Navigation Zones

I keep thinking about a scene in one of my favourite films, Andrey Tarkovsky’s Stalker *. Stalker is set in a contaminated, post-apocalyptic world that has given rise to a mysterious, off-limits landscape called the Zone. The Stalker leads the Writer and the Professor on a clandestine journey into the Zone, because it contains a room that is reputed to make any visitor’s dearest wish come true.

In the scene in question, the Stalker is explaining the mechanics of the Zone to the Writer and the Professor. It’s a sentient, unpredictable, constantly-changing place, he says, “a complicated system of traps … all deadly.” A safe path for one journey will be treacherous and impassable on another. The Stalker asserts that the Zone moves according to whoever passes through it: “it is what we’ve made it with our condition.” He also believes, but is not sure, that it lets pass those “who have lost all hope”.

The Stalker’s explanation is offered once the initial scepticism of the Writer and the Professor has been shaken by direct experience of how the Zone operates. To all outward appearances, the Zone is just an inert, overgrown, derelict post-industrial landscape. As soon as the characters arrive there, the building containing the room is right in front of them. Yet the Stalker insists that they approach by an indirect route, measured by throwing long strips of gauze bandage attached to metal nuts. The Writer quickly tires of what he thinks is pointless subterfuge designed to justify the Stalker’s fee, and chooses to approach the building directly. A wind flattens the grass and leaves; a voice which is that of neither Stalker nor Professor calls him back.

Stalker is a disquietingly subtle film; the temptation always there to explain it away as an allegory of something or other, check the box and have done with it. On my first viewing, I was lured by the parallels with William Burroughs’s incantatory introduction to The Western Lands, saw in the Zone the labyrinthine contours of otherworldly, spiritual pilgrimage; on which the usual laws of physics and causality do not apply, and progress occurs by the most indirect and unlikely routes possible.

What drew me back to the scene this time, was thinking about how to navigate any situation where appearances – and apparent laws – are not how that world actually operates. Maps, stories, received ideas – hope, even – are all useless, because the situation is changing all the time; yet experience and skills are required, to figure out the best means of adapting oneself to the situation, step-by-step, without certainty or guarantee of outcome. The situation, as it unfolds around you, dispenses only one clue at a time as to whether you’ve taken the right step, or not. The stakes are deadly, the terrain persists in looking ordinary. Feedback is often no more than a ripple of instinct, a lone article of faith.

The scene is also, implicitly, about choosing the right moment to reveal, or explain something. Re-watching it – viewers’ memories of Stalker being notoriously unreliable – I watched the Stalker draw apart from the other two men, half-merge into the dark undergrowth of the Zone, fill out the void in their experience opened by whatever mysterious forces compelled the Writer to retreat. Something which, even though they will go on half-pretending otherwise, they are now minded to consider seriously, no longer dismiss as cynical or crazy, because they have felt its mystery brush past within themselves.

* The whole film is available on Google Videos:

The sequence I describe starts about 50 minutes in.

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