Friday, 10 May 2013



I like to think I'm not an idiot. I like to think I'm capable of appreciating movies beyond the big summer blockbusters, movies that require a measure of intelligence and concentration, movies that aim for something higher than mere box office spectacle, movies that seek to explore philosophy, the meaning of life and the dark depths of the human condition. Subtitled movies, art movies, "difficult" movies. On the other hand, I came away from this bleak, intense, cerebral Russian film with a pounding headache and an overwhelming desire to watch Smokey And The Bandit with the volume cranked up. I confess there were points where I considered abandoning it. But that would have put it in the same bracket as Zombie Women Of Satan (walked out of the cinema: the only time I've done that in 29 years of cinemagoing) and Darren Ward's Sudden Fury (switched the DVD off after about 15 minutes), and I couldn't reconcile abandoning a famous piece of Russian arthouse with sticking to the end of The Evil Inside and Island Of The Dead.

Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (at 161 minutes, it comes on two discs) is a phenomenally "difficult" film: very slow, very quiet, very depressing. Some time after a mysterious incident involving aliens, a mysterious Zone has been created. It's been barricaded with barbed wire and armed guards, but some people known as Stalkers will guide people into the Zone, to a room which is said to grant wishes. One Stalker takes two other men with him, a Writer and a Professor, but the journey does not go entirely as planned....

Obviously there are no laughs, no fights, no chases, special effects, sex, violence or snappy one-liners to be had. It's an art film, and it makes no concessions whatsoever to Western multiplex audiences with their popcorn and Iron Man t-shirts. There's almost no music to be heard, the film is made up of mostly long static takes in which very little happens, and most of the dialogue is abstruse philosophical musings and abstract arguments. While the Zone itself is in colour, the "real" world outside is shown in miserable brown monochrome. As a result, it's an extremely tough watch: dreary, slow and inaccessible, and a further example of why Peter Greenaway's dictum that "Cinema is too rich and varied a medium to be left to mere storytellers" is utter poppycock.

But, the argument goes, it's an art movie: it's supposed to be dreary, slow and inaccessible. Well, I'm not sure the two extremes of the spectrum - Stalker and Battleship, say - are the only two options. Just as there can be summer spectaculars that also engage the brain (such as Inception), can there also be art movies that aren't boring, that challenge the audience to think about the film rather than merely challenging the audience to stay to the end? Being long and foreign with not much incident doesn't automatically mean it's boring (see Once Upon A Time In Anatolia). For me, Stalker was a struggle and a half: too much like hard work for almost no reward (the very last minute of the film sprang the only genuinely startling and intriguing moment) and while I made it to the end, it was too cerebral for me and I lost the battle. Oh well, maybe I am an idiot after all. Bring on Smokey And The Bandit.


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