Sunday, May 6, 2012

Unless you know W.G. Sebald, Grant Gee's PATIENCE (After Sebald) will require some

Usually TrustMovies likes to plop himself in front of the theater screen or TV monitor and simply let whatever film is up wash over him. It's not that he's a vegetable exactly (though people have accused him of that); he's as attentive as possible, but he likes to find out about the movie as he is watching it, with as little pre-conceived notions as possible. This often works nicely, but I can't recommend it where the new documentary PATIENCE (AFTER SEBALD) is concerned. You'll do better by the film if you've actually read some of W. G. Sebald (I have not), an author whose untimely death via car accident at the age of 57 seems to have made his small body of work even more important to, and more appreciated by, those who already love his writings.

Sebald himself (shown at right) sounds like -- if we can believe the talking heads we see and hear, especially Sebald's British publisher -- a prince of a fellow whom everyone loved, even if nobody seems to have known him very well nor been able to get what you would call "close to him." That publisher has one of the more charming anecdotes, relating how, when Sebald's book The Rings of Saturn was near publication and they needed to know which categories to assign it, Sebald said yes to every one: fiction, non-fiction, travel, history, philosophy, the works. "Well, not Holocaust Studies," the publisher demurs.

Filmmaker Grant Gee (shown at left), who both shot and directed the movie and also made the documentary Joy Division, notes that in this film, as well as in his previous work, he has examined iconic contemporary artists in the context of the landscapes they inhabited, and that these artists could not be fully understood without examining these landscapes and the locations the artists occupied. Fair enough. And since Sebald was a fellow who loved to take walks, à la his Rings of Saturn, why not follow his same path in this movie, using photos from the book (mostly of places and things, rarely of other people) as "visual inspiration."

And so we do, with a number of talking heads -- from Robert Macfarlane to Rick Moody, Chris Petit to Marina Warner and another dozen or so -- who appear in rather ghostly fashion on the screen (Gee likes to layer his visuals, see below, in a kind of see-through fashion). These people talk about Sebald, his work and often its effects upon them. Interspersed into these are ample readings from that work, spoken by Jonathan Pryce.

All this is a heady mix, particularly for anyone who does not know Sebald, because we flit from subject to subject, place to place, person to person and back again. Rather than giving us some kind of visual equivalent of the author and his work, we are barraged with both words and visuals -- sometimes words as visuals (see above and below) that can grow a bit annoying, before growing rather hypnotic (I nodded off for a minute during the mid-section of the movie) and often quite beautiful in their way.

Depression, melancholy, genocide, travel routes -- among many other subjects -- blend together in the course of the film. Among the more bizarre sections, a female and a male acolyte talk about how they individually felt the need to link together elements (above) found in Sebald's work to form a kind of... map (in one case) or grid (in the other) -- as though something major might be revealed. Speaking of revelations, toward the conclusion, a photo-graph of a cloud of smoke is jiggered/Photoshopped to morph into (if you really stretch your imagination) an image of Sebald himself. There's some heavy-duty deification going on here, methinks.

Whether the film will encourage those unfamiliar with Sebald to seek out his work, I don't know. (I may give it a try, after seeing Patience -- which is a good title because patience will surely be required of those new to this author who sit through the film.) Sebald-ites will probably seek out Mr. Gee's movie, however, which opens this coming Wednesday, May 9, here in New York City at Film Forum. During the one-week run, on Wednesday, May 9, the 8:20pm screening will be introduced by Rick Moody, author and friend of Sebald; and on Friday, May 11, the 8:20pm screening will be introduced Lynne Sharon Schwartz, editor of The Emergence of Memory: Conversations With W.G. Sebald. Further playdates around the country (not many of them yet, but perhaps these will increase once the movie opens in NYC) can be found by clicking here.

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