No Picnic

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To my surprise, I find there’s a visual gag at the start of Tarkovsky’s STALKER. Well, not quite the start — we get several long-take explorations of what Fiona termed “texture porn” — every interior set seems to have been sprayed with crude oil, so surfaces glisten darkly, they display soaking and rumpling and seep goopus from cracks and creases. But then, unexpectedly, there’s a car wearing a hat.

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It’s a familiar sitcom gag, the object placed on a car roof which is then lost when the car departs. Tarkovsky may have gotten the idea — and I like this idea so I’m going to say DEFINITELY GOT —  the idea from Frank Tashlin’s THE GEISHA BOY, in which conjurer Jerry Lewis is parted from Harry, his rabbit, in just this fashion. Said scene is a lot funnier than Tarkovsky’s, due to Lewis’s repetition of the single word “Harry.” He must say it about forty times, trying different intonations, ending with a plaintive yet accusatory “Oh, Harry!”

So, there you go — Jerry Lewis is funnier than Tarkovsky. He can have that on his tombstone, and then, ten years later, when we get to see THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED, they can chisel it off.

Mind you, Tarkovsky does very well to have the hat facing forward, not like a hat that’s been casually placed on a surface. In profile, the hat displays its most characteristic aspect, so it’s instantly recognizable, which is good visual comedy. And it also makes it look like the car is wearing a hat.

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There are fewer laughs as the film goes on. A piebald specialist takes two irksome dilettantes, a novelist and a physicist, into “the Zone,” an uninhabited region touched by some strange alien force. A bit of text at the start claims this takes place in a “small country,” and is signed by a Dr. Wallace. Fine — so this is happening in SCOTLAND, as far as I’m concerned. I know a few places here as strange as the Zone. Have you ever walked through Dumbiedykes?

The steaming, oozing smudge and crumble of the opening scenes gives way to lush yet dank colour as we enter the Zone, because “Zone” is “Oz” spelt backwards, partly. Fields dotted with rusting tanks set the mood for a film set in a landscape once civilized but now reclaimed by nature — or something else. It’s all very proto-Chernobyl, as everyone must think when they see this. Another case of east European sc-fi managing an act of prophecy, even in disguise.

My friend Alex tells me the Strugatsky brothers’ source novel, Roadside Picnic, is so named because the various zones dotted over Earth in it are places where travelers have briefly stopped, then departed, leaving stray objects, signs of their presence. It all sounds a bit more whimsical that Tarkovsky could bring himself to be, and it doesn’t sound like a meditation on faith, which I take STALKER to represent. Maybe, rather than remaking SOLARIS, the ludic Mr. Soderbergh should have turned his attention to this one?

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15 Responses to “No Picnic”

  1. The novel talks about the humans exploring the Zones as being like ants going through the leftover bounty of a roadside picnic: tiny and insignificant and completely incapable of ever understanding what happened to create this amazing place.

  2. Beautful! You would think that might appeal to Tarkovsky as a religious metaphor, but he seems more interested in the issue of faith than in discussing the mystery of the universe — although said mystery is powerfully evoked.

  3. If the Wikipedia page is to be believed, the film is a sort of Russian equivalent to The Conqueror, the 1956 John Wayne movie shot a few miles downwind of an atom bomb test. Apparently the location where Stalker was shot was as toxic as it looks in the film. According to the sound designer, “Up the river was a chemical plant and it poured out poisonous liquids downstream. There is even this shot in Stalker: snow falling in the summer and white foam floating down the river. In fact it was some horrible poison. Many women in our crew got allergic reactions on their faces. Tarkovsky died from cancer of the right bronchial tube. And Tolya Solonitsyn too. That it was all connected to the location shooting for Stalker became clear to me when Larisa Tarkovskaya died from the same illness in Paris.”

  4. Tarkovsky (and perhaps the Strugatskys, who wrote the screenplay as well as Roadside Picnic) eliminated virtually all of the science fictional ‘objects’ in the novel’s Zone (except for he Golden Sphere, which is not a sphere in the film but a wish-granting room). Really, the differences between the novel and the film are endless. On the one hand it’s hard to argue with the changes given the result (I think Stalker is incredibly good). On the other hand, there is still an amazing movie lurking inside Roadside Picnic.

