My latest Amazon buy was a book about a Russian film that I didn’t like and won’t watch again.
Geoff Dyer’s latest, Zona, is about Stalker, a 1979 film by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. Stalker is about three characters who travel to the Zone (hence the book’s title), a mysterious place where – some believe – dreams come true. Parts of Stalker are enjoyable but the film is bogged down by its disregard for pacing, the tempo of the film rarely rising above pedestrian. To me, Stalker is mostly forgettable. To Dyer, it’s a masterpiece, one he’s seen many times.
Zona is the type of book many would love to write. It’s written in a casual tone (“a nice doggy”) and Dyer regularly wanders off into anecdote (to his wife’s likeness to a character in another film, to the lost backpack he can’t find a suitable replacement for). He has researched Tarkovsky and Stalker*, but Zona never feels like a technical dissection of director or film. It is a personal account – about Stalker, but really about Dyer watching it. He references poetry, literature and other movies, but most of Zona reads as conversational, the author an everyman who happened to write a book about his favourite film. Which could lead the reader to wonder, as I did, If Dyer can do this, why can’t I? Because he’s a much better writer than I am (and you. And definitely you). Dyer is sharp-minded and reflective, and Zona’s surface layer of informality disguises strong writing skills.
That Zona is about Dyer’s personal experience with the film makes it cinematic kin to to Kieron Gillen’s New Games Journalism. Gillen asks that games writing answers the question How did playing this game make me feel? in place of lists of technical details and ratings. Dyer asked himself How does watching Stalker make me feel? Zona is his answer, one I’m thankful he gave.
Zona is a surprisingly quick read, wide margins pad it out to 240 pages. Its footnotes often dominate a few pages, a line atop the page lets you to keep track of whether you’re reading his notes or the main body of the book.
If this book is a success I expect a slew of lesser writers to write inferior books about their favourite films. But Zona should stand out for Dyer’s genuine affection for the film and his ability to clearly convey his thoughts and feelings onto its pages.
* I wondered if Dyer had researched Tarkovsky to satisfy his own curiosity before considering writing this book. He mentions a number of similarities between Stalker and the Wizard of Oz film, but can’t comment on them, because he hasn’t seen Oz. He’s writing a book about Stalker, yet doesn’t take two hours to watch a film often mentioned in reference to it? Oz was released – at least in America – in 1939, forty years before Stalker, when Tarkovsky was seven. Russian interpretations of the books were released that same year. Wouldn’t you want to see for yourself if there were any similarities? As a writer, even when writing something as informal as Zona, aren’t you almost duty-bound to investigate these kind of things? Dyer never mentions why he chose not to watch Oz. But when I hear of the research done by other journalists into their projects, I can’t help but think Dyer’s been somewhat casual here. Finally, I find it appropriate that a review of a book with lengthy footnotes has a relatively substantial one of its own.