Tag Archives: time

Zona: A Book About A Film, About a Journey To A Room ~ Geoff Dyer

Geoff Dyer’s funny, passionate book is written with high praise, with wonder, and with near reverence for the film Stalker, the 1979 classic from  Andrei Tarkovsky. As the title tells it, the film is about a journey to a room and the book is about that film. The room is in a post-apocalyptic zone: Zona. I rented and watched the DVD of Stalker in early November. However the book was only just made available – I should have waited.

There is a very telling epigraph (there are actually two) from Camus: After all, the best way of talking about what you love is to speak of it lightly. Dyer has a serious purpose, but a light touch. Why not have fun while we’re at it? An admirable approach to topics big and small. He is also very funny, and a style like his goes a long way with a book like this. Speaking of his experience watching the film L’Avventura, he writes that it’s the nearest I have ever cone to pure cinematic agony. But he’s not through with the film yet. Speaking of the sense that time drags on in Antonioni’s film at a snail’s pace, he writes that when I finally emerged into the Parisian twilight I was in my early thirties. Dyer speaks of how Tarkovsky treats the dynamic between long takes and the film goers expectation of the sense of time’s passage. There’s a particular tipping point with Tarkovsky takes that becomes an intensity of attention. He calls this Tarkovsky-time. This is contrasted to what Dyer calls moron-time, an incresing phenomena of the 21st Century. Our attention span is disappearing. Our ability to concentrate long enough to actually, say, READ is in danger.

The film opens with a slow tracking shot into a bedroom (the reverse of one of my favorite tracking shots in all of film – ironically in a film by Antonioni, The Passenger). The first words spoken are by the Stalker’s wife: “Why did you take my watch?” Or why did you take/steal/waste my time? Dyer quotes Tarkovsky here:

‘I think that what a person normally goes to the cinema for is time…whether for time wasted, time lost, or time that is yet to be gained.’

The character Stalker is a guide to the zone. He leads people there. When he goes out the door to meet up with some clients, Dyer describes the Stalker as having left his wife in a “sexualized fit” of which (Dyer observes), Tarkovsky is particularly fond. And here Dyer’s great sense of fun emerges once more:

He on the other hand like men before and since, is on his way to the pub.

Stalker meets up with The Professor and the Writer in the pub. The final destination in the Zone is the Room where your wishes are granted, all your dreams can come true. It’s a life changing place. The Writer as it turns out wishes to find “inspiration”. He feels at a dead end, in need of rejuvenation. And here comes Dyer again, inserting himself into the serious explication of cinema and Tarkovsky’s vision. Picking up on the Writer’s needs, Dyer says that

Man, I know how he feels. I could do with a piece of that action myself. I mean, do you think that I would be spending my time summarizing the action of a film almost devoid of action – not frame by frame, perhaps, but certainly take by take – if I was capable of writing anything else? In my way I am going to the Room – following those three to the Room – to save myself.

He pokes fun at himself but at the same time he’s deconstructing Tarkovsky’s film – and in a real way – all film. For all films are journeys of one sort or another.

Stalker is a literal journey that is also a journey into cinematic space and – in tandem – into time.

 We celebrate ‘genre’ film-making: the thriller, the western, the romcom. All of these have their conventions. This makes the movie goer comfortable in selection. We know what to expect, we know what we’re in for. And the conventions are really clichés of that particular form.

There are no clichés in Tarkovsky: no clichés of plot, of character, of framing, no clichés of music to underline the emotional meaning of a scene.

Actually Dyer insists, toward the end of his career, Tarkovsky fell into his own clichés, but they were his and no one elses. Perhaps this is the way of art. As the artist “matures”, does he create his own clichés? His own self-references? His own caricature of himself? And why does this happen. Is he trying to be true to his “voice’? To leave a distinctive body of work?

Dyer again slips into a reverie about time as he wonders about a linear time journey that seems to treat time as an aberration, as a dream state that is both anchored in real time but the real time is both finite and infinite.

