Into the Zone

illustration by Tony Stella

The world is tinted golden brown, the color of exhaustion and industrialization.

Three men meet in a worn-down bar. One—Stalker—had risen early, trying not to wake his wife or daughter. The soft tremors of an earthquake, or perhaps a passing train, shook the glass of water beside the bed they all shared. He’d given his sleeping daughter a long look before rising, as though to memorize her face. As he pulled on his jeans and brushed his teeth, his wife pleaded with him not to go. He’d go back to prison, she insisted. Where would that leave her? Where would that leave their daughter? He answered in monosyllables, his mind made up long ago, as were the minds of the other two men.

Stalker insists that they use nicknames. He calls the others by their professions: Writer and Professor. Writer is searching for inspiration. Professor is searching for answers. There’s a Room inside the Zone that will grant seekers their greatest wish. Stalker can take them there, but it won’t be an easy journey.

It’s time to go, says Stalker. Don’t turn back for anything.

*

To talk about Stalker is not to talk about plot, or characters, or narrative. The story is simple enough: Three men travel into a forbidden Zone, where they hope to reach the Room that can grant one’s innermost desires. It’s the most familiar of narratives; the heroes go on a journey. Who they are is not really important. We never learn their real names, only their occupations. Where they’re going and how they get there doesn’t really matter, either. What matters is how they approach their journey. Attitude is everything.

So it is with head trip movies: they resist a clearly defined label, and they resist established aspects of modern movie-making. Most importantly, they approach their subject matter with the intent to challenge the viewer’s attitude.

Head trips are “weird” in part because they warp the conventional tools of film in order to convey a story that is surprising or eye-opening in some way. A film can do this in one of two ways: it can refuse to follow three-point plot structure (Memento, Mother!), or it can twist the fabric of space-time on screen (Inception, Doctor Strange, 2001: A Space Odyssey). However, unconventional storytelling structure or mere spectacle are not enough. A head trip must also play with the viewer’s perceptions of reality. Movies violate three-act structure without being head trips all the time—My Neighbor Totoro, Only Lovers Left Alive, and Paterson all eschew structure for character sketch. Likewise, movies have been larger-than-life spectacles for as long as they’ve been around, but no one thinks of The Thief of Baghdad, Star Wars, or Avatar as being “head trips.” They’re beautiful and ground-breaking movies, but they aren’t particularly mind-blowing.

Head trips must do more than just play with the viewer’s perceptions—they must do so in a way that forces the viewer to think about the world, consciously or unconsciously, in a way they haven’t considered before, and in a way that surprises them. A film that plays with narrative structure is often labeled “experimental,” while a film that plays with physical space in impossible ways is considered a “spectacle.” A film that plays on the viewer’s notion of reality might not necessarily be a head trip, especially if it otherwise adheres to the conventions of movie making. Primer would just be a thriller without the time travel and technobabble. A Scanner Darkly would be a boilerplate paranoia movie without the rotoscoping. Both are made into something more, however, by using unconventional techniques in order to enhance the audience’s perception of the story.

*

Three men ride a rail car past abandoned buildings, past old signs of civilization. The camera zooms in closely on their faces as they watch the country moving past them, but the audience can’t see it—it’s too blurry. Writer looks around for possible pursuers, a nervous look on his face. Professor wears a hat and a closed-off expression. The surroundings don’t matter—only the reactions of the men. Stalker’s face is hidden. He has a heart-shaped patch of white hair on the side of his head. For minutes, the rail car clicks on.

With nothing to herald it, the film switches from sepia tones to lush color; a trip to Oz with no fanfare, no residents to greet travelers, no swelling score.

Three men climb off the train car. Two look about, bewildered by the greens of the hills around them, and by the silence. It’s as baffling as it is sudden. The only change has been the shift from brown to full color, but it’s clear that the men have entered some new world, leaving Writer, Professor, and the audience unsettled. Stalker, suddenly at home, pushes the rail car back in the direction they came. He gives the other two brief instructions—knot these metal nuts with strips of cloth, and don’t go anywhere—then disappears into the woods.

*

We go to see movies because we want to live outside our own skin for a few hours, to be thrilled, to fall in love, to escape. In movies—particularly head trips—we want to experience the extraordinary. If the movie is what we need it to be, we can return to the real world of parking lots and sunshine, disappointed to leave the dark room where we experienced something outside of time, but happy we visited. If the movie is a disappointment, we might be frustrated we made the journey at all.

Writer, Professor, and Stalker embark on a journey, hoping to have their innermost wishes fulfilled, and we do the same thing whenever we go to the movies. But Stalker takes most of our cinematic expectations and turns them on their head—because it’s meant to be as dull as possible.

