November 11, 2012
New Adventures in Pornography
November 21, 2012

ZONA: a review of a book about a film about a journey to a room


By Diarmuid Hester


“Here you were talking about the meaning of life… Let’s take music: it has the least connection with reality as such. Or, more precisely, if there is a connection, it is just through pure sound, mechanically, without ideas or associations.
It is the most beautiful thing in the world” – Stalker
I bought Geoff Dyer’s Zona (subtitle, “A book about a film about a journey to a room”) earlier this year from a bookshop on London’s South Bank (I can’t remember which one – perhaps Borders, a chain in much difficulty that had recently shut up one of its branches in Brighton, where I was living with my wife and our collection of unframed artworks). I was waiting for a friend I hadn’t seen in a while, and he was unusually late (I say unusually – I can’t remember if he had been late the other times we had met, say in London at the Champion pub near Oxford street or the train station in Brighton where I picked him up following a shitty breakup: isn’t memory the damndest thing?). He’s from Reading and, though I haven’t had the good fortune of visiting the place, I’d say he might be more familiar with the industrial landscape depicted in the opening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker than I would be, my having grown up in the boggy farmland of rural Ireland. And I do mean boggy: one day on a class trip I lost my shoe down a bog hole – I was wet and stocking-footed for the rest of the day (Ah! childhood!). Honestly though, the fecund – no: lush – greeny foliage and predictably inclement weather of the Irish countryside has more in common with the wild and dripping Zone at the heart of Tarkovsky’s film than the factories and trainyards which frame it. Each to his own, eh: my friend and I loved Stalker and had talked before about the publication of Dyer’s book. While I awaited his arrival I spotted Jeanette Winterson taking a walk but I didn’t approach her: her writing interests me, not how she spends her afternoons.
The subtitle of Zona, appears to suggest what we will find between its covers will be an amplification of Tarkovsky’s film: we anticipate the elaboration or elevation to macro scale of the recondite or receding features of one of Tarkovsky’s most elusive works.
  ZONA (Stalker (Zone (Room) Zone) Stalker) ZONA
Thus positioned as a commentary not a critique, rather than reduction we expect accretion (of detail or affective intensity: certainly of interest). Unfortunately, Dyer gives us nothing of the kind. We are offered instead the ceaseless (and, to my mind, unforgivable) domestication of Stalker, a tremendously strange and occasionally miraculous piece of narrative cinema, by the submersion of its every detail into the mire of indulgent, middle-aged memory and bourgeois education.
The opening scene in which nameless men (aka Professor, Stalker, Writer) gather around a dim-lit bar table gives Dyer the chance to describe his childhood – one apparently marked by thrifty parents (p. 26). The Professor’s loss and retrieval of his knapsack thanks to the invisible ministrations of the Zone segues into the author’s recounting – at length – the loss of his own knapsack which his wife bought for him (p. 108). A shot of the undulating, sandy floor of one of the Room’s anterooms gives way to a forgettable account of Dyer’s childhood obsession with quicksand (p. 123).
Meanwhile, Dyer plots his cultural co-ordinates carefully: though he doesn’t watch television, he hates reality TV shows and, no, The Wizard of Oz isn’t worth associating with Stalker, “I’ve never seen The Wizard of Oz, not even as a kid, and obviously have no intention of making good that lack now” (p.57). Obviously. Ah but Camus (p. 27)! Kafka (p. 79)! Wordsworth (p. 115)! These are the (dead, white, male) greats worthy of comparison. [Aside: Dyer draws upon Billy Collins (p. 46) and I despair]
All of these self-indulgent accounts are conveyed in a contemptibly laddish vernacular which further attempts to syntactically subdue rogue elements of the film: Dyer says of the Stalker’s departure from his wife and her crazed writhing upon their bedroom floor, for example, “like many men before and since [he] is on his way to the pub…” (p.19); Writer, Dyer suspects, wishes he is on a “booze cruise” (p. 85); Stalker, Writer and Professor’s journey through mysteriously dripping, waterlogged rooms is called a “Soak the Bloke competition” (p. 141).
The book is replete with such examples: again and again, the bizarre and inexplicable is smothered by tiresome biographical detail, banter and the clichés of bourgeois culture. Having seen Stalker a number of times, Dyer tells us, he stopped searching for the film’s meaning: on the evidence of this book, that’s because he thought he had found it, and how inevitably tedious it is. Implicitly outlined in Zona, in his relentless subjugation of the writhing miraculous mess of Stalker, is his strong argument: the film (and by extension, film) is significant only when it confirms inconsequential details and the vicissitudes of one’s life. It’s worth it, in effect, if it affirms autobiography.
When film criticism sinks low into the sludge of this kind of turgid solipsism it must be resisted.