From Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, 1979. Photograph: BFI
Among the many tributes that the film critic J Hoberman received after he was fired by the Village Voice last month came one from a former student named Matt Singer. Now a writer and TV host, he compiled a list of the most important things he'd learned from a seminar Hoberman had taught as a side gig at New York University. It contained a good deal of sound advice – "Watch for excess words. If there's a shorter word, use it"; "Vent your spleen. In criticism, it's better to be angry than depressed" – but the most basic and important message was this: "Plot synopses automatically ruin a review."
Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room
by Geoff Dyer
Rightly or wrongly, the synopsis is regarded as one of the lowest forms of writing. Two-thirds of the way into Zona, his characteristically singular book aboutAndrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979), Geoff Dyerdeclares: "There are few things I hate more than when someone, in an attempt to persuade me to see a film, starts summarising it." Doing so has the effect of "destroying any chance of my ever going to see it". It's a surprising assertion – though less so if you're familiar with Dyer's books which, whether they're about jazz, the first world war or DH Lawrence, go out of their way to fuse form and content in arresting fashion – because Zona is one long movie summary, a shot-by-shot rewrite.
With a running time of just over 160 minutesStalker is itself a long movie. Alongside Solaris(1972), it's the Russian film-maker's best-known work, tracking an arduous journey in which a middle-aged man known simply as the Stalker leads the Writer and the Professor through a militarised wasteland into a territory named "the Zone'", at the heart of which lies "the Room" that is said to grant the deepest wishes of anyone who steps inside.
Loosely based on a 1971 novella by the brothersArkady and Boris Strugatsky, it's a science-fiction-tinged story whose apocalyptic setting and general hazards (gunfire, underground tunnels, sodden waterways), to say nothing of its quest motif, prefigured modern-day computer games. So much so that in 2007 a Ukrainian company issued a first-person shooter game entitledS.T.A.L.K.E.R. that was partly inspired by it.
With its cast of shaven-headed men who resemble Gulag inmates, its blasted topographies and its posing of fundamental questions about human happiness, Tarkovsky's film has often been interpreted as an allegory of life under communism. Dyer, who has diligently ploughed through a great deal of the critical commentary Stalker has inspired, not only flags up that particular reading, but draws attention to how it can be seen as a prophetic work that anticipates the zones of exclusion drawn up in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
But Dyer, for all his chafing against the parochialism of what passes for intellectual culture in this country, and even though many of his essays and books are set abroad, has always been an English writer. This expresses itself in the tone of Zona, so that, as much as he portrays the Stalker and his companions as metaphysical pioneers, they also come across as stumbling chumps straight out of the pages of Jerome K Jerome's Three Men In A Boat.
Equally, though there are ample references to Merleau-Ponty, Žižek and Heidegger, these are offset – or complemented – by stray putdowns of Jeremy Clarkson ("The Zone is a place of uncompromised and unblemished value. It is one of the few territories left where the rights to Top Gear have not been sold") and casually entertaining footnotes, one of which quotes Mick Jagger's thoughts about Jean-Luc Godard with whom he'd just finished working onSympathy for the Devil: "He's such a fucking twat."
Some readers may find these riffs and asides more whimsical than enlightening. Some might be wondering too if Dyer's ever-evolving genius for comic writing now leaves him no time or desire to pursue the bruised lyricism that lit up earlier works such as The Colour of Memory (1989) and Paris Trance (1998). What's certainly true is that hardcore cineastes weaned on, say, David Bordwell's cognitive film theory will find Zona a little undercooked. Would Dyer care? If his characterisation in Out of Sheer Rage (1997) of academic criticism as wilfully sterile onanism is anything to go by, I suspect not.
For myself, I think it's rather wonderful that he is writing about Tarkovsky in a manner that is as colloquial as it is learned. Dyer rescues him from the clutches of the arthouse crowd, depedestalises him, draws connections between the ruined landscapes in Stalker and the brambly, abandoned train station at Leckhampton, near which he grew up in the 1960s.
At a time when David Cameron appears to regard The King's Speech as the acme of film-making, and any art that's remotely ambitious is derided as obscurantist or elitist by middle England's cultural gatekeepers, it's especially important to stress that interested film-goers can enjoy works more challenging than The Inbetweeners Movie.
It's equally pleasing to read Dyer speak up for the pleasures of watching films, not in domesticated and tamed form on DVD, but at the cinema. Stalker itself, which is an immersive experience as much as it's a visual spectacle, loses its magnetic force when watched at home. Dyer talks about the "possibility of cinema as semi-permanent pilgrimage site". He also claims "the Zone is cinema."
Beyond the book's bravura formalism and in spite of the suspicion that it could be viewed as a highbrow take on live-blogging, it's Dyer's ability at moments like this to make pilgrims of his readers and to lead them on a journey in search of truths about love and about the nature of happiness that make Zonasuch an exhilarating achievement.
• Sukhdev Sandhu's Night Haunts is published by Verso.