Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, LCD Soundsystem, and a famous riddle from The Matrix as testament to art’s everlasting effect
It’s what Morpheus offered Neo (then known as mild-mannered Mr. Anderson) by way of a riddle, one that shaped the first Matrix film, and gave me fits when I first watched it. It is sprinkled with a dash of James Murphy’s Saul-to-Paul moment with music, when he was hopped up on E on the fringes of a dance floor and realized that the secret to this corner of the universe—how best to make one’s mark in music—was simply to connect with people in a way that gets them moving.
Imagine the possibilities, if you could only free your mind and commit to a credible path forward.
Then, it’s a hop, skip, and a jump to Andrei Rublev’s masterpiece of a film, Stalker, which is how this idea for juggling a theme seen through the vein of three separate subjects, surfaced. In fact, it arrived as I walked out of a recent viewing of Stalker, coincidentally a couple nights before I attended an LCD Soundsystem concert, one night separating those two events. At some point, as I floated through the reverie they had induced, the Matrix reference shifted into sharp focus.
Stalker is a mind warp to end all mind warps—a fact made more impressive given that its vision of the future is rather muted. Like Alfonso Cuaron in ‘Children of Men’, who was envisioning Britain some twenty years down the line from the mid-aughts, Tarkovsky’s post-apocalyptic vision is grimy and gritty, not a flying car in sight. Mankind just seems to have sort of given up.
Something has happened in this wasteland, however: a Zone of sorts was created, where it is rumored that one’s deepest desires can be realized. The Stalker brings you to this Zone, which is carefully guarded. (Of course.)
In the film, the Stalker brings a Writer and a Professor. In this triangle, he is quickly dismissed as a layman to their more esteemed company. He is no Artist with a capital ‘A’. And more power to him for being this way.
It reminded me of a Beats 1 interview between Lars Ulrich and James Murphy, LCD Soundsystem’s creator, in which Murphy claimed he didn’t so much see himself as an artist than as a technician. This is the beauty of Murphy’s work: an ability to take his myriad gifts—encyclopedic knowledge of music through the ages, incredible ear for melody, bone-shattering sound—and present them in a totally unpretentious manner.
His “poppiest” songs for LCD (I would never, um, describe them that way to his face, but damn does ‘tonite’ get my toes a-tappin’) often enter the refreshingly retrograde vein of what Kevin Barnes, of Of Montreal fame, described when he wrote that “a lot of the 80's hits had these really intricate and interesting longer versions that wouldn’t get played on the radio and could only be heard in the clubs.”
It’s a direct rebuke to the three-minutes-or-less dictums of pop music. Any longer, of course, and it wouldn’t get played on the radio. But just as we’ve found, with the explosion of podcasts and long-form discussions and interviews, there is a hunger among the populace for more nuanced production.
Now this is not a piece aimed at the intellectual elite. Y’know, take them down a peg, rah rah, by somehow claiming they are out of touch, totally removed from the pains of everyday life and thus unable to effectively deliver any kind of judgment, at least in terms of value. There’s enough of that going around, and I want no part of it.
What I am more concerned with is a more specific critique that just so happens to register in contemporary culture through the elites manifested in Stalker through the guise of the Writer and Professor.
Art has been bastardized through the ratings metric that influences attendance. An intellectual would sneer at this; but then, there are the endlessly pedantic meditations that surface upon the same subject. Both are guilty of stifling the potential relationship a citizen might develop with said subject. If the end result is the same, how is one more noble than the other? And yet, this is exactly what we’ve been conditioned to understand.
Prejudice develops, and we are witless about it. Win Butler, lead singer of Arcade Fire, said something to this effect when he noted that, upon the release of Everything Now last summer, the idea that Butler “rapped” the days of the week in the song ‘Signs of Life’ infected every piece written about the album.
Not only was this not true, it was an indication of how ideas—even if wrong, or at the very least misunderstood—metastasize to the point where they become bloated tumors. This, from a bevy of self-styled tastemakers.
So perhaps this piece of mine is best described as a diatribe against the hot take. It seemed fitting that I write this after witnessing LCD Soundsystem a second time, and Stalker…a film that, even after two viewings, I remain totally incapable of offering the faintest hint of synopsis. That is the point. It takes time to come to meaning. But there is no time anymore.
And yet. All I have are memories of feeling rooted to my seat, in that delectable sense of saudade only a good film can instill, during particularly poignant portions. The most recent? Late at night on a Wednesday evening, as Stalker played as the second feature in a double bill that began with Annihilation (a double feature should always show the longer film first!), when the Stalker returns home after leading the Writer and the Professor into that mythic Zone.
That this journey, even when it becomes blatantly metaphysical, pales in importance—at least to my mind—to the subtext Tarkovsky planted within it. One that almost goes unnoticed until the withering, near-pathetic scene on the bed that resounds so loudly in my mind. That we are often guilty of the same lack of belief we might have laughed at in the Writer. We are often just as cynical.
That it serves as a resounding rebuke to the tastemakers of society, and the way they have warped the minds of those a director like Tarkovsky might hope to reach. How can his films ever be truly appreciated when they are cut off at the roots?
The way that the Stalker lies in the bed, curled up like a child after a bad day at school, crying his eyes out as he laments the sheer lack of imagination and daring in the poor souls he brings to the Zone. They have learned nothing. Their minds are closed off to anything other than their own perceived suffering.
The wonders they could uncover if they would simply open their eyes and cast aside the prejudices and formulations life has imposed upon them! That line from the end of Call Me By Your Name ringing forth like a gonging church bell. The way we close ourselves off from the pain of life only to find ourselves emotionally bankrupt by 30.
It was the most wondrous testament to the incalculable value of the director, or to a greater extent anyone who puts forth a worthwhile form of art. The cost that it takes upon them, and the utter indifference or hard-headed response from the public. Anything worthwhile requires a leap of faith, and we are too fearful to take it. It’s Tarkovsky’s greatest message: I will take you to the Zone. From there, it is up to you to comprehend its wonders.
I can only show you the door, Morpheus tells Neo. (See. I got around to The Matrix after all.) Like Neo, we have to walk through it and see the wonders available for ourselves.