Sunday, 5 February 2012

Movie #12 - Patience (After Sebald)

A real surprise piece, this one, and a bit of a departure from the usual multiplex fare. This wasn't being shown anywhere locally but for a single screening at Manchester's Cornerhouse cinema - and as a documentary feature (of the 'biographical essay' sub-species) about author W.G. Sebald, I couldn't resist seeking it out.

For the uninitiated, W.G. Sebald ('Max' to his friends) was a feted literary novelist; a German who made his home in England - specifically Norwich, where he held a high academic post at the local university - yet continued to write books in his native language, meticulously overseeing their translation into English. Labelled as a writer's writer, his novels and other works tend toward the meditative and profound; his visions are encyclopedic yet selective - like Borges he appears, modestly, to know everything, but unlike his fellow non-Nobel-laureate his writing is saturated with the decadent ennui of post-war Europe. In 2001, he died aged 57 in a car crash, having begun to experience a delayed widespread critical celebration that has grown in earnest in the years since his death.

The film centres on one book in particular, 1995's The Rings of Saturn. Unlike his other prominent works, this is not an explicit work of fiction; rather it is a kind of melding of travel writing, history and memoir, presaging what has now come to be known as 'psychogeography'. The narrative thread holding the books together is an extended walk through the Suffolk countryside; Sebald's experiences and encounters on this journey acting as a starting point for wide-ranging reflection on subjects global and historic to the seemingly-minor and personal.

But enough about the subject - let's talk about the film. In examining Sebald's work, director Grant Gee has made a documentary that is almost wilfully obscure and exclusively high-brow. Yet simultaneously it is neither of those things - he succeeds in creating an accessible, interesting study, and while intellectualism is never compromised by bathos (a lesser film might try to shame-facedly chuckle at its highfalutin content) Patience (After Sebald) is nonetheless a plain-speaking and heartfelt examination, fearing to be neither clever nor candid. OK, it isn't going to be everybody's cup of tea, but if you enjoy well-made, thoughtfully constructed and intelligent film-making (particularly documentary film-making) you will enjoy this - and you certainly don't have to have read any Sebald to appreciate the telling of the tale.

It looks fabulous, too. Gee uses a blend of archive footage (largely sourced from the local regional film archive), granular digital B&W recreation of the journey and talking heads; with some of Sebald's own idiosyncratic still photography thrown in - common documentary techniques, but delivered with panache and real cinematic art; a great filmic 'fit' with its subject matter. The score - created by ambient musician The Caretaker - is perfect: unobtrusive yet evocative.

Considering the paltry budget (between £50k and £100k, depending on who you ask), the range of talent involved is phenomenal. Jonathan Pryce lends his voice to read excerpts from the book. Contributors include his former editor from Harvill Secker, poet laureate Andrew Motion, writer (and kindred soul) Iain Sinclair, visual artist Jeremy Deller, and a range of lesser-known Sebald evangelists - a lovely blend of the personal, the heavyweight and the curious (in particular, check out Barbara L. Hui's mapping project, Litmap, in which Sebald's journey and various digressions are studiously recorded and referenced geographically).

If pushed to find something wrong with the film, I suppose it just horses for courses. Not everybody's going to like it, and it's not the kind of documentary feature that tells a gripping story. There is no suspense here, and barely any story; it's a reflection on a singular artist (it's hard not to use the overused word 'meditiation', though it seems apt here). Then there's a philosophical issue at base. Iain Sinclair once wrote that he was "psychologically incapable of accepting coincidence"; Sebald himself wasn't quite that extreme, but I feel that the film tries a bit too hard, on occasion, to find significance in the commonplace. A petty criticism, perhaps, but then there's not much else to pick on.

In summary: an original, imaginative and beautifully composed documentary work that deserves as wide an audience as possible. Check it out, if you can find it.