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11 March 2012

Art book review of the month: March , 'Zona' by Geoff Dyer

A book review about a book about a film about a journey into a room.

Earlier than planned, here is March's 'Book Review of the Month' with this months choice being 'Zona' by Geoff Dyer. This time I've gone for a film related read in which the author, Geoff Dyer takes the reader on a journey, literally scene by scene (you could also read as 'step-by-step') of the Andrei Tarkovsky directed film, 'Stalker' including his own anecdotes and experiences to discuss the film in depth. Discussion of the film acts as a means of exploring cinema and, I quote, 'how we understand our obsessions and how we try to realise-discover, even-our deepest wishes'.

This is probably where you are wondering whether you need to have seen the film in order to read and get the most from this book? The quick answer would be yes, it would help and be infinitely more wholesome to see the film first (Although I did read a review for this same book online in the LA Times and the reviewer had never seen the film 'Stalker'?). It might not be essential, but the book isn't a 'description' of the film so a lot of the shots, beauty/atmosphere/music/sound/acting can only be experienced by watching the movie. And why wouldn't you want to watch it anyway?! Its a great film.

Synopsis here for those of you who might be wondering what its all about:

"Deep within the Zone, a bleak and devastated forbidden landscape, lies a mysterious room with the power to grant the deepest wishes of those strong enough to make the hazardous journey there. Desperate to reach it, a scientist and a writer approaches the Stalker, one of the few able to navigate the Zone s menacing terrain and they begin a dangerous trek into the unknown. Tarkovsky s second foray into science fiction after Solaris is a surreal and disturbing vision of the future. Hauntingly exploring man s dreams and desires, and the consequences of realising them."

For me, reading this book after last seeing the film three years ago has made me want to see it again, with 'new eyes' so I intend on seeing it again. But why? Why has this film over all others had such a profound effect on Dyer and in a filtered down kind-of-way, myself and others to make him write a whole book about it and then for me to want to read it? I think the way Dyer comments on his own experiences and interpretations of seeing the film is key to the reason for the writing of the book because it acknowledges the affect of cinema, of seeing a great film and that there are a few great films, movie moments, that last with us years after seeing them on screen. For Dyer, 'Stalker' is one, if not the most important, one of those films. Where my interest comes in, is that I can relate to film in the same way I feel about certain works of art, and I'm always interested in the moments from those films/works of art that stick and have a lasting impression or change how you think or perceive something, as Bresson put it, the aim of film (like art) is to, "Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen." I always found Tarkovsky's films in general to be quite 'hard going' films, they are so very slow and unlike the fast pace of blockbuster movies I'd grown accustomed to, 'Stalker' for example only has 142 shots throughout its 160mins! Even the long and mundane dialogue in some of Tarintino's films seems 'fast-paced' compared to Tarkovsky. However, in exchange for your attention you are rewarded greatly with an altogether different experience that is on one hand more realistic (in the way that time is quite slow and much of it is spent with very little happening in comparison to the time which is spent with lots of activity), but is also quite mesmeric as you do feel like you are switching off whilst paying attention, its quite odd. I can only compare it to looking at a painting, where you have all the information in a single image but can spend so much time looking within that space. This seems to be what Tarkovsky wanted, in Dyer's book he talks of how Tarkovsky wanted to trade 'space' in his films for 'time'. So having longer sustained shots as to having many. There are so many parallels between Tarakovsky and art, indeed what the man himself has to say about art (read 'Sculpting in Time') is, in my opinion some of the most accurate and resonate descriptions of 'the purpose of art' and 'why it is of importance' that I have ever read (even though I'm not a film-maker, that has nothing to do with it!). All of which came to my attention from my art tutor during my degree. In Dyer's words, "If I had not seen 'Stalker' in my early twenties my responsiveness to the world would have been radically diminished." Likewise, I feel, seeing 'Stalker' also in my early twenties (although for Dyer that would have been when the film was released in 1979) was significant in helping me slow down, and notice things. An 'intensity of attention' would be a better way of articulating it.

Anyway, back to the book! Dyer takes the reader through each scene in the film and discusses his own interpretations and thoughts around the scene. The book isn't so much a description or synopsis of the film and isn't focused too heavily on deconstructing the film either (i.e the technical aspects of 'how' it was filmed). Some reviews of the book have criticised that in having a more discursive take, opinion of the film would be better suited to the kind of writing on a blog post rather than a book. I'd disagree as I think that Dyer's analysis into the film is much more informed than the average blog post as it includes observations linking it to ideas from Barthes, Ponty and Heidegger (to name a few) as well as artists and other films such as Christian Marclay's 'The Clock', Lars Von Trier's 'Antichrist' and numerous other references. All of which made for an informative read that was more colloquial, fun and accessible than a heavy over saturated and symbolic reading of what (whilst having many interpretations) was never intended to be read as a symbolic movie. I think I had always previously struggled to explain in my own words what it 'was' about Tarkovsky's films that interested me and I think that reading this book has helped clarify my own impressions of the film and lasting thoughts as well as open up lots of new ideas I had previously not noticed. It would be refreshing if more films were reflected on in writing in the same way as 'Zona'. In the same way 'Stalker' can be read as a 'journey' movie, Dyer takes us on a journey within the book to its inevitable destination, which we already know will be the end of the film, and for me it was a journey well worth the read.

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