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.
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.
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?