Cinema, as an art form, is uniquely good at showing off: it also charms when acknowledging the places it cannot go. It will sometimes study the limits of human creative potential through the heroism of a biopic… or sometimes by building its storyline around the hero’s magnum opus, but obscuring that work from the audience’s eyes and ears. We have the unadaptable book in Adaptation; Michael Douglas’s unfinished novel in Wonder Boys; songwriter Basil Rathbone’s unheard masterpiece in Rhythm on the River; the great drama supposedly created by titular suffering playwright-turned-screenwriter, Barton Fink. And indeed, in the Coens’ Hail, Caesar!, the ‘divine presence to be shot’ placeholder title card comically hammers it home – that which is of the inner being, the numinous, is unfilmable. There we see the back of an actor’s head as the crucified Christ, but the genuine theophany intended for the film-within-a-film hasn’t made the rushes that we turn out to be watching.
Matters of art and faith are ideal examples of fragile, ineffable, precious things – and behind the specificity of the above films, their artefacts and black boxes stand in for that most unsearchable thing, the human heart. I was delighted by the inveterate prankster in Toni Erdmann, that film’s collision of absurdity and well-observed drama reflected in the methods of Winfried, the father who assumes the disruptive persona of ‘Toni Erdmann’ to make an impact on his estranged daughter Inés’s life. Director Maren Ade has spoken about the female protagonist’s frequent displays of emotion – erupting exclusively when alone, though intimately accompanied by the viewer – contrasting her father’s lack of tears, though he suffers two bereavements during the piece. Ade considers that, though Winfried is very much of a countercultural vintage, he has perhaps inherited some of his parents’ unforthcoming handling of emotion. That somewhere, in “a last, very locked box”, he is in pain and is grieving, but is not making his inner state known outside the box’s six walls.
I coincidentally read this observation on the same day as a viewing of Tarkovsky’s Stalker: this film, apart from a near-identical runtime, bears little resemblance to Toni Erdmann, which unexpectedly resolves with Edenic echoes while Stalker waxes apocalyptic throughout. Much has been written about the languorous, peculiar sci-fi already, and I will defer to scholars of Russian cinema and its celebrated, existentially inclined auteur. In its trio of main players, again we have an author whose work is only glancingly referred to. And in the most revealing of this film’s several biblical quotations, proper nouns are stumbled over or omitted. Our attention is on the ineffable. But this time, the goal of the travellers’ odyssey is to escape their totalitarian hometown, and venture to a militarily protected and magic-touched place: whether by asteroid impact or alien visitation, an area of the country (‘Zona’, or the Zone) has ceased conforming to nature’s laws, to the extent that the Room at its heart can respond to its inhabitants intelligently – it reads, and grants, their innermost wish.
So it’s contained like a lamp-bound genie, sought-after like hidden treasure and as glowing and inaccessible as the realm of the Wizard of Oz. Indeed, it’s a particularly gulag-informed yellow brick road that leads us from the protagonists’ sepia-hued town to the suddenly technicolour Zona (and Estonia’s emerald city Tallinn looks radiant as the first scenery glimpsed outside of monochrome). Unlike that Wizard, the leader of these journeymen is not uncovered as a con: he fully believes in his vocation as a seeker, or Stalker, of the elusive Room. But the Writer and Professor in his care come to thoroughly doubt him, and in the end we only reach the threshold of that place, and suspect that the characters never enter. Whatever the specific ins-and-outs, it becomes clear that the granting of wishes is one thing, and the revelation of one’s innermost desire can be another. The Room may know you better than you know yourself, so be ready for a stark discovery.
The notion of a responsive landscape, one that self-adapts according to the person(s) traversing it, is an interesting one – variations on this theme have been explored in Inception, myths featuring labyrinths which since Virgil have seemed “deceptive”, and episodes of Doctor Who that focus on another box, the TARDIS, and its limitless expanse and ornery personality. Here, the world-building is being done by writers, directors and visual creatives, but also diegetically, by the characters themselves – sometimes unwittingly. And if onscreen characters serve as proxies for you the viewer, then Stalker invites you to imagine an outer world that morphs and moves in response to your inner world. Here we’re a step beyond choose-your-own-adventure books, even BS Johnson’s experimental novel The Unfortunates, which requires the reader to choose an order for its chapters. Grasping for analogies, we might look to videogames – and as technology becomes increasingly responsive and VR more widespread, worldbuilding will become an ever-more-literal act done by you the player/reader/viewer, you who have always been a collaborator with storytellers and filmmakers whose worlds you encounter.
