on 11 February 2012
Zona - Geoff Dyer
Reviewed by Leyla Sanai
A gambler trying to guess the topic of a future Geoff Dyer book would always be destined to lose. Not only is Dyer versatile in form (novels, novellas, essays, non-fiction books), but his range of chosen topics has been so eclectic to date that predicting the next would be impossible.
As far as non-fiction is concerned, Dyer's panoramic sweep has included the sacred - *history, literature, photography, jazz - as well as the profane - sex, drugs, Burning Man. Speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival he said in 2010 that the conventional notion that one had to be an expert in a subject before writing about it was one he rebelled against, and that with some of his chosen subjects, he embarked on writing the book with an interest in his topic but limited detailed knowledge, allowing the research process to educate him while he wrote the book.
Dyer was certainly very knowledgeable about the iconic Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 art-house movie Stalker before he started writing this book, having seen it repeatedly over the more than thirty years since its release. The first time he saw it he didn't enjoy it that much, but its slow, haunting scenes lodged in his mind, and he was compelled to see it again and again.
Stalker is a typical Tarkovsky film, slow, mysterious, allegorical. The central story involves a guide, the Stalker, taking a Writer and a Professor to a forbidden zone where, it is rumoured, one's deepest desires come true. There is a constant drizzle during filming, and the industrial wasteland the three travel through to reach the zone is scattered with the deserted warehouses, disused railway stations and debris of urban life - abandoned cars, telegraph poles - *that was characteristic of parts of north London, where I lived when I saw the movie. Tarkovsky was Russian Orthodox by religion, and his rendering of an inaccessible place where dreams come true had spiritual undertones.
Dyer is eloquent on how the mindless immediacy of modern living taints our appreciation of a film like Stalker. We are conditioned to not wait longer than a few seconds for anything, we become impatient quickly, and western films are quick-fire productions where action and dialogue fill the space around us constantly. This engenders impatience when we are asked by a director to sit and watch scenes where nothing much happens for what seems like long periods of time. But once we give ourselves over to the dreamy, unhurried pace, we can sink into the film and become mesmerised.
Dyer's writing is as precise and crisp as ever. His insights are perceptive and intelligent, his mind quick, sharp and witty. On almost every page his discursive style probes into related topics. There is a lot of fascinating information about filming, such as how Tarkovsky's first choice of site was unavailable. Since the damp, drizzly urban wasteland seems so well suited to the film, it seems fortuitous that this was the case. But the river that flowed near the site of filming was a dumping site for industrial waste, and Tarkovsky's wife among others, died of cancer. The film also suffered many set-backs, including damage to the reels of film that meant that months of work had to be re-shot.
Because this is Dyer, the book is laugh out loud funny. Some of the anecdotes are about Tarkovsky, who colourfully described various crew members as `childish degenerates', `cretins', `lightweight shallow people with no self respect', and `behaving like bastards'. Others are about other films. For example, the Turkish director Nuri Ceylan referenced Stalker in his 2002 film Distant by having the protagonist transfixed to a videotape of Stalker playing on his living room TV, while his uncouth cousin, an uninvited guest is visibly bored. *His cousin, unimpressed by the art house movie, *leaves the room, whereupon the protagonist switches to watching pornography. But the cousin returns to the room, causing the main character to switch hastily over to some brainless programme which the guest enjoys. The host grumpily announces that the TV is being switched off for the night.
Just as delightful are the snippets of autobiographical detail. We hear about Dyer's parents' frugality, in particular his mother's illogical refusal to spend a little more on buying the kind of steak she actually enjoyed eating. We find out about Dyer's *friendlessness in sixth form, and his mother pressurising his father to go out to the pub with Geoff, and his knowledge that his father would far rather stay at home and save the money. There is an interesting anecdote about Dyer's wife's one time resemblance to Natascha McElhone, the actress. It is fabulous learning more about Dyer, such as his desire not simply for a dog but for the very dog that belongs to close friends, and no other. Dyer is such a charming raconteur, so effortlessly hilarious, that it would be impossible to become bored by his side-tracks. Like David Foster Wallace, his footnotes and side-tracks are often greater gems than the main subject he is exploring.
Dyer is, as Zadie Smith said, a national treasure. Zona is another example of the way his brilliant mind takes high culture and makes it not only understandable, but creates a fabulously entertaining journey along the way.
One of the most fascinating films I’ve ever seen is Stalker: it's the Great Existentialist Science Fiction Film. Not many people have seen this movie, but Geoff Dyer not only has seen it many times, but has written an entire book about it. This book is the most fascinating critical approach to a work of art that I’ve ever read.
