The shame of the past we share and try to forget

The shame of the past we share and try to forget

In my last post I spoke of how I had not been able to get a scene in Roy Andersson’s latest film out of my head. In A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, a party of pith-helmeted British soldiers herd shackled and fearful African men, women and children into a giant rotating drum before setting alight a fire beneath it. As the agonised movements of those incarcerated turn the terrible machine, their cries are turned into haunted music for the edification of an elegantly-dressed crowd of wealthy folk watching the scene from the terrace of a nearby mansion as waiters pass among them serving champagne. Continue reading “The shame of the past we share and try to forget”

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

I always struggle when friends ask me what a film by the Swedish director Roy Andersson is like. The conversation has usually started with me saying ‘I’ve seen this great film; you should see it too!’ Then they ask, ‘what’s it like?’, or ‘what’s it about?’ The trouble is, Roy Andersson makes films like no other that you have ever seen. As Robbie Collin wrote in the Telegraph:

The Swedish director’s Living Trilogy, which began 15 years ago and concludes with this sublimely ridiculous piece of film-making, stands apart from the rest of cinema at such a remove that trying to make sense of it in words is beside the point, and perhaps impossible. You just have to watch it, then grab a net and try to coax your soul back down from the ceiling.

I’ve just seen Andersson’s latest, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the third film in what an opening title calls ‘the final part of a trilogy about being a human being’. It is as memorably absurd and disturbing as the previous two, but much bleaker in tone. Like the earlier films, it contains scenes that, days later, I can’t get out of my mind. Continue reading “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence”

Bruegel in Vienna, part 1: through the seasons

Bruegel in Vienna, part 1: through the seasons

For true believers, the Bruegel room in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum must be the holy grail. Though paintings by the artist occupy two rooms in the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, they are interspersed with works by his two sons. But the room in Vienna is a concentrated showcase of the whole spectrum of Bruegel’s work: The Tower of Babel and The Procession to Calvary are major examples of works with a religious theme, while the three pictures from the seasons cycle illustrate Bruegel’s skill as a landscape painter. Then there are the depictions of everyday life portrayed in The Peasant Wedding and The Peasant Dance for which Bruegel is particularly renowned. Without question this was the high point of our pursuit of Bruegel across Europe. Continue reading “Bruegel in Vienna, part 1: through the seasons”

You, The Living: sad but funny

<em>You, The Living</em>: sad but funny

Recently I watched Roy Andersson’s Songs From The Second Floor and it was such a uniquely bizarre experience I thought I’d go back for more, and give his most recent film, You, The Living, a whirl.  There’s no mistaking that both films are the product of the same idiosyncratic vision, yet at the same time they are quite dissimilar.  This is how Philip French expressed that difference in The Observer:

Songs From the Second Floor was largely political: its targets the church, the capitalist system, fascism and a world running out of control. You, the Living is about everyday life, death and the human condition, ‘about the vulnerability of human beings’, as Andersson puts it. The title is a quotation from Goethe: ‘Be pleased then, you, the living, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe’s ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot.’

The destination at the end of this sad parade, Andersson wants to remind us, is inevitable: in one shot, a tram announcing its destination as Lethe arrives at a misty terminus and its passengers disembark.

As the film opens a man sleeping below a window is startled awake by a train rattling past. He sits up mumbling about a dream that the bombers are coming, foreshadowing the film’s final scene.  The film that follows is composed of about 50 tableaux that last no more than a couple of minutes, mainly filmed in typical Andersson style in wide angle with virtually no camera movement and soft lighting that emphasises the drabness of the settings.  It’s a film about everyday human miseries and frustrations.  The world depicted by Andersson is a sad one: in a sad city, sad people lead sad lives. But there is comedy, too, in these affectionate vignettes of the absurdities of daily human interactions.   Relationships are unhappy, money is a constant worry and someone always gets crowded out of a bus shelter, or the queue for a train ticket (a scene that could have come from a Jacques Tati film) yet people persist in making music – usually on the most unlikely instruments, such as a sousaphone or a big bass drum.

I liked this film a lot more than Songs From The Second Floor.  Why?  I think the review in the New York Times put it perfectly:

Life is a puzzle without a solution, a series of bleak, frustrating moments shadowed by the guaranteed absurdity of death. This, more or less, is the lesson — or perhaps the premise — of You, the Living, the new film by the Swedish director Roy Andersson. The film is slow, rigorously morose and often painful in its blunt reckoning of disappointment and failure. It is also extremely funny. […]

It becomes clear that we have been watching a deadpan but nonetheless heartfelt affirmation of human existence, which may be fragile and pointless but is still worth something.