We never know when we’re going to die, we learn in “Solaris” [another Tarkovsky film], and because of that we are, at any one moment, immortal.

Dyer speaks for the unique place that cinema has in our arts. He describes a particular landscape that is twisted and devastated. Tarkovsky makes it beautiful. Could any other medium accomplish this? Could literature? Literature can describe the beauty of a landscape and make us see it, But can literature take a devastated landscape and make us see its beauty? A good question. At least we know that in the hands of a great director this can be done to surprising effect.

A word about that landscape. It was in many ways a hearkening back to a “vision of the future”. The barbed wire surrounding the Zone to keeo people in is a metaphor for the Gulag. Yet the overwhelming sense we get when watching Stalker is that this is a vision of the future – of a Chernobyl that was yet to happen (1986), or more currently – a year old, in fact – a vision of the nuclear meltdown in Japan with the exclusion zone that may not be entered, and is surrounded by a perimeter to keep people out.

And then Dyer imparts another bit that certainly is fascinating to ponder. In 2001 a book was published about Chernobyl that contained many photographs of the disaster zone called Zones of Exclusion. The photographs bore a remarkable after-image of the landscape in Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Dyer posits that the photographers sense of aesthetic while assembling the Chernobyl photo-book had been somehow partially informed by the film. Could it be that the film shaped the perceived reality of Chernobyl? Beyond that, aren’t our perceptions, the way we perceive reality really a function of our prior experience, a constantly developing perception?  Art funnels life (reality) through its prism and life (reality) is stealthily changed forever – until its changed forever again by another observation through the arts.

Dyer’s  book is divided into two parts. Part One comes to a close. Part Two starts with: Glad of the break? Of course you are. Then he goes on a wonderful rap about breaks in books (either via chapters or even double space breaks), in concerts and plays. And in films. Stalker is in two parts, and Dyer (of course) breaks his book just where the film broke.

Dyer loves to play the devils advocate. At least briefly. When Writer (as a stand-in for Tarkovsky himself avers that man was put on earth for one purpose: to create works of art, images of the absolute truth.

On the one hand it could be argued, Dyer says, that men were put on earth to swill beer, drop napalm on villages or build extensions to their bungaloes. Funny fellow.

I have not said much about the film itself. Dyer says quite a lot. As alluded to he does go through it scene by scene and uses this linear foraging to do a nonlinear ramble of all kinds of topics like time, the arts (and not just cinema, but the craft of writing as well), the nature of perception,  Kafka’s ‘point of no return’, the connections between myth and religion, even the descendantcy of the index finger and the ascendancy of the thumb (texting), the nature of remembrance and aging*, the difference between belief and faith**, desire and regret***, wisdom****, the nature of beauty and beauty as force*****

*There comes a point in your life when you realize that most of the significant experiences – aside from illness and death – lie in the past.
**Belief clings, but faith lets go.
***Is one’s deepest desire always the same as one’s greatest regret? Dyer’s greates regret is that he’s “never had a three-wa…is that pathetic or is it wisdom? What a character!
****The thing about wisdom is that it rarely reveals itself in appearance; one never knows what it looks like in human form.
*****OMG. All roads don’t lead to Rome. The all lead to Troy!

A most wonderful book. This is an author I will read again.



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Stone Arabia ~ Dana Spiotta

I first came across Dana Spiotta when I read her novel Eat The Document back in 2008 and it made (almost) my top 20 of the year. In it she painted a portrait of an undergriund life on the run, a ’60’s revolutionary. Spiotta also muses about the reality of the myth of starting over, remaking yourself into a new life. Her concerns here are quite different, yet no less astute.

47-year old Denise has a daughter named Ada who was conceived with her then boyfriend, Chris. Since married and divorced, she and Ada live their separate lives, but have a healthy relationship. When Ada advances the idea of making a documentary about her Uncle Nik (Denise’s brother) she’s skeptical that Nik will even cooperate in the project. Nik is an interesting character, a musician and songwriter who has had a long career, running the gamut from pop bands to underground cult status. When he withdrew from the music scene he kept on making music, releasing his own hand made limited edition CD’s. He began to keep chronicles of his career in music, writing elaborate reviews “taken” from fake publications, made-up reviewers, creating an alternate persona that led to a life richer than Nik’s own.