On the surface, this book is simply a commentary to the film. Dyer says, at one point in the book, that he had “intended breaking this little book into 142 sections [...] corresponding to the 142 shots of the film,” but it works better with his beer-in-a-pub approach, discussing the film as it goes on without any formal structure. I had the feeling, reading this book, that Dyer was sitting next to me, riffing on this movie that obsesses him so, and which I, too, have loved since I first saw it 30 years ago.
Zona us Dyer is, at times, very serious, quoting people like Žižek and Wenders, but is also very funny, as he shares his feelings about the movie. Stalker is – to sum up very briefly – the story of one man (the Stalker) leading two others (Professor and Writer) to a Room, where one’s innermost wish may be granted. The Zone was created either after a meteorite struck somewhere in “our small country,” or after an alien visit (which was the case in the original novel, Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky).
Remember that number, 142? That’s the number of shots in the movie. At 156 minutes, that’s more than one minute per shot. Stalker is the movie of slowness, where the journey is far more important than the goal. And the journey through Dyer’s book is so entertaining, it’s nothing like one would expect from a tome discussing a classic art film.
Dyer brings this movie down to earth, if I can use that expression, sharing both his insights after seeing the movie many times, and his own personal experiences, such as doing LSD, wishing he could have a threesome, and traveling in many different countries (including one where he lost his knapsack).
This may sound self-indulgent, but with Dyer’s captivating voice, and his sardonic comments and footnotes, this book is hugely entertaining. You may not appreciate it if you haven’t seen Stalker, but, hey, this is a good chance to see one of the best science fiction films ever made. (And one that really doesn’t have much science fiction in it.)
on 25 April 2012
Humour is not a quality that you associate with Tarkovsky's films, but this book is very funny. Like Berio, in the third movement of his Sinfonia, taking a ride on the third movement Mahler's Second symphony to produce his own (humorous) collage of quotations, Jeff Dyer writes out, almost shot by shot, Tarkovsky's film Stalker. (There is some scope for comparison between Mahler and Tarkovsky in their use of recognisable motifs which occur throughout their works.) However, writing about a film allows even more freedom than making another film might allow (the quotation above comes from Chris Marker, who made a documentary about the film maker, using quotations from Tarkovsky's oeuvre).
In Dyer's case it allows him to reminisce about his first acquaintance with Stalker before the days of DVD, the weeks of waiting for a cinema to screen it, making a VHS copy of its broadcast, just in case there would never be another opportunity, at the same time as commanding us to watch it in projection, not on a small TV screen. He also goes into the appalling list of hazards and personal rivalries which Tarkovsky had to overcome in order to complete it. Multiple references to other Tarkovsky films enable him to eke out a reading of the film, which does not explain it, but sends you back to the film itself (to the VHS copy I made from the broadcast!), with a heightened awareness of its qualities.
As with the best criticism, this relatively short book, for such a long film, takes us closer to the work, teasing out its characteristics and the underlying reasons behind its choices with humour and humility (why the jeep, rather than a Mini Cooper!). The most intensely personal part of the book relates to the significance of The Room for the author (or are we merely led to imagine that this persona is the author?), to his fear that it might reveal secret wishes which he has harboured since adolescence but has never had (nor probably ever will have) the opportunity to experience. It is thus a book about ageing, about how a film can change over time, about how it will be different for each new generation of passionate film goers who encounter it for the first time during their late adolescence (how long does that last?).
Permit me to point out one tiny technical error, in case other photographers/film makers are also puzzled: the first part of the film, prior to entering the Zone, was shot on negative stock and printed onto colour in a gloomy sepia, not the other way around, as Dyer suggests. If you shoot in colour and print onto black and white stock you end up with black and white, sort of.
on 2 February 2012
Geoff Dyer's books are, by now, divided fairly easily into two categories. There are the novels, and then there are the Other Ones, the books that are the main reason why people admire him. His novels are mixed; The Colour of Memory is a touching and skilful debut, but there are things about it that make you think that he really ought to be doing something else. The Search is basically an attempt at being Italo Calvino. Paris Trance updates The Colour of Memory with a hint of mid-30s crisis. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is the only Dyer book I've not been engaged enough by to finish. It read like travel notes that had been at best hastily converted into something resembling a novel.