Take, for example, the opening sequence:  a miserable woman tells her boyfriend to leave her alone because nobody understands her – ‘If only I had a motorcycle I’d get away from this shit’ – and a sousaphone player is harangued by his wife, while the man in the apartment below thumps on his ceiling.

‘A lot of things are going wrong today. It’s just not my day’, says a carpet salesman before he starts to weep.  A teacher who has had a row with her husband breaks down in front of her class of young children.  At a dinner party a man decides to lighten the mood by performing ‘the tablecloth trick.’  The outcome is disastrous and he is put on trial for destroying precious antique china and sentenced to the electric chair.  You have to laugh!

A scene in a nursing home in which a woman tries to coax her senile mother into remembering the past seems to reveal  something about how we, the living, project a certain nostalgia and fear of being left alone onto those withdrawing into dementia or death.

In the film’s most ethereal and puzzling sequence  (I had to watch it twice to work it out), a young woman walks into a bar and announces that last night she dreamed she married Micke Larsson (a guitarist in a rock band). Micke plays his guitar as she unwraps wedding gifts and their apartment begins to move like a train on tracks, stopping at a station where a crowd has gathered to congratulate them.  It’s a magical scene that seems to embody the longings of all those who dream of escape from daily frustrations to an idyll of happiness and conviviality.

Near the end, instead of looking down or inward, people stare up at the sky. Then, in the final tableau, we see what they are gazing at: a fleet of bombers fills the sky above a neat little European town.

But, as several characters remark, ‘Tomorrow is another day’

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Songs from the Second Floor

Songs from the Second Floor

Songs from the Second Floor is one of the most extraordinary films that I have ever seen.  Released in 2000, it represents  the Swedish director Roy Andersson’s surreal and disturbing meditation on the emptiness, absurdity and alienation he sees permeating western society at the turn of the millenium.

How to describe this film?  Monty Python meets Ingmar Bergman?  Jacques Tati meets Luis Bunuel?  Perhaps the easiest way to begin to explain this film is to say that it consists of 46 shots in which, with total precision, Andersson positions his actors as if in a tableau, their movements limited and always remaining within the frame. With a perfect sense of tragi-comic timing, Andersson presents a series of vignettes that each have the concentrated brevity of an advert, with all the associated visual imagination and surprise that is characteristic of a form in which you must grab and hold the viewer’s attention.  In fact, before making films, Andersson was a renowned director of television commercials in Sweden (see below for a YouTube compilation of some of these hilarious videos).

Behind the weirdness and the black comedy, you soon realise that Andersson has a serious purpose.  He is depicting the collapse of a soulless consumer society, where monolithic buildings dwarf humanity and human relationships – in families, at work and in public places – are absurd and grotesquely alienated.

In 46 vignettes we move through a city inextricably caught in unending gridlock, chancing upon an assortment of empty, unfulfilled or troubled lives.  Some kind of apocalypse appears to be unfolding in slow motion: flagellants weave among the stalled vehicles that endlessly fill the city streets. In one scene, in a massive airport terminal, people fleeing the city struggle to haul their massive cartloads of luggage a few yards across the concourse.  They are literally burdened by the weight of their lives.

There is a character who appears in many of these scenes; Kalle, a man who sets fire to his ailing business for the insurance money, is played by Lars Nordh, who, in a situation that somehow seems appropriate, was choosing a tablecloth in Ikea with his wife when he was spotted by director Roy Andersson who thought he looked perfect for this impassive character.  After the fire, in one of the film’s most haunting scenes, Kalle appears on the subway with his face covered in ash. As he stands expressionless in the crowded car, the people around him sing a silent song as a chorus (written by Benny Andersson of Abba) swells on the soundtrack.

Kalle’s eldest son is in a mental institution, having, in his estimation, ‘gone nuts through writing poetry’. Each time Kalle visits him, he has to be manhandled from the room, raving against his son’s obsession with poetry. Later, when he tells a clergyman of his plight, the man of God evinces little interest, burbling on about his own difficulty selling his house at a profit.  Kalle meets a businessman who believes that the catastrophic times will lead to a resurgence of demand for crucifixes. In the final scene, having failed to find a market for Christ on the cross in various sizes, the entrepreneur is seen hurling them onto the city refuse dump yelling, ‘How can you make money from a crucified loser?’.

