Saturday, April 12, 2014

Zona: (a discussion of) a book about a film about a journey to a room

The great irony of Geoff Dyer's Zona--purportedly a book-length discussion of Tarkovsky’s Stalker--is that it is almost never interesting when focusing on the subject at hand. The bulk of the book reads like an exhaustive plot synopsis written by an overeager fan on Wikipedia, or a sophomoric book report that keeps drifting away from its topic to discuss the author’s great desire to have back a knapsack he once lost, or behave differently the next time the possibility of a threesome presents itself to him. Those are both actual examples of the sorts of things Dyer digresses into, by the way, but it’s in some of the digressions that the book’s pleasures are to be found.

The book is organized such that the footnotes running beneath almost every page--and sometimes taking over whole pages in a row--are of the same size and font as the main text, reinforcing the idea that one is not more important than the other. Which parts get relegated to the footnotes, which put in parentheses, and which left in the body of the text, however, can seem entirely random. For the most part the main body is given over to the interminable, shot-by-shot recitation of the film’s plot, but then we get pointless bits like “For a long time I thought that American men always slept in their underwear.” (11) Typically, discussions of other films or novels will go into the footnotes, unless we’re suddenly treated to, in parentheses, a tidbit like this one: “For Strike, a character in Richard Price’s novel Clockers, a movie, any movie, is just ‘ninety minutes of sitting there’...” (15)

Often the book seems to be about Dyer’s struggles with writing the book (“I had intended breaking this little book into 142 sections… corresponding to the 142 shots of the film. …[but] I kept losing track of where one shot ended and another began.”) or with which book to write (“ a sense this book is a catalogue or compendium of proposals for potentially interesting studies…”). (31, 49) This wouldn’t be a problem--I myself am not allergic to postmodernism--if Dyer didn’t tell us, in that same passage on pg. 49, that a study of quotation within film “wouldn’t be that interesting after all [because] one wouldn’t get that far without the word meta cropping up and turning everything to dust.” This seems an odd attitude to take considering the form of the book itself, and at one point he seems to equate self-reflexivity with poor quality when writing off another of Tarkovsky’s films, calling Nostalghia “so bad--so far up itself…” (146)

At other times, he seems to reverse himself and offer something like a half-hearted apology for just such a formal approach: “It’s the one part of the film that seems to lack conviction and momentum, as if Tarkovsky is trying to make up his mind what to do and where to go next. This is not necessarily a bad thing, strengthening the impression that film is in some way about itself, a reflection of the journey it describes.” (123) But why would it be a good thing for the film (or the book) to be about itself? And how would it be possible for a work of art to be a “reflection” of its own subject--wouldn’t that actually make it the opposite of itself? It wouldn’t matter so much that these types of ideas are introduced without being thought through and worked out if this weren’t a text strewn with references to Merleau-Ponty, William James, Slavoj Zizek, Milan Kundera, et al. Just as the flippant tone and references to threesomes wouldn’t be so striking if the subject of the book weren’t such a serious, reverent work of art--one that the author claims to have for many years seen only in visits to a theater, like “a cinematic pilgrimage.” (143) Could you imagine making a pilgrimage to a work of art you revere, only to stand before it grousing about how you hate the smell of burnt matches and can’t see someone drink a beer in a movie without wanting a beer yourself?

More insulting than the strangely offhand tone chosen to discuss such a self-serious work (that the author himself ostensibly takes very seriously) is the occasional revelation of a willful ignorance on Dyer’s part. After briefly discussing how his subject is an art film version of The Wizard of Oz, he abandons this fruitful comparison, writing, “I’ve never seen The Wizard of Oz, not even as a kid, and obviously have no intention on making good that lack now.” (57) How is that obvious? If I were undertaking a book-length discussion of a film I’d probably get around to watching one of it’s “much-discussed” forerunners. Just as I would also take the two or three minutes required to Google something I had brought up, e.g.: “Przewalski’s horse (whatever that is).” (77)

Maybe it’s simply that Stalker’s charms are ineffable--so much of what we find beautiful is--but Dyer doesn’t seem to know what it is about the film that has kept him thinking about it for thirty years. He constantly makes hyperbolic assertions on its behalf and then makes no attempt to justify them at all. As if it were enough to simply say, “There follows one of the great sequences in the history of cinema” (44) and then move on from an uninflected description of the shots without telling us what exactly it is about the sequence that would make it particularly interesting to us--or even to him--let alone great. That Dyer seems to understand he’s failing doesn’t make it any easier for us to watch him doing so. He writes, “So what kind of writer am I, reduced to writing a summary of a film?” (149) But there is no vindication in this, we don’t cheer at his admission. We merely nod our heads sadly in recognition that much of what has gone before has been little more than summary, synopsis.

And yet… as to the matter of those constant digressions. They can be fascinating, whether the topic is a personal one--like the discussion, beginning on pg. 35, of Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris that digs into the book’s essential themes of how a work of art changes for a viewer over time, or can have odd, extratextual personal resonance--or a critical one, like the discussion of boredom on pgs. 20 and 21. Dyer writes:

“ wonder[s] how quickly a film can become boring. Which film holds the record in that particular regard? And wouldn’t that film automatically qualify as exciting and fast-moving if it had been able to enfold the viewer so rapidly in the itchy blanket of tedium? (Or perhaps one of the novelties of our era is the possibility of instant boredom… as opposed to a feeling that has to unfold gradually, suffocatingly, over time.)”

Passages like these prove Dyer’s reputation as an interesting thinker, a writer whom you would happily follow down the rabbit-hole. So provocative are these ideas on boredom, tossed off one after the other, that I’m tempted to abandon this review of Zona and begin to engage with them on their own terms, digressing off onto a whole new topic. And this is the real worth of the book. If a great piece of criticism is one that makes you want to immediately return to the work under discussion, then this one is an utter failure. I have no desire to see Stalker again in light of what Dyer has written. If, however, a great piece of criticism is one that makes you want to get into an argument--either for or against a particular assertion being made--then Zona is great many times over.

On that note, I’ll end with a long and strong assertion that I’ve been mulling over, and may just go and write a whole ‘nother piece in response to:

“I suspect it is rare for anyone to see their--what they consider to be the--greatest film after the age of thirty. After forty it is extremely unlikely. After fifty impossible. The films you see as a child and in your early teens… have such a special place in your affections that it’s all but impossible to consider them objectively… To try and disentangle their individual merits or shortcomings, to see them as a disinterested adult, is like trying to come to a definitive assessment of your own childhood: impossible because what you are contemplating and trying to gauge is a formative part of the person attempting the assessment.” (124-125)

All page references are to the first U.S. edition of Zona by Geoff Dyer, published by Pantheon Books, 2012.

Stalker (1979); dir. Andrei Tarkovsky; starring Alexander Kaidanovsky, Anatoli Solonitsyn, Nikolai Grinko, Alisa Freindlich

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