In Out Of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer’s “inability” to complete a book about D.H. Lawrence resulted in a wildly entertaining book about—after many tangents—D.H. Lawrence. Dyer’s asides and extended byways—many presenting the author and reader as sympathetic companions struggling to finish creating/absorbing a work of art without giving in to laziness —are equally appropriate for Dyer’s Zona, a scene-by-scene “synopsis” of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 landmark film Stalker. Detailed description jostles alongside multi-page footnotes: Dyer isn’t just performing an exegesis on the film, he’s reconstructing the production backstory and free-associating his way to a number of cinematic and real-world connections.
A demanding cornerstone of art cinema, Stalker is a mystically earth-bound experience full of deliberate ambiguities. A guide, a professor, and a writer take a trip to the “Zone,” a place that, for whatever reason, is said to contain a room in which anyone who enters it can have their wishes come true. The trio arrive at a seemingly mundane, litter-heavy naturescape: the house is right in front of them, but the Stalker warns they can’t approach it directly. They must respect the Zone, throw nuts in the air and go where they land, and generally act like hyper-alert human tuning forks, picking up on what the environment around them wants to do.
“The first time I saw Stalker I was slightly bored and unmoved,” Dyer admits two-thirds of the way through. “To put it slightly stupidly, I had no idea that, thirty years later, I would end up writing an entire book about it.” Hardcore cinephiles shouldn’t be worried: In spite of his mildly self-satisfied habit of throwing down provocations without explanation (“L’Avventura is the nearest I have ever come to pure cinematic agony”), he’s a serious viewer whose lightness of tone shouldn’t be mistaken for glibness. These passing jibes are less frequent than more serious asides, e.g. Dyer’s parsing of which parts of Antichrist indicate Lars von Trier was serious about dedicating his infamous horror drama to Tarkovsky, justifying at length his conclusion that it’s still “nonsense, a highly crafted diminution of the possibilities of cinema.”
Every scene’s been so smartly described that no matter how long it’s been since readers have seen the film, it comes back in vivid detail. The digressions mirror the pathway of the film’s trio: To approach the film, Dyer has to make his own circuitous path, connecting scenes with childhood memories or Chernobyl, as the case may be. Doing so lets him build to climactic musings on faith and desire as serious as the movie he’s exploring.