Eventually Ada does make her documentary, but when Nik disappears (a few days after his 50th birthday), the mystery is did he commit suicide or ran off somewhere to start over. The real pull for me in this novel though are Spiotta’s reflections on themes that are amongst those that I look for in my reading. Besides being obsessed with the idea of obsession, Denise is obsessed with memory. She meditates on how memory works (and this is all related to her mother sinking into the early stages of dementia). Denise contemplates on how photos have “destroyed our memories”. We no longer have to remember anymore. We have the pictures of our memories, and so the memories of the cake we may have eaten on our 13th birthday cannot be recalled but the photo of that cake substitutes for a memory. An image of a memory.

Denise has become “easily panicked about how quickly time passes.” We all know how time seems to pass quicker the older we get. She wonders about aging and sees the fact that the passage of time yields the mixed blessing that “the privilege of a long life is you live long enough to see your perfect child also submit to time and aging.” She realizes that the “breaking events” seen on television are more vivid than the events of her own life. We can all recall “where we were” when… (9/11,  the first Moon Landing, the Kennedy Assassination), but the seminal events in our own lives are more difficult to truly recall as viscerally as those secondhand events. And most perceptively, Spiotta points out that memory is for ensuring the distance between things. Memory measures the distance between used to be and now. And more ominously between now and the end. Between now and death. Which brings one to eternity. Spiotta has a humorous side to be sure. Hesitating to post a comment on her daughter’s blog she observes of herself that she can never be “spontaneous and pithy and then have it hang there for all eternity”

These are opposite pulls – eternity and pithy.

Denise tells the memory of her brother, and how he used to wind himself up in a swing set and then twirl himself around until his head was spinning. The swing set, she says, was Nik’s “gateway drug.” Denise’s current boyfriend is Jay who constantly gives her gifts of Thomas Kincaid prints (he’s obsessed), and she’s drawn to obsessives. When she met him and they had their first date, Jay asked her what she did. She replied that she worked

“…as a secretary for Greer Properties. I mean office manager. I mean personal assistant”

Jay is also obsessed with James Mason, and their dates consist of the gift of Kincaide collectables and the films of James Mason. There is a discussion of one in particular, Nicholas Ray’s “Bigger Than Life”. Of course I’ve rented the DVD!

When one of Nik’s oldest friend dies, he writes a fake obituary for his chronicles. This allows Denise to get off a riff on obituaries that is right on.

…I was a regular reader of obituaries. Before I read anything else, I scanned the obituaries. I wasn’t always like this, it was a habit of my morbid middle years. I just found myself drawn to them every day…I first looked for the age of the dead person. If they were under sixty, I looked at the cause of death, usually discretely rendered in the second or third paragraph…Very young people mostly dies in accidents…

She goes on to list a series of ages and cause of death. Yes, I’ve done this. We wonder how people die and why. We compare our age to theirs and say to ourselves…”well, I outlived him (or her).

I’ve read several books that have dementia as a theme or sub-theme, but this one is the best and actually informative without being didactic. Denise includes several anecdotes about her mother. She talks about the differences between aphasia and nominal aphasia, between deja vu and deja vecu.

She talks about reading the fine print on credit card information and

…the first time you actually read  the words printed on these things was to feel the last connection to your childhood die.

One more example of the type of writing and thinking that really appealed to me in reading Spiotta’s novel: Here she talks about her daughter and smoking:

I know this is an awful thing to say about your kid, but she looked good with a cigarette. I thought this, even knowing how my brother fell into long hawking fits every morning. And coughing fits throughout the day. Bronchitis every winter. But when a young person smokes, it is different. It just underlines their excess life [I love the use of excess here]. It looks appealing and reminds you they feel as if they have life to spare. They have such luxury of time that they can flirt with lethal addictions.  They have plenty of time to heal and repair later. A young woman like Ada would eventually discard these things. When you are old, like Nik, when it is a very old habit, smoking looks mostly like a reckless delusion. But for Ada it was an abundance, a kind of fun, a kick off of a shoe, a sip of pink champagne.

