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Kino on Video presents
"Weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing."
DVD ReviewAndrei Tarkovsky is often hailed as a genius, and Stalker as a masterpiece—I don't think I'd argue on either score, but experientially the film is radically different from others greeted with those sorts of superlatives, for this is certainly the cinematic masterpiece most likely to induce boredom in a great swatch of its audience. It's deeply demanding to watch, and much of it is spectacularly hypnotic—Tarkovsky functions as his own production designer, and the images are composed with relentless care. But it's set in a spare and alternate universe, and in better than two and a half hours, not much happens—it's almost as if Sartre were asked to write an action picture, an existential shoot-'em-up brimming with more ennui than action.
The story is set in an undefined Kafkaesque future, in which the landscape is bleak and hardly populated, and in which life is merely drudgery at its best moments. The title character, known only as The Stalker, is a post-apocalyptic safari guide or bodyguard—he contracts out to take the motivated to an area known only as The Zone, which is a mystery to those who haven't yet been there, but has to be better than the drearily commonplace. The Stalker's two takers this time out are The Writer and The Scientist, and in the middle of their lives they begin the journey.
The first portion of the film is shot in sepia tones, and its images are bleakly beautiful—when the trio make it to The Zone, the film erupts in riotous Technicolor, a switch as jarring as Dorothy opening the front door and stepping out to meet the Munchkins. Made in the Soviet Union in 1979, the film almost invites us to read it as a parable of sorts of the deprivations of Communism, but certainly confining it to a particular historical moment does it a disservice—still, faced with seemingly post-apocalyptic horrors, the residents of this world drink and drink some more, vodka the necessary anesthetic for the brutality with which they must contend. (It's not a Moscow bread line, but the comparison is clear.) At times it may feel like you've been watching this movie for days and days—but that's not necessarily a bad thing, actually, and you sense that Tarkovsky wants us to savor the images and not worry so much with the propulsion (or lack of same) of his story.
It's so visually inventive that you may wish that Tarkovsky was less overtly symbolic all the time, or at least that one element of his film wouldn't carry a definite article. (The Writer, The Stalker, The Professor, The Zone, and so on.) Similarly, there's very little music, and only occasional bits of ruminative voice-over, which seem classically Russian, almost Dostoevskian in the tendency of characters to muse on the nature of existence and to curse their own fates to the heavens as they make their way through an endless tunnel or dodge gunfire from an unknown, unseen enemy. Yet you've got to respect Tarkovsky's lack of modesty in his symbolic structure—the Stalker actually dons a crown of thorns at one point—and his ability to sustain an audience's attention for this long with relatively few arrows in his quiver. (In that respect, it's a bit reminiscent of Clouzot's The Wages of Fear.) Tarkovsky is revered by filmmakers—the copy on the back of the DVD case refers to his influence on David Lynch and Steven Spielberg, and you could put Steven Soderbergh and Martin Scorsese right behind them—and while this demanding work isn't a crowd pleaser, it's worth the effort for the cumulative sense of exhilaration it brings to those willing to pay the price.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: The color scheme is such an integral part of Tarkovsky's storytelling, and while the sepia sequences look reasonably crisp, overall this transfer is rather a disappointment. The colors frequently look drab and faded; especially problematic are the greens, which should have a lushness that's almost narcotic. There's little evidence of scratching, and many other Kino titles have looked considerably worse, but that's cold comfort, really.
Image Transfer Grade: C+
Audio Transfer Review: The English and French available in 5.1 are for the frequent voice-overs only; the rest of the dialogue plays out in Russian, in a transfer that's got a fair share of buzz, detracting from the overall deliberate aural barrenness of the film's design.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 13 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
Packaging: Amaray Double
The disc also includes filmographies for nine members of the production team, and interviews with three of them. Composer Eduard Artemyev (21m:07s) discusses his collaboration with Tarkovsky not only on this picture, but on Solaris and others. Cinematographer Alexander Knyazhinsky died in 1996, and in this, his last interview (05m:42s), his tone is decidedly elegiac—he talks about himself as the last survivor of the intimate group on the set, and goes over some details of the production. And Rashit Safiullin, who shares production design credit with Tarkovsky, discusses (14m:22s) the tribulations of the filmmaking process—issues with financing, problems with film stock, and a variety of other challenges on an arduous shoot.
On both discs, the menus are offered in both English and French.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsA grand, sustained piece of filmmaking, one which a great number are sure to find flat-out dull. It can be a challenge to watch Stalker, but it's worth the effort, for the experience can be both exhausting and exhilarating, even though, almost inevitably, your mind is sure to wander for at least part of it.
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