But the other books: ah, the other books. Dyer's first book, long out of print and which he unfairly dismisses as 'short and dull', was a critical study of the work of John Berger, and Dyer is one of the few English writers who've picked up Berger's technique of writing personal and idiosyncratic non-fiction books, or book-length essays, that have something of the same poetic resonance as the films of Chris Marker. (Berger, Marker, Dyer - OK, 'Marker' isn't Marker's real name, but there's something action-y about all their surnames.) Even Dyer's Berger book had a touch of the personal about it; he notes that Berger, on 'Ways of Seeing', had the kind of haircut that mostly footballers had at that point in the early 70s. But then he started to write books like But Beautiful, a tender and quasi-fictional meditation on jazz. Then there was The Missing of the Somme, a book nominally about World War One but really about the gap Dyer perceived between the experience of WW1 and that of his own generation, and how he and his friends fantasised about it but were also genuinely moved by the sacrifice involved. Then there was Out of Sheer Rage, perhaps Dyer's funniest book, and after The Search the one most obviously influenced by a continental writer, in this case Thomas Bernhard, whose manic, exasperated tone Dyer adopted for a book about his failure to write a serious critical study of DH Lawrence - although the book is itself so full of insight into Lawrence, as well as into Dyer, that we don't miss the book Dyer claims he failed to write. (Not the least of Dyer's achievements in that book is to demonstrate the unexpected and bizarre harmony between Lawrence and Bernhard.)
Besides them, there's been a book on photography, a travel book and two collections of Dyer's essays, journalism and occasional pieces, a form he excels in. Over the years, the Dyer persona has become more apparent. The Dyer persona is that of a forty- and now fiftysomething, slightly nebbishy slacker; a bit bumbling, rather inept with women but basically romantic; liable to get himself into serious gymnastic trauma in the toilet of an Amsterdam coffee shop while trying to change his wet trousers when stoned; but also someone with an informed and acute love of different kinds of music, photography, books, travel, friends and various kinds of recreational drug. And now, film. Zona is a book about what would appear to be Dyer's favourite movie: Andrei Tarkovsky's 'Stalker'.
I have never seen Stalker. And for all that Dyer writes about it with fantastic attention, affection and the kind of judicious distance you get when you're writing in your early fifties about a film you first fell in love with aged 20, I don't think I ever will watch it. But this is not really a book about Stalker. It's about the kind of attention we bring to the films we love, and the different ways we watch films at different times in our lives. Although Dyer gives us a very close account of what happens in the movie, he makes it easy for us to share his experience without wishing it were ours; I don't think I need to watch Stalker to understand and appreciate this book. It's not a critical introduction to the film, so much as a meditation on what happens when we watch films that we love. And that's why it's a great and fascinating book, I think; one of the best pieces of film writing I've ever read, the more so because it does not demand that we see, or have seen, the movie in question.
In sum: a brilliant, intelligent, passionate and also at times very funny piece of writing about what appears to be a very dark and serious film indeed. Once again, Dyer finds his subject in the gap between himself and what he's writing about. That he makes that gap so fascinating is a testament to his talent, but it's also where we get to enter the book, because Dyer is almost unique amongst writers about art, photography, film, literature and so on in that he doesn't write academic or even journalistic criticism. He writes about as someone who loves the stuff, the way the rest of us do. Being a smart guy and a good writer he takes this love seriously, unpacking and analysing it over the course of a book, and we learn something about what we get out of listening to the music and looking at the pictures and reading the writers. In this attention to common experience, Dyer is genuinely Berger's inheritor-and yes, I know Berger is still writing, and writing well, at that. We need more like both of them. In the meantime, Zona is brilliant.
on 23 September 2013
240 pages about Tarkovsky's film "Stalker". Simultaneously, it's memoirs, essays about everything, film history analysis, travelogue, but at the same time, not a collection of all the above, but something still not hasn't been seen before. A novel about the film. Or this: a novel around the film. A new kind of film criticism. That you can write about a movie like that, everyone seems to understand since the birth of cinema, but nobody, however, hasn't thought that it is still possible. Shot by shot analysis of the film, which was originally conceived as a film shot by one shot, but it's a literature analysis. The transmission of each shot through the prism of your own "self."
The book begins as, in fact, the film does: with a description of the bar, where a visitor enters to. After that, Dyer suddenly jumps to a description of the phenomenon of the Zone, a place where the meteorite fell. And then Dyer jumps next, comparing Tarkovsky and Antonioni. These three very different fragments give an idea of the three main vectors of the book: Meditation and a retelling of what is happening in "Stalker", an essay on the abstract theme, inspired by the film; cinematic analysis of the film and its connection with European cinema in general. It is difficult to believe that 250-page book about a film can be read at one, but it is.
