Tarkovsky's STALKER and death
I watched Andrei Tarkovsky's STALKER last night for the first time. The 1979 Soviet science fiction film was, as promised, a beautiful, ethereal experience. Tarkovsky's use of color - or the lack of it - combined with the film's enigmatic exploration of desire is just as effective in 2020 as it has been throughout the entirety of the film's life as a cult favorite.
People much smarter than me have written about STALKER's visual style and thematic weight - so I'm not going to attempt to do that. Besides, the majority of my fascination with the film last night dealt with a specific element of its production.
The production of STALKER was a notoriously difficult one - with a good chunk of the movie having to be reshot and Tarkovsky cycling through several cinematographers during the filming of the movie. According to legend, though, Tarkovsky's decision to shoot the film near old chemical factories in Tallinn, Estonia would lead directly to the director's death. The toxic chemicals and environments would result in members of the crew experiencing allergic reactions and Tarkovsky succumbing to cancer in his right bronchial tube in 1986. His wife Larisa Tarkovskaya, who also acted as an assistant director on STALKER, would die from the same illness in 1998.
This story reminded me of the death of John Wayne, who passed away from complications involving cancer (he had lung cancer in 1964 and stomach cancer in 1979). Many believe that Wayne's battle with cancer came from his involvement in the 1956 film THE CONQUEROR, in which he played Genghis Khan. The movie was filmed near St. George, Utah, a location that was downwind of the Nevada National Security Site in which the government had been conducting nuclear tests. While Wayne didn't believe the film was the cause of his illness, he was one of ninety-one members of the cast and crew who developed cancer after the production, including Susan Hayward and director Dick Powell. Of the ninety-one people who developed cancer, forty-six of them died of the disease. In addition, many relatives of the actors who were known to have visited the set also began to show signs of cancer in the years that followed the film. More so, numerous American Indian extras who were involved in the film's production developed cancer but were not included in the statistics.
THE CONQUEROR producer Howard Hughes was apparently so guilty over his involvement in the film, he bought every print of the movie and kept it out of circulation until his death, watching the movie endlessly during his last years alive.
In Tarkovsky's STALKER, the characters undertake an expedition into a mysterious alien landscape in search of a room that will grant any person who enters it their heart's desire - their real heart's desire, even if that desire was a deep, buried secret. You could pretend to be an altruist but, when the moment came, the room would detect what selfish need existed at your core and give you that instead.
What was Tarkovsky's heart's desire? Did he want to die making art? Did John Wayne?
How do I want to die?
That’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot - even before I found myself in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. Being an overweight, out-of-shape Hispanic with a family history of Alzheimer’s, diabetes, mental illness and what I’m sure is a host of other fun surprises just waiting to be discovered as I get older, I already have a pretty good idea what my final destination will be: a slow and painful death due to medical complications.
If I had a choice, though, how would I want to bite the big one? I've seen all the FINAL DESTINATION films and I have a pretty good imagination so the list of ways I don't want to die is slightly longer than my list of preferred options. I’d rather not drown in my own vomit. I don't particularly want to have my skull sat upon by an elephant. If given the choice, I'd opt out of being sucked out a dime-sized hole in a spaceship, like in that scene from ALIEN: RESURRECTION.
It’s not that I fear a violent death, though. If I were in charge of all things regarding life and death, I’d actually rather go out in a blaze of glory than shuffle off the mortal coil while asleep on a rocking chair, my cataract-filled eyes flickering their last flicker under heavy lids as I remember a long life spent petting kittens and giving lollypops to grandchildren. Boring! When it comes to my death, I dream big. I want explosions, giant monsters, or carnivorous alien conquistadores involved. In other words, I want Michael Bay to direct my demise. I just want my death to be quick and flashy. And I don’t want to qualify for a Darwin Award!
Even though my exact thoughts about the afterlife are a little sketchy and I’m not sure, when all is said and done, if I’ll have the capacity to be embarrassed by my own death, I don’t want to be afraid to visit the local commissary up in heaven and hear the snickering of angels. I don't want those winged, halo-sporting bastards mocking the fact I was eaten by a bear because I forgot to wipe properly during a camping trip and the scent of my poo-smudged butt attracted a family of hungry grizzlies while I slept. Nope, I want a death my ancestors can be proud of — a legend they can pass down throughout the ages either as a glorious aspiration for their own lives or a whispered cautionary tale about why it doesn’t pay to be so damn heroic all the time. I don’t care. Either one will do.
Despite the near-constant presence of choice in our lives, though, I fear my destiny is ultimately out of control. What will be will be, as the song goes. More so, I fear destiny already has a very distinct plan for me post-death. When it comes right down to it, I’m just not "end of the book" material.
In post-apocalyptic stories such as THE STAND or THE WALKING DEAD, there are two kinds of people. There are the chosen few whose stories drive the book forward. As these rugged protagonists make their way to the end of the tale, they come across the less than fortunate masses whose bodies litter the ditches. These are the second kind of people in the post-apocalypse, the corpses whose job it is to provide an atmosphere for the heroes' quest. They are the carrion couture. I fear that, even after a non-noteworthy death, I’ll just end up just being the tone-setting to another’s glorious adventure.
Whether my corpse is the puffed-up, horribly decayed body that falls out of a car and scares the lone survivor of a plague-ravaged metropolis as he searches a tunnel for supplies or mine is the tomb that an archeologist of note dumps his equipment on while he searches for buried treasure three graves down the way, I’m just destined to be a footnote in somebody else’s story.
I promise this, though; I’ll be the damn finest footnote you’ve ever seen - that's my heart's desire.