Three men pick their way down a hill in agonizing fashion. Stalker throws a cloth-knotted nut ahead of him, then sends Writer and Professor after it, always staggered, always in a straight line between stopping place and thrown nut. And in a way, Stalker’s nut is shorthand for the entire film. The story proceeds in a staggered fashion: a leap with every new revelation about the zone, the characters slowly catching up, trying to understand themselves as much as their environment, pausing to argue about their individual goals and dreams, then pushing on.

The men pause at a rusted-out shell of a car, taking their bearings. Then they move on, changing course slightly with every pause and toss of the nut. As they descend, they make their way towards a mass of brown mounds in the valley’s undergrowth.

A beat. A shift in focus.

The mounds are not mounds, but tanks.

*

When we watch a film, we know we’re seeing something that didn’t actually happen. We want to escape, but we don’t want to be reminded of the fact. An editing error, a continuity failure, a special effect that looks a little too plastic: all remind us that what we’re watching isn’t real. A good head trip immerses us so deeply that it can make us question our own reality—but we still don’t want to see the seams. As soon as we realize we’re being duped, we’re disappointed, jolted back to reality.

Stalker’s jolts are not discontinuities. The things that alert us to the fact that we’re watching a movie are purposefully woven into the celluloid. The sudden switch in color from rust to vivid green, the shifts in focus to reveal something new about a frame we’ve already studied for more than a minute, the long takes in general—each plunges us even further into the story. They make us question the reality we’ve seen up to this point. We want to explore more, not less, because the presentation of the story is so strange and so purposeful.

*

Stalker tells his companions that the Zone is a maze, a labyrinth of invisible lethal traps. The presence of humans brings the traps to life, making it impossible to travel anywhere within the Zone directly, and impossible for anyone to return the same way they came. Many never return anyway. 

Where the outside world was brown and dead, the Zone throbs with seeping green life. Running water splashes underfoot and runs down the surfaces of the pillboxes and wreckage that dot the landscape. The damp is palpable. Strange birds call. An animal howls. And still, the only thing that moves is the trio of men.

They shift from structure to structure, rock to rock, stepping painstakingly in each other’s footprints as they circle around the building, looking for a safe way in. Their path suggests a labyrinth, a maze that brings the subject close to the center, then far away, as a spiritual exercise. The ground shifts and glows, as though it’s on fire, as though it’s a beating heart. Water pools outdoors over old tile floors, littered by needles and receipts, hints that this place once supported human life, but might not have sustained it.

The camera bends low over the ground, roving, pausing over submerged artifacts: a religious icon, barbed wire, coins. A gun. Your reaction to their presence depends on your attitude toward them in the first place, but in all cases, they’re unsettling. What place is the Zone for a gun? For religion?

*

There’s a balance between seeing something fantastical and something that completely boggles the mind. To create a successful head trip film is to toe the line between what should be believed and what can be believed. To push the film too far one way or the other risks making it either too ridiculous or too safe. 2001 works because Kubrick is meticulous about establishing the universe and its rules as hyper-real. When Dave crosses over into the Stargate, we believe that he’s in another dimension—because while the old rules don’t apply, we still trust the movie to tell a coherent story. For people who trust Kubrick, the ending works. For others, it’s a hard landing after free fall.

Stalker manages to create its head trip largely through long takes and a handful of simple, practical effects. The result is a movie that looks completely believable—there are no unwieldy CGI effects, no seams between the real world we live in and the one the actors inhabit. At the same time, it’s clear that the Zone is more real, more alive, and more deadly than our own world, even if the two look the same. This effect primarily stems from the sepia tones at the beginning: out there, in the dullness, is the “real world.” In here, in the theater, is vibrant life. The Zone is the movies. We can find escape, and might even be able to find answers to our questions, but it’s a dangerous place. We can’t stay for long—but like Tarkovsky’s camera, we’ll linger for as long as we possibly can.

Stalker is excruciatingly slow. After something happens, the camera continues to roll.  We first wonder why we haven’t moved on to the next thing, then why we’re still focused on a certain frame, why it won’t leave the margins and show us the main actions, why the lens is so focused on minutia. Stalker, unlike most films, is not an escape. We are acutely aware of the fact that we are watching a film at all times: disbelief is suspended, then almost immediately brought back. We are forced to think about the camera, the framing, the lighting, the colors. Sometimes it’s unclear if what’s happening on the screen is a dream or not. 

