Cronk: Yeah, his filmography is so unusually consistent and as you say, singular, that like post-Paths of Glory Kubrick (or Bela Tarr or more recent Lars von Trier, Tarkovsky’s two foremost identifiable descendants) the catalogue begins to take on a grander context wherein each film seems like either a refinement, continuation, or simply another piece in the larger puzzle that is Tarkovsky. Hence, we probably could have chosen any Tarkovsky film save de-facto beloved Andrei Rublev and made similar arguments for their merits as his defining work. I can certainly see why many feel Mirror is a watershed, simply because of its direct insight into the soul of the man himself, or The Sacrifice, for its ostensible arrival at something pure and it’s aura as something unmistakably final. But you’re right when you say that Solaris and Stalker are the two Tarkovsky films “closest in conception” (which could be why these are his two best films in my view): the more openly emotional Solaris leaves the grim journey of Stalker in a desolate and precarious position where character motivation is often times obscured and subverted by actions or dialogue.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Tarkovsky keeps females mostly out of the general narrative until the closing act. The three male protagonists speak of significant others and in the case of the titular Stalker in particular, of his daughter who has contracted an undisclosed physical ailment through her exposure to “The Zone,” the film’s destination and draining eye-of-storm set piece. The final image of the film—one of the most fascinating and enigmatic endings I’ve seen—is thus a release and a further probing toward the audience to re-think what, who, and how the events which have transpired co-exist and on what plane of reality does the mind eventually overtake the body.
Marsh: Yes, and let’s not overlook the importance of the scene which directly precedes the final one, in which the Stalker’s wife addresses the camera directly and speaks about her history with her husband. Both sequences depart rather surprisingly from the loaded and suggestive naturalism of the rest of the film, and both confound everything that’s come before them—the supernatural element introduced in the film’s closing moments, in particular, complicate our ideas about “The Zone” and what it can and cannot do for its visitors. Throughout the film we’re told by the Stalker that “The Zone” is rife with danger, and our protagonists’ journey seems always on the verge of disaster, or of finally encountering some of the menace suggested by the Stalker’s expository remarks. But disaster never strikes, and “The Zone” is never revealed to be anything but tranquil.
As the film draws to a close and the characters return to the “safety” of home, we’re never convinced that “The Zone” has any supernatural properties at all, and in fact that seems to be Tarkovsky’s point. And yet the ending suggests otherwise: sitting at a kitchen table, the Stalker’s daughter is shown with what appears to be some sort of telekinetic powers, moving glassware across the countertop with her mind (although this isn’t entirely clear either). I think the idea here is that suggestion can be more compelling than depiction, and that what we invest in an image is often more significant to the formation of meaning than what we derive from it. “The Zone” is transformed into a place of power and reverence because the Stalker projects those qualities onto it, not because it elicits any particular response itself. Similarly, the images we’re shown are either foreboding or innocuous depending on what Tarkovsky casts upon them, whether that be awe or doubt, and the qualities we find in these images are never inherent to them.
Cronk: I think you’ve pretty well nailed the kind of reciprocal relationship the audience must have to images being shown, even as they reshape as the film proceeds and then eventually transform into something we may not have even anticipated. Like the characters it depicts, Stalker seems to change meaning or illuminate itself in different ways with each viewing. The experience of watching Stalker is just that, an experience unique to viewing conditions and state of mind. Depending on perspective or hindsight or simply mood, the film can speak to different aspects of the viewer’s emotions or subconscious.
That’s why the cerebral tag doesn’t hold up beyond surface aesthetic with regards to Tarkovsky or Kubrick or Tarr or whoever else falls in this lineage; perhaps if these characters didn’t display such wrenching acts of determination and longing, then a dimension would be lost and charges of cold formalism would stick more thoroughly. As it stands, one’s reading of Stalker can say as much about the viewer as it does about Tarkovsky’s ability to facilitate these thoughts and emotions on such an acute level. There’s probably not one “correct” interpretation of Stalker, but it’s that very characteristic that makes it such an endlessly fascinating talking point and emotional cinematic journey.
Marsh: Yeah. I mean, in a sense that’s always been a virtue of minimalism—it lends itself to interpretation, and it’s more conducive to the kind of ideally even relationship between author and reader that postmodern art seeks. But with Stalker we’re not just talking about abstract symbolism that can be interpreted differently; that’s not the kind of “meaning” Tarkovsky’s interested in, even if symbols and motifs abound in his work.
I think a deeper engagement with the material is being encouraged here, and the construction of meaning, in the sense of what kind of intellectual or emotional experience one can have with this thing, is ultimately collaborative—which means that if you aren’t really willing to put in the work as a reader, you’re likely to walk away thinking that it’s a cold formal exercise to be admired or appreciated but not loved. But it also means that if you are willing to give, the film has a lot to give back, and you’ll find that it’s about as deeply rewarding as the cinema gets.