Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room
by Geoff Dyer
Pantheon, February 2012
240 pages / $24 Buy from Amazon
Film is a visual medium. Images tell the story and words are subservient to those moving pictures, but in many of today’s feature films, words cart the story around like a hospital attendant. Dialogue has more feeling than images and cinematography steps aside, less emboldened to take our eyes from the star power or a crucial plot point. Still, they are an everlasting semi-bounty of filmmakers whose images speak their consciousness: Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Stan Brackage, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and certainly Andrei Tarkvosky. To write about Tarkovsky or any other master is a tall task—the visual medium is not a daguerreotype of the sentence, though we use sentences to describe images that affect us. Famed film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has said Chris Marker’s 55-minute film, A Day in the Life of Andre Arsenevich (a medley of Tarkovsky’s images with documentary footage of him shooting his final film The Sacrifice and on his deathbed) “is the single best piece of Tarkovsky criticism I know of.”
Geoff Dyer’s new book Zona (it’s also the Russian title of Tarkovsky’s 1979 picture about three men—the Stalker [the guide], the Writer and the Professor—who journey to the mysterious Zona [Zone—a place cordoned off by the military], to find The Room—a place where all wishes come true) is a work both featureless and frustrating, containing a powerful twenty-page swath—maybe “The Room” of the book—but surrounded by a patented solipsistic voice more reminding of a young blogger’s self-satisfied, mortally reductive voice.
Heavily peppered around the scene by scene recap of the film are Dyer’s digressions. Some relate to Tarkovsky, the production of the film, and both the political and personal in the Russian state at the time and how it gave birth to such artistry. Yet a number of them are soi-distant, including a long riff on the resemblance of Dyer’s wife to George Clooney’s co-star in the Steven Soderberg version of Solaris, Dyer’s experiences with drugs, as well as his wishes to have bought cheap London real estate years ago and have that delicious three-way with two other women he so desperately pined after but never achieved. The latter wishes are germane to a film containing a room where all one’s wishes can come true but I would argue “trying to fathom out what [Dyer’s] deepest desire might be” (172) is better left unsaid—perhaps that is why the Writer and the Professor’s desires are not revealed in the film and why they can’t enter the room when they finally come to the threshold. These particular digressions seem more revealing about how the ego yearns to be gratified but Dyer’s feels quite sated. That he uses type to spell out every writer’s dream, “I should say what it is that I most want from…this book…easy: success,” is surprisingly uncouth. The groveling seems uncalled for, least of all because of his privileged position in arts and letters.
January 14th, 2013 / 12:00 pm
[Guest Post: Greg Gerke]
Ken Sparling is a writer. He works in a library in Toronto. He has written six novels. His latest is Intention, Implication, Wind from Pedlar Press. His first, Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall, published by Knopf in 1996 will be reissued by Mud Luscious Press in August.
You no doubt read Greg Gerke’s deeply critical post about Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. Curtis White has now posted his own much more positive impressions of the film. I’ve tried convincing the two of them to go at it like me and Chris Higgs—I even introduced them during AWP—but they’re being too polite. Chime in in the comments section, demanding blood!
(My own thoughts on Tree are here. I have nothing to say about Anonymous.)
Every Friday at Big Other, I’m posting links to feature-length films that are up at YouTube. And I’m doing it for you!
What is most surprising about the premiere of The Tree of Life and its subsequent box-office failure due to a powerfully negative word of mouth is that if any film was the right film for the right moment (that moment being our living in a time of spiritual, economic, and environmental disasters), it is this wonder of images. The film presents the world as harmonious and cracked (humans are those fractured, nature is another story), yet spatial—intimate in childhood, while thunderingly antiseptic in the present day matrix of skyscrapers and homes equipped with plasma screens. As consumer culture tightens its grip on our souls, here is a piece of craftsmanship so sure of its place apart from imitation art (also known as Oscar bait—Dances with Wolves, et al.), that it happily eschews many drab protocols and the rub-a-dub sentimental stew of traditionally arching storylines and instead, gives us images that aren’t simple, that have to be read, that have to be reflected upon and interpreted, that ask us to share in their beauty rather than be repelled and manipulated by a gratuitous splatter of plot points and snappy, smarmy dialogue where one asshole rips another to bring the audience into the product’s fold, as so many of these products are the brainchild of some starstruck, cash-hoarding producer, or a Hollywood star struck by scandal, needing money to quell attorneys and so gleefully takes a gun or three and blows holes in the bad guys for a few hours more.