It was not a case of love at first sight: the first time I saw Stalker I was slightly bored and unmoved. I wasn't overwhelmed (to put it slightly stupidly, I had no idea that, thirty years later, I would end up writing an entire book about it), but it was an experience I couldn't shake off. Something about it stayed with me. I was living in
Putney at the time and one day my then-girlfriend and I went walking in Richmond Park. It was autumn and a bird flew over the sloping ground towards a clump of trees, flapped and flew in a way that was strangely reminiscent of the way that second bird had flown into this vast room of sand. I wanted to see the film again immediately after that, and since then the desire to see it again — and again and again — has never gone away.* Until now.
* I may have wanted to see it again immediately but that was impossible. I had to wait until it was showing at a cinema again. Of course it's fantastically convenient, being able to see Stalker — or at least to refer to it- - at home, on DVD, whenever the urge takes one. But I liked the way that my visits to the Zone were at the mercy of cinema schedules and festival programmes. In London or in any other city where I happened to be living I always looked through Time Out or Pariscope or the Village Voice in the hope that Stalker would be playing. If it was showing somewhere, then seeing it became a priority, an event that gave shape to the surrounding week. Like this, the Zone retained its specialness, its removal from the everyday (of which it remained, at the same time, a part). Getting there was always a little expedition, a cinematic pilgrimage. As was entirely appropriate to the Zone, the film changed slightly, manifested itself differently according to where it happened to be found: the fact that I was seeing Stalker in a tiny cinema in the Fifth arrondissement of Paris — the same cinema, in fact, where I had sat through L'Avventura — made it a slightly different experience to seeing it as part of a Tarkovsky retrospective at Lincoln Center in New York. But what about the possibility of a cinema as semipermanent pilgrimage site? Bresson believed that the riches offered by certain films were so inexhaustible that 'there ought to be in Paris one quite small, very well equipped cinema, in which only one or two films would be shown each year.' Taking this a stage further, how about a cinema dedicated to showing Stalker exclusively? (For a less rapturous take on such a possibility see David Thomson on page 159.)
At various times before the advent of DVDs, Stalker was shown on TV and I taped it, to make sure I had a record of the film but, unlike Mahmut in Uzak, I never watched Stalker on telly. That list of things and people I won't watch on TV does not stop at Top Gear and Jeremy Clarkson. It also includes ... Stalker. One cannot watch Stalker on TV for the simple reason that the Zone is cinema; it does not even exist on telly. The prohibition extends beyond Stalker, to anything that has any cinematic value. It doesn't matter if the TV is HD: great cinema must be projected. It is the difference, as John Berger puts it, between watching the sky ('from where else would film stars come if not from a film sky?') and peering into a cupboard. I was so unshakeable in this rule, at a time when fewer and fewer classic films were being shown at the cinema, that I was in danger of eliminating much of film history from my life. I would permit us to watch only romcoms at home, films whose defining characteristic was an absolute lack of cinematic value. So we bought a DVD projector and it was wonderful, even though the setup each time we wanted to watch a film — setting the aspect ratio, clambering through the complexities of the menu tree, shifting stereo speakers, lowering the blinds to eliminate light from the street — often reduced me to a state of such fury that the screening had to be aborted. All of this was, perhaps, to be expected. The unexpected problem was that so many of the classic films of the past actually turned out to be pretty terrible. Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Belle de Jour sucked. Godard's Breathless was unwatchable, and not only because of the smoking.
From Zona by Geoff Dyer. Copyright 2012 by Geoff Dyer. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon.