The relationship of the individual to the physical world is one of the (my?) great modern dilemmas; how we move in the world, how we find solitude and contemplative space in the age of the internet, how we find the room to unpack what is inside of us– these are questions that plague me on a regular basis. Part of it is clearly my character, but I’ve never been able to clear the decks and find a comfortable balance between my deepest inner desire (the ability to find quiet and just think and be, as obnoxiously self-serving as that sounds) and the pleasure of social stimuli (which, family and friends aside, finds me tracking the ideas, opinions, activities and lives of hundreds of people using social media). If anything, cinema has become my compromise, a form that allows me both a sense of social and critical engagement while also allowing me the chance to retreat within myself and explore my feelings through the dramatic power of movies.
I find the dissonance between my “real” and my “cinematic” selves to be deeply troubling, if only because in my own imagination, the person I think I am and want to be, is more likely the person sitting in a dark room, staring at a screen, mind racing and heart pounding, than it is the man who is working through his days in the service of his tangible loves and obligations. I have not wholly retreated into a fantasy world, and I take great pleasure in so much of my life, but if I am true to myself, my deep affinity for movies is tethered to the fact that they offer me the space to be who I want to be with myself, they allow my mind the space to move between thoughts and feelings, responses and desires and they never ask me what I am thinking or feeling; engaging with movies allows me to just be. That said, maybe I am not who I think I am.
Two films at this year’s New York Film Festival have knocked me for a loop by directly engaging this dilemma as their subject; both Julia Loktev’s brilliant The Lonliest Planet and Grant Gee’s deeply engaging Patience (After Sebald) focus on the act of walking, of setting out and moving, to create a transformative space for their characters and subjects. That each film does so while creating a deeply cinematic experience for the viewer only doubles their power for me.
The Loneliest Planet begins with a rhythmic sound– resembling old, battered bed springs under the stress of violent coitus– against a black screen before revealing the naked torso of Nica (Hani Furstenberg), freezing and soapy, standing erect in a rustic shower, awaiting a rinse which soon arrives at the hands of her fiancée, Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal). A general sense of disorientation continues as we slowly learn that Nica and Alex are traveling together, walking from place to place, before landing a guide named Dato (Bidzina Gudjabidze) to escort them through the Caucasus mountains of Georgia. But as the group walks further and further from Dato’s village, Loktev cultivates a sense of dread and vulnerability before a terrifying moment brings about an unexpected reaction from Nica and Alex, transforming not only their relationship but the viewer’s position in relation to the film itself.
The Loneliest Planet
Loktev is a filmmaker of great gifts, using the frame to establish the dynamics of emotion and power (in the interpersonal sense) with an elegant sense of geometry; during their long, often silent hike, the characters are presented in varying degrees of focus, close-up and bokeh, pulling the viewer toward one character and away from another, giving one primacy on the screen while another defers, always against the staggeringly beautiful backdrop of the grass-covered mountains and valleys. Nature serves neither to humble nor augment the emotional give and take of the film, but rather to establish a figurative grid through which the characters walk. It is through the act of walking through space, together and alone, that the drama of the film plays itself out, every gesture and expression the natural result of a quiet, introspective journey that gets fleshed out once the movement stops and the characters set up camp for the night.
In one of my favorite shots in the film, Nica is wrapped in a foil blanket and warming herself next to the campfire. Just behind her, Dato’s pup tent echoes the triangular shape of her seated body, while further back, a remorseful Alex offers another geometric rhyme, smaller, less meaningful, but still present. I was reminded (coincidentally?) of Cézanne’s painting Bathers at Rest, where the angular positions and shapes of the bodies and the features of the landscape become rhymes, full of weight, depth and light. So too with The Loneliest Planet, which uses composition in the service of relationships and unspoken emotions. Loktev’s film is thrilling because of the way she portrays introspection, but also how the faces, bodies and gestures of her characters convey so much more than words ever could. I found the film to be one of the most compelling movies I’ve seen in a long time; a rigorously constructed story of the way love can accidentally fall apart before reassembling itself in a new, diminished way, told without a single false note being struck and with a thrilling simplicity, utilizing the cinema in the service of the sublime.
Grant Gee’s Patience (After Sebald) is an essay film that tracks the meaning and reverberations of W.G. Sebald’s book The Rings Of Saturn, a nearly unclassifiable text that is equal parts travelogue, memoir, fiction, photographic essay and autobiography, all carefully filtered through a singular literary intelligence. I need to state this right off the bat, lest I be accused of not being intellectually honest; I consider the essay film to be among the highest forms of filmmaking, one which lays the tools of moviemaking bare, dissecting images and ideas by utilizing them on themselves. The master of this form, Chris Marker, is among our greatest living filmmakers; his use of all of the weapons that movies can provide, his manipulation of images, narration, politics, history and sound, has created a body of work where each film feels like an excavation through layers of time and meaning and into a recognition of the subjective fluidity of experience. This might also describe the work of W.G, Sebald, who used the pages of the book, and The Rings Of Saturn in particular, as a form of excavation of feeling and history. But whereas late capitalism provides Marker with the conditions against which his own dreams revolt, Sebald is haunted by the Holocaust, a tragedy perpetrated by his countrymen that must remain oblique, in the margins, lest it overpower everything else he seeks to describe. Gee captures Sebald’s anguished relationship to history in the book with the same grace Sebald himself does; here, mass violence pushes its way in and out of the story, but somehow, always seems present.
For Sebald, his titular planet provided a perfect framework; triumphant having just finished writing a book, Sebald sets out for a long series of walks through eastern England (Norfolk and Suffolk to be precise). The Rings Of Saturn describes the walk in detail, not just the external world that Sebald discovers in the English countryside, but the internal world that is stirred by the images and history he encounters, each thought a ring moving outward from another thought, a single story told in concentric ideas, always shifting as his feet move across the ground.
Gee’s film takes Sebald’s text and draws it into the realm of the cinema, but not in a literal way (thankfully); instead of merely reproducing Sebald’s walk and ideas, Gee himself gets, well, Sebaldian, allowing the author’s admirers and colleagues to comment on the book while the text, that is, the film, presents a cinematic representation of the intersection of Sebald’s book and the modern transformation of the landscape he describes. Patience becomes another of the rings of Sebald’s Saturn, a document of change that re-shapes our understanding of the book.
Patience (After Sebald)
This is not to say that Gee is as personal in his creation as Sebald was in his own; the film does not seek to present a single perspective about Sebald’s book. Instead, and I think more interestingly, Gee’s film works as a form of criticism, an essay about a book that embraces the differences of the literary and cinematic forms while walking the line between documentary and fiction, much like its subject. The film is heavy with literary interpretation and a knowledge of the book would be of great benefit to the viewer, but I don’t think it is necessary; what is necessary is an interest in engaging a serious effort to describe an inner world. I deeply appreciated the film’s commitment to seriousness, to the text, the physical nature of books and to the ideas the run through them. Fluff this is not. Still, for film fans who love to read and love to luxuriate in the meaningful questions that artists like Sebald seek to ask of us, I think Gee has done an outstanding job of creating a moving, visually striking film, one that inspired me to dream of my own solitary walks as a possible solution to the overwhelming problems of modern living.
For those interested in learning more about Sebald, this interview on KCRW’s Bookworm, which aired less than a week before Sebald’s untimely death in December of 2001, is a great place to start.