The other night I finished reading Zona, Geoff Dyer’s book-length liveblog of Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie Stalker, a movie about three men travelling through an isolated wasteland to a room where it is said that their deepest wishes will be granted. One of the most beautiful and moving parts of the book (which is one of the best books I’ve read this year) is this long footnote about halfway through in which Dyer talks about how he “suspects it is rare for anyone to see their–what they consider to be the–greatest film after the age of thirty.”
This is because “usually in your late teens and twenties you start to watch the major works of the medium”; by watching such works, your “capacity for wonder” is being “subtly enlarged and changed,” your perception of the world expanded but–and here’s the rub–“also being permanently limited or defined,” so that, while at some point in your late teens or early twenties you are in a space of “maximum responsiveness and aliveness,” your “ability to respond to the medium…vulnerable and susceptible to being changed and shaped,” as time goes by, begins to diminish, so that while “you can still enjoy Tarantino after Tarkovsky, can see that he is doing something new,” at a certain point “the potential of cinema to expand perception–or at least [your] own potential to appreciate and respond to, to perceive such an expansion” becomes “so vastly reduced as to seem negligible.” He goes on to extend this argument to all the arts; “at a certain point,” he says,
even if you keep up-to-date with new releases, even if you keep broadening your horizons, even if you manage to keep up with the latest things, you realize that these latest things can never be more than that, that they stand almost no chance of being the last word, because you actually heard–or saw or read–your personal last word years ago.
I don’t want to believe this is true and my dad just sent me an email the other day asking for a new way to download music, because the “album name + mediafire” search formula I had taught him didn’t work anymore, but I feel like it kind of is true, already, for me now. Writing is the artistic medium that’s most important to me and I feel like I still sometimes have the enlarging and perception-shaping artistic experiences with works of literature that Dyer describes — such as with his books, most of which are wonderful (start with Out of Sheer Rage) – but I don’t have them as often or as intensely as I did when I was, say, in college, since I just don’t have the patience or time or energy or ability to concentrate I had when I was just a few years younger. I don’t have that kind of openness anymore, but I still have good enough experiences regularly enough to keep believing in this enterprise, to not completely give up.
In the other mediums, though, in visual art and especially in film and music, things are so much more closed off for me, I find. My friend J.K. and I are more into art films and film as a medium than some of the other people in our group of friends, but mostly, we’ve found, that means we were into film at an earlier, more formative stage in our life. Even if somewhat less so than we once would have, we still see new and interesting things–most recently Pina for me, the whole Haneke oeuvre for her — and we talk about the new things to each other, but our discussions always, ultimately, inevitably seem to circle back to Fellini and Godard and Truffaut and Bresson and Bergman and all the other people who were important to us in college, the images burned so deep into our cortexes that on some level it’s impossible to stop seeing them in everything. In the spring of last year, we took a seminar about representations of art history in film where we both saw Tarkovsky for the first time–Andrei Rublev and Solaris–and the experience of his work, for me, was meaningful and important, was life-changing, but the change it made to my life has limits that I don’t think it would have if I experienced it, say, five years ago. The summer after that class ended, flashing back to how in my darkened bedroom the image of a vat of blown out molten metal swelling under a ringing bell near the end of Andrei Rublev had made me feel alive earlier in the spring, I downloaded a torrent of Stalker and tried to watch it; I think I made it through about ten minutes before I shut it off and went back to whatever I was looking at on the Internet (I have no memory).
Dyer notes that though after he saw Stalker for the first time he “was slightly bored and unmoved,” he saw, a few days later, something that reminded him of an image from it, the way that in “autumn…a bird flew over the sloping ground towards a clump of trees,” and, because of that coincidence, felt the intense, visceral need to see it again immediately. In a footnote, he points out that in the early 80s London he lived in then, “that was impossible,” of course; VCRs still weren’t widespread and he had wait until it was showing again at a theater, which was some time later. He discusses that while while “of course it’s fantastically convenient, being able to see Stalker–or at least to refer to it–at home, on DVD, whenever the urge takes one,” it was so much powerful in the past, when “if it was showing somewhere, then seeing it became a priority, an event that gave shape to the surrounding week.” In this way, he says, “the Zone” at the center of the film “retained its specialness, its removal from the everyday (of which it remained, at the same time, a part). Getting there was always a little expedition, a cinematic pilgrimage.”
Dyer doesn’t make much of an explicit connection between the first thing he’s talking about, these invisible walls the slow the growth of our consciousnesses as we mature, and the second thing, the way the constant mass availability of great works of art may have reduced the glow of their auras, but, even though he doesn’t make the connection (he does have this kind of hilariously old-fashioned hatred of TV as a perception-deadening medium, while he makes no similar reference to the Internet), and maybe one shouldn’t, it’s hard for me to not make it.
Like, for example, I have Spotify on my phone, which means I have instant access in any time or place to basically any song I’ve ever heard or would want to hear. It’s great, but I think having it has mostly just reminded me of how small the role of music is in my life today, in comparison to the power it had when I was twenty three (when I was writing and recording new songs every week) or twenty (when I went to shows all the time) or eighteen (when talking about music was central to the formation of a social life) or at its peak late at night when I was fifteen and lying on the floor of the bedroom I had to share with my brother in our cramped temporary apartment (he slept in the walk-in closet so we could at least have the idea of privacy) and dreading having to go to my new school the next morning and instead of thinking about that, listening, through cheap foamy headphones, to the stack of CDs I had bought from a mail order record club, to The Who Sell Out and Live At Leeds and Beggars Banquet and Arthur and Queen’s Greatest Hits and London Calling, just lying in the dark and and not believing how powerful the sounds these people had made could be, these sounds I had only heard about through catalog copy and capsule reviews. It was like drugs were when, after hearing all this music influenced by them, I started doing them a few years later, except by that point, the music, though I listened to a lot more of it and knew a lot more about it, had already lost the magic that it had before; the drugs were just a way to catch up to that, to try to hold onto it for a little bit longer.
Music is still a drug for me now, but in much more banal ways; something I plug into myself so I can run faster (a stimulant), something to relax me as I wash the dishes (an aural cocktail) but not much more than that very often. That doesn’t mean I don’t like it or that I don’t need it (I hear new songs that I “love” almost every day), it just means I don’t care about it very much, that it’s not essential to who I am in a way that the persons I was in the past never could’ve imagined. For the me I was when I was 15, I think Spotify’s library might have been like the Room in Tarkovsky’s movie, the place where the dreams at the center of your heart come true (perfect sound forever), whereas now it’s just a way to be able to hear what I want to hear when I’m carrying some groceries home from the store, when some memory of a ringing chord burbles to the surface of my consciousness.
That all sounds very gloomy and resigned, but this book, Zona, which is in some ways so negative and skeptical about our ability to engage with art in the kind of mystical, spiritual way that Tarkovsky’s work argued for, is also, ultimately, hopeful. The very existence of it, in fact, is an act of hope: hope that an intense, concerted effort to concentrate on something (a book, a song, a film, a painting, an essay) can, even if you are (to whatever degree) old and bitter and sad and closed-off, even if your effort is not more than an act of forced nostalgia, even if it comes from a place of total desperation, somehow, miraculously, if only for a little while, take you back to the room you once lived in, that place where magic could happen, where openness and belief and deep feeling came in response to a work of art as naturally as breath does to air. The book is a kind of talisman for that belief; reading it, you experience, through the record of Dyer’s experience, something of that place for yourself. Go there, please.