Geoff Dyer has never been the kind of writer who gets hung up on a pet subject and spends his career examining and re-examining it. He has written about music, in his jazz book But Beautiful; photography, in The Ongoing Moment; and literature, in Out Of Sheer Rage, which chronicles Dyer’s failed attempt to write a biography of D H Lawrence and in doing so manifests itself as the excellent – if only scantly biographical – book about Lawrence that it turned into.
As such, a book about film would seem to be a timely addition to his oeuvre. But Zona is nonetheless a departure for Dyer, not only in that it broaches yet another subject area, but also in the fact that it is a close reading of a single text: Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, Stalker.
The film can be summarised very briefly. Its setting is a mysterious closed-off area known as the Zone – Dyer describes it as ‘a place of uncompromised and unblemished value’ – and its titular character is a guide who escorts people through the Zone. In Tarkovsky’s film, the Stalker is accompanying a writer and a professor; their ultimate destination within the Zone is the Room, where it is said that the innermost wishes of anyone who enters will be granted.
The film follows the Stalker and his clients on their journey to and from the Zone: as such the plot is essentially straightforward and linear, but due to the peculiar physics of the Zone, the route that both characters and viewers must take is circuitous and often unclear. Tarkovsky ensures that the journey is a protracted one, lingering over almost every shot.
While Dyer goes into considerable detail at times, the central narrative of Zona consists of him talking his readers through the film. The nature of Tarkovsky’s lingering means that, although the film lasts two and a half hours, a simple scene by scene account would fill considerably less pages. The fact that Zona is as long as it is (though it is by no means a lengthy book) is partly due to the nuggets of technical and contextual information that Dyer provides, but mostly due to his numerous digressions. He states at one point that he had originally planned a book of 142 short sections, one for each shot, but says he lost track of where some of the shots ended and began. This is probably for the best, as a more rigidly structured book would presumably require him to compromise his style.
Almost all of the digressions are worthwhile: in fact, the highly subjective recollections and musings are surely the reason why anyone who is familiar with Dyer’s work reads him. In this book, however, many of them are treated as supplementary to the main body of the text, which is a shame. There are many long footnotes: these are printed in equally sized font to the rest of the book, and some of the them span several entire pages, but they have nonetheless been reduced to the status of footnotes.
The best of them give us some insight into Dyer’s character: for example, when he describes installing a DVD projector in his home, declaring that ‘great cinema must be projected’. However, setting up the equipment proves to be more trouble than it’s worth; he complains that many canonical films turn out to be terrible. This passage makes it clear that Dyer is not a film buff through and through, and his interest in Stalker is made more interesting in itself.
Many prospective readers will wonder whether you need to have seen Tarkovsky’s film in order to appreciate Zona. Indeed, having seen Stalker, a few of years ago, I was sure to watch it again before reading the book, but a screening is probably not necessary, since Dyer covers the entire narrative of the film. Perhaps a more pertinent question is whether Zona will make you want to watch Stalker.
Anyone who has not seen the film will no doubt find their curiosity piqued by the book. Dyer picks up on little details that readers might wish to see for themselves. Rather than analysing he observes, allowing potential viewers to draw their own conclusions: this is certainly the best strategy for writing about a film as inconclusive as Stalker.
He teases out Tarkovsky’s occasional moments of humour, too, such as the incongruous ringing telephone that the characters find in the Zone: these moments are to an extent subsumed in the film’s philosophy and aesthetic, but Dyer allows them to shine on their own terms. Rather endearingly, he also finds unintentional humour, bringing home the fact that he is a more of a regular viewer than a film critic. The fact that the Stalker sleeps in a dirty jumper is a source of considerable amusement to him.
But at times Dyer risks becoming too self-involved to fully convey his enthusiasm for the film. He is clearly more interested in writing about his own relationship with Stalker than about the film itself, and while this is to some degree the point of the book, it means that his close reading approach feels rather out of place.