Over the course of a famously eclectic literary career, Geoff Dyer’s oeuvre has grown to include highly original books on photography, jazz, and D.H. Lawrence. In his latest work, Zona, the writer turns his singular sensibility on another of his obsessions: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Dilating on the deceptively simple plot – and famously slow pace – of the Russian master’s film about of a journey to a room where your deepest desires will come true, Zona is a mix of movie criticism and personal essay quite unlike any book on cinema.
At this year’s Telluride Film Festival, Dyer served as guest-director. He curated a programme of six films ranging from Stalker (shown here in a rare 35mm print) to Beau Travail, Claire Denis’s ravishing translation of Melville’s Billy Budd to the Djibouti desert, Ron Fricke’s stoner classic Baraka and Joanna Hogg’s Unrelated, a debut feature he calls “the most discreet – and English – horror film ever made.”
I caught up with Geoff to ask about the experience, and how it felt to screen Stalker in the midst of a landscape his cinematic hero insisted – cowboy movies be damned – was only suitable for pondering God.
Joshua Jelly-Schapiro: Your book on Tarkovsky is about a film – or as its subtitle says, “a book about a film about a journey to a room.” But more broadly, it’s a meditation on the ways that a movie – or any bit of art – can alter one’s experience of the world. Is that what you set out to do?
Geoff Dyer: Initially it wasn’t even intended to be a book. It was just a way of making my afternoons enjoyable when I was failing to make progress with something else I was supposed to be doing. I had this idea of just summarising Stalker and it quickly became insanely enjoyable. But it is the nature of the film that a summary soon gives rise to all these other issues. And in the course of writing, I kept coming back to this time when I first saw the film – the first time when I saw lots of films, to this period in my life, as in many people’s lives, that seems really culturally charged.
I had completed my formal education; I didn’t want to do a PhD or anything. I’d done English as an undergraduate; my mind had been formatted in such a way that I could start to explore other things, and I went to lots of films. There were late shows on every night in Oxford – and then it continued in London, in my early 20s, this phase of incredible receptivity to new things, where your sense of what each medium can do is very, very largely shaped.
And it’s then that I saw Stalker. And I [still] think there are very few films, in the last however-many years, have done more to expand the possibilities of what a film is, what time is in film, than Stalker.
Time, of course, was Tarkovsky’s great obsession – he called his book on filmmaking Sculpting in Time. His films are famous for extremely long takes, these shots that feel like they’re stretching out time, forging what you call “Tarkovsky time.”
And of course with Stalker, the pace of it allows space for your own thoughts to enter your experience of the film. That’s mirrored in the composition of Zona – these long dilatory footnotes; memories of your parents’ parsimony with meat; of your location, psychological and otherwise, at various times of viewing.
When I started out with the book, it was just about writing down whatever came into my head. Because the essential thing is just to get something down on paper. When I started to organise it a bit more there was this brief period where I thought – oh, it could all go in real time, and I could divide it up into the film’s 142 shots. Which would have made a kind of short little book from this gimmicky game.
But then as the book got longer, it became clear it was not going to work like that. And generally I’m not keen on a highly schematic approach to things. So the gain of making it a bit looser easily outweighed the slight thrill of breaking it down into those units, and I wrote it in this more flowing way. I kept losing track of where one shot ended and another began – which is, of course, a key part of watching a film.
But what became interesting is that as much as time does come into it, it also became as much about place. So much of how we experience films now is placeless – the non-place of the internet; this idea that you can watch anything anywhere. But watching a film like Stalker always happened in very precise locations and times. For me, those little cinemas in Paris where I saw many art films for the first time meant that cinema became a kind of pilgrimage site.
I was struck by something you said here in your conversation with Errol Morris – your conviction, as you put it, that the only way you’ve found to write about any broad or big theme, or to try and articulate some larger truth, is to hew to the contingency of your experience of it; the vagaries of your own situation and views.
Yeah, and you know in trying in write about World War I, say – the only to do it, I felt, wasn’t about addressing (head-on) what the war means in a big way, or to a generation, but about describing my peculiar experience; that I had this particular experience, on this particular day. And that’s to do also with what I’ve tried to do in all my books – shrinking the distance between the form of the subject, and how I write about it.
The jazz book, for example, is written in a kind of improvisatory way. [And that certainly carries through to films.] Watching Haneke’s Amour here – from the moment they wheel her into the living room, it was so precisely my experience of my mother dying, last year. It gets at this sense of the universal, of arriving at something true to everyone.
In Zona, you quote Camus’s line about how “a man’s work is nothing but [the] slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art those two or three great simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.” You mention this in relation to your father’s fear of overpaying for choc ice when you were a boy; a family experience. But the book, implicitly, is also about how films can represent those kinds of moments too.
Yes, sure. John Fowles has that bit about how films have become so pervasive – it’s entered the cognitive function of our brains, really; we think film-ically.
And of course I watched films from my teens. But then going to these late films at college and so on, the films we were into had to do with that particular moment – for people a little older, David Thomson and Colin MacCabe for example, it was Godard that did it for them. But for someone of my age Godard had lost some of his revolutionary allure, had come to seem a bit of a bore in some ways. So for us, for me, it was Tarkovsky.
