Friday, 20 December 2013

Walking Through Walls

A Meditation on Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker

Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

Where does one start when discussing this film? Because, in a sense, Stalker has no beginning and no end. It smacks, rather, of the eternal - this ageless, timeless exposition of what it means to be a human being in search of values and patterns that we hope (sometimes naively) will bring extra levels of depth and coherence to our lives. Like Jacob in his contest with the angel, Tarkovsky wrestles with themes of political, existential and spiritual profundity. Stalker represents, in my view, the crowning point of this lifelong, frequently uphill, creative struggle.  

A railway bridge of ancient brick and sinuous, looping arches stands in the heart of Manchester City Centre, directly opposite The Ritz nightclub. Trains pound in and out of Oxford Road Station above, while Cambridge Street, below, snakes around from town through a landscape carved out of a bygone age - cadaverous mills, skeletal chimneys and once-titanic factories, subdued now into muted post-industrial experiments in 'city living'. 

Nearby, further along Cambridge Street, just past the railway line, is another bridge. This one looks down instead of up - at the mud and silt of the River Medlock. It's a sun-dappled evening in April 2011, and I'm on my way to a public screening of Stalker (the first time I'll have seen it alongside other people) at the University of Manchester (thanks again @beuysown). I stand at the bridge and am reminded immediately of the film, from both above and below. I look up and a train flashes by like a silver salmon. It rattles past, and Stalker's opening scene imposes itself on my inner retina - Tarkovsky's questing hero (the 'Stalker') in bed, at dawn, with his wife and child beside him, as a train shuttles past outside. It's a signal for action - a summons to adventure in that numinous, unpredictable and slippery realm the Stalker calls home - the forbidden, magical, dreamlike 'Zone'.

I look down. Under the dingy, sluggish waters I discern a variety of random objects, some moving pliantly with the flow, others obdurately wedged to the river bed or clinging to the sides of giant concrete slabs - CD cases, chair legs, even the odd plant pot and 1970s-style filing cabinet.

It seems strange, as I reflect on the film, that Tarkovsky's characters should encounter a set of parallel items - a painting, a syringe, a book - drifting beneath similarly stodgy waters in the heart of the Zone. But the context, I remind myself, is very different. These Tarkovskian objects are the post-
apocalyptic detritus of a shattered civilisation. The Zone is not the same as Manchester either. It is a 
treacherous, enigmatic parcel of forests, valleys and burnt-out military-industrial premises, sealed off by the authorities after the supposed explosion of a meteorite. 

This rigidly enforced cordon sanitaire gives rise, however, to an imaginatively rich counter-myth - that what the authorities are actually frightened of is the existence, at the centre of the Zone, of a mysterious 'Room' where (should one make it that far) one's deepest, most heartfelt wish will be granted. A caste of 'Stalkers' consequently appears - men who guide others through the perils and tricks of the Zone to this transformative central point.

And that, so I believed at that time, was what the film was all about - the quest, the search:

What, I wondered, is our most potent desire - deep down inside? 
What makes us feel alive and sets our hearts burning? 
Who are we really? 
Where is the magic in our lives? 
What do we stand for? 
Why are we here? 
What are we supposed to do, now that we are here? 
What, if anything, is our inner compass saying?

We watched the film on a big screen downstairs at the Students' Union. We were thirteen in number. It was the first time as well that I had seen Stalker on anything other than an old-school VHS. I spent the first hour or so marvelling at the clarity of the DVD transfer. There were colours, shades and subtleties of expression in the protagonists' rough-hewn features that I hadn't come close to noticing before.

We had a break. One girl stayed in the bar. Twelve returned, the lights went down and the gears turned up. As the Stalker and his two cynical companions squabbled and bickered their way into the depths of the Zone, the atmosphere in the room became needle-sharp with shared focus and attention.
The sense of community - of authentic communal experience - everyone locked into what was 
unfolding on the screen - was palpable. I was glad the others were there. Then I forgot about them. Or we all became one. It makes no odds. The film took the reins and ushered us through our own Zones - individual and collective - to the threshold of our own Rooms - liminal spaces within, opening out onto our most central, signature passions, beliefs and desires - not necessarily politically and socially 
correct desires either - not the ones we'd like to have but the ones we actually do have. And this, as Tarkovsky shows us, is a scary (though exhilarating) place to be. 

