*Also the name of a mixtape [kids, ask your parents] that I made for my left-brain compatriot Antonym sometime after seeing Stalker with him at Facets.
In Zona, Dyer critiques Stalker in what feels like real-time, explicating each scene and then allowing his mind to free associate and wander, filling up the book’s many footnotes with fascinatingly digressive asides.
Dyer originally intended to give the book 142 chapters, one for each shot in the film, but found, “I kept losing track of where one shot ended and another began.” Instead, he splits the book into two parts, corresponding to the rather arbitrary split in the film itself. It is not a rigorous textual analysis, although it has some striking instances of that, but “an account of watchings, rememberings, and forgettings”, of how the film has implanted itself in his memories and his working life, not as a static object.
One of the reasons Dyer wants to write about Tarkovsky is that the two artists share a central interest in dilating time to renew the reader or viewer's awareness of the lineaments of consciousness. When Dyer describes the fictional "zone" in Stalker, he is really describing Tarkovsky's art, and his own: "We are in another world that is no more than this world perceived with unprecedented attentiveness."
Alexander Kaidanovsky and Anatoly Solonitsyn in Stalker
But even while their goals are similar—even while the specific aesthetic effect they are aiming at is similar—the two artists have opposite methods: Tarkovsky's focused meditation versus Dyer's manic digressions. This difference could be phrased in terms of temperament: Tarkovsky is ascetic, Dyer indulgent. Or you could think of the difference in terms of will: Tarkovsky is perpetually asserting his will, Dyer letting his waiver. Tarkovsky's tracking shots are a matter of deliberation; he takes the camera and viewer along a predetermined path. In Dyer's digressions, it often seems more as if Dyer is the one being taken along a path. Which is related to the fact that Tarkovsky made Stalker and Dyer is writing about it, chasing it around, seeing where it might lead him.
"Stalker has long been synonymous both with cinema's claims to high art and a test of the viewer's ability to appreciate it as such. Anyone sharing Cate Blanchett's enthusiasm—'every single frame of the film is burned into my retina'—attests not only to Tarkovsky's lofty purity of purpose but to their own capacity to survive at the challenging peaks of human achievement." As a fellow lover of Stalker, I don't find Blanchett's enthusiasm in the least bit fulsomely stated; Stalker is in a sense an INVASIVE work of art, and for all the ambiguity it contains it's also suffused with a proud Russian Orthodox defiance; it's not, "this is my truth, now you tell me yours," it's "this IS true." As for Dyer though, well, can't yousense his discomfort in the above passage? I really wonder just what the hell he's afraid of.
Still, Dyer’s evocation of “Stalker” is vivid; his reading is acute and sometimes brilliant. Robert Bird, the Tarkovsky exegete he most often cites, has elsewhere characterized the Zone as the filmmaker’s quintessential space: “The Zone is where one goes to see one’s innermost desires. It is, in short, the cinema.” Dyer agrees and notes that the stalker who guides us there, “a persecuted martyr” transporting the viewer to the place “where ultimate truths are revealed,” is the artist himself. Tarkovsky strenuously resisted any allegorical interpretation of his work, but the movie is in some sense autobiography. (He wanted his wife, Larisa, to play the stalker’s much put-upon spouse.)
In Stalker, the characters’ ultimate goal—the all-powerful, wish-granting “Room” that’s rumored to exist at the Zone’s center—seems to perpetually recede as they approach it, raising the obvious-yet-profound question of whether the journey itself was the whole point. Just so, Dyer’s purpose in writing this maddening but irresistible companion to Stalker gradually becomes indistinguishable from the process of writing. Or reading. Or watching the movie. Preferably all at the same time.