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Sunday, April 03, 2011

A Roy Andersson double

Two films from Swedish director Roy Andersson:

Songs from the Second Floor (2000)
You, the Living (2007)


Singing songs en route to Godot

Songs from the Second Floor can be considered as a cinematic twist on Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. In the famous play, two characters quietly wait for Godot because they believe Godot will make everything better and provide them happiness. In Songs from the Second Floor, characters are always in motion looking for happiness but since their movements only result in tiny advances, their motion can be considered as a painful never ending waiting period. For example, a majority of the character’s lives are effected by an almost never ending traffic jam. One character complains about spending 8 hours stuck in the traffic, while on other occasions, the traffic gridlock is shown to continue for multiple days. There are empty streets all around a single congested road but no one seems to be driving on the side streets. Instead, everyone just stays trapped in one street, moving a few yards every few minutes and never arriving to their destination on time. An officer on the way to a millionaire general’s 100th birthday comes up with this wisdom:

"Life is Time and time is a stretch of road. That makes life a journey, a trip."

He goes on to add that heritage, tradition and history are maps and compasses that accompany a person on their journey. As the cars inch their way slowly down the never ending road, people have the illusion of getting closer to their end goal whereas, they are still in the same relative position.

Another line that is often repeated in the film is “Beloved be the who sits down.” Since everyone is always in motion, sitting down to rest appears to be a luxury.

The persistent sentiment in both films features characters who are exhausted and tired of their lives. In Songs from the Second Floor, Kalle (Lars Nordh) repeatedly shouts that he cannot take it anymore and in a desperate attempt to better his life, he burns down his own shop hoping to collect the insurance money. In You, the Living, a psychologist admits he cannot continue in his job because he cannot stand listening to people complain anymore. Characters in the films come off as carrying a huge burden on their shoulders. This extra baggage is demonstrated near the end of Songs.. when characters are shown pulling tons of luggage en route to possibly heaven where their souls will get the rest they failed to get on earth.


They, the dead

Death is a persistent element present in both Andersson films either in the form of the walking dead (zombies, ghosts) or characters who are on the verge of dying. The latter includes people who have had enough of their life and are contemplating suicide. In fact, it appears that death is walking side by side with these people seeking to collect their worn and beaten up bodies. Songs from the Second Floor depicts an end of the world scenario where inhabitants are on the verge of extinction, so it is not surprizing to see death hovering over the inhabitants. And just to make sure that death does not miss a single person, a fleet of bombers heads towards the city at the end of You, the Living so that no person is forced to continue living their miserable life. As depressing as the topic of death sounds, Andersson’s films are anything but a downer. In fact, they are packed with plenty of dry humour and absurd situations which may not induce a full out laugh but a disbelieving smile and a shake of the head. Each frame contains enough fascinating action in both the foreground and background which ensures no misery is taken too seriously. In one scene in Songs from the Second Floor, Kalle is upset about his burned down shop but in the background, a procession of office employees walk flagellating themselves.

The same employees are found walking in the background when in the foreground an officer is philosophizing about the meaning of life. In You, the Living an elderly man narrates how he lost a huge chunk of his money but his sad story does not garner too much attention as the man is being humped by a woman in a viking hat who is moaning with pleasure.

7 years apart but united together

Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living stand as separate films but they contain the same dry humour style and each is a case study of miserable characters in a city on the verge of extinction. Jokes that start off in the first film are visually depicted in the second film. For example, in the first film a business meeting is interrupted when an employee points to a neighboring building that is moving.

The moving building is never shown but in You, the Living a moving house is shown, which may have been mistaken for the moving building in the first film.

The traffic congestion from the first film is still found in You, the Living.

In Songs... characters are shown to be escaping the city with their luggage. One interpretation of that escape is that it refers to people carrying their baggage as they head to heaven. Another explanation is provided by the ending of You, the Living when fighter airplanes are seen heading towards the city. The aerial shot of the planes indicate they are going to bomb the city into destruction, which would mean that the luggage scene in Songs.. is an attempt by the residents to escape their city before it is destroyed.

The misery of the characters in the first film continues in the second film as well. Religion is literally thrown in the landfill in the first film when a character throws crucifies in a garbage pile which means people have no faith or hope to cling onto in You, the Living.

Songs from the Second Floor spends a bit more time on each character and is a complete and richer work than You, the Living which is a series of dry humor episodes that never adds up to a complete whole.

4 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

"Songs from the Second Floor can be considered as a cinematic twist on Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. In the famous play, two characters quietly wait for Godot because they believe Godot will make everything better and provide them happiness. In Songs from the Second Floor, characters are always in motion looking for happiness but since their movements only result in tiny advances, their motion can be considered as a painful never ending waiting period."

Indeed Sachin, Great comparison, and one I fully concur with. I am a huge fan of Beckett's play and acted one of the leads in a high school play. Ha! But your comparison of both Anderson's works here is a fascinating one, especially the common ground of death. i agree too that SONGS is a better film than the unever YOU THE LIVING.

Sachin said...

Wow Sam, that is amazing you were in that play. I really like his play but I never saw it in a theatrical format but I saw a film version of it. I think it might have been a made for tv version.

Thanks a lot for your comments.

Pacze Moj said...

There's a "traffic jam" spotlight in there somewhere. Off the top of my head, I can think of Fellini's 8 1/2 and Godard's Weekend that feature prominent gridlock. Disaster movies, too.

Isn't there an irony about the sitting? If people are in cars, then they are sitting. The cars are moving relative to the ground, but the people are not moving relative to their cars.

PS: have you seen Bergman's Winter Light? Your description of these Swedish films made me think of that one.

Sachin said...

Thanks Pacze. I remember seeing enough films with gridlocks so that traffic jam spotlight would be fun. The names of the films slip my mind but I can recall some of the scenes/actor's faces. And disaster movies usually involve a jam before a meteor comes flying in. I think the start of Office Space had a congestion. Also I think the second Ring movie (American remake) had a scene near the end.

I have found sitting in a car in a traffic jam more painful than standing in a queue or sitting in a stationery car. I think it may have to do with the mixed up motion/stationary state. The car moves slightly but nothing happens yet one cannot put their feet up and relax completely either. I am talking from a driver's perspective though. But yes there is irony there.

I have not seen that Bergman film although I plan to watch a few of his films this year.