Thursday, June 15, 2017

In The Zone: Stalking Hypernormalisation with Tarkovsky



Special guest post by AFS Senior Programming Intern Cameron Timmons:

We at AFS enjoy programming films we’d love for you to see and enjoy, and occasionally those have an important relationship with current events. You have probably noticed some interesting political developments globally and at home where certain circumstances have western democracies now facing critical questions of character. What does this have to do with film? A lot—but here specifically we’re thinking of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film STALKER.

By 1979, years of Soviet government repression had led to clashes with the West which left the Soviets economically and culturally bankrupt. Despite it being plainly apparent their socialist experiment had failed as their country collapsed around them, Soviet leaders insisted things were normal and the people believed them because they knew of no other alternative. The Soviet Union became a world where pageantry and patriotism masked a broken economy and broken dreams. U.C. Berkeley professor Alexei Yurchak termed this unreality ‘hypernormalisation’ in his aptly-titled book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More.

Science fiction authors and brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky described this reality in their 1971 novel Roadside Picnic. The novel considers life following an unexplained extraterrestrial visit unwitnessed by anyone and realized only through the discovery of Zones, places subject to a kind of unreality outside natural laws where nothing is what it seems. A group of people called Stalkers venture into these Zones at great risk.

One of the reasons to venture into cinema is its opportunity of escape, and no other film offers an escape quite like STALKER. Based on a screenplay written by the Strugatsky brothers and adapted from their novel Roadside Picnic, STALKER takes audiences from their own reality into that of the Zone or ‘Zona’. Tarkovsky uses his unique cinematic skillset to examine the nature of physical reality and mental states inside the Zone. The film is an unsettling experience arising from an unsettling time in Russian history.

Western democracies, including the United States, are currently experiencing their own unsettling moment in history. Lately it seems the foundation of our American reality has begun to shift—the laws of politics are suspended, facts have an alternative, and the people have begun to divide themselves based on the reality they experience. STALKER is immediately relevant to our unsettled political reality because it shows us an iteration of reality and asks if we believe it—or if we even want to believe it.

In one section from documentarian Adam Curtis’ 2015 film HYPERNORMALISATION, the unique historical setting of STALKER’s production is explored through a series of archival clips from the period. Though not quite exacting scholarship, Curtis’ film is still a provocative study of the powerful effect politics have on individual lives.

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