Saturday, January 8, 2011

Netflix-a-thon (#8) YOU, THE LIVING (Du levande)

(Isn't it nice to find a pleasant surprise?  How about one that knocks your socks off and makes you happy to be a movie geek?  This little find of masterpiece-proportions was suggested by my friend Matt from Creatively Stumped, and also wound up on several top 10 lists for 2009- original released in 2007- from the odd duck of a director Roy Andersson.  With only a handful of film credtis to his name in his 60's, for the most part a director of commercials in Sweden, this is one of those films that I can't sing enough praises - AND a note of warning: if you do intend to watch this on Netflix instant, watch it within the next three days as it's leaving for good on January 12th!)

Sometimes the best films, or the ones we remember the most fondly, are the ones that touched us a certain way, made us think, and, at the same time, made us entertained.  You, the Living is a far cry from a classic feel-good entertainment like Singin' in the Rain, but I couldn't dare not sing its praises practically equally on the grounds of artistic merit and ambition.  Roy Andersson's film, which was years in the making and amounted to 80 or so minutes of 50+ static shots (I counted, trust me), is a jubilantly depressing film.  Or a depressingly jubilant film, take that as you will.  It also will frustrate some out there who are expecting something, I don't know, more lineral, cohesive.  Andersson doesn't care what you think.  If you want to come in to the clubhouse of the Living you're invited.  If you can't take it, well... at least you're still alive.

The attitude towards life is what makes his film so refreshing and alive.  The point of view, by way of the title, seems to suggest something like the eye of God (or whatever of such a thing) looking on at these people in this little city in Sweden, living their lives.  That's the key here; they're getting along, and some are surely worse off than others, but they can live through their experiences and we can live with them going through the rough and absurd moments.  The prevailing attitude in the face of the cranky, bitter, mean, morose, hopeful, sad, bored, or dutiful among the characters is 'everything will be alright, maybe, somehow'.  Or, if not, as one character says a couple of times, tomorrow is another day.  As long as you, you know, don't drop dead of a heart attack at a meeting or succumb to the electric chair.

But what is You, the Living?  Andersson is very meticulous in every cut and shot- one might say perfection is in his grasp just by nature of the time and patience to get every shot just right to his specifications- and yet it's overarching narrative is not defined.  You couldn't put this script into the Syd Field class and not get it torn to shreds, but it's absolutely wonderful in the seeming looseness of its construction.  It's a series of vignettes with these people, old and young, businessmen and pub crawlers, dejected women and a man with a bad haircut, a rocker girl with a heavy dream, and a Louisiana Jazz Band missing it's Woody Allen.  If it belongs to any 'kind' of movie it's the stream-of-conscousness surreal comedy movie populated most by Luis Bunuel's The Phantom of Liberty and Richard Linklater's Slacker.  It's episodic by design, in other words

Only this time there isn't even any link from scene to scene, at least not entirely.  Sometimes characters, the ones that are most endearing in their problems, come back, like the woman with low self esteem who first appears in the park wailing that no one likes her (her boyfriend retorts about the dog, "The dog doesn't lie!"), and then as he walks away she breaks out into song to confide her sadness.  She comes back to bemoan some more, but thank goodness as it's a kind of odd, morbid humor that the movie takes off so well.  Another is a younger woman, who I'll get to in a moment more-so, who falls for a rock and roll singer she finds at the local pub looking like an outcast from The Cure, and she appears later, and then once more.

Andersson's film has a unique place among modern technique in that Andersson, intentionally, limits his camera; it's static shots, with a few exceptions such as two dolly-tracking shots, one at a big celebration with people singing at their seats and a man getting up and another with a psychologist at an office (and then a more minor, much more affecting one at a funeral where the shot closes in just ever-so-slightly that it does something magical with the frame and those saddened in it with the music pumping up).  And  there are not that many shots either, at least when one compares to a typical Hollywood production with sometimes thousands of cuts if not at least hundreds (only Woyzeck by Herzog seems to have fewer in such a running time).  Every scene could be a still image to hang on a wall, of the morbid curiosity and irreverent humor, and the tragic-comic and the just plain-ol-bizarre in humanity, or just the mundane.  We're shown it, and there's a fascinating that grows with every new image that is ever-so-familiar.

