"Let them believe. And let them have a laugh at their passions. Because what they call passion actually is not some emotional energy, but just the friction between their souls and the outside world. And most important, let them believe in themselves. Let them be helpless like children, because weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing."
— Stalker (1979), Andrei Tarkovsky
With every still a painting, Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker is a breathtaking tapestry of meditative evocations that guide the viewer progressively further down the disorienting rabbit hole of man's fears and desires, where we irrevocably find ourselves sitting down at the same table with our starkest existential angsts.
Stalker is a mood piece, a poem, a mystical landscape, framed to offer more unresolved feelings than it answers to. Yet, it does so with such beauty and artistic finesse that it leaves the viewer strangely satiated with and despite the profound absurdism and uncertainty of the self that are so central to the plight of mankind in the 20th century.
Based on Russian science fiction authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's 1971 novel Roadside Picnic, the film takes place in and out of the titular, proverbial roadside picnic remnants which "inhabitants of the cosmic abyss" have left behind on earth twenty years past. The extraterrestrial artefact, a prohibited and mystical area referred to as the Zone, is figuratively akin to the human remnants of a picnic at which the animals of the forests scrape in reverent awe and a deep bewilderment only afforded to such strange relics that would seem to come but from a distant and unfathomable universe.
The science fiction elements and exposition of the narrative, however, are implied to the imagination through the subtleties of psychological disturbances, rather than as firmly established expositions. In this way, Tarkovsky lies the foundations not for a secular expedition, but a surreal and inwardly metaphysical one far beyond the anticipations or mental grasp of anyone involved.
Buried deep within the treacherous Zone, with its own enigmatic and ever-changing rules and violations of physical law, is a fabled Room in which one's inmost desires are granted, if one is to succeed at reaching it. The Room is said to be a place where only the most wretched of men traverse into to grasp at their last glimmer of hope, and, as we find, to ultimately face their inmost selves—a task which perhaps no man is truly ready for.
Armed with what we can only concede as clumsy and ill-prepared mental and emotional faculties, our anxious human representatives comprise of an emotive and irrational Writer, a methodical and stolid Professor, and a troubled and contemplative Stalker, the group's illegal and experienced escort through the Zone.
Each with their own sympathetic foibles and a penetrating gaze that seems to pierce right through the fourth wall, our protagonists through cutting dialogue progressively further reveal, offend, and meditate upon the philosophical intricacies of art and existence as they journey further and further towards the Room and inward into the confused entanglements of their own psyches. As if as a self-referential metaphor for the film itself, the Room serves as but a piece of the puzzle of the psyche of man, which, as we discover, may only turn out at its core to be as simplistic and as bestial as we deeply fear ourselves to be.
In an intricate interweaving of disciplines that serves as a testament to the power of cinema, the philosophical weight of the film owes its consequence to the judicious artistic direction by which every still becomes a painting in its own right.
As it poses the question of the true, inmost desires of man—not the one you shout from the rooftops, but your essence of which you know nothing, "that sits in you and rules your life," and that which is "achieved through the most suffering"—the Room offers itself as a mirror into the deepest, most naked and helpless self, its decisive threshold the true test of the wretched man. Are we ever ready to face what it is that we most truly desire? And even then, will it be enough for us?
The questions Stalker compels into contemplation thus snowball into a gaping abyss of hopelessly recursive philosophical inquiries into the meaning of existence at a level of profundity which we cannot escape. For if we cannot control our true desires, can we ever be said to be free? Moreover, what authenticity do our more ostensible desires and higher values actually hold? Do the principles we wilfully adopt have tangible weight beyond our basic nature, or do they—much like the fruitless journey through the Zone—serve but as egotistical distractions from the raw bluntness of a meaningless truth as primitive and absurd as our true, selfish selves? In the quests of desire, are we but walking in circles of pretence and pretension until we may finally realise at the end of the rainbow that there is nothing to gain but the same Self, mirrored back to us, with which we had started and which we so badly wished to escape?