Maybe I make it sound too high-flown or futuristic a concept. Conversely, in his treatment of his Zona-based story, Tarkovsky (often more accessible than some acolytes make him seem) put me in mind of the journeys undergone in childhood games and fictions. Witness his Stalker’s warnings about the unruly landscape:
STALKER: “Our moods, our thoughts, our emotions, our feelings can bring about change here. And we are in no condition to comprehend them. Old traps vanish, new ones take their place; the old safe ones become impassable, and the route can be either plain and easy, or impossibly confusing… everything that happens here depends on us, not on the Zone.”
At this, my perception of the guide, wonderfully rendered by Alexander Kaidanovsky, switched – was he a holy fool, or was he just the most creative kid on an imagined playground mission? Sometimes, in the weekends and holidays of my early primary school years, I would be party to the adventures of my big brother and his friend. The latter often acted as the guide and rule-maker as our respective back gardens suddenly transformed into abandoned spacecraft, or the interiors of fantastical video games. In fact, I still recall us hiding behind a rhododendron, being told about the code undergirding this game, and how our actions contributed to, or were influenced by, said code. Tellingly, into that program a rampant virus could be introduced by the action of farting, which we were all forbidden from doing.
The Stalker’s co-journeymen clearly believe he’s actually taking them somewhere real – at least, they believe enough to persist with his peregrinations – but there’s plenty of cinematic precedent for characters choosing the fake over the real. For example in Solaris, in which an alien consciousness seems to build a replica of the protagonist’s past. Our heartbroken hero stays in this artificial past instead of returning home to an uncertain future. Or pick a Christopher Nolan film at random and pat it down for examples. It’s there in Toni Erdmann too, as Inés’s friends choose to keep the titular joker in their company, even as they suspect an unusual ruse. This false identity, enshrined in his flowing hairpiece and comedy teeth, becomes a persona through which Winfried the wearer makes more of a genuine connection with his daughter than the pair have managed for years. We’re also amused by how Inés goes along with some of these social disruptions, when she could reasonably call bullshit on the whole exercise and seal her father’s self-initiated alienation. The joy in seeing this quiet complicity is the suggestion that she has some of the joker DNA in her too. It’s just been, somehow, locked.
We who spend an inordinate amount of time and thought on the art form of cinema often have to defend ourselves against charges of ‘choosing the fake over the real’. Don’t get me wrong, there’s value in escapism – and cinema at its most show-offish is tough to beat at that game – but even if it teaches us nothing, shouldn’t art help us see the world? The world as it actually is, but in a new way? Even a title card, flickering onscreen in place of a length of film, can throw light on our feelings as they actually are – what kind of presence, divine or otherwise, did we expect to see?
Tarkovsky often gets the appellation ‘auteur’. Fair enough, I gave it to him myself a few paragraphs ago. But part of that term’s baggage, a singularity of vision, needn’t preclude openness to the elements (the weather won’t stick to a script, so what ends up on screen is up to nature), a yielding to material limitations (this scene will be in monochrome, as the budget prevents us from completing the whole in colour) or the decision to leave one’s worlds half-built. Many sci-fi trappings are avoided in Stalker and Solaris, due in part to materials available, in part to the director’s aversion to genre signifiers and the distractions presented by an overly ‘designed’ arena of set and costume. A result is that he’s collaborating with the viewer in building worlds – we might fill in the blanks, do the remaining half of the building with Escher-like shifting ground and interlocking corridors, or in Solaris’ case with 2001-esque interiors and interplanetary journeys. The films ambiguous, even aleatory, sensibilities lead me back to that subject, too huge and timeless to fully investigate: that stories are shaped by the teller and the addressee, telling us things about both parties while evoking external realities. So what does watching Stalker tell us about ourselves?
Personally, it told me something like this: I like having a storyteller to follow, one who walks ahead of me like the chauffeur guiding Cocteau’s Orphée through the looking-glass; I like having a mystery to unlock; that the journey is at least as involving as the destination. The storyteller I follow, here a troubled but vocation-touched guy, has to fully believe in the journey he’s on in order to bring me in. The mystery can be a McGuffin, but as long as it’s formed less like a Nolanesque puzzle than a poem, grappling with it will tell me as much about my mind as it tells about itself. The journey is eccentric, comical, full of arguments, lush greenery and submerged timepieces, and the destination may not exist. Or it may exist but be too dangerous to enter this time. Or so dangerous it’s never actually been entered at all. But the journey has been quite something. Isn’t the lamp well-made and reflective, even if there’s no genie inside?
On their peregrinations, the trio in Stalker have thus far dodged bullets, waded through tunnels of fetid water, continued through flows of foam from industrial processing plants, and negotiated circular or self-altering landscapes, stopping only to sleep on the wet, freezing ground. And we’ve followed them. After all these obstacles, the one place we cannot go is to a last, very locked Box – one which is sufficiently sentient to discern the contents of our hearts, but also able to reckon with those containers and do the unlocking.