You, the Living

One of my favorite films is a little-known Swedish tragicomedy called Songs From the Second Floor, made by first-time director Roy Andersson in 2000. His ostensible sequel (there’s supposed to be a trilogy) was released in 2007 but still not widely available. This second outing is entitled You, the Living (Swe: “Du Levande”), named after the Goethe quote that opens the film: “Be pleased then, you the living, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe’s ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot.”

An equally appropriate (albeit less high-brow) quote could’ve come from Woody Allen at the beginning of Annie Hall where Alvy Singer says life is “full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.” Suffice to say, Andersson’s outlook is bleak and misanthropic to the core. Which makes me think of Michael Haneke, since I also just watched The White Ribbon, the punishingly dark winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. But if I’m going to sit through such misery, at least Andersson delivers with a mordant wit and deadpan humor that keeps You, the Living afloat.

And unlike Haneke’s, in Andersson’s films if there’s anything unwatchable it is only on-screen for a few minutes. You, the Living is composed of 50 absurdist vignettes, all filmed in one take and almost always using one fixed camera. Like Songs From the Second Floor, the film’s occupants are primarily ashen, lethargic, and mostly anhedonic. Some characters pop up in multiple segments, but often the individual stories have next to no connection to one another. Most of the pieces deal with life’s humiliations in one form or another, although You, the Living is still lighter and more accessible than Songs From the Second Floor. In my favorite storyline, a girl named Anna is approaching despair over her unrequited love affair with a band’s singer. Even her dreams mock her, in what has to be one of the most beautiful film sequences I’ve ever seen:

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World Film Festival: Part II

Well the World Film Festival was kind of a bust for me. I couldn’t come up with a good schedule and ended up with one very stacked on the last 4 days… which turned out to coincide with me getting sick. I’ve got a couple gripes with how things were run too, all confirming my initial suspicion that the WFFB is definitely playing second fiddle to the Bangkok International Film Festival. So in the end I only saw 5 films; reviews of the first three are here, and the latter two are below.

Letter to a Child / Otroci

Country: Slovenia
Director: Vlado Å kafar
Length: 100 mins.
Rating: C

Synopsis:
““Letter to a Child” combines intimate conversations with perfect strangers and personal letters contemplating bits and pieces of life, collected and addressed to a child. In a series of “guided monologues” people – from kindergarten children to the vintage ages – are contemplating and reliving their lives.”

I really like the simple premise of this documentary — just record people telling their stories — but I found the execution pretty ho-hum. The interviews span seven different age groups, from precocious children up to a dying old man, and vary greatly in quality. Director Å kafar probably should’ve spoken with more people and then extracted the best moments and most intriguing stories. We don’t need, for example, a half hour of banal observations from adolescents about how life is all about “having fun.” I got the feeling that pretty much everyone Å kafar spoke with was included in the film. The best moments, the parts that I suspect are driving the good reviews, don’t come until the 3rd act. There’s a heartbreaking interview with a middle-aged couple who lost both their children in separate car wrecks (even this could’ve been edited down), and a poignant bit with a senile geezer struggling to get through the poem “Memento Mori” by Slovenian poet France PreÅ¡eren. Otherwise… meh. One film critic noted Letter to a Child‘s “radical artlessness,” except he found this praiseworthy and I did not. Maybe that reviewer had just come from 2012 and found this refreshing. But for me, a complete lack of style and sometimes less-than-compelling interviews do this film in.

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Terry Eagleton on Waking the Dead

Speaking of Walter Benjamin, the eminent Terry Eagleton has an article in New Statesman entitled “Waking the Dead” about Benjamin and history.

What Benjamin meant was that how we act in the present can change the meaning of the past. The past may not literally exist (any more than the future does), but it lives on in its consequences, which are a vital part of it… In one sense, we know more about the French Revolution or the Stalinist reign of terror than those who were involved in them, because we know what they led to. With the privilege of hindsight, we can inscribe these events in a broader narrative, making more sense of them than Robespierre or Trotsky were ever able to do. The price of this superior knowledge is impotence. There is no way we can use this knowledge to undo past catastrophes. We are like men and women frantically waving at history from a long way off, powerless to intervene in its crises and convulsions.

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World Film Festival of Bangkok

The 7th annual World Film Festival of Bangkok kicked off a week ago, but for a variety of reasons I’ve only managed to see three movies so far, including two today. The three films have also delivered three odd coincidences, which I’ll detail as we go along. As usual, I’ll use (perhaps with slight editing) the film synopses that the festival organizers wrote themselves.

Home / (trailer)

Country: Switzerland
Director: Ursula Meier
Length: 98 mins.
Rating: A-

Synopsis:
“A family’s peaceful existence is threatened when a busy highway is opened only meters away from their isolated house in the middle of nowhere. Refusing to move, Marthe, Michel and their three children find innovative ways to adapt to their new environment. They continue their happy-go-lucky routine despite the daily stress of hundreds of noisy speeding cars. But suspicions about the highway’s unknown long-term dangers cause family tension.”

I’m not sure that synopsis quite captures what a nightmarish film this ends up as. As you might imagine, the bucolic environment is utterly shattered by the sudden intrusion of overwhelming noise pollution. Home essentially chronicles one close-knit family’s descent into insanity as they attempt to cope with, then block out, the deafening highway roar. The breakdowns are varied, but with the inexorable march of automobiles comes each individual’s inexorable march toward madness. Viewers are also taken along this ride, since the noise pollution from the highway contaminates the theater as well (albeit to a lesser extent). Meier does an excellent job transitioning between each of the film’s three sections (normal/loud/quiet, respectively), aided by great cinematography – including two memorable tracking shots. In its depiction of communal isolation, Home reminded me a lot of Dogtooth, also a quiet horror flick. In psychology there’s a concept known as “group polarization” that highlights the radicalizing effects of a group (both peculiar families in these cases). Crazy-pushes-crazy until (as in both films) something finally snaps, creating unpleasant scenarios but fantastic movie-going experiences.

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