Remarks on Geoff Dyer’s “Zona”
Geoff Dyer asserts that the age at which a young man begins to truly discover literature and film is between the late teens and early twenties. In Zona, his excursion through his personal tastes and education as constellated around Tarkovsky’s Stalker, he describes a journey and life that is rich, rewarding, and completely foreign to me.
My late teens and early-to-mid twenties were a confused mess of broke, uncultured desperation. In many ways, that is how my life still is. Immediately after Secondary School, the movies I watched that entirely transformed my outlook on life were The Matrix (Wachowski, 1999) and Waking Life (Linklater, 2001). It wasn’t so much the spell-binding action of the former that got me: It was the image, near the beginning of the film, of Neo plucking from a shelf, Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, that stuck in my memory. It signified to me that Neo’s apotheosis was born of and firmly rooted in literacy and philosophy. Waking Life confirmed this idea. Waking Life is a movie about big concepts and in many ways it is a philosophical tour de force to both the new initiate and the acolyte. For years I misinterpreted these two movies. I bought into the action movie fairy tale that the only hard work necessary is an imaginative focusing of energies and creative visualisation. I lost my way in self-help, and the occult until eventually I discovered that the idea of a short-cut is flawed. The story of Neo isn’t the one told in The Matrix. It is the one that occurs before The Matrix begins. It is the story of Neo’s self-education over many arduous years. Similarly, Waking Life wasn’t about the power of lucid dreaming but of lucid living (as evidenced by the title) by actively engaging with logic and ideas. I was in my twenty-fourth year when I became - for real lack of a better word - literate.
A late education is better than no education at all. I take comfort in that. Geoff Dyer’s book is engaging instruction for someone like myself who is only now in life getting to know the filmic and literary canon, and with at least a decade of reading, watching, and thinking remaining before I can even begin to feign familiarity.
Of course, the real prize here, as with any book on close-reading, is Dyer’s close reading of Tarkovsky and his work. He does enough I feel to entertain anyone though a good number of the observations are not really insights but trivia or autobiography, minutely footnoted.
He gives his opinions on various films, but often in passing. In particular, I was baffled by his assertion that “La Double Vie de Véronique (1991)” is a terrible film. Was he being genuine? Later in the book he incriminates himself somewhat when he describes one of the last scenes in Stalker:
Stalker’s wife walks towards the wall and then sits down, turns to the camera and takes a cigarette from her packet. A dreadful moment, this, for me. By lighting and smoking a cigarette she turns herself, instantly, into something hideous. That sheepskin coat, we realise now, must stink of cigarettes— and her hair. And it’s not just that: I hate all gestures associated with finding, lighting and smoking a cigarette.
In Véronique the starlet of the film smokes cigarettes several times. She (Irène Jacob) is a young and terrific beauty. Much of the film is spent simply in observing her walk, stare, read, be. The attention is lavish and a man must have a heart of brick to not fall in love with her during the course of the film. I can imagine Dyer experiencing this then, almost two thirds into the movie, watching the horrible spectacle of her - naked in bed, lying on her stomach, a golden dappled light spread over her, her nipples barely visible - lighting a cigarette and smoking it in what is one of the most luxurious close-ups I have ever witnessed. Dyer must have felt suicidal or at least apoplectic.
Véronique also acknowledges Tarkovsky in a set-piece that might well be Tarkovsky’s truest signature. Early in Stalker, Stalker leaves home to go on his odyssey, against his wife’s wishes. Her anguish is palpable as she collapses onto the floor and wails with that grief that all women know and feel with such singular force:
After Stalker leaves, his wife has one of those sexualized fits (nipples prominently erect) of which Tarkovsky seems to have been fond, writhing away on the hard floor in a climax of abandonment. (Cf. the second resurrection of Hari, in Solaris, coming back to life, so to speak, in a see-through shorty nightie after drinking liquid oxygen.)
The penultimate scene in Véronique is of Véronique with her new lover, a writer, and in fact, a stalker, her stalker. They have just made love and she, laughing, asks him what he wants to know about her. She empties her purse before him and she acquaints him with the history of the revealed objects, objects that in turn reveal her history and habits. He fixes on a series of photographs she took while visiting Krakow. He notices a particularly beautiful picture of her. But the picture, while of her, isn’t of her. It is the picture of her doppleganger, now dead, who at the time of the picture was staring into the bus, marvelling at the sight of herself in the bus taking pictures of herself. Véronique collapses and weeps with an inexplicable, all-encompassing grief, as though, the most difficult questions in her life have been answered and she has just realised the terrible loss. She lies on the bed, writhing away in a climax of bereavement. It’s a Tarkovskian sexualised fit. Then, it becomes something else: Her lover caresses her, kisses her, mouthing at her tears. It’s soon clear that he’s inside her, making love to her, trying (as many men before and since have tried and will try until the end of eternity) to calm the hysteria with his penis.
For a purist like Dyer, that scene, in a film of such undeniable beauty, must have driven him insane and prompted him to write that,
Kieslowski’s “The Double Life of Véronique” made straight-ahead porn seem tasteful by comparison.
That, is quite probably, his most dishonest statement in the book. However, we understand his hysteria.
But did you see what I’ve did for a good portion of the review? I’ve turned a review, an ostensibly critical analysis, into an opportunity for autobiography. That seems to be the modern trend after all, but I question its usefulness. Just like Hip-hop’s monstrous and growing appetite lead to it subsuming and consuming every other genre especially those other two important genres of black culture: R&B and Soul, it seems that the confessional has almost completely subsumed critical essay writing so that now every essay is a reflection on the writer’s life through the prism of the piece of literature under discussion. Perhaps this isn’t a new trend but has always been the case. Still, I question the value of this approach. The narcissism of it all is a little overwhelming, and I don’t doubt that it forces everyone into a process of self-mythologising, or simply, myth-making.
Dyer’s book is said to owe a debt, or at least to give a nod, to Barthes’ “S/Z”. I wonder if Barthes’ text is as loose, casual, and often unserious as Dyer’s 1. Names are mentioned, and a few quotes are given but the overall impression is one of lightness, and worryingly, of pandering to popular taste. I wanted (needed) an exposition that took its premise and its subject more seriously than Dyer’s does. I don’t object to having fun but when I ask myself what I’ve learnt from this book, I find that I’ve learnt a bit about Dyer, his various likes and dislikes, his ineffable wit, his obsession with owning a dog in spite of never actually owning one 2, and the two occasions when he might have had a menagé a trois but didn’t. If that’s all then Dyer is not much different than Paul Carr (except that thankfully Dyer is proud of his pedigree and erudition while, lamentably, Carr is content only to scrape the very bottom of the muckiest barrel, as exemplified by Upgrade). I doubt if Dyer’s book has anything to offer to someone already moderately versed in the canon of cinema, literature, philosophy and psychoanalysis.
In conclusion: An enjoyable, fun, light, quick read. But I mustn’t be disingenuous: If the measure of a book is in the extent to which the reader highlights its pages then this book is an important one: I highlighted it a whole lot.
Kieslowski, who I now conclude is Dyer’s nemesis, also has a real fondness for dogs. In Trois Couleurs: Rouge his attentive gaze turns a German Shephered and a Yorkie into incarnations of the divine (or, more moderately, the sublime). Those animals are not in the film merely for the cute-overload. They have personality and purpose, and highlight the old saw that you can tell everything about a person by how he treats his pets. ↩