Thursday, January 28, 2010
Describing the indescribable
"Be pleased then, you living one
in your delightfully warmed bed
before Lethe's ice-cold wave
will lick your escaping feet."
By Edward Copeland
When you've been a lifelong film fan as I've been, you end up seeing a multitude of movies, from the sublime to the ridiculous. After awhile, even when watching a great film, it's seldom something you can't compare to another work or, in the worst cases, doesn't turn out to be something trying so hard to be experimental or bizarre that it leaves a rotten residue. Sometimes though, lightning strikes and you see a film that truly defies comparisons and just turns out to be a truly delightful viewing experience. This is the case with Swedish director Roy Andersson's You, the Living.
You, the Living can best be described as a collection of vignettes, yet that doesn't quite do justice in depicting the film in easy-to-categorize terms. The scenes are not short films; some characters recur, but most don't; there is only the vaguest of overriding themes serving as connective tissue for all that transpires. What can be said with authority is that what Andersson has assembled transfixes, frequently causes bursts of inexplicable laughter and is unlike just about any film I've ever watched.
Believe me — I racked my brain for comparisons, but every movie that came to mind was just another example of one that elicited the same excited reaction of newness or the bored fatigue of a failed folly in me. I thought of Richard Linklater's Slacker, with its unbroken take of following one character to the next for the entire film, but that's really not the right mold. On the negative side, I recalled my recent viewing of Werner Herzog's Even Dwarfs Started Small, but that did have recognizable characters and situations even if the ultimate result was dull and pointless. The closest I came was Francois Girard's Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould and that's only because that was the last time I got a similar feeling of something remarkably fresh in filmmaking after I saw it, not that You, the Living resembled it.
No, You, the Living plays, at least for me, as an original, a unique piece of filmmaking and, more importantly, a unique piece of filmmaking that remarkably succeeds. I could describe many of the vignettes from the film, but I fear that if I did that would dilute the film's magic. The Goethe quote at the top of this post is what opens the film and it really gives a sense of what underlies the various people whose paths we cross. Most feel misunderstood or unwanted and seek a sense of belonging, though even when they have mates, they treat them inhumanely, but in a way that usually comes off comically, not cruelly.
In the film's first scene, a man wakes up suddenly from his bed declaring, "The bombers are coming." The next thing we know, we are in a park where a distraught woman is telling a man to just take her dog and leave her alone because no one understands her and everyone would be better off if she didn't exist. The man protests, but he finally slinks off and the woman suddenly bursts into a song while a man in a raincoat suddenly reveals himself from behind a tree. Then the credits roll and you are hypnotized into the universe Roy Andersson has created, or at least I was.
Later in the film, we meet a doctor who speaks directly to the audience, informing us that he's been a psychiatrist for 27 years and he's basically burned out listening to people demand that he help them find the fun in their life, when his own life lost his fun long ago. He talks to the camera and says:
"People demand so much...They demand to be happy at the same time they are egocentric, selfish and ungenerous. Well, I would like to be honest. I would like to say that they are quite simply mean, most of them. Spending hour after hour in therapy trying to make mean people happy. There's no point. You can't do it. These days, I just give them pills."
In the DVD commentary for You, the Living, which was released in 2007 but only arrived on U.S. shores in 2009, the interviewer asks Andersson if things have grown worse in the world since his last film, 2000's Songs From the Second Floor. Andersson concedes yes with constant wars and economic turmoil and a world economy he labels a "chain-letter economy."
Between the psychiatrist's quote and what Andersson says, you'd expect a fairly pessimistic film, but You, the Living is anything but. It embraces the humanity of its put-upon characters, but does it with joyous humor and a musicality that leaves a smile on your face. Often in the film, someone will say, "Tomorrow is another day," but it's not a Scarlett O'Hara declaration of hope for a new start, it's just the recognition that life will go on and the next day likely won't be better or worse, but just more of the same. You certainly can't say that You, the Living is more of the same.
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