In the Zone
I think people somehow got the idea that everything on screen should be immediately understandable. In my opinion events of our everyday lives are much more mysterious than those we can witness on screen. If we attempted to recall all events, step by step, that took place during just one day of our life and then showed them on screen, the result would be hundred times more mysterious than my film —Andrei Tarkovsky
Covid-19, in what felt like over night, altered our realities. I taught a class on Wednesday and by the evening realized it was the last time we’d meet together in person. All of us, around the world, have retreated to our homes, quarantining ourselves in hopes of flattening the curve and stopping the spread of a virus that feels all consuming. Things that once felt ordinary — going to the movies, eating out, stopping in the corner bodega — now feel strange, memories of some other time.
I’m fortunate in a way I know not everyone is; I am healthy and I am safe. My family is healthy. We’re getting through this together. This quarantine has crystalized something about myself I always knew to be true. I’m fine stuck inside. I’ve always been an introvert. I spent my free time alone in my bedroom. I don’t get cabin fever. I already worked from home aside from teaching, so the biggest difference I feel is that my family is here next to me.
Conversely, where things do feel weird for me is when I go outside — on afternoon walks, on quick runs to the grocery store, running to the laundromat. The streets on my Brooklyn neighborhood, usually bustling with activity, are eerily quiet. The park nearby, empty, save for the few dog walkers scattered around. The sounds I hear most now are ambulances We’re all in masks. It’s not the isolation that bothers me, but the outdoors.
The films of the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky are sometimes considered among the best ever made. Catch me in the right mood and I wouldn’t dare disagree. I’ve always returned to Tarkovsky, not for his stories, but for his images, his feeling. The seven films he made are long — three, four hours. He revels in silence, in isolation, favors the slow pan to the quick montage. Also a photographer, his interest in landscapes translate beautifully to the screen, as he pans slowly over empty landscapes, desolate industrialization, and stark interiors. I come to Tarkovsky when I want to slow down. His films are meditations and I enjoyed leaning into his spirituality.
But after a recent walk around the empty neighborhood, my mind wandered, once again to Stalker, perhaps the most famous of Tarkovsky’s. It was never one of my favorites, but it suddenly felt strangely relevant. Set in the near future, Stalker follows an expedition into a quarantined site known simply as ‘the zone’. In the zone exists, apparently, a room that grants the wishes of whoever enters. (Upon rereading that description just now, it feels clunky and simple. Stalker is hard to describe.)
It’s tempting to call the images in Stalker post-apocalyptic but that’s not quite right. Somehow, the film never feels dark. The absence of people leaves room for mystery and for reflection, meditation and mood. My afternoon walks around the neighborhood feel like the scenes in Stalker. We’re all quarantined now. We’re all in the Zone.
“I pray to Tarkovsky, Marker, Hitchcock,” writes Teju Cole in the middle of his 2017 book, Blind Spot, and indeed, that book feels like an experimental film, mixing Cole’s writing with photographs he’s taken around the world. Cole’s photography is quiet, shot mostly on Portra 400 film which give them a lower-contrast, almost desaturated palette. He favors the in-betweens. All of his preoccupations are evident in his new book of photographs, Fernweh, which was published last month by MACK. My copy arrived a week into the quarantine and, like Tarkovsky, felt like it spoke to the current moment.
The photographs in Fernweh were made in Switzerland, over a series of visits Cole made over the last five years. Humans rarely appear, but the human influence is everywhere. An image of the Swiss Alps is interrupted by a railing, an expansive landscape divided by a street sign. In the text at the end, Cole writes of an observation from a friend:
The people are mostly figures at a distance, figures even more than bodies. But the absence of people is what makes the book feel timely. I keep thinking about the world made by us and without us. It’s not obviously an apocalyptic book or a book of ruins. It’s not nostalgic. And yet I can’t help but feel the intimation of—not ruin—but a kind of disappearance. Not tragic, just so.
This is the feeling in Stalker and it’s the feeling of walking around my neighborhood these days.
In a letter to his graduate writing students, George Saunders wrote:
I guess what I’m trying to say is that the world is like a sleeping tiger and we tend to live our lives there on its back. (We’re much smaller than the tiger, obviously. We’re like Barbies and Kens on the back of a tiger.) And now and then that tiger wakes up. And that is terrifying. Sometimes it wakes up and someone we love dies. Or someone breaks our heart. Or there’s a pandemic. But this is far from the first time that tiger has come awake. He/she has been doing it since the beginning of time and will never stop doing it. And always there have been writers to observe it and (later) make some sort of sense of it, or at least bear witness to it. It’s good for the world for a writer to bear witness, and it’s good for the writer, too. Especially if she can bear witness with love and humor and, despite it all, some fondness for the world, just as it is manifesting, warts and all.
This is also in the recent writing of Jessica Helfand and Dan Hill. They prompt me take stock, to reflect, to notice these feelings. Cole’s work, like Tarkovsky’s, forces me to slow down. These are not works made in response to quarantine but they surely speak to the quarantine.
As a designer, it’s tempting to look for answers, to solutions, to problems that need solving. Ugh. I’m not interested in that right now. That’s not, I think, what we’re actually supposed to do. There are no answers right now. Perhaps we’re just supposed to notice, to see, to affirm. This is the type of art I want to spend time with right now and it’s the type of art we need, maybe now more than ever