ICFIFC: Stalker (1979)

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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

ICFIFC: Stalker (1979)

The brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky were Soviet-Russian science fiction authors who collaborated on their fiction.

The Strugatsky brothers were born to Natan Strugatsky, an art critic, and his wife, a teacher.  Their early work was influenced by Ivan Yefremov1 and Stanisław Lem2.  Later they went on to develop their own, unique style of science fiction writing that emerged from the period of Soviet rationalism in Soviet literature and evolved into novels interpreted as works of social criticism.

Their best-known novel, Piknik na obochine has been translated into English as Roadside Picnic.  In 1979 Andrei Tarkovsky adapted the novel for the screen under the title of Stalker.

Several other of their fiction works were translated into German, French, English, and Italian but did not receive the same magnitude of critical acclaim granted them by their Russian audiences.  The Strugatsky brothers, however, were and still are popular in many countries, including Poland, Hungary, the former republics of Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Germany, where most of their works were available in both East and West Germany.  Nowadays they are arguably the best-known Russian science fiction writers, with a well-developed fan base.

The Strugatsky brothers were Guests of Honor at Conspiracy '87, the 1987 World Science Fiction Convention, held in Brighton, England.  In 1991, Text Publishers3 brought out the collected works by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.


Roadside Picnic (Russian: Пикник на обочине) is a short science fiction novel written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in 1971.  By 1998, 38 editions of the novel were published in 20 countries.  The novel was first translated to English by Antonina W. Bouis.  The preface to the first American edition of the novel (MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc, New York, 1977) was written by Theodore Sturgeon4.  The film Stalker is loosely based on the novel, with a screenplay written by the Strugatskys.

The novel is set in a post-visitation world where there are now six Zones known on Earth (each zone is approximately five square miles/kilometers in size) which are still full of unexplained phenomena and where strange happenings have briefly occurred, assumed to have been visitations by aliens.  World governments and the UN try to keep tight control over them to prevent leakage of artifacts from the Zones, fearful of unforeseen consequences.  A subculture of stalkers, thieves going into the Zones to get the artifacts, evolves around the Zones.  The novel is set in and around a specific Zone in Harmont, a town in a fictitious Commonwealth country, and follows the main protagonist over an eight-year period.

Introduction

The introduction is a live radio interview with Dr. Pilman who is credited with the discovery that the six Visitation Zones' locations weren't random.  He explains it so: "Imagine that you spin a huge globe and you start firing bullets into it.  The bullet holes would lie on the surface in a smooth curve.  The whole point (is that) all six Visitation Zones are situated on the surface of our planet as though someone had taken six shots at Earth from a pistol located somewhere along the Earth-Deneb line.  Deneb is the alpha star in Cygnus."

Section 1

The story revolves around Redrick "Red" Schuhart, a tough and experienced stalker who regularly enters the Zone illegally at night in search for valuable artifacts for profit.  Trying to clean up his act, he becomes employed as a lab assistant at the International Institute, which studies the Zone.  To help the career of his boss, whom he considers a friend, he goes into the Zone with him on an official expedition to recover a unique artifact (a full "empty"), which leads to his friend's death later on.  This comes as a heavy shock when the news reaches Redrick, heavily drunk in a bar, and he blames himself for his friend's fate.  While at the bar, a police force enters looking for any stalkers about.  Redrick is forced to use an "itcher" to make a hasty getaway.  Red's girlfriend Guta is pregnant and decides to keep the baby no matter what.  It is widely rumored that frequent incursions into the Zone by stalkers carry a high risk of mutations in their children.  They decide to marry.

Section 2

Redrick pulls a fellow stalker named Burbridge the Buzzard out of the Zone after the latter steps into a substance known as "witches' jelly" which slowly turns his legs into rubber.  Amputation must be urgently performed to avoid certain death.  He drops him off at a surgeon, avoiding the patrols.  Later on Redrick is confronted by Burbridge's daughter who gets angry at him for saving her father.

Guta has given birth to a heavily mutated, but happy and intelligent daughter, fully normal save for the short and light full body hair.  They lovingly call her Monkey.  Redrick's dead father comes home from the cemetery, now situated inside the Zone, as copies of other deceased are now slowly returning to their homes too.  As she grows up, Redrick's daughter seems to resemble a monkey more and more, becomes reclusive while barely talking to anyone anymore, screaming strange screams at night together with Redrick's father.

Redrick is arrested, but escapes, and before he is recaptured contacts a mysterious buyer with an offer of a small porcelain container of "witches' jelly" which he'd smuggled out previously.  Redrick asks that the proceeds from the sale be sent to Guta.

Section 3

Red's old friend Richard Noonan (a supply contractor with offices inside The Institute), is revealed as a covert operative of an unnamed, presumably governmental, secret organization working hard to stop the contraband outflow of artifacts from the Zone.  Content he's nearing the successful completion of his multi-year assignment, he is confronted by his boss who reveals to him the flow is stronger than ever, and is tasked with finding who is responsible and how they achieve it.

