Archive for November 10, 2022

Stalky and Co Inky Dinks

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 10, 2022 by dcairns

Or Sinker-nicities? Mark Sinker’s BFI Screen Classics monograph on Lindsay Anderson and David Sherwin’s IF…. helpfully situates the film in the tradition of public school fiction. While Tom Brown’s Schooldays emphasizes knuckling under and discipline, Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky and Co celebrates defiance and rule-breaking. Kipling, of course, would posthumously supply Sherwin with a title, suggested by the production company secretary, when it became necessary to produce an inoffensive dummy script to con some school into supplying locations.

At this, my psychic ears perked up, as I had just encountered an unexpected reference to this work in the afterword to the Strugatsky Brothers’ Roadside Picnic. This is the work that was adapted, loosely but recognizably, by Andrei Tarkovsky to give us STALKER.

The book’s original title doesn’t sound very inspiring, but then when you find out what it means it’s VERY inspiring. The Zone is a strange, perilous place marked by the traces of an extraterrestrial visit. Objects have been left behind, some valuable and useful, all mysterious, along with weird areas of gravitational and other disturbance which can kill the unwary. A character eventually likens it to a roadside picnic: the aliens came, did whatever they had to do, and left, abandoning various unwanted items, and we are the ants or squirrels who come along afterwards and are baffled by the residue, its origins and purpose a total mystery.

Tarkovsky wasn’t taken by this explanation and omitted it from his film, allowing the aliens to seem more like God, and the humans’ relationship to them not quite as hopeless — though we’re still largely in the dark. He cut lots of other fun stuff too, like the specific artefacts, such as the mysterious “empties” — sets of two discs, not touching, but fixed in position relative to one another, like the two ends of an invisible cylinder. You can pass your hand between the discs, but you can’t separate them. A brilliantly baffling object or objects.

In his afterword afterwards, Boris, the surviving Strugatsky, is appreciative of Tarkovsky’s film, and tells of the novel’s struggles with the Soviet censors. He also explains that the name “stalker,” given to those brave poacher-smugglers who sneak into the Zone to retrieve empties and other valuables, derives from Kipling’s Stalky and Co, but he doesn’t explain why they thought this was a fitting name. A stalker, in hunting terminology (the criminal meaning had not yet been invented), is a very different rural occupation from a poacher, though some people may hold both occupations.

It was in reading about Stalky and Co in Sinker’s monograph that I flashed on why the Strugatskys (Strugatskies?) poached their title from old Rudyard. Stalky and his friends, being disobedient and rebellious, are always going “out of bounds” — heading into areas of the surrounding countryside declared off limits by the school authorities. It all made sense.

The word “stalker” thus entered the Russian language, but pronounced pseudo-phonetically, “stulker.”

Sinker, a kind of critical stalker himself, heading into forbidden terrain and bringing back intriguing and valuable stuff, explains also that for Kipling, the rebelliousness of Stalky & his chums is simply a testing of incipient adult resilience — the real public school rebels all went on to become pillars of the British Empire. And so with Mick Travis and his crusaders — they can be absorbed by society with ease, as we see in the non-sequel sequels. And even Anderson & Sherwin’s gleeful depiction of school shootings can be absorbed and enjoyed by the establishment, such as pig-bothering pm David Cameron. The system co-opts rebellion — that’s what it’s designed for. Redirecting revolution is a more powerful tool than straight repression, perhaps?