In the chronology of straight-faced summaries with artistic ambition, Fiona Banner’s The Nam comes to mind as a forerunner in the field. That maximalist conceptual book work, from 1997, narrates six Vietnam films – Full Metal Jacket, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Born on the Fourth of July, Hamburger Hill and Platoon – into a seamless running text. Banner calls it an “11 hour supermovie,” as though we can stitch films together as you would frames, joining narratives and connecting characters (Charlie Sheen, perhaps, picking up in Platoon where Martin Sheen left off in Apocalypse Now?). There are no interjections here from Banner, no asides or long detours, just a good-faith description of what the artist is seeing at any moment – each cut and fade and bloodied young body. It’s a stab at exhaustiveness, but it’s not that, of course. The book’s an idea. Does it need reading at all? Does the prose, however good, or not, impact the success of the project? I don’t know, but that’s conceptual art!
What then to make of Geoff Dyer’s newest book, Zona, an extended meditation on Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker. Dyer starts with a description, the first frame: An empty bar, possibly not even open, a single table… and he ends at the last. It’s not shot by shot the whole way through, but it’s pretty close. He hand-wrings in between; why would a writer waste their time summarizing like this? He seems to know better, and yet he can’t help it. What’s the alternative in the face of the movie he loves most? Stalker, he says more than once, is the reason cinema exists after all! The risk is that the book tastes of the elementary-schooler tackling the Big Report, trying to swallow the thing whole, and the disaster of never taking an angle but just re-describing what’s already evident. And yet, of course, with Dyer, things happen.
When Dyer comes clean that “it’s all jumbled up in my head,” that’s good news of a sort. This is “summary that is the opposite of a summary,” as he says. The film, pastiched into language, opens the floor. Different levels of connection emerge as Dyer transcribes in his vulnerable way; he takes the film and Bablefishes it into something strange and drenched in charming turns of phrase. A bad, wonderful translation. Sentences sidewind off like mislaunched fireworks, and we’re in the realm of the Dyerian specialty; the not-quite-academic-criticism of his distractible gaze, his attention there, anxious and heartfelt and unabashedly in awe.
It’s a book then that moves by associative snaps, “integral digressions,” as Dyer says, so that Stalker – a meandering film to say the least–becomes the source for something intimate about the author’s own life (ours too) in terms of the film specifically and art more generally. The film’s three primary characters – Stalker, Writer and Professor – spend the movie journeying to the mystical, maybe imagined, territory known as the Zone, a place where our deepest desires are fulfilled. Our author is a natural companion, somewhat inconspicuous in the mix with that nouned verb of a name (Dyer). He’s on a wandering journey of his own sort, in his life and in this book, trying to create something that rings honest. He goes as far as to suggest that Writer might someday write this very book as the first person account of his time in the Zone. That just about brings down the fourth wall entirely. The burrowing through comes from both sides.
Given over to the “small repeated astonishments” of the film, Dyer’s reading becomes a reckoning with his own triggers that make him susceptible to the film’s poetry. There are strong literal associations – trainyards, dripping water, a black dog, for instance–that set Dyer veering into his own life. In a sense the project becomes; Can Stalker be restaged from the fragments of narrative, forgotten memories and other bits, running through Dyer’s head? It’s as much about the film Tarkovsky created as it is the author’s real-world encounters with it; his first time seeing it in the Fifth Arrondissement, rapt, young-twenties, and then the many times after over the next 30 years, half-drunk, asleep, alone, with friends, with “then-girlfriends.” A life takes place. Each subsequent viewing changes and enriches what the film (and by proxy, us) could possibly mean.
The sure tip-off of digression-at-hand are the sprawling footnotes, a kind of Zonal foray to scout ahead before we have to retrace six pages back to pick up a forgotten thread. This lower narrative is where Dyer really jumps the track on desire–with memorably (if boringly), an extended bit about his hope to someday own a dog, and then, over the course of several pages, an earnest lament for a pair of missed threesomes in Thatcherite London. Won’t get those back Geoffrey!
The range of references, predictably perhaps, is wide and sometimes low-reaching; Reservoir Dogs, Top Gear, Antichrist, Zabriskie Point, Wordsworth, Timothy Treadwell, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Daniel Day-Lewis, Harmony Korine and Mick Jagger, all get nods. Movies, actors, writers and, more surprisingly, contemporary artists, are everywhere in this book. By the time we reach the Zone, there is a sense that Stalker has been described entirely with the maneuver’s of a few significant contemporary works, which Dyer uses almost as adverbs: In the Zone light fades “Turrell-ishly,” the sand dunes of the Zone’s antechamber summon Walter De Maria’s The New York Earth Room, and the prominence of time through the film, brings us to Christian Marclay’s The Clock.
And the question of time is crucial, both for Tarkovsky and this project of Dyer’s. “How do you write a 160-Minute book?” Jonathem Lethem asks the author in a recent interview for BOMB. Can two things, across media, be in step? Stalker’s time-conscious camerawork, wonderful longtakes that stretch well beyond what the action requires, is perhaps some indication. Stalker isn’t strictly a work of duration–not at least in the sense of folks like James Benning, Peter Hutton’s At Sea, Warhol’s Empire and Sleep, or even the long windy slogs of Bela Tarr in Werkmeister Harmonies or Satantango . But it’s true, we’re in the realm of the sustained gaze where the same thing can be, if you look long and close enough, of interest many times.
And that’s a nice way to think about it maybe, Stalker on the one hand, and Zona on the other, the two equivalent in their ramshackle way. Different scales perhaps (Dyer would agree) but some common seed between them. And that under an attentive gaze what we just might have is a workable retelling. The two linked as a seamless running text. There’s eye-contact with the camera and it’s a long gaze, both ways. The same thing. Interesting twice.