'Know Thyself' counsels the Delphic Oracle. 'Be careful what you wish for,' counters the canny Chinese proverb.

We sat in the garden at KRO Bar for a long time afterwards. We didn't pick the film to pieces. You can't do that with Stalker. It picks pieces out of you. But we talked, when language didn't seem too limited, of what we had seen, felt and experienced.

I remember holding an olive between my forefinger and thumb, lost in thought and caressing its surface of shimmering green. I wasn't sure what I believed about the film any more. The one-dimensional scepticism displayed so often by the Stalker's companions - the Writer and the Scientist - had unsettled me, as (albeit in a radically different way) his wife's no holds barred, straight to the camera manifesto of love had done too.

"I used to think this film was about questing and searching," I told the eleven. "I took heart from that. It gave me confidence in my own quests for magic and significance. But now I'm not so sure. I mean, the quest's still there - don't get me wrong - but it doesn't seem so important now. Something else - I'm not sure what - is sitting in that seat now."

Tony the Greek dipped his hand in the bowl and held out a slice of bread. I took it and ate. The cuff of his blue serge suit was wet.

"The film's about walls," he said, "walls we build between ourselves and the world, and between ourselves and each other. We scale these walls with our visions, philosophies and rituals, but there's always another wall lying in wait.

"I know what it's like, John. It feels hard sometimes to connect and communicate, to understand and be understood. But listen. If there's love in your life - even if only for an instant - like in the film - a 
love so raw and real and radical that it rocks the status quo, then that's when the walls'll come crashing down. There'll be flying bricks and tumbling masonry everywhere. A love like that makes miracles happen. But you've got to take a risk - do something you wouldn't usually do - step outside your comfort zone. You'll get all the magic and mystery you crave then, and more into the bargain. With a love like that you'll walk through walls."

I dipped my hand in the bowl and passed him an olive. He took it and ate. I got my own shirt sleeve soaked in the process, but it was worth it. It's not every day you hear a speech like that. It was the least I could do.


A few of us popped into Rusholme later for a curry. Then everyone went home. Except me. I hopped off the bus after a couple of stops, crossed the road and got the 43 straight back into town. I got off at Oxford Road.

I walked down Whitworth Street West and stood outside The Ritz, with just the doormen, in their padded black coats for company. A breeze whipped my cheeks. I turned my collars up and gazed ahead, through the dark, silent arch of the railway bridge. I was thinking about the bits and bobs I'd seen earlier, floating under the water. It struck me that Manchester might not be as dissimilar to the Zone as I'd thought.

I hear a noise and look up. A train - a clattering glow-worm - bursts out of the station and sprints along the bridge - heading West or North - destination Llandudno, Liverpool, Southport or Edinburgh.

I spot, through the window, a man and a woman gesturing colourfully at each other, but whether in passioniate debate or a heated barney I can't make out. The man's got a brown, leather jacket and white snowy hair. His companion's wearing silver-rimmed glasses that complement her black, glossy hair, with a stunning set of diamante earrings setting the ensemble off like a flash of spring lightning. For a moment I feel like I'm on a film set. Then the couple vanish and the train speeds on. The rest of the carriages are empty. Only light remains. Lots of light. Then silence when the train's gone by. I drink both light and slience in as if it's the last night on earth, shovelling them down with huge lungfuls of air.

I turn around. The bouncers are looking at me. I remember the film and what Tony had said about love and risks and walking through walls and all that.

I knew I should have spoken to them, initiated an exchange, broken through the barriers and what have you. But I couldn't. The old spell was on me again, you see. I won't call it a comfort zone. I'll call it the signal to action, the call to adventure and the magic and glamour of the quest. Ah yes, the quest. Now, that's what it's all about.

I wave vaguely. The doormen nod but I barely clock the gesture. I'm already on my way - not towards the bus stop, Didsbury and home - but the other way.

Towards the station ...


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