This week was spring vacation from college. I spent it in Owen Zone. I am three quarters of the way through Last Call, and watched Stalker three times plus going from stone to stone for a fourth watch.
The title is Stalker, not Zone. To stalk means “to pursue quarry of prey stealthily”; a stalker is one who does that. I began with worries for this assignment because I could think of only a total human beast stalking men but mostly women for sexual or murderous purposes. This negative connotation doesn’t leave me, however, as I am told that the word stalker goes back to the Old English word, bestealcian, meaning to steal. Note the few minor letter changes to get bestial. Nevertheless, a true stalker was once noble and skillful and went after the necessary prey to feed himself and his family and tribe. A stealthy, skillful quest on behalf of the nurturing of others into believing. I think that’s what Tarkovsky has in mind.
Tarkovsky isn’t showing us a stalker but rather Stalker. This guy is Stalker. Stalker is so much his essence that, when Professor tries to take it from him he cries out, saying that taking others to the Zone—stealthily—“my happiness, my freedom, my self-respect are all here.” “Here” doesn’t mean the Zone here; it means what he’s doing—stalking for others’ believing, as well as his own. Who he is and what he is doing is what he means by “here”. Stalker is Christ-like; he sacrifices for others; he dies over and over for others as he risks his life to lead parties into the Zone and then dies again, risking his soul, when he can see only his own failure as a result of the venture. Stalker is a good guy.
A problem he has is that he’s stalking hope and, since hope is in God’s hands, Stalker doesn’t know what he’s doing or have any measure of it. All of his critics are right about his ignorance; how can we know ourselves as social animals when no one else does? In fact, in his own eyes, he destroys people when he takes them into the Zone. He won’t take his wife because he’s afraid, and he says to her, that “it won’t work with you either”. Once I met a man who found it easier to believe Jesus if he didn’t get baptized. Getting baptized was too stark a test of his trust in Jesus.
Stalker’s life works, in Tarkovsky’s mind at least. The one offspring—his daughter, Monkey—is in color, not sepia, by the end and especially after his latest journey. She reads about the height of admiration as a friend’s eyes “when they are downcast” and when they reflect (“through the eyelash”) “a somber, dull cast of desire”. Whoa! I think, If that phrase doesn’t express the ambivalence of hope!
At the beginning when it is said that Monkey is the victim of the Zone my sadness of knowing she’s crippled and mute, and therefore, probably, “victim,” doesn’t foreshadow the reality that Monkey’s plight is like our being victims of Christ. Stalker’s daughter is truly the good fruit of his obesssion. The last scene of the film shows Monkey moving drinking glasses across the table with her mind as distinct from a passing train merely jiggling them. As the film fades to the end (or did Tarkovsky mean darkness comes or something like that?) Monkey’s totally clear and open face looks down the table watching the last glass actually fall over the edge without breaking on the floor. Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” plays in the background.
I am a Christian and see this movie with believing eyes. So the movie is also about faith. At the outset Professor and Writer have none. They wrestle the world with their own understanding always getting in the way. Writer despairs as the world he writes for is writing him. Gently, Stalker weans him of the securities he thinks he must take with him into the Zone—cigarettes, booze, and a woman—and, in spite of his jabber to the contrary, there may be a ray of hope in knowing he has five dogs and Stalker’s wife thinking he must love them. Professor must retain his knapsack because it contains the bomb with which he will blow up the Zone. Lots happens at “the threshold”—during the “most important moment”—but the key activity, Stalker attempting to wrestle the bomb from Professor, fails. With the assistance of Writer, Professor retains the bomb and then wanders around with unexpressed thoughts as Stalker, literally, saves Writer from falling into an abyss. The color of the Zone shifts back to the sepia of the Stalker’s hometown but not before Professor disassembles the bomb and throws all its parts into water. Twenty kilotons is twice the power of Enola Gay—not enough to take care of the world but more than enough for the mysterious territory of the Zone. In these men something of Stalker has been contagious, though Stalker does know that and, if he did, he would stop stalking.
At first I thought the film was about redemption. Easter is coming, and I’d just seen Gran Torino. Then I thought that Stalker, unlike Jesus or Clint Eastwood, doesn’t know what he’s doing. He lies in despair bitter over the knuckleheaded Professor and Writer and bemoaning the futility of his own, inexorable ventures. He has no sense of the magnificence of what he is doing. He sees only failure, and I guess that’s what you get when you’re stalking hope. I was reminded of the anguished lament of Oscar Schindler at the end of Schindler’s List. There’s a nice riddle going around about saving one starfish in thousands and realizing, and happy about, the well-being of that one particular starfish. Schindler had a greater obsession and so did Stalker.
An issue of futility applies to faith as well as hope. Faith and hope have no meaning without a touch of futility. Furthermore, you’ve got a chance of having faith only when you don’t think you do and you certainly see no evidence of the fruit of your faith—in this case, saved people through stalking hope. Self-consciousness has disappeared and so has the self. Stalker wouldn’t know that but he is that. If he did know, his worldly consciousness would wake up and his faith would sleep. That’s what it means, as he says, to be “like me, desperate and tormented”. Stalker had the good sense to know that the people he guided would have to be “like me”. That’s probably another reason why he couldn’t take is wife. Because of whom Stalker is, his wife writhes on the floor in exquisite agony when he leaves home for another trip to the Zone. Nevertheless, by the end of the film she is once again peacefully nervous as she tells us, trembling cigarette in hand, that in no way has she ever regretted marrying Stalker. I believe her.
So now I’m on Owen’s list. Now I’m in the Owen Zone. I don’t get it any more than Stalker’s wife did or Stalker or maybe even Owen and maybe even Tarkovsky—or it wouldn’t be art and life—but I don’t regret it either.