June 2012

Lightsey Darst

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A Curious Absence: Geoff Dyer's Zona

Reviews of Geoff Dyer's Zona follow a basic pattern. First, the critic spends some time mulling or mauling over the book's form (a critic's account of Tarkovsky's film Stalker, at times unraveling into memoir). Then, if the critic is also a film critic, he or she -- he, really; in my informal survey, nine of ten critics writing on Zona were male (hang onto this: it'll matter later) -- notes some omission in Dyer's Tarkovskyiana that renders Zona Not a Work of Serious Film Criticism (damn!). If the critic is not a film critic, and sometimes even if he is, he'll say something about how unwatchable Stalker is (though it's really not, unless the Bourne franchise has permanently warped your attention span). Then the critic will say either how nice it is to spend time in Dyer's witty company, or how it used to be nice to spend time in Dyer's company, but now he seems to be souring with age.

Far be it from me to break with tradition; I will also begin with an omission in Dyer's view of Stalker. But mine has nothing to do with cinema. Rather, I am concerned with the importance of a diverse imagination.

Here is what I notice:

In Stalker, three men journey into a mysterious and secret zone overgrown with lush vegetation. No one outside knows what the Zone is, or what goes on there when no one is inside it. Booby-trapped, capricious, the Zone has its own rules; it cannot be directly penetrated. After much damp misdirection, our heroes find themselves approaching, through a dark tunnel known as "The Meat Grinder," the Room at the heart of the Zone -- a Room which, it's said, grants the deepest wish of whoever enters...

In short, I'm compelled to a Freudian interpretation. Dyer doesn't mention this; in a book that reproduces most of the film's dialogue, he actually omits the one line in which Tarkovsky perhaps pokes fun at himself, when the Stalker has wandered off to commune, face-down, with his beloved Zone. One of the other characters wryly comments, "A date with the Zone." Instead, Dyer characterizes this whole episode as the Stalker taking "a walk." This may be just me, but when I go for a walk, I don't usually hump the grass.

A friend objects that Dyer probably left out this Freudian view because it's reductive. Perhaps it is, but given its obviousness, shouldn't we at least wave at this reading as we sail by to something more fruitful? Give the cunt the credit. Anyway, if this explanation is reductive, whose fault is that? Works of art will continue to unzip embarrassingly along these lines until critics call them to account -- until we begin to demand, as it were, a more complex cuntery.

I wouldn't bother mentioning this, though, if it weren't for a more serious lack in Zona: in a book that's dense with references to artists, critics, and scholars, Dyer hardly mentions any women. Film is, to be sure, a very male genre, but Dyer ranges all over -- visual artists, writers, theorists, Billy Collins, Baudrillard, Cormac McCarthy, Michael Haneke, T. S. Eliot, Anthony Hecht, W. H. Auden, Lars von Trier, J. M. Coetzee, Slavoj Žižek, Rilke, Kafka, Sugimoto, Milan Kundera, Wordsworth, Tolstoy... I had a nagging impression of this absence, but I didn't realize how bad it was until I went through the book looking for women, upon which I felt as many women have upon seeing the VIDA pie charts -- brainwashed: here I've been reading magazines that are sixty or seventy percent male and taking them for equal! Let's take a tour of the book, then; it'll be instructive.

Dyer mentions the Stalker's writhing wife in passing; then he spends some time on the resemblance between Natascha McElhone and his wife; then, on page fifty-one, we encounter a character in another film watching girl-on-girl porn in which "we've got a silicone-breasted woman sucking the enormous tits of a Page Three model." Now this is funny and no one would think Dyer means any disrespect to tits or to women in general, but what's the upshot? We're almost a quarter of the way through the book and women have turned up only as appearances, twice in reference to their nipples. Seventeen pages later, the next woman turns up: Charlotte Gainsbourg, "gorgeous to look at but, in this instance, hopeless as an actress." Then there's a simile: the Stalker is "reading the landscape... like an old woman divining a future only she can see in the pattern of tea leaves in a cup."