*

Three men enter a tunnel, and, despite having been agitated in the past, this is the first time we see Stalker truly afraid. He sends Writer in first, then Professor, hiding behind him like a frightened dog. The only sounds are falling water and the crunching of Writer’s feet on the musty floor, for all the world like the rail car from the outside world.

There’s no music. Almost no dialogue. Just the men, and the water, and the tunnel, the anxiety on their faces threatening to tear a hole in the screen. No monsters appear, nothing happens—and yet it’s terrifying. Because anything could happen, and it’s the possibility of something horrible happening that keeps the viewer engaged. Suddenly the long, slow takes that kept us looking for details in the corner has our rapt attention on the center of the frame, the shadowy face and stiff back of the frightened Writer.

Stalker refers to the tunnel as the meat grinder after they’ve left its confines.

Those who are willing to sit back, to let the mood of Stalker wash over them, to recognize and acknowledge their disbelief, and then ask themselves what the movie is asking of them, will be rewarded. The meat grinder is terrifying, because the characters are terrified. The camera’s gaze is intense and persistent, and we must watch along with it, even though we’d prefer it if Tarkovsky would hurry up and get to the point already. The movie creeps along like the moss its characters tread on, and pauses to allow the characters to take a nap, to dream, to recite poetry written by loved ones long dead. When the characters come across a room full of low sand dunes, we no longer question the setting. When two birds fly into the room and one disappears mid-glide, we almost don’t notice it; it’s nearly too sudden for a film of Stalker’s pace.

Stalker tells his companions about his predecessor, Porcupine, who had been a stalker himself. Porcupine had lost a brother. He went to the Room to wish for him back, but had returned to the outside world brotherless…and wildly rich. The room had granted his heart’s deepest desire, but it had not been what he thought he wanted. Porcupine killed himself a week later.

*

Three men reach the threshold of the Room. Pools of water full of empty glass beakers cover most of the floor. Birdsong and light can be heard and seen, although we don’t ever see the source. Stalker is overcome; they have reached their destination, although Stalker himself refuses to enter. He will only point the way for others.

Writer decides he does not want to go in. Suddenly “inspiration” seems like a paltry wish; what if he’s inspired to write drivel, or blasphemy, or to do harm to others? His reasons for entering the Room are not good enough. They’re too shameful.

Professor has not come to enter the room either. He’s come to eliminate the desires from the Room. He produces a bomb.

Stalker is the bomb that is meant to destroy desire. It’s a long, dull, riveting film that treads the middle path from point to point, throwing nuts in the air like breadcrumbs, expecting us to follow along nonchalantly, to not understand the danger of succumbing to a bored trance until after we’ve achieved the enlightenment it offers. Stalker is a movie, but it is not entertainment. Nor is it a simple morality play; it’s impossible to tell what viewers will draw from it until it’s over. The result is a difficult text that must be examined carefully: What do you desire? Is an escape into fantasy truly escape?

Three men sit, back to back, on the threshold of the Room. Professor’s bomb has been thrown into the water, disabled, after a quick scuffle. Professor and his colleagues had decided that a Room that can grant wishes is too dangerous; what if someone wished for the end of the government? Of civilization? The power to dream such dreams is too dangerous, he’d reasoned. Stalker forced him to back down by arguing in favor of hope—hope that he himself will not embrace, as he won’t enter the Room, either. Still, attitude is everything.

Stalker has failed in his task; he brought his clients to the Room, but neither will go in. All three are defeated, and all three are ready to go home. They feel as though they’ve learned something, but they don’t understand what. Rain begins to fall from the ceiling.

*

Here’s a recipe for a true head trip:

Take the longest movie you’ve ever seen. Remake it so it’s duller, quieter. Shoot it in takes of at least a minute each. Change the color palette partway through, then shift back and forth between palettes, seemingly at random. Have your characters speak directly about poetry and spiritual matters and the very nature of existence, but don’t allow them to verbalize the actual point of the story. Give them a goal, and allow them to achieve that goal, but at the last minute, let them refuse to take the final step. Let them return home, perhaps wiser, but not understanding why.

Then give the story a final twist that changes everything.

A solitary girl—the Stalker’s daughter—sits in the kitchen, reading poetry. The rest of the outside world remains its same rusty brown, but she, like the Zone, is surrounded by color. She’s rumored to be crippled as a result of Stalker’s trips to the Zone. Everything the Stalker could have asked for in the Room is right here, in his kitchen, in the shape of his daughter.

She puts the book down, tilts her head, stares at the glasses on the table next to her. The glasses all shift, sliding across the table toward the camera. Without touching them, she pushes each glass, resting her head on the table and watching as the last one falls to the floor. The soft tremors of a passing train, or perhaps an earthquake, rock the kitchen around her.