It is at this point that the film begins eerily to feel like a koan, a Zen Buddhist paradoxical anecdote designed to provoke a kind of self-referential confusion which finally disturbs the conventional first principles with which we approach life in the first place—namely that of the nature of desire and attainment, of looking outside oneself for meaning, for a kind of pillar of support or anchor to a sense of reality; disempowering delusions which we have attuned ourselves to for thousands of years and upon which the operations of history have yielded a great many miseries and anguishes of the mind. The aching of the soul which seems so core to modern man may turn out to be but an illusion without resolution, an affectation designed to justify our endless quests for the ever-elusive goal of egocentric fulfilment, an aggressive storm that leaves only suffering and soul-cutting isolation in its wake.
Strangely intimate and tensely revealing, lingering shots over the shoulders of our protagonists create a space of silence and extended reflection rarely offered us in mainstream cinema.
Perhaps this is the real reason why our protagonists are unable to take the direct path to the room, as it ultimately represents the part of man that, as Alan Watts poetically writes on human taboos, is "repressed, unadmitted, or just glimpsed quickly out of the corner of one's eye, because a direct look is too unsettling" (The Book: On the Taboo Against Who You Are.) As the Stalker asserts, all the traps and detours of the Zone depend not on its physical landscape but that of the moods, thoughts, and emotions of our pitiful pilgrims; perhaps it is not so far fetched to say that the traps are but a kind of wilful and masochistic product of the mind, much like the distractions of life—however ostensibly noble—with which we assuage the aches and anxieties at the core of our such ultimately primal and brutish human existence.
Far from offering but a dismal echo of the nihilistic fashion, however, Tarkovsky leaves us with just as much hope as he does fear and doubt. Where our main protagonists leave off, the women of the film come to represent a kind of mysterious womb of faith and beauty, enclosed within the few and fleeting glimpses of them we are allowed. As the Stalker's wife meditates upon sorrow and happiness, she does so with the acceptance of the filth and grimness that come with life necessary for our capacity to experience not only joy, but also, and more importantly, the meaning and profundity buried within.
As "creation seems to come out of imperfection, [...] out of a striving and a frustration," (Waking Life, 2001), perhaps it is this very struggle of ours to define our humanity that emerges as a testament to our transcendent nature, that has kindled the existence of the cultures, art, philosophies, and literary artefacts that we hold so dear in our quest for meaning and that move us in the most visceral and tangible of ways. Though our inmost desires may be revealed to be as ignoble as the Porcupine's, it is his ensuing chagrin as well as ours that attest to man's immutable longing for self-transcendence, if nothing else.
In looking to extract meaning out of the film or the muddled landscape of the Zone, we are compelled to do the same for life, for man, and for ourselves, all the while steeping in the obstinate question of whether such an endeavour even has meaning itself, and whether it is advisable for us to venture into such depths at all. Is there such thing as truth, and if so, will it set us free? In the end, humankind may be but a sort of existentialist echo chamber, where truth has no truth, and meaning has no meaning—besides the ones that we, ourselves, poeticise into being.
Metaphorically, Stalker is a profound spiritual journey into our deepest, most barren desires, confusions, vulnerabilities, and fears, and serves as a piercing breach through the jaded adult human's supposed certainties and defences that Tarkovsky, through a striking excerpt of the film, describes as being the very companions of death.
It is the pliancy and "freshness of being" of the seedling that is said to win, and that are the virtues with which one is to approach Stalker: like a newborn beholding the world for the first time, or a troubled human listening to the musical harmonies that soothe him: without association, without expectation, without impatience. Much like the mystery of the Zone, it is precisely the sacred mysteries of life and Self that trouble us so that make them beautiful. Where we can be satiated with the sublime, the horrific, and the wretched; where we can equanimously sit down at the same table with the elusiveness and amorphousness of our truths, we can begin to reclaim the freedom of the imagination that we had as children, and so immerse ourselves in the world or in a cinematic stream of consciousness in the purest and therefore most poignant of ways.
As Tarkovsky himself insists, the virtue of his films lie in their visual poetry, rather than any kind of propaganda or philosophy, and it is the viscerally meditative feelings which they evoke that are at the core of the artistic experience that they so beautifully construct. When soaked as a visual, auditory, and poetic meditation, Tarkovsky's Stalker becomes a genuine paragon of art, as well as of the astounding vagaries of its possible evocations—of a foundation for bottomless emotive, artistic, and philosophical inspiration.