Book Review: Zona by Geoff Dyer

Zona ukOne of the most fascinating films I’ve ever seen is Stalker, which I wrote about here, calling it the Great Existentialist Science Fiction Film. Not many people have seen this movie, but Geoff Dyer not only has seen it many times, but has written an entire book about it. Entitled Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), this book is the most fascinating critical approach to a work of art that I’ve ever read.

On the surface, this book is simply a commentary to the film. Dyer says, at one point in the book, that he had “intended breaking this little book into 142 sections […] corresponding to the 142 shots of the film,” but it works better with his beer-in-a-pub approach, discussing the film as it goes on without any formal structure. I had the feeling, reading this book, that Dyer was sitting next to me, riffing on this movie that obsesses him so, and which I, too, have loved since I first saw it 30 years ago.

Zona us Dyer is, at times, very serious, quoting people like Žižek and Wenders, but is also very funny, as he shares his feelings about the movie. Stalker is – to sum up very briefly – the story of one man (the Stalker) leading two others (Professor and Writer) to a Room, where one’s innermost wish may be granted. The Zone was created either after a meteorite struck somewhere in “our small country,” or after an alien visit (which was the case in the original novel, Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky).

Remember that number, 142? That’s the number of shots in the movie. At 156 minutes, that’s more than one minute per shot. Stalker is the movie of slowness, where the journey is far more important than the goal. And the journey through Dyer’s book is so entertaining, it’s nothing like one would expect from a tome discussing a classic art film.

Dyer brings this movie down to earth, if I can use that expression, sharing both his insights after seeing the movie many times, and his own personal experiences, such as doing LSD, wishing he could have a threesome, and traveling in many different countries (including one where he lost his knapsack).

This may sound self-indulgent, but with Dyer’s captivating voice, and his sardonic comments and footnotes, this book is hugely entertaining. You may not appreciate it if you haven’t seen Stalker, but, hey, this is a good chance to see one of the best science fiction films ever made. (And one that really doesn’t have much science fiction in it.)

Learn more about Stalker.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the Great Existentialist Science Fiction Film

It’d been years since I had seen Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s excellent science fiction film, and I watched it last night. For a science fiction movie, Stalker is certainly an oddity. Released in 1979, loosely based on the short novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and directed by Tarkovsky, the masterful Russian director who lived too short a life, it tells the tale of a part of Russia that has been visited by an odd event. It may have been a meteorite that fell, or it may have been an alien visitation. But the event created the Zone, a dangerous area which was cordoned off by the police, and where few could go.

A Stalker – a sort of guide who takes people through the traps in the Zone – meets up with two men who want to visit the Room, a place where wishes come true. One is a Professor, a man of reason, and the other a writer, a man of inspiration. The Stalker is a man of belief. Very little happens in the movie, which lasts more than 2 1/2 hours, except for their trip to the Room, and their discovery of what they want from it.

Stalker is science fiction only in its premise; there are no aliens, no magic, nothing that would be noticed as science fiction. It is a slow movie; very little happens, and some of the shots are several minutes long. It’s a science fiction movie as it would have been written by Samuel Beckett. Yet it’s a brilliant existential examination of the desires of men and women.



At first, the film begins in sepia-toned black-and-white, but once the three characters reach the Zone, the film changes to color. Just as Oz was in color, so was the Zone. The Zone is located outside an industrialized city, and is full of the detritus of modernity. Yet Tarkovsky films these banal, cast-off items with the plastic beauty that he showed in all his films. Some of the shots are breathtakingly haunting, yet there is nothing special in them.

In a prescient shot, near the end of the movie, the Stalker can be seen returning to his home with his wife and daughter, and, across the river, a nuclear power plant is seen. The Zone could be the area surrounding Chernobyl. There is no devastation, simply signs of nature taking over some human artefacts.

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List of Shakespeare Films on the iTunes Store

If you like Shakespeare, you may like to watch the many filmed adaptations of his plays. You may want to buy them, to add to your collection, or you may simply want to rent a movie of a Shakespeare play to watch one evening.

Here is a list of all the Shakespeare adaptations I could find on the iTunes Store. I started making this list for myself, but realized that others might find it useful. The links are to the US iTunes Store; other country stores may or may not have all of these films, and others countries may have films that are not on this list.

I’ve put the names of actors, and, in some cases, directors under each graphic. I’ve also put star ratings next to the ones that I’ve seen, and, in some cases, links to reviews on my website.

