Christian’s Cinematic Syntax: Entering The Zone – “Stalker”

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As I am entering Jet Fuel Review as a new film blogger, it felt like an obligation for me to serve as your “Stalker,” and guide you into an unfamiliar terrain. The terrain being the 1979 film, Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. The reason for my choice of this film was not only because Andrei Tarkovsky is my favorite filmmaker, but it is that this film is most often considered to be a quintessential contribution to cinematic arts — and for good reason.

This film puts on a display of individual expression in art to its fullest and most fleshed out potential. This is done by using the already published book Roadside Picnic, by Russian authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and through their contribution to Stalker‘s screenplay. Tarkovsky utilizes this book as a way of guidance rather than direct translation, which allows him to manipulate the story to follow his individualized beliefs.

*Mild spoilers ahead*

The plot of the film is as follows: A group of characters, the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn), the Professor (Nikolai Grinko), and the Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky), travel to a mysterious landscape known as “the Zone.” The Stalker is their guide into the Zone, and is a major proponent of the usage of the Zone’s power for granting wishes. The goal of the film is for the characters to reach the room of the Zone that awards them their most inner and deep wish. They must reach the room without falling into any of the Zone’s traps, using lug nuts as markers along the way.  

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To put it simply, Stalker is pure cinema. I first saw Stalker as a junior in high school, and it has left an everlasting impression on me. Tarkovsky impressively deviated from traditional cinematic technique. The cinematography being a specific deviation, consisting of a mixed assortment of techniques that brought Stalker to Tarkovsky’s visionary perfection. Some of these techniques would be the use of high-contrast brown monochrome, which was used to create distinction from the Zone and to attach a feeling of dreariness to the environment.

The cinematography: There’s the varied camera movements, such as the tracking shot when the characters drive through the guarded gates, and the pan to reveal a firing guard. The shots rely specifically on close-ups and long shots, which allow for a psychological definition of the characters and the Zone itself. The camerawork shows a rejection to the soviet montage technique of filmmaking that was a staple to Russian cinema. The specific sequence that displays this is when the characters enter the Zone, and we witness a close-up of the characters in a single long take while the film transitions into color.    

The pacing: The film consists of 142 shots in a 163-minute film, which is incredibly low when compared to today’s shot-to-length ratio. I had never had exposure to a film that allowed for such long and drawn-out shots that it made me feel a sort of serenity. I found myself indoctrinated into a new and flavorful cinematic world after Stalker.

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The mise en scène: Another ingenious part of the construct of Stalker is the mise en scène, which feels constructed in a controlled and well-mannered way that shows progress vividly. Tarkovsky begins the film with a visual landscape of poverty. He immerses the viewer in a portrait of a dysfunctional household, with emphasis on lighting and the character Monkey (Natasha Abramova), as she watches her parents’ argument through a door. He then opens the world through the Stalker’s movement in a trainyard, and the meeting at the bar.

All the beginning mise en scène builds a world of dysfunction and poverty. The bar exemplifies these elements when the characters introduce each other while overseen by the shady bartender. The scene brings us to a feeling of illegality and alcoholism. Exiting the area shows the most grimy and dirty scenery in the entire film, in which contrast with the scenery of the Zone is necessary. A few portions of the Zone that are the most striking are the dog overseeing scene, the meat grinder (the narrow tunnel and most dangerous part of the Zone), the sand dunes (a manipulated part of the Zone), and the area outside the wish-granting room.

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Themes: The themes of the film are completely open to interpretation, such as the meaning of the Zone. Tarkovsky has a way of not completely attaching a single symbol to the motifs. Some examples of the motifs include the dog, the flashing light bulb, water, and religious items (crown of thorns and the photo in water). These motifs have a heavily stylistic portrayal in the film. Still, after my fourth viewing of this film, I keep discovering additional material.

Conclusion: I would highly recommend this film to anyone and everyone. It is more than just a film, it is an experience that will change your perception — the perception of film and life.

5 out of 5

— Christian Mietus, Film Blogger

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