The excitement of "Zona" lays in a good composition of the three main components. The author does not go too far in favor of one of these components. Analysis of film history is replaced by inserting memoir, memoir by retelling of the film, it in turn by an essay, for example, on the topic of labor camps, and essays - by the story of the filming of "Stalker". Dyer juggles these components, entertaining the reader, but "entertaining" is not quite the right word. Dyer is still not a street circus and not a clown who uses tricks, and hard to find entertainment, once again, in a 250-page book about a film. However, Dyer manages to entertain with no very easy material. Dyer tries on different masks - what the reader will be closer to. To film lovers Dyer offers a deep analysis of the effect of "Stalker" on other films of that time (and the movies of our contemporaries), the intersection between all the films of Tarkovsky, the history of film. For fans of Tarkovsky Dyer offers reflections on the incarnation of Tarkovsky in the form of Stalker, on Tarkovsky-man and Tarkovsky-director. To a simple reader Dyer appears in the image of the swell guy: he jokes about group sex, drinking at the bar, the writers' craft and a backpack as a gift. All jokes, it should be noted, are funny, intelligent cast, and some flow in or derived from clever and subtle reflections on life.
His knowledge of the topic Dyer shows in copiously sprinkled throughout the book footnotes. Recently, I have not seen a non-academic book, which would have at least one footnote. Footnote here can take four pages, and some are a couple of paragraphs long.
Do you need to see "Stalker" before reading this book? For example, I have not seen it, but it does not interfere with the perception of the book, because "Zona" is also a novel. Dyer describes the film shot by shot: the picture appears before the eye of the reader.
The final of the book is in a particularly striking. Dyer seamlessly replaces a book about the film to a book about human desires. The room where wishes come true, remains for the stalker - and for the author - unattained.
The only flaw of this book, perhaps, is that the Strugatsky brothers, on whose novel "Roadside Picnic" was written the screenplay, had been just left on the roadside. The film, of course, is very different from the book. All the sci-fi components had been removed from the screebplay. And yes, this book is about Tarkovsky and "Stalker" and not about Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, but I still feel the injustice, because the immediate source was left beyond the scope of the book.
In general, it is clever and profound book - and in many ways unique.
on 5 September 2012
Geoff Dyer's book is essentially a rather light-hearted and approachable scene by scene description of and commentary on Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 film, 'Stalker.'
Dyer describes the film in great detail, notes literary and cinematographic allusions he sees and gives his personal opinion of character development, meaning, themes developed and the way the film is organised the way it is. In his lengthy footnotes, he allows himself to veer off into personal reflection and anecdote.
'Zona' (the title is taken from the place the main protagonists are on their journey to) will not add very much to Tarkovsky studies and scholarship though will undoubtedly bring the film to a wider audience. It is best to have seen the film (Stalker [DVD]) and other Tarkovsky pieces (The Andrei Tarkovsky Collection [DVD] ) before reading this text.
on 25 February 2012
I devoured this in two gulps, so it definitely succeeds on the readability front. The author is opinionated, bordering on confrontational - at times I was nodding in agreement (Top Gear, Antichrist, Russell Brand) at other times I wanted to throw the book out the window (The Coen brothers are witless, all horror movies are silly, he's never seen The Wizard of Oz, he's a smoking fascist - grrr!) Still, it would be dull if every book simply parroted your own opinions. I love Stalker and enjoyed rewatching it (horror of horrors, on my tele - Mr Dyer would shake his head in disgust but sadly it's unlikely to appear at my local muliplex anytime soon) and then reading this blow by blow account. Well worth a read.
on 21 August 2012
I would not recommend this book to anyone who likes Tarkovsky's films, or to anyone interested in cinema. Perhaps a fan of the author might find something in it to enjoy, but I am (and will remain) unfamiliar with his other books.
If you want to read a good book about Tarkovsky, then read one of the following:
The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue [Johnson,Petrie]
Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of cinema [Robert Bird]
I came at the book the wrong way certainly, I wasn't going to find out anything about Stalker in it. But this is a badly written, poor excuse for a book.
At least read the google books preview before you purchase.
on 11 March 2012
yes they're making a film of this book about a man watching a film - even more interesting is the rumour of a movie tie-in book to follow that film being essentially a novelization of the film about this book about a man watching a film...I'll probably wait until it comes out on DVD, I mean paperback.
on 1 May 2012
I felt a bit cheated after reading this book. I found it was really more about Geoff Dyer - of whom I'd known nothing previously and about whom the book told me indeed more than I would or will ever want to know - than about either Tarkovsky or his film. For me, the rather flattening post-modern approach completely missed the depth and vision that is pervasive of all Tarkovsky's work, which is luminous with the imagery of Christianity and Christian art. The book did not add greatly to my appreciation of a long-loved work that is more than just a 'great film'.