Thursday, June 9, 2022

About Endlessness (Om det oändliga)


Writer/director Roy Andersson

ABOUT ENDLESSNESS (Om det oändliga)           B                                                        Sweden, Germany, Norway, France  (78 mi)  2019  d: Roy Andersson

With a melancholic tone of black humor and Kafkaesque absurdism, Roy Andersson has come to represent a tragicomic view of living in the modern world, which often makes little sense, plaguing those of us living in it with all kinds of misfortunes, dashed dreams, and unending despair about why there isn’t more justice in the world, as life never seems to be fair, yet his touches of magical realism allow viewers to soar, as if on a cloud, at least for a moment, allowing thoughts to drift off into the horizon, perhaps content with the idea that we can at least imagine things could be better.  Similar to Kiarostami’s 24 Frames (2017), the artist recreates the experience of visiting an art museum, giving viewers a chance to observe a cinematic exhibit, offering a series of photographs or vignettes as fixed framed, single-shot set-up scenes offering a wry commentary on the human condition, allowing viewers to contemplate their significance, moving slowly from one to the next, with the gentle voiceover of a young woman making the observation that always starts with “I saw…”  Like Dylan’s repeating first-person refrain in Bob Dylan A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall - YouTube (5:59), this quiet voice similarly observes, “I saw a man who had lost his way,” or “I saw a boy who had not yet found love,” or “I saw a woman who thought no one was waiting for her.”  This is his first use of voiceover, coming at the beginning, end, or even the middle of the sketches, yet the gentle quality of the voice has an appealing aspect, emulating the voiceover of Emmanuelle Riva in the first Alain Resnais feature HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR (1959), sounding like cut-outs from bits of conversations, with no real beginning or end, offering an alluring sense of the unexpected.  Using an ultra minimalist style, shot by cinematographer Gergely Pálos, the Andersson aesthetic offers deadpan parody to the extreme, contributing an absurdist existential commentary on loneliness, mortality, and regret, often poking fun at the passiveness of Swedish society, as onlookers watch with horror, embarrassment, or a befuddled amusement, but never once interfere.  Filmed in deliberately muted colors, with painted white faces, the element of exaggeration is a key comic device, as is repetition and deadpan to express his concerns.  Winner of the Silver Lion for Best Director at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, the director is best known for SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR (2000) and YOU, THE LIVING (2007), while his more recent film, A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence (En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron) (2014), completes his “Living Trilogy.”  In the 2012 BFI Sight and Sound poll, Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012 | BFI, Andersson’s picks (Roy Andersson | BFI) reveal him to be something of a humanist in the great tradition of Renoir, claiming in interviews that his absolute favorite film is de Sica’s BICYCLE THIEVES (1948), yet his own subversive style is closer to the Nordic tradition of Kaurismäki, as both are deadpan humorists exhibiting a strong social consciousness, even fading to black more often here after many sequences, in the manner of the Finnish director, though the abstraction and surrealist quality of his work sets him apart.  Andersson likes to observe the cracks in capitalism, with people leading ordinary, mundane lives, drowning in the horrors of being stuck in a perpetual state of ennui and emptiness, seemingly unable to snap out of it, resorting to morbid or grotesque humor to convey the absurdity and cruelty of modern life. 

Much of Andersson’s work is influenced by the youth-inspired rebelliousness of the Czech New Wave, like Miloš Forman’s Loves of a Blonde (Lásky jedné plavovlásky) (1965) or Věra Chytilová’s DAISIES (1966), pitting the free-wheeling style of young people against the formalist rigidity of authority figures, where the gulf between generations led to absurd misunderstandings.  Another important influence is Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue (Dekalog) (1988-89), similarly exploring the moral obligations of humanity in despair, with Andersson organizing a gallery exhibit in 2006 entitled “Sweden and the Holocaust” that attempted to comprehend the incomprehensible, heavily influenced by Swedish neutrality during WWII, standing by and taking no action while witnessing genocide and barbaric cruelties.  Andersson owns his own sound studio which he uses to shoot his films, Studio 24 in Stockholm, allowing him total control over every aspect of filmmaking, where even the outdoor sequences are shot indoors, meticulously constructing streets, storefronts, cafeterias, bars, offices, bedrooms, and train stations (even a battlefront) while filling the background with painted backdrops that convey a colorless, gray austerity, occasionally dabbling in digital effects, where his films are rigidly controlled.  In the Andersson universe, passivity is perhaps the greatest human tragedy, as people stand and stare at horrifying situations, yet their inaction is equally horrifying, with the director slyly suggesting it’s also inhuman to do nothing.  For instance, in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the situation is tragic, as any hope of a promised salvation never arrives, yet their reaction to it is comic, with aimless conversation going nowhere.  Accordingly, this film is an onslaught of miserablism, described by the director as “a collection of short, short poems about existence,” told in 33 chapters, each just a few minutes in length, as the overall screen time is just 78-minutes.  Often basing his art on visual compositions, like famous paintings, Andersson adds his own subversive twist of bleakness, with the film opening in what resembles a Marc Chagall painting, as a couple is floating in the sky above the bombed out ruins of a destroyed city, (Over the Town by Marc Chagall - History, Analysis, Facts).  Chagall soars over Vitebsk holding his wife, a city recalled from his childhood, but Andersson shifts the scene to the city of Cologne, ravaged by wartime bombing, accentuated by washed-out colors and a dark palette of gray.  Bleakness pervades through much of this picture, where loss of faith becomes a central theme.  Among the more striking images is a recreation of Christ’s Passion taking place on an ordinary street in front of a typical small café, as a priest wearing a crown of thorns is ordered to carry a giant wooden crucifix through town, occasionally stumbling under the heavy weight, yet derided by hateful slurs, whipped and kicked along with way, with onlookers passively observing while a jeering mob repeatedly yells “Crucify! Crucify!”  At one point the priest incredulously asks, “What have I done wrong?”  This transitions to a bedside scene where it appears the priest is dreaming, awakening from a nightmare, unable to distinguish between reality and a dream, still haunted by what he’s experienced.  This same priest appears later in a sterile doctor’s office, recounting this recurring dream, associating it with his loss of faith, overrun by the feeling that God has abandoned him.  The doctor, of course, offers no assistance whatsoever, clearly more interested in receiving payment than offering help of any kind.  This blasé attitude is at the heart of human suffering, as neither religion nor the medical profession offer any meaningful consolation, overrun, instead, by avarice and greed.  This same priest reappears several times in the picture, always exuding a loss of faith, echoing the comment about a man who has lost his way.  Andersson’s films are filled with unanswered questions, leaving viewers in a quandary.    

