Monday, August 16, 2010

Funny, sad, cruel, crystalline and puzzling.

Someone I just met has been entertaining me with tales of debauchery which made me think of Charles Bukowski's short stories, Factotum (Bent Hamer's film), Scandinavian cinema and my own aesthetic, preoccupations and obsessions.  As I read about his shenanigans, I imagined him caught up in absurd Aki Kaurimaki or Jens Lien scenarios; not because that's the way he painted it, but because that's the way I saw it. 

I identify with Nordic filmmakers and I'm influenced by their obsession with misery.  I don't see life as a drama so I can't write straight dramas.  (I've tried.)  I see life as a deadpan, black, absurd comedy and that filter transforms my experiences, which are then manifested into my work.  Kierkegaard defined the absurd as"to act by virtue of the absurd, is to act upon faith" (Søren Kierkegaard, Journals, 1849).  So, I guess, in creating my narratives, I'm not only constructing characters that do not act rationally (though they do not have to be irrational), but I have to impose an overarching vision of the piece driven by instinct, rather than rationality.

The search for truth never ceases to be the driving force of my narratives, and I guess you could say I am concerned with the disavowal of continuity, verbal and visual, and doing away with our received perception of language and vision.  That to me is ultimately the background for a metaphysical search for the essence of things.  However, I would like my instinctual search for humanity to remain only a poignant afterthought that highlights the tragedy of not being able to cry at laughter or laugh at sobbing.

My problem is that there isn't much of a market in mainstream U.S.A. for comedies with bitter aftertastes and I constantly have to weigh what I'm told I should write vis a vis want I to write.  The screenplays I write for myself would never sell.  At the moment I'm developing two projects as my potential  first feature.  One takes Roman Polanski's one location, atmospheric horror classic Repulsion as model and the second, Roy Andersson's You, the Living.  I will write about Repulsion at a later date, but I discuss You, the Living below.

You, the Living is set in Stockholm; the society, artistic language and people displayed are generally unmistakably Nordic. Yet its subject, humankind's misery in a selfish world, reaches far beyond its setting and is universally applicable. Despite the seriousness of its theme, the film itself is a lot more cheerful and laden with humor than one might expect. This film is a tragic comedy or a comic tragedy, depending on your sensitivities, and not a depressing, black reality tour of human nature. Andersson fully understands that living is so complicated to most of us that the only thing that saves us is our sense of humor.

You, the Living is composed of tightly interrelated vignettes filmed in single takes from a fixed camera position. It begins with a man sleeping on a couch then waking up saying he's had a dream that bombers are coming. Members of a brass band rehearse and irritate family and neighbors, and eventually gather to perform happily together. In another vignette, Mia, a heavy woman sitting on a park bench, complains that no one understands her, not even her boyfriend or her dog, who patiently listen to her rant. Later, Mia is seen at her boyfriend's mother's house. She states that she's happy to be there, but then Mia calls the woman a sadist for serving non-alcoholic beer with such a nice dinner. "With all the misery in the world, how can we not get drunk?" she laments. Loneliness and cruelty walk hand in hand in Andersson's world view.

From time to time, Andersson returns to an austere, anonymous, over-lit bar, an emblematic place where people sit staring into their glasses and only aroused when the bartender calls out for last orders. In one of the funniest and darkest vignettes, a man stuck in traffic tells us about his terrible nightmare in which he attended a family dinner of a family that was not his. The party ends with the man being strapped to an electrical chair as the strange family looks on, nibbling on popcorn in anticipation of the execution. Each scene averages 90 seconds, makes a small point and moves on, some characters turning up in later shots, some not. In the final tableau, an armada of warplanes fills the sky over a neat little European town apparently intent on destroying everything and everyone we have just seen. Like life, this is a funny, sad, cruel film, both crystalline and puzzling, hypnotic in its intensity.

Filmed in washed-out pastels, deep-focus long takes and slightly hazy interiors, the film creates its own parallel and slanted worldview much like Aki Kaurismäki's films from neighboring Finland. They reduce the real world to its bare essentials without compromising their characters and their humor often comes from simple observation of what we do every day. The situations are not really absurd; they are simply the insignificant moments from real life presented as the main act, which reveals the real personalities and preoccupations of the people going through them with a clarity that many dramas strive for but rarely attain. If You, the Living belongs in an artistic tradition, it would be Surrealism or the theatre of the absurd and its particular affinities are with Luis Buñuel and Eugene Ionesco.

The film lacks a plot in a traditional sense and the characters are not so much protagonists as they are recognizable faces in a tableaux vivant. However, the different characters who appear and reappear in different scenes still meet each other and their stories are inevitably intertwined. What most of these characters have in common is their apparent loneliness despite being surrounded by other people. People speak to each other but it's as if they speak past each other. We try to reach out to others but shut them out when they try to reach us. You, the Living is about dreams and nightmares versus reality and it illustrates Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's claim that "all human communication is miscommunication."

The strange, misty locations and huge, elaborately built sets give the film a giant, intimate-epic quality that is more impressive than any CGI, although some of the most stunning effects must surely have been created, or at least assisted, digitally. In the movie's most lyrical passage, a rocker chick describes a fantasy in which she is married to the guitarist and lead singer of a band called the Black Devils. She sits on the bed of their tiny apartment in her bridal gown, while he plays her a languorous guitar solo of love from the kitchen table. Outside the window a landscape moves past as if from the window of a train; the apartment slows down and pulls into a station, where a crowd of well-wishers gathers to greet the young couple. It is an extraordinary and unusually moving technical achievement.

Andersson is a true original who makes emotionally complex, carefully constructed and meticulously realized films. Given that he controls every aspect of his work--from the conception of his screenplays through the casting of his actors and the construction of his sets-- it's not surprising that You, the Living is only his fourth feature-length film in a career that began more than 40 years ago. His films are profoundly different from the work of any other filmmaker, with a technical and compositional rigor that puts his films in a different league from most. While You, the Living is abstract and elusive, it is never dull or inaccessible. It's an extraordinary vision of lost souls adrift in worlds that are resplendent with vivid, hyperreal drabness, and everywhere there's the disquieting sense that we are witnessing the last hours of a doomed world.

1 comment:

dizzydent said...

Effin blogger was not cooperating tonight that's why the post formatting is off. I gave up and this the best I could do.