stalker’s returning from his journey, nearly broken from exhaustion, Dyer compares him to Nosferatu, sleeping in his filthy, damp sweater. And in answering his own question, which was: “Is one’s deepest desire always the same as one’s greatest regret?” Dyer admits his own: never having sex with two women at once.