    They should keep the hat on the car, though.

  5. The Bed Sitting Room was also shot in incredibly polluted environments, but doesn’t seem to have caused anyone long-term health problems (though only Rita Tushingham and Jack Shepherd survive from that magnificent cast, the various early deaths have clear causes and several of the players reached advanced ages). The desert of broken crockery was a real place, where a factory had been throwing its damaged goods for decades.

  6. I screened this recently for a friend who was familiar with, and very fond of, the story “Roadside Picnic”; also I knew he’d liked “Solaris”. He hated this film, though. The obtrusion of religious imagery irked him, as did the complete erasure of “Monkey”‘s original backstory and thus the reason the protagonist returns one last time to the Zone. He liked the dog, though, and called it his favourite character.

    I don’t hate “Stalker” but it taxes my patience more than any other film I’ve ever seen. So much of it seems like a prolonged tease. Uh-oh, that man fell down or disappeared off-camera! Did something happen to him? Oh, no, it didn’t. Repeat. And the ending, suggesting but maybe not suggesting that the stalker’s daughter has acquired psychic powers, had me saying to myself, “You don’t get to do that to me, movie. You have not earned it.”

    But the film has curled round my brainstem and won’t go away, and I’ll probably be watching it again before long. There are too many beautiful shots and images. I especially like the slow pan, about midway through the film, over the surface of a stream in which we see many fallen items: a syringe, fallen coins, a religious icon, a gun…it seemed like a catalogue of all of the things that people had ever brought to the Zone to help them there, all of them useless.

  7. Oh, forgot to mention that the series of “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.” video games deliberately emulate the brownish-grey, greasily lustrous “texture porn” of the non-Zone scenes of Tarkovsky’s film. The games while borrowing slightly more from “Roadside Picnic” than the film did (artifacts are important, for example) clearly were inspired by the film more than the story.

  8. I was reminded of some of the landscapes of Half-Life, one of the few vidgames I’ve played all the way through. Tarkovsky’s interest in texture and landscape seems very conducive to game adaptation.

    That crane shot looking down into the stream is one of the Tarkovsky shots that gets copied by other filmmakers aiming for the same kind of seriousness — but I think swiping that shot disqualifies them.

  9. Geoff Dyer’s book Zona is a fascinating watch-along for Stalker. Dyer wants to put the film down but can’t resist it.
    Another extraordinary failed film based on a book by the Strugatskys is Alexei German’s Hard to be a God. German once said that the trouble with cinema is that sound had been invented a hundred years too soon and colour two hundred years too soon.

  10. The last time I saw Stalker, about four years ago, I felt it would make a spectacular double bill with Eraserhead.

  11. Hard to be a God, in its very different way, has as acrid and seductive an atmosphere as Stalker. I’ve heard it suggested that the way to experience it is to read a plot synopsis first, as nothing whatsoever is explained in it.

    I think I will probably read Zona, I like the idea of book-length wallows in single movies.

    AK’s sound design and evocation of industrial decay do suggest something of Eraserhead. And both have mutant kids. I think this is a better idea for a double feature than my idea of The Geisha Girl.

  12. After the first ten minutes of “Hard to Be a God” I kept a tab with the plot synopsis open at all times. I was still often at sea (and largely still am), but I couldn’t stop watching.

  13. There’s a great animated sci-fi film – Gwen, ou le livre de Sable – by Jean-François Laguionie, which I think might have been inspired by Roadside Picnic (alas, it was released in 1985, so is ineligible for your 70s sci-fi series). It’s not an adaptation of Picnic, but there’s a section that revolves around a tribe of post-disaster desert-dwellers investigating mysterious objects that appear to be dropped into the landscape by aliens. The objects are things like gigantic chairs and telephones, household items that have been made mysterious and alien by dint of apocalypse.

    Done in gouache, it offers another sort of texture-porn, albeit one less petroluem-based than Stalker. It’s not as languid as Stalker, but it takes its time, too, in a good way. You can take a peek at it on youtube.

  14. Looks stunning!

    I will have to investigate this guy.

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