STALKER Syndrome : Tarkovsky and Me


This is a light-hearted, personally problematic, psychological tale about my experience of watching Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky’s film STALKER (1979). Now I was aware that Tarkovsky was a big deal. Along with Ozu, Mizoguchi, Bela Tarr and the gang he ranks pretty highly in the great director stakes. Someone once said something along the lines of:


This post is basically an attempt to corroborate that statement and share my rather embarrassing reaction to a film regularly credited with changing people’s world view and spiritual outlook. It blew my doors off.

I’ll set the scene.

Today is the day we are going to watch STALKER. I’m pretty excited about the whole thing. My film partner is playing along. She has already seen it. Its early evening so the light is going and by turning all the lights off we manage to achieve a gloamy sort of darkness. We are going for sensory deprivation. We don’t want anything to detract from my EXPERIENCE of STALKER. Its like i’m dropping acid for the first time. I know that by using the word ‘dropping’ I’ve ruled out the possibility of anyone ever believing I have the slightest experience of LSD.

(Family readership – check)

Once we are comfortable on the sofa I realise that we haven’t covered the time code on the DVD player. For most people this is easily ignored. For this STALKER initiate the heightened state of anxiety renders such tolerance impossible. A DVD case is propped in front. Next the indicator light on the TV becomes a problem. Electrical tape solves the problem. Press play.

Big mistake.

Fast forward to the end of the film. The credits are rolling.

‘What did you think?’ my companion asks.

‘I didn’t like it’ I reply, feeling like the world is about to collapse. I find myself scratching my head as though I’m trying to trepan a hole in the skull capable of letting in spiritual understanding. Or any kind of understanding.

‘I just don’t understand’ I reiterate. ‘No…No…uh…No’

My companion is looking me in both horror and disappointment, trying to grasp what the hell is wrong with me. We make some kind of conversation. I can’t recall any of it because I’m having a mild panic attack but trying to let it go unnoticed.

We turn the lights back on, which seems in the moment to be the best idea we’ve ever had.

I’m shivering but again I’m trying to keep quiet about it. I start aimlessly wandering around the living room while my companion escapes to the bathroom, probably to warn as many people as possible about how odd I am. Now I think I’m paranoid. Now I am paranoid, and to make it worse I’m self-consciously paranoid. I’m meta-paranoid.

At this moment, I wish I could say I blacked out or something faintly dignified. Instead I just burst into tears and held on to the only person available (who was incidentally the best), and wept. I just suddenly felt absolutely broken by my inability to understand the thing I had just spent almost three hours giving every inch of my brain power.

Stalker Syndrome

What I decided after this weirded out episode was what made me like the film so much i’ve thought about it a lot in the time since. What STALKER seemed to be an anti-story. The narrative was crafted in such a way that what you experienced refused to lead you anywhere. So you would arrive at a place and the way you had got there would not tell you anything about it. This is obviously analogous to the structure of The Zone, the physics defying setting for the majority of the films action, where Tarkovsky’s filmmaking makes anti-causality its own type of causality, where the sentience of The Zone, overrides the cognitive agency of agent: writer, scientist or stalker, it doesn’t matter. No one’s system of knowledge is sufficient.

As Tarkovsky says somewhere it is a film about LOVE and OBSESSION and probably a little about madness. What I experienced in finishing the film and finding it so bafflingly unsatisfying is a little what the Stalker experiences in leading the others to the room only for them to have such an unexpected (and unexpect-able) reaction (I’ll not completely spoil it). When we presume films will tell the story for us, its a bit of a mind melt when they refuse the idea of story at all, at least in a conventional way. I mean, I know the film has a story. You could write it down, plot it out and so forth, but the way that Tarkovsky handles that narrative makes the experience of its movement intoxicating to the point of nausea. The end is like a kind of vertigo. A stomach churning twist not just in the film, but in watching film itself.

Thats what I found anyway.

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