The only slightly difficult thing is to be able to point out particularly good performances from the acting; not all of them are referred to by name, hence when I think back and thing to a particular scene or actor it's "the guy in the barbershop chair" or "the dude who misses the elevator and has to go up the stairs."  In a way it's not totally an actor's movie, even as there are a whole lot of talented actors in it playing people we might see on our everyday travails, or under some stranger circustances like playing a tuba or a big bass-drum up sideways.  It's Andersson's world and we're in that, and it's such a fantastic but grounded world that I just want to watch it again- after already taking notes, just so I could add exclamation points after certain moments and exchanges and pauses- and I want to walk around the man's brain to find all of those corridors.  What kind of mind thinks up this?  Someone without any need or want to answer to any creative authority, in Sweden or otherwise, except his own.

It's okay, I saw Bill Murray do it that one time in that movie.  Are the flowers still standing?

So, what else could you expect to see in You, the Living?  What else is there for the voyeur in us all to see?  One of big highlights, in any film I put forward here, is a particular dream sequence.  The rocker-chick addresses the camera (this is not the first time in the movie a character breaks the fourth wall, and my favorite and most amusing moment goes to the guy stuck in traffic who looks out his window and addresses the audience while inching only so much in the shot), and tells the story of a dream.  She got married to the rocker-dude that she saw, the one from the band.  She's in a little house and he's playing his guitar (very cleverly but only so much you have to pay attention to notice he's only playing one guitar but there are two audible), and she's in the kitchen watching him and doing a chore or something.  And we're watching this unfold ever so pleasantly... and then looking outside everything is going past the window!

Andersson has pulled a moment, followed by another, that has the air of pure cinematic invention; indeed the house being the thing that's moving like a train makes one think of the train in Lumiere's early movies and the early magic of that.  But more-so, after we notice this as the house is going past and the guy plays his guitar the shot finally cuts once a huge crowd gathers outside the window as the house pulls to a stop.  They all sing, the shot cuts to the outside and they keep singing this cheery little Swedish melody, and then the house pulls on along.  It's such a downer to suddenly get lifted away from this back to the reality of the girl in the pub, as the place goes to the bar for the last drink of the night.  Another man sits and says he, too, has a dream, and describes only so much of it.  She's not only inspiring to him, but to us, to anyone who would want to listen to her moment of real happiness.  It's still a sad moment, but it's alive, she's alive, and we know it for that moment.

Take THAT Christopher Nolan 'dreams'!
On the flipside of this wonder, the director gives us little moments where we also are forced to recognize what awaits near the end of life.  In one shorter vignette a woman sits with her ailing mother in a nursing home, trying to get her to remember something personal from her past, an old anecdote.  She doesn't know, she barely even knows who is sitting next to her, and it fills the daughter with grief.  Is she already gone if she cannot live so fully?  Andersson gives us a scene like this, where we're forced to confront the horror of nothingness, of the empty spot where life was for a person still alive or for the draining sense of life that is fleeting... and then he'll put on us one of the funniest, most un-sexy sex scenes in all of cinema, as a man complains about his taxes as his slightly larger wife tries to writhe on top of him!

Bottom line, I don't know if I can recommend You, the Living, at least not to the whole world.  It would be nice, but I know it's just not possible, it's not one of those movies that, as Lynch would observe, is "easily understood" by people.  Its storylines only so much interconnect, and the last shot of the movie just makes it so helplessly "arty" that some might run for the door by this point if they haven't already.  But, frankly, I'm glad I'm not one of those people that might scoff or call the movie 'boring'.  If You, the Living doesn't tickle your funny bone (a lot) or touch your inner sense of existence (a bit) or make you feel sad and happy and sad and miserable and thoughtful again in a five minute stretch, I don't know what to do for you.  It's the best I've seen out Sweden since the golden age of Ingmar Bergman.

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