In the best of films, time is forgotten; scenes melt across imagined time, jumping through days or cutting across millennia, taking with them our sense of real-time, until a cough or the rustling of popcorn, or a key in the door wrenches us back out again into minute-time, mundane-time. It is the bending of cinema-time that Geoff Dyer’s new book, Zona: A Film About A Book About A Journey To A Room interrogates, in a manner and tone that subtly shifts from ‘serious’ film writing – revealing the astonishing breadth of Dyer’s references – to playful, anecdotal conversation. It’s an accessible mixture of learned intellectualism and colloquial chatter.
Dyer’s book is a shot-by-shot rewrite of Andrei Tarkovsky’s enigmatic classic Stalker (1979). It’s an admittance of obsession; a literary and literal stalking of Stalker, scene by scene. It becomes clear that such is the power that Stalker has had on Dyer’s life that the dimensions between Tarkovsky-time and Dyer-time have been twisted: writing about Professor’s desperation to retrieve his bag, left somewhere deep in the Zone, Dyer laments the loss of his own bag (a Freitag, if you were curious) thus through anecdote cinema and life become – in the author’s Zona universe – inextricably linked. Dyer remembers that as a young boy watching movies, quicksand was the epitome of cinematic drama: perhaps, then, he suggests, “quicksand was film”. We are sucked, submerged into Dyer’s rendition of Tarkvosky-time, and it’s an excitingly obsessive place to be.
Dyer’s writing also gives time and breathing space to the paradoxes of Tarkovsky’s film. He writes about its simultaneously animate yet unmoving nature: the camera movement gives a sense that the image is breathing, while the increasingly sodden, submarine stillness of the Stalker’s journey into the Zone seems as if Tarkovsky’s images are embalmed, tanked; existing within their own time.
Most interesting in his book about a film is Dyer’s melding of the book into a kind of film itself; he fuses form and content, so that the act of reading takes on an obliquely cinematic structure. He writes that Zona was initially written in 142 sections ‘corresponding to the 142 shots of the film’. But, he realized as he watched and re-watched the film, that he “kept losing track of where one shot ended and another began. This forgetting, not noticing is an authentic and integral part of watching any film”, and so his book is an account of “watchings, rememberings, misrememberings, and forgettings…”.
This form, of jumping forwards or backwards, forgetting where you were, carried along by the narrative, aesthetic and cinematic force becomes the form of Dyer’s own writing. Paragraphs often end with an asterisk, coaxing your eyes to the bottom of the page whereupon pages of footnotes carry you forward a few strides, only to then stop, forcing you to turn back to where you were 5 minutes ago, trying to resituate yourself back into the flow of the writing, from which you’ve been wrenched by Dyer’s thoughts or research. In this sense, Dyer takes this forgetful format of cinema itself and applies it to reading, revealing a formal symmetry between the essayistic, the cinematic and the critical.
For any die-hard fans of Tarkovsky, this book might be a provocation. But for those interested in film, and bored by the dryness of ‘film theory’, Dyer’s book offers something new, rude, thoughtful; soaking the reader with anecdotes, observations and criticism until at the end you feel like you too have become a stalker, but a rubbish one, messily stealing through Dyer’s mind, intoxicated by Tarkovsky-time.
Geoff Dyer’s ‘Zona’ is out now. Contributor Basia Lewandowska Cummings can be followed on Twitter @mishearance.