Andersson even recreates that moment of realization when Hitler, in his bunker, realizes that he’s lost the war.  It’s absurdly told, of course, with underlings going through the “Heil Hitler!” salutes, but the half-hearted effort says it all, as they are no longer what they thought they would be.  A man is tied up to a wooden stump about to face a firing squad, helplessly crying out “No, no, no, no,” to no effect.  Grieving parents visit their son’s gravestone, having been lost at war, tending to it, tidying it up, even speaking to it, as if their son’s presence continued to emanate from beyond the grave.  Perhaps the most whimsical moment occurs at an outdoor café with three boys sitting at one table, two with sailor caps, and an older couple at another, with swing music playing on the radio, Tre Trallande Jäntor (Delta Rhythm Boys in swedish) - YouTube (2:46), as three girls approach on an adjoining sidewalk, stopping to listen, each breaking out into improvised dancing for an extended period, but the boys don’t join in and simply watch, offering them applause afterwards.  In another, to the music of Billie Holiday singing All of Me, Billie Holiday - All Of Me (OKeh Records 1941) YouTube (3:06), a couple sits in an indoor bar with champagne sitting in an ice bucket, with the woman taking a prolonged sip, prompting the voiceover “I saw a woman who loved champagne.”  In a darkened gloom, a father attempts to traverse through a muddy park in a pouring rainstorm, stopping to tie his young daughter’s shoelaces on their way to a birthday party, or in another sequence, a man simply enters the wrong, sparsely populated restaurant, looking embarrassed, leading to “I saw a man who had lost his way,” which not only refers to this particular man, but also the faithless priest, a despondent Hitler, and several others as well, while perhaps offering a larger commentary on the human condition.  A film about seeing, having time to reflect upon it all, Andersson recreates moments large and small that become universally significant.  Similar to Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW (1954), retaining the mystery, but absent the thriller, what are we to make of what we see?  Unlike that film, however, no conclusions are drawn.  Some may simply find these vignettes pointless in their absurdity, yet the collection overall establishes a grim mood, as if feeling stuck in time, paralyzed by fear and anxiety, and the helplessness of our condition.  Viewers instead remain in a perpetual state of inert voyeurism, plagued by being unable to do anything about the multitude of problems that arise.  They simply happen, and we are drowning in their suffocating consequences, yet we must endure.  Appearing for a fifth time, obviously a beloved figure for the director, the priest returns back to the doctor’s office, bemoaning once again about his lost faith, but the secretary claims they are about to close, with the doctor informing him they have no time for him now, as he must catch his bus, with both forcing him back out the front door kicking and screaming, leaving the poor man in a wretched state.  Equally wretched is a dental patient with a toothache, but has a fear of needles, refusing anesthesia, but when work begins, he screams out in pain, with the dentist giving it a few more tries, each with the same result, eventually leaving the office altogether, as he’s had enough, appearing in a bar in the next segment, still wearing his white smock, with snow gently falling out the window.  One customer simply blurts out, “Isn’t it fantastic?  Everything is fantastic.”  Despite being surrounded by other patrons, no one else chimes in until he repeats himself several times, yet he appears to be alone in his assessment, as we hear the faint sounds of Silent Night playing in the background.  The snow continues to fall in the next segment as well, but it takes on a different context, as defeated soldiers whipped by the wind are marched through the empty desolation of wintry cold, surrounded by nothing but snow, heading for the prison camps in Siberia, where one could hardly imagine a worse fate.  In the final segment we see a car break down in the middle of nowhere (which is where this film appears to leave us, arguably more despairing than his other films), with no sign of life anywhere, as the man futilely tinkers under the hood, but then geese can be seen and heard flying overhead, bookending a repeated sequence that also happens at the beginning.  Andersson often relies upon the repetition motif, instilling themes of alienation, selfishness, and the overall emptiness of the human experience.  Barely audible choral music plays into the closing credit sequence, Benny Andersson & Helen Sjöholm "Kärlekens Tid" MADRID ... YouTube (2:37), a sublime rendering of both hope and faith.   

It's Not Easy Being Human – The Living Paintings of Roy ...  It’s Not Easy Being Human – The Living Paintings of Roy Andersson, video essay by Film Qualia, YouTube (13:04)

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