Redrick is released from jail and makes a secret deal with Burbridge.  Guta is depressed because recent medical examinations of her daughter indicate that she is no longer human.  It is implied that the weekend picnics-for-tourists business set up by Burbridge are a cover for the new generation of stalkers to learn and go into the zone. They jokingly refer to the setup as "Sunday school".

Section 4

Red goes into the Zone one last time in order to reach the wish-granting "Golden Sphere".  He has a map, given to him by Burbridge, whose son joins him on the expedition.  Red knows one of them will have to die in order for the other to reach the sphere, to deactivate a phenomenon known as "meatgrinder", and keeps this a secret from his companion.

After they get to the location surviving many obstacles, the young man rushes towards the sphere shouting out his wishes only to be savagely dispatched by the meatgrinder phenomenon.  Spent and disillusioned, Red looks back on his broken life struggling to find meaning and hope, hoping the Sphere will find something good in his heart - it is the hidden wish that it grants, supposedly - and in the end can't think of anything other than repeating the now dead youngster's words: "HAPPINESS FOR EVERYBODY, FREE, AND LET NO ONE GO AWAY UNSATISFIED (be left out)!".


Stalker (1979)

  • Original Title: Сталкер
  • Genre: Drama – Sci-Fi
  • Directed: Andrei Tarkovsky
  • Produced: Aleksandra Demidova
  • Written:
    • Arkadiy Strugatsky 
    • Boris Strugatsky 
    • Andrei Tarkovsky
  • Starring: Alisa Freyndlikh, Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy, Anatoliy Solonitsyn, Nikolay Grinko, Natalya Abramova, Faime Jurno, E. Kostin, Raymo Rendi, Sergey Yakovlev, Vladimir Zamanskiy
  • Music: Eduard Artemev
  • Cinematography:
    • Aleksandr Knyazhinsky 
    • Georgi Rerberg 
    • Leonid Kalashnikov
  • Editing: Lyudmila Feyginova
  • Studio: Kinostudiya ''Mosfilm''
  • Distributed:
    • Alta Films  
    • Media Transactions  
    • Seagull Films  
    • VEB Progress Film-Vertrieb  
    • Another World Entertainment  
    • Asociace Ceských Filmových Klubu  
    • Contemporary Films  
    • Continental Home Vídeo  
    • Empresa Hispanoamericana de Video  
    • General Video  
    • Kino Video  
    • RUSCICO  
    • Sovexportfilm  
    • trigon-film
  • Rated: NR
  • Release Date:
    • May 1979 (Soviet Union) 
    • 20 October 1982 (USA)
  • Running Time: 163 minutes
  • Country: Soviet Union
  • Language: Russian

Stalker is a 1979 art film5 directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, with a screenplay written by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, loosely based on their novel Roadside Picnic.  It depicts an expedition led by the Stalker to take his two clients to a site known as the Zone, which has the supposed potential to fulfill a person's innermost desires.

The title of the film, which is the same in Russian and English, is derived from the English word to stalk in the long-standing meaning of approaching furtively, much like a hunter.  In the film a stalker is a professional guide to the zone, someone who crosses the border into the forbidden zone with a specific goal.  The meaning of the word 'stalk' was derived from its use by the Strugatsky brothers for their novel Roadside Picnic (1972), as an allusion to Rudyard Kipling's character Stalky from the "Stalky & Co." stories.  Сталки (stálki) was well remembered by the Strugatskys from their childhood, when they read the stories in their Russian translation.  In Roadside Picnic, сталкер was a common nickname for men engaged in the illegal trade of prospecting for and smuggling of alien artifacts from the mysterious and dangerous "Zone".

The Stalker works as a guide who leads people through "the Zone", an area where the normal laws of physics no longer apply – to encounter "the Room", said to grant the wishes of anyone who steps inside.  In his home with his wife and daughter, the Stalker's wife begs him not to go into the Zone but he ignores her pleas.

The Stalker meets "the Writer" and "the Professor", his next clients for a trip into the Zone, in a rundown bar.  The three of them evade a military blockade that guards the Zone, attracting gunfire from the guards as they go, and then ride into the heart of the Zone on a railway work car.

The Stalker tells his clients they must do exactly as he says to survive the dangers that lie ahead, which are invisible.  The Stalker tests for "traps" by throwing metal nuts tied to strips of cloth ahead of them. The Writer is skeptical that there is any real danger, whilst the Professor generally follows the Stalker's advice.

As they travel the three men discuss their reasons for wanting to visit the Room.  The Writer expresses concern that he is losing his inspiration while the Professor's desires are not certain though he reluctantly agrees to countless pleas of the writer that he hopes to win a Nobel prize.  The Stalker insists that he has no motive beyond aiding the desperate.  At times he refers to a previous Stalker named Porcupine who led his brother to his death in the Zone, visited the Room, gained a lot of money, and then hanged himself.  It appears the Room fulfills all of the wishes of the visitor, the problem being that these might not be consciously expressed wishes, but the true unconscious ones.  When the Writer later confronts the Stalker about his knowledge of the Zone and the Room he replies that it all comes from Porcupine.