As guest director at Telluride, you’ve been asked to program a slate of six films close to your life and sensibility. You’ve written about Stalker, of course, but what joins all the other films? Is there a thread running through?
I look at these films and think they’re so random. On the way here, I thought – how could I have not picked Where Eagles Dare? I could have easily picked six others; it’s very [haphazard].
There was one other thing I knew I wanted to show – Christian Marclay’s The Clock. Really, I think it’s the great art-work of our age. And it is, among other things, a profound essay on film, and what film’s about. We tried – Christian’s a friend – but it’s booked until, like, 2015.
And so we have these others. And I’m not sure what joins them, except perhaps this sense of being films. I hate movies that feel like adaptations – these movies where you can kind of feel, with every scene, the clap board moving things along; this [straight-ahead] style that feels like it’s from a directing manual. In something like [Roger Michell’s] Hyde Park on Hudson, which showed here – the acting is excellent; Bill Murray and Laura Linney, she’s lovely in it. And the excellence of the acting in almost all American films is of such a high quality, one just takes it for granted. But it’s not a film. It’s just a plodding transfer of the script from page to celluloid – even if the camera movement within a shot is quite artful.
There’s a bit in that film, with the maid carrying a tray; and we get, for a time, this shot from the maid’s point of view, and you might say ‘Ah! There’s the art.’ But really, it’s kind of nothing. Just an artful moment in the interminable unfolding of an ongoing clunkiness. Of course I have no objection to novels being turned into movies. The business of taking a book, and transforming into a script, to make this thing called a film – it’s a mysterious process to me; sometimes it works. And there are good directors, but [also] people I can’t abide. You know, Sam Mendes – he’s another of these plodders.
It can come off as filmed theater, in a way, not cinema.
Exactly. And the weird thing is, some 17-year-old kid from nowhere just has that ability to conceive, to create something with a distinctive rhythm, immersing you in it… You know, you only have to see a couple shots to know it’s a Haneke film. Likewise, the Joanna Hogg film [Unrelated] that I showed here – that’s a properly realised bit of cinema, not just a filmed script.
You’ve written a great deal about the importance of where one sees a film; the importance of place, context. Has there been anything particular striking for you about seeing – or re-seeing – these films here, in Telluride?
It’s a reminder of Paris, in a way; French TV is so shitty, people go to the cinema a lot. And going to the cinema is a wonderful experience here, where in London multiplexes it’s not – first of all, because there are these awful previews, where you’re exposed to all the rubbish that’s coming out.
Which just reminds one, unfortunately, of how irrelevant one is once you’ve outgrown the actuarial, marketing area the films are pitched at. In terms of target audience, who cares what a middle-aged guy like me wants; most mainstream are not catering to me at all. But here, there is that lovely shared experience of watching a film, which does alter it – the comedy of Stalker is really enhanced by seeing it in a room full of people. And it’s just a lovely thing when you’re aware of everybody being immersed in it, when you can feel the absolute concentration of the audience.
This is itself a pilgrimage site in a way. You relate a story, in the book, about when Tarkovsky came to Telluride, how he was completely awed by driving through Monument Valley, by this landscape that he insisted could only have made by God. But then he was here to receive an award, and he delivered this kind of diatribe against the idea of film as entertainment – to which Richard Widmark replied that dismissing Chaplin and Fields and cowboy films as worthless low art, out of hand, was ridiculous.
Yes, and you know I like Widmark’s riposte. It echoed what Ernst Fischer, the great Marxist art historian, said about how the higher art prides itself on only being accessible to the few, the more you open the floodgates for providing just trash to the masses.
It’s also worth me saying how incredibly bad I found Sacrifice and Nostalghia. People lament the way that he only made however many films, but it seems to me that in the last two, at that precise moment where he had all the freedom to whatever he wanted, he had nothing to say.
Of course Tarkovsky enjoyed an incredible amount of freedom and privilege in the Soviet Union; he’s not a martyred Solzhenitzyn type at all. Many people say he was a nice person, but there does seem to have been a considerable dogmatism there – part of that was to with how Christian he was, and some of his Christian stuff just seems bonkers.
But the way he was able to also allow so much room in his films for doubt – that was remarkable. Tarkovsky the artist was so much more subtle the Tarkovsky the maker of public pronouncements about that art. I actually found much of Sculpting in Time pretty banal, but the sententiousness of the delivery prevents one seeing that for a while – even though the two are natural bedfellows.
One of the more talked-about films at Telluride this year was The Act of Killing, about Indonesian death squad members who create scenes re-enacting the horrible things they’ve done. We come to realise, watching them do this, that when they were actually killing people they were enacting scenes from the cinema.
Oh, what a silly waste of time that film was and, more importantly, of history. The point about films entering our brains is a valid one and could have been made in about five minutes. You know that series The World at War? They covered Stalingrad in an hour and did justice to it.
Now I’m wishing I’d chosen some episodes of that to show at Telluride…