I’ve put this one in my top ten for the year (so far). Highly recommended.

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In Free Fall ~ Juli Zeh

The second book from German author Julie Zeh is a heady and philosophical detective thriller, fleshed out with particle theory, quantum physics, and the nature of existence, time, the past and the future. And what part does coincidence play in our daily lives? If this seems like a bit much, it’s not. It’s smart, clever and nicely constructed. And I love the way Ms. Zeh writes. She never overwhelms the reader with physics theory and it never gets in the way of the story arc. Yet the theories are an integral part of the novel.

It’s also the story of two life long close friends, and rivals in their chosen profession. As foils to them, there are two detectives: one nearing the end of his career (Detective Superintendent Schilf) and the detective who he had mentored, Rita Skura. The novel includes two love stories, and possibly a third. All of this seems quite effortless for Ms. Zeh.

The characters are almost always fascinating, even the glimpses we get of minor ones. Sebastian has opted for love, fatherhood and family, and consequently a reduced role in the challenging field of quantum physics. His friend Oskar has kept to the course, and feels that Sebastian has compromised his intellect. Sebastian may admit that Oskar was always the more driven one, and this may have had something to do with his decision to teach (rather than research), write pop-sci magazine pieces, and have a family life. His wife Maike and he are deeply in love. Oskar is in love only with his work, excepting Sebastian.

The chief investigative mover is Schilf (the novel was originally entitled Schilf in German). He has moved on from Friebourg, where he mentored Rita Skura. As a student she was unsure of herself, self-conscious and tentative. Schilf took her aside early on and advised her to follow the opposite of her instincts. Sounds like a George Costanza moment, no? This advice has done well by Rita’s career, who is now recognized as a brilliant, and successful detective, at least on the professional level. Personally, the people she works with either fear or dislike her. Except her one trusted underling, a young detective who admires and has fantasies about Rita. Schilf’s own view of detective work can be summed up with this passage;

The investigator does his work behind a glass wall…Other people’s lives are like his own past to him: he can look at them, but not enter them, and it is always too late to change things.

When a medical scandal breaks out at the hospital in Friebourg which carries political overtones, and Rita is not quick enough to wrap up the investigation, Schilf is recalled from his current position, much to the chagrin of Rita. Schilf’s life has just dramatically changed in two ways. He has fallen in love with Julia, a younger woman, age about 4o years, who is a fascinating portrait: a woman who was a body model for her entire adult life, with the ability to sit perfectly still for hours. She has a serenity that is a perfect fit for Schilf. Instinctively, she has latched on to Schilf and theirs is a union as happy as that of Sebastian and Maike. But Schilf has also just been given a death sentence and has somewhere between 2 weeks and several months to live. I had known nothing about this ‘condition’ when I started reading it. So it came as a shock to my system you see, as I’ve been living with the same disease for 20 months or so now. I’ve included the relevant passage here, in a June 13th ‘Letter to Glio‘.

I’ll give no more of the plot away, but it does involve kidnapping, blackmail, coincidences and misunderstandings, parallel universes (the many worlds theory) and a murder. Some of it is “reaL” and some of it is not. “Real”. There’s the rub.

An early indication of how this will go is the opening part of Chapter 3, which we take for the murder. Soon, we find it is not. It is a dream murder. Or one of many possible murders. One of many possible unfolding of events. One of many – an unlimited amount – possible worlds and futures. Sebastian hides in the shadows, watching the house of his intended victim. As an example of Ms. Zeh’s style, this is wonderfully atmospheric:

…night has fallen, and Sebastian has spent the time since looking at the flickering windows of the apartments next door. At least three living rooms are watching the same film. There was a fire a little while ago, and then a shoot-out. And now the murderer is taking his time explaining to his final victim the meaning of the plot so far. There follows the hectic flicker of hand-to-hand fighting, interrupted by the  colorful flash of an advertisement break. Sebastian thinks he knows who the murderer is…

From the long spells of pale light shining through the windows, Sebastian can tell that the neighbors are now watching the late evening news…

Skipping to the end of this 3-page sequence, Sebastian imagines himself carrying out the murder with a spade from the victims toolshed.