Elsewhere, a clerk with years of loyal service has been abruptly fired and clings to his boss’s ankle as he leaves the office building for the golf-course; a man who speaks in a foreign accent is brutally attacked while bystanders watch impassively; a magician somehow gets the sawing a man in half trick badly wrong; and a young girl is sacrificed in a bizarre ceremony by a tribunal of religious and business elders.  The scene in which the child is sacrificed is an embodiment of the overall theme of the film: every part of society has become subservient to the capitalist economy.  Lined up as the girl is led to the edge of the cliff are representatives of the church, business, the trade Unions and political parties.

Through each scene snakes the endless traffic jam and through cars process the flagellants. There is an oppressive sense of a city grinding to a halt, and of numbed people who have abandoned themselves to fate. Beneath a surface veneer of cold satire, Andersson tugs at empathy for these hopeless characters who stand for every type of social ill, injustice, and human weakness. He seems to locates what hope there is in the character of the young man who has gone insane from writing poetry that no-one wants to buy.

The first words that appear on screen (and which, unhelpfully, are not translated in the English subtitles) form a dedication to the early 20th century Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, quoting a line from one of his poems, ‘Stumble Between Two Stars’.  The line is repeated several times in the film: ‘Beloved be the ones who sit down’.

There are people so wretched, they don’t even
have a body, their hair quantitative,
their wise grief, low, in inches;
their manner, high;
don’t look for me, the oblivion molar,
they seem to come out of the air, to add up sighs mentally, to hear
bright smacks on their palates!

They leave their skin, scratching the sarcophagus in which they are born
and climb through their death hour after hour
and fall, the length of their frozen alphabet, to the ground.

Pity for so much! pity for so little! pity for them!
Pity in my room, hearing them with glasses on!
Pity in my thorax, when they are buying suits!
Pity for my white filth, in their combined scum!

Beloved be the sanchez ears,
beloved the people who sit down,
beloved the unknown man and his wife,
my fellow man, with sleeves, neck and eyes!

Beloved be the one with bedbugs,
the one who wears a torn shoe in the rain,
the one who wakes the corpse of a bread with two tapers,

the one who catches a finger in the door,
the one who has no birthday
the one who lost his shadow in a fire,
the animal, the one who looks like a parrot,
the one who looks like a man, the rich poor man,
the extremely miserable man, the poorest poor man!

Beloved be
the one who is hungry or thirsty, but has no
hunger with which to satiate all his hungers!

Beloved be the one who works by the day, by the month, by the hour,
the one who sweats out of pain or out of shame,

the person who goes, at the order of his hands, to the movies.
the one who pays with what he does not have,
the one who sleeps on his back,
the one who no longer remembers his childhood, beloved be
the bald man without hat,
the thief without roses,
the one who wears a watch and has seen God,
the one who has honour and does not die!

Beloved be the child who falls and still cries
and the man who has fallen and no longer cries!

Pity for so much! pity for so little! pity for them!

Vallejo reworks Christ’s radical declaration that the lowliest in society are the most blessed, with a humanist and equally radical declaration of common humanity: that the blessed are those whom society deems the least noteworthy. Reading the poem after seeing the film, it is clear that the humanist ethos of the poem informs Andersson’s film and, indeed, its absurdist point of view.  As for Andersson, he once asserted that Vallejo was one of the world’s ‘absolutely foremost poets’, and described ‘Stumble Between Two Stars’ as one of the strongest and most beautiful things he had read.

In a nutshell, I suppose, Songs from the Second Floor suggests that the power and strength of Western civilization is derived from its economic system and not from moral beliefs; if the system fails, therefore, its citizens will be left without hope. The film won won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000. Andersson followed Songs from the Second Floor with You, the Living, premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.  He is reportedly planning ‘a third enormous, deep and fantastic, humorous and tragic, philosophical, Dostoyevsky film’.  Now that should be interesting!

Here is the film’s closing scene:

On YouTube there are four compilations of Roy Andersson’s hilarious TV adverts, in which it’s possible to discern the some of the same characteristics on display in Songs from the Second Floor. Here’s one of them:

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