Great news for all those who mourned FilmStruck after the streaming service was shuttered in late 2018—the Criterion Collection will launch their own streaming service called The Criterion Channel on April 8th. In the meantime, the site will feature a Movie of the Week from the collection for those who sign up as a charter subscriber. The fourth Movie of the Week is Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s profound piece about three men on a quest to earn their greatest desire.
Saying this in the best way possible, Tarkovsky’s Stalker is a series of existential crises with a plot. A hefty amount of ambiguity resides within the story, mainly centralized around the role of the stalker. The specific Stalker (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy) followed throughout the film is presumably one of many, but Stalker is not really a “stalker,” as we would normally deem someone of the sort a “follower.” Instead, he is followed; with hopes to find the “Room,” a Professor (Nikolay Grinko) and a Writer (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) hire the Stalker to lead them through the dangerous route.
The Room is the source of a life led with happiness. It is unclear how it creates happiness, but it is said several times that it grants one’s strongest, often unconscious desires. The writer is searching for tranquility within himself, and Professor, who is a physicist, has aspirations to win a Nobel Prize for his scientific work in the discovery of the Room. Over the course of the journey, the two constantly quibble with each other, deeming the other’s goal unworthy of completion. The Stalker, on the other hand, is ineligible to be awarded the powers of the room: he is a criminal.
Stalker poses vexing questions about desires, art, and meaning to life — all provoked by the nature of their journey to find happiness. But what is happiness, without unhappiness? The Writer is plagued with anxiety over what awaits him in the Room, unsure if he can create the words he so wishes if his mind is at ease. Can a writer write if they are not, at some level, discontented?
The idea of desires and the selfish drive to reach them is discussed in relation to the stalker who had previously led the route: one named Porcupine had fatefully brought his brother to death while attempting to bring him to the Room. After finally reaching his desire — an enormous sum of wealth — Porcupine killed himself out of indignity. The writer claims this act was not out of shame, but rather pain, as Porcupine had probably pined for his brother but was instead rewarded with a stronger lust for wealth.
Each man attempts to argue his case for happiness. The Writer claims that mankind’s purpose is to create works of art and that art is the one unselfish act that exists in a world full of people who only care about themselves. Art is necessary to show worth in the final reckoning. Being an artist comes with a heavy cost, though, as the writer is tired of being devoured by readers — and even after their appetite is satisfied, he argues, they are able to move on to the next writer with no recollection of those left behind. The Professor’s goals are at first very clear — to unearth something profound from the Room, worthy of a Nobel Prize. As the trio arrives at the Room, however, his real intentions are revealed: he has brought a bomb and wishes to destroy the Room so that no evil man is able to profit from the immense power.
Diegetic sound is extremely overpowering over every other aspect of the film. A constant drum of footsteps develops a sense of monotony in their journey, exemplifying the persistence each man has to find what he is searching for. Alongside the footsteps is the recurring sound of a train whirring on tracks, both signs of moving forward. The footsteps provide expository information as well, as the sound of each foot hitting the ground changes as the world around the men changes in each new area they encounter. The setting and cinematography make obvious changes as well, as they push through green meadows, icy blue caves, and pale lumps of sand. The opening sequences are shot in sepia, but as they move into the uncharted area, a world of color appears. There is a bright world in this anarchy, the destruction and ruins are filled with silence.
“Passion is the friction between one’s soul and the outside world,” remarks the Stalker to his companions. He is remarkably passive towards the idea of the Room, arguing strength and hardness are more related to death than they are to live. If the purpose of life is to be passionate, why would one wish to achieve such worth so easily? The end of the film is left to the Stalker. What is his purpose, if he has any? Does he wish to use the Room? He returns home to his wife and daughter, who now wish to be taken to the Room. Having seen what it can do to a man, he pushes back, arguing the powers are worthless.
Stalker is streaming on The Criterion Channel for those who sign up as charter subscribers now through Tuesday, February 26th. Our previous Criterion pieces for Chungking Express and Mikey and Nicky.