The televisions flicker luridly. Sebastian hears screams, shots, and the anxious whining of American police sirens. The reflections from the screens reach into the garden and move over the front of the house. The flickering takes on a regular rhythm – a blue light circling nearer and nearer. The air smells of freshly cut grass.

There are many such passages that are not really events that occur (as we understand them), but could have occurred in this way. Or did occur in another world (there are many) in Sebastian’s view. These passages also act as a distancing from events. Because of Schilf’s brain tumor, he has spells and becomes disoriented. He carries on an inner dialogue with himself (the observer) which has the effect of a meta-fiction in his head.

‘Betrayal weighs heavy, the detective thought’, the detective thinks.

I found these asides (there are many) quite inventive. When he thinks this to himself, he is thinking about the fact that he has never told his girlfriend that he has a fatal disease. But it’s in the nature of their relationship.

I have not asked her about her past. She doesn’t ask me about my future. And that’s what you call a deal. Sleep and death have this in common: they offer only single rooms. You can’t take anyone with you.

Schilf’s investigation is as much about solving the puzzle of the crime as it is an investigation into philosophical matters. In his investigation, Schilf has several conversations with Sebastian, and finds a person that he  likes, a kindred spirit. Sebastian’s lectures on time and waiting are the basis for these dialogues. We all spend our lives waiting for one thing or another. TIme passes as we wait, so that waiting turns out to be a dialogue with time. In waiting, the present moment never exists. Trying to grasp the connection between past and future is like grasping the foam in the ocean. Between the past and the future, there is no present to intercede. One of my running jokes as a kid was to say (and I don’t know where I got this) is that tomorrow never comes, because when “it” does, it’s today. I thought I was really clever with this mantra!

And finally, we are waiting for death.

Life consists of waiting; waiting is what we call “life.” Waiting is the present. Man’s relationship to time. Waiting sketches the silhouette of God on the wall. Waiting…is the stage of transition that we call our existence.

Part 4 of Chapter 5 is a seven page exploration (which I won’t excerpt here) of materialism as it relates to matter, and consequently time and space – and thus the Many-Worlds Interpretation of the universe. And ultimately the recurring motif of coincidence as represented by branches of a tree seen above the surface of the water that may or may not be connected.

Schilf himself has a wonderful perspective on aging and death. At a certain point we all realize that our bodies are not what they used to be. Sometimes I’ve called this bodies in revolt. The body tires of life before “we” do. Or sometimes (and here I think of my parents – my father nearing 100 and my mother entering her 90’s) the body hangs on past the point where existence hardly seems worth the effort.

Aging is above all a continuing rendezvous with one’s own body, a dialogue with pipes, filters, hinges, and pumps that have been doing their work behind the scenes for years, but now suddenly impinge on the consciousness with their demands for attention.

Zeh can be funny-serious as well. Here she tosses this in, almost as an aside, but funny and relevant:

“ARE YOU STILL THERE? Can you hear me? Damn.”

Smiling, the detective shakes his head and stretches his spine until he hears a crack. Two rows behind him, someone is furiously pressing the keys of a mobile phone. The advent of the mobile has finally given human beings a means of expressing their metaphysical isolation and their deep-seated doubt about the existence of other life-forms. Can you hear me? Are you there? Who could claim with any certainty that the other person was really there and could hear you speaking?

After 50-60 pages or so, I was sure that this would be (to this point) the best book I’d read all year. It faltered slightly –  but only slightly – and I’d not only highly recommend this one, I’ll definitely get her debut novel Eagles and Angels. You’re in for a treat if you read this one.

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