A few pages later we at last encounter a female artist, Tracey Emin. But the context -- well, see for yourself:

One thing Writer [one of the characters] does know is that men were put on earth to create works of art.... One thinks of paintings of bison in the Lascaux caves. Van Eyck. Raphael. Van Gogh. Pollock... But you can't stop the clock... the fact that the history of art includes the likes of Tracey Emin and Jeff Koons undermines Writer's claim...

As I jotted this down, I couldn't help feeling that it wasn't fair, what I was doing -- but why on earth not? I'm merely noting what's there, or rather what's not. In the second half of the book, things get marginally better: Bjork shows up, as do Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, and Charlotte Rampling, and then Nadezhda Mandelstam. Still, overall Dyer gives us reference after reference to the great works of men; women remain present mostly as images.

I think I know what Dyer would say to defend himself: "I suspect it is rare for anyone to see their -- what they consider to be the -- greatest film after the age of thirty. After forty it's extremely unlikely. After fifty, impossible." Thus, "you can see that Harmony Korine is doing something new with Gummo, or Andrea Arnold with Fish Tank," but you cannot really feel it (and this is, by the way, one of the very few approving references to a female artist [Arnold, I mean; Korine is a man]). This recent work by a woman passes by as ephemera, because "even if you keep up-to-date... you actually heard -- or saw or read -- your personal last word years earlier."

Dyer is fifty-four, so he is well beyond the age of new experiences, and thus doomed to repeat the sexist world of his upbringing, a world he did not make. If true, this is very sad. But I suspect it is convenient rather than true. I'm past thirty myself and I haven't noticed any slowdown; the world goes on making indelible marks in me.

Besides, something else is at work here. It's not just that Dyer doesn't reference women anywhere near as often as men; he also persistently forgets his female readers. "We are one of them," he murmurs, speaking of the three male protagonists. "They're our representatives, these three middle-aged men." Well no, actually, they are not. I accept them as focal points, but there's a distinct limit to my ability to identify with them -- a limit that has a lot to do with my awareness of how they would see me, what they would see when they looked at me (nipples, no doubt). In this regard it's especially galling that Dyer says he has "no intention" of seeing The Wizard of Oz (and I find it significant that the one female critic I read was the only critic to object to this). It's hard not to feel what Dyer surely does not mean: that he is rejecting the female focal point.

The more I look into Dyer's Zona, the stronger another identification grows for me: identification with the Zone itself. I am, it seems, unknown.

But why do I write all this? It's not that I think Dyer is a conscious sexist; I've read his work before without that thought arising. Perhaps I write as a general caution: VIDA-count your imagination! (And it goes without saying -- no, it doesn't, so I'll say it -- that we should mind other kinds of diversity in our minds as well.) Or perhaps I write this as a note to Dyer himself: Dear Mr. Dyer, I do enjoy your work, but I know how I could enjoy it more.

Because I do enjoy it. There's been a lot of ink spilled on the form of Zona, but I think this description suffices: for the most part, Zona is a "really accurate, sharp, loving description." Does this sound familiar? It's Susan Sontag, from "Against Interpretation." As criticism that pays attention to form:

Equally valuable would be acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art. This seems even harder to do than formal analysis. These are essays which reveal the sinuous surface of art without mucking about in it.

Dyer does this -- and in so doing, he justifies the critic's vocation. Here he is describing the end of the film:

Monkey, in profile and in colour, still wearing that autumnal gold-brown headscarf, reading. Reading in the way people used to read, before there were so many books that they became a bit of a nuisance and a burden, before there was even an inkling of the Kindle. Smoke is drifting. Nice-looking smoke, incense. Floating blossom. The loud cheep and chirrup of birds: Zone sounds, Zone blossom. But also the railroad and dockside moan of horns -- sounds that were nowhere to be heard in the Zone, the quietest place on earth. We are on the brink, here, of one of the all-redeeming moments of any art form. It can't be isolated from what has gone before, it gathers into itself the whole film. But by "all-redeeming" I don't just mean in the context of this film. It redeems, makes up for, every pointless bit of gore, every wasted special effect, all the stupidity in every film made before or since. Oh well, you think, none of that matters, all of that is worth it, for this.

Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room by Geoff Dyer
Pantheon
ISBN: 978-0307377388
240 pages