All’s Well That Ends Well

Antony and Cleopatra


Charlton Heston, Hildegard Neil, Eric Porter, 1972

As You Like It


★★★★ Brendan Hughes, Naomi Frederick, Laura Rogers, Dominic Rowan, Philip Bird, Jack Laskey, 2010 (Globe Theatre stage production)

The Comedy of Errors

Coriolanus


★★★★ Greard Butler, Ralph Fiennes, Harry Fenn, Jessica Chastain, Vanessa Redgrave, 2012

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Film Review: Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet

220px-Hamlet_1996_poster.jpgBuy from Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes

Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet is not only the longest version (just under four hours, not counting the credits), but also the most sumptuous version of Shakespeare’s great revenge tragedy on film. With exterior shots of Blenheim Palace, in Woodstock, England, and interiors designed to reflect the English baroque style of that massive country house, Branagh’s Hamlet shows the king and prince of Denmark in an opulent, luxurious setting.

This Hamlet pulls out all the stops. Not only is the setting lavish, but the cast is full of recognizable names. In addition to Derek Jacobi as Claudius (Jacobi notably played Hamlet in the BBC’s television version of the play, filmed in 1980), this film features Julie Christie as Gertrude, Kate Winslet as Ophelia, Michael Maloney as Laertes, Richard Briers as Polonius, and Nicholas Farrell as Horatio. The cast also includes such well-known actors as Robin Williams, Gérard Depardieu, Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal, Rufus Sewell, Charlton Heston, Richard Attenborough, Judi Dench, John Gielgud and Ken Dodd.

So, with big names and a big set, does this Hamlet work? First, you need to settle down for the long haul. At just under four hours, this is a long film. There is an intermission (at around 2:38), so if you can’t plan to see the entire film in one sitting, you can split it at that point. Branagh based this film on a conflated version of the Hamlet text. (There is a book version of the Hamlet Screenplay – Amazon.com, Amazon UK – though this has no notes on the text. The best standard version is probably the Arden Shakespeare edition (Amazon.com, Amazon UK.) There are three main texts of Hamlet, the First Quarto of 1603, the Second Quarto of 1604, and the First Folio of 1623. There are a number of differences among the texts, and each one contains some lines that are not in the others. Branagh used all of the texts, rather than editing a specific version.

Branagh plays Hamlet splendidly, using the character’s feigned (or real?) madness as a prop, and leveraging the luxurious sets and excellent actors. While there are some areas where you could call this film bombastic, it never quite goes over the top. Branagh is, at times, very moving (the graveyard scene), and a bit excessive (the play-within-the-play), but the overall impression is that of a character fully in control of his destiny, with no other option but to head toward his tragic end.


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The cast is generally magnificent. Derek Jacobi is brilliant as Claudius, and Julie Christie is excellent as Gertrude, especially in the cabinet scene where she see’s Hamlet’s madness up close. Kate Winslet is sublime as Ophelia, and some of the smaller roles feature fine actors, such as Charlton Heston, Richard Attenborough, Judi Dench, and John Gielgud.

One element that Branagh introduces that is not in the play is flashbacks. He shows Hamlet making love to Ophelia; Claudius killing King Hamlet; Yorick playing with young Hamlet; and a number of flashbacks and flash-presents of Fortinbras, particularly as his army is preparing to storm the castle. This makes the film much more cinematic, though it does alter the story a great deal. When reading the play, or seeing it on stage, it’s clear that Hamlet is in love with Ophelia, but showing sexual relations lifts the veil on any ambiguity about their relationship, which isn’t spelled out in the play. On the other hand, showing Claudius poisoning King Hamlet is simply an illustration of what the reader or spectator knows has happened, and serves as a counterpoint for the dumb show that precedes the play-within-the-play.

Some elements of the play are a bit excessive. Kate Winslet, as Ophelia, seen in a straitjacket and padded room, seems to be a bit too much. Billy Crystal’s New York accent – he’s one of the gravediggers – is out of place. And the final sword fight almost jumps the shark, as Branagh kills Claudius by throwing his sword, then swings from a chandelier.


But none of this detracts much from the overall impression one gets watching this version of Hamlet. This large-scale approach makes the story much bigger, and instead of the king and queen being the rulers of a handful of people (as is the case on stage), we see them in a more realistic environment. There are many ways to direct Hamlet, and this, a Hamlet of extremes, is the best example of one approach. You may prefer others; there are several on film. But if you like Hamlet, you probably won’t be disappointed by this version.