Friday, October 21, 2011

Stalker (October 23 at the Cleveland Cinematheque)

[STALKER screens Sunday October 23 rd at 7:00 pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]

Review by Charles Cassady, Jr.

Okay, this is emperor-has-no-clothes time. Where I must throw mud on some world-cinema masterpiece everyone else reveres. No wonder my rare job interviews never lead anywhere. All some venal boss or human-resource harridan has to do is Google my writing, see the evidence, and broadband their shocked verdict to the world: "CHARLES CASSADY THAT UGLY M*@%!KER DIDN'T LIKE TARKOVSKY'S STALKER THE F&^!@ING SON OF A WHORE! NOBODY F%@!*ING HIRE THE BASTARD FOR ANYTHING! THAT'S A F#%*!ING DIRECT ORDER." And that's just when I apply at the Catholic Diocese.

Well I'm sorry. Have any of you people, outside of old-line Left wing/Kremlin-friendly liberal-arts college professors, even ever seen STALKER? Sober, I mean? Though it wears the badge `Masterwork of World Cinema' as proudly as an aged Moscow commissar bent under the burden of his Battle of Stalingrad medals, Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 foray into future-shock, in my humble opinion, is strictly for those viewers who found his SOLARIS too action-packed and frenzied. Talkier than one of Kruschev's old Party speeches - but much better photographed, I'll agree to that one, comrades. It concerns two men, one a writer, the other a scientist, on a quest sometime in the future after some mysterious cosmic disaster touched a region of the Earth and turned it into "the Zone”. The Zone is an uninhabited urban wasteland, full of ruins and superstition-type rumors, and bordered by peasant-throwback villages where, it is said, the forces within the Zone have contaminated and warped the lingering residents.

It's from one of these communities that the scientist and the writer hire a grizzled, foreboding "stalker," or guide, to lead them through the Zone to where there supposedly abides a Room in which the frazzled strands of the disrupted universe come together in such a way that any human question is answered or wish granted. But does mortal man have the right to do this? For more than two and a half largely uneventful hours the trio creep stealthily (but talkatively) through the dilapidated shadows of the Zone, debating the rational-vs.-artistic POVs of their quest. With the stalker warning perpetually about the terrible dangers that surround them, the men get spooked by strange noises and stray dogs, generally going around in circles and terrorizing/orating themselves to the point of physical paralysis. It's sort of like those kids in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT but arguing rival philosophical dissertations about the nature of existence. And if you think things get better when they finally reach The Room, you'll be sorely disappointed. There isn't even Tommy Wiseau in it (I wonder if anyone will get that joke about Tommy Wiseau if this post stays up years and years from now?)

Visually this is indeed a provocative picture, with cinematographer Alexander Knyazhinsky predicting what post-apocalyptic industrial-music videos and ALIEN sequels were going to look like, with his rolling scenescapes of patterned rubble, mounds, archways, puddles and detritus. STALKER has been credited by its many fans of predicting the irradiated netherworld that the area around Chernobyl has become – though parts of Cleveland also look like the Zone (only with a worse economy). Still, it's a long walk to nowhere, even for a filmmaker such a Tarkovsky, for whom artfully extended, slow, formally composed takes were a la mode.

In a futile effort to appreciate STALKER I scrounged the source material, the novella “Roadside Picnic” by brother Soviet science-fiction authors Arkady and Boris Strugatski. It's a more effective think-piece, the proposition being that the Zone is where space beings of incomprehensibly awesome technology made a brief stop, did trivial stuff and moved on, leaving behind litter, energy residue and landing-traces that to us ant-like, baffled humans are a monstrous, toxic disaster area. Some other Strugatski properties were made into movies by the USSR's state film industry, especially after commercial science fiction got so LucasFilm-huge in the west. One of them was HARD TO BE A GOD, based on a book that was an interesting dramatization of the Starfleet "Prime Directive" notion wherein advanced cosmonauts try to blend in on a primitive planet without disrupting the feudal native culture. I've heard different things, that HARD TO BE A GOD is terrific or that it's a crashing bore. Just as you have now heard both sides about STALKER. So what will you believe? Is there ultimate truth? Save yourself gas money and just talk that one over in Russian while crawling around the yard for three hours. (2 out of 4 stars)


  1. It seems to me that someone who reviews a film with a measured pace should be someone who appreciates those films, just as a reviewer of a Cleveland Orchestra Concert shouldn't be someone who would rather listen to the Beatles. The Emperor here is Joseph, who says that Mozart uses too many notes.

    For those who have the right patience (and such films mesmerize more easily on the big screen than on the tv screen), Stalker is a worthy film. I'd see it again if I weren't going to spend the afternoon in the 4.5 Mysteries of Lisbon.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Charlie. While I certainly don't claim to speak for Charles Cassady, Jr., as editor of this blog I do want to address your points.

    First and foremost, I have to say that just because someone doesn't like 'Stalker' does not necessarily mean they don't appreciate films with a measured pace. Personally I quite enjoyed the 4 1/2 hour 'Mysteries of Lisbon' you mention going to see, not to mention films like 'Marborosi' and 'Ullyses Gaze' that might seem very slow paced to many viewers. And yet, like Charles, I found 'Stalker' to be a bit of a bore.

    None of which is to invalidate your own opinion of the movie. But at the end of the day, the only job of a film critic is to report their experience of watching a given film honestly and accurately. Hopefully they find some insight into that experience that will provide food for thought and conversation to those reading the review, as well.

    But one thing we will never do here at The Cleveland Movie Blog is try to make sure that our reviews match up with the general consensus of critics. Or, for that matter, that they always go against the grain. We call 'em like we see 'em, and we don't expect everyone to agree with us every time because there's just no way that can possibly happen.

  3. Yeah! Damn straight. And I'll tell you something else...The same thing goes for Christmas!

    Sorry, an inside reference to Mike Nesmith's affirmation rant in his best scene in the Monkee movie HEAD.

    Each to his own taste, and I'm sorry if I offend anyone deeply with my minimizing of STALKER. Better, perhaps, to suffer in a world in which cineastes overpraise this film than one in which they sanctify POLICE ACADEMY (though I fear we are headed down that road anyway).

    If there is one thing I hope we can all agree upon, it's that the Strugatsky literary source material is well worth investigating on its own; I just found "Roadside Picnic" online as a PDF and recommended to all.

    Well, maybe not to Michael Bay; he'll just remake it with car chases. Oh, go ahead, Mr. Bay, remake this one all you want, just this once. Nicolas Cage could star; he hasn't been in anything all week.

  4. Bob--

    A critic should never be aligned with the consensus to be part of the consensus. The tone of the review (Emperor with No Clothes) and the reverence for the source material, made me wonder if Charles came to the film as an sf reader who has a grudge against other kinds of approaches. I say this as both a writer and read of sf, not as a literary snob. "Stalker" may be too slow for some, and it may not be loyal to its source material, but it's also a gorgeous film that captures a reality of Soviet existence. I just wondered if the reviewer (not you) could appreciate any slow art film. The tone of the review didn't suggest that. It's a complete pan, and Charles's response suggest that those who like it are overpraising it. I find "The Great Gatsby" to be a bore; I don't argue that it's not one of the Great American novels. I have too much respect for the very fine people who admire it.


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