After traveling through subterranean tunnels the three men reach their destination, which lies inside a decayed industrial building.  In a small antechamber a phone begins to ring.  The Writer answers and speaks into the phone, stating that "this is not the clinic", before hanging up.  The surprised Professor decides to use the phone to ring a colleague.  In the ensuing conversation he reveals his true intention.  He has brought a nuclear weapon with him and intends to destroy the Room for fear it might be used by evil men.  The three fight verbally and physically in a larger antechamber just outside their goal.  As they recover from their exertions Writer has a timely revelation about the room's true nature.  He explains that despite the man's conscious motives, the room fulfilled Porcupine's secret desire for wealth instead of bringing back his brother from death, and that Porcupine's suicide was inspired by the resulting guilt.  He further reasons that the Room is useless to the ambitious and is only dangerous to those who seek it.  With his earlier fears thus assuaged the Professor gives up on his plan.  Instead he disassembles his bomb and scatters its pieces.  The men sit before the doorway and never enter.  Rain begins to fall into the Room through its ruined ceiling, then gradually fades away.

The Stalker, the Writer, and the Professor are shown to be back in the bar and are met by the Stalker's wife and daughter.  A black dog that followed the three men through the Zone is now in the bar with them.  When his wife asks where he got it the Stalker declares it became attached to him and he could not leave it behind.  As the Stalker departs the bar with his family and dog we see that his daughter, nicknamed "Monkey", is crippled and cannot walk unaided.

Later, when the Stalker's wife tells him she would like to visit the Room, he expresses doubts about the Zone; claiming that he fears her dreams will not be fulfilled.  As the Stalker sleeps his wife contemplates their relationship in a monologue delivered directly to the camera.  She declares she knew full well life with him would be hard, that he would be unreliable and their children could be deformed, but concludes she is better off with him despite their many griefs.  Monkey sits alone in the kitchen.  She recites a love poem by Fyodor Tyutchev6 and lays her head on the table.  She then appears to psychokinetically push three drinking glasses across it, one after the other, with the last one – the only one which was empty – falling to the floor.  It does not break.  A train passes by causing the entire apartment to shake, just as it did in the film's opening scene.

Hope you like Russian, because we are elbow deep in it tonight!

 

Notes:

1.  Ivan Antonovich Yefremov (April 22, 1908 – October 5, 1972), last sometimes spelled Efremov, was a Soviet paleontologist, science fiction author and social thinker.  He originated taphonomy, the study of fossilization patterns.  A minor planet 2269 Efremiana discovered in 1976 by Soviet astronomer Nikolai Stepanovich Chernykh is named after him.

 

2.  Stanisław Lem (12 September 1921 – 27 March 2006) was a Polish writer of science fiction, philosophy and satire. His books have been translated into 41 languages and have sold over 27 million copies.  He is known as the author of the 1961 novel Solaris, which has been made into a feature film three times.  In 1976 Theodore Sturgeon wrote that Lem was the most widely read science-fiction writer in the world.  In 1996, he received the prestigious Polish award, the Order of the White Eagle.

3.  Text Publishers is one of the main Russian independent publishing houses.  Founded by a group of Russian science-fiction writers in 1988 as a small independent publishing company, they gradually developed into an important publisher of fiction that brings out about sixty books per year.  At the very beginning of their existence as an independent publishing, they focused on Russian and translated science fiction.  In 1991, they published collected works by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky and by the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem.

4.  Theodore Sturgeon (February 26, 1918 – May 8, 1985) was an American science fiction and horror writer and critic. The Internet Speculative Fiction Database credits him with about 400 reviews and more than 200 stories.  Sturgeon's most famous work may be the science fiction story More Than Human (1953), an expansion of "Baby Is Three" (1952).  More Than Human won the 1954 International Fantasy Award (for SF and fantasy) as the year's best novel and the Science Fiction Writers of America ranked "Baby is Three" number five among the "Greatest Science Fiction Novellas of All Time" to 1964.  (Ranked by votes for all of their pre-1965 novellas, Sturgeon was second among authors behind Robert Heinlein.)  The Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame inducted Sturgeon in 2000, its fifth class of two deceased and two living writers.

5.  An art film is typically a serious, independent film aimed at a niche market rather than a mass market audience.  An art film is "intended to be a serious artistic work, often experimental and not designed for mass appeal"; they are "made primarily for aesthetic reasons rather than commercial profit", and they contain "unconventional or highly symbolic content".

6.  Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev (December 5 1803 – July 27 1873) is generally considered the last of three great Romantic poets of Russia, following Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov.

 

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