Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Patience (After Sebold)

If it’s hard to adapt an artfully written traditional novel, imagine the challenge facing director Grant Gee (Joy Division) when he tried to make a movie about W.G. Sebald‘s elliptical, near-plotless The Rings of Saturn. A loose anatomy of a pilgrimage billed as a novel, Sebald’s book traces the shadows cast on our fragile, disintegrating world by the Holocaust and other man-made catastrophes. And as if that weren’t already abstract enough, he does it by hopping from one seemingly unrelated concept to the next, like a frog ping-ponging through a pondful of lily pads.

But Lee acquits himself honorably. His Sebaldian pastiche includes passages and images from the book itself, moody black and white footage of some of the places Sebald wrote about, and a slew of insights into his work from a sometimes thrillingly articulate group of his fans, most of them artists or writers themselves. He also throws in plenty of other things, from the seemingly random (some commentators tell personal anecdotes that have no apparent relation to Sebald or the book) to the obsessive (a color flow chart made by Rick Moody transmutes every concept in the book into a complicated series of interlocking boxes). It could easily have felt heavy or shapeless, an intellectual grab bag, but it hangs together surprisingly well, flowing almost as gracefully as the book.

The commentators find intriguing ways to describe Sebald’s work, floating concepts that are often interesting in and of themselves. One talks about the “tears in the fabric of the world” that Camus wrote about, which open before us every now and then to show things as they really are. Most of us can’t stand to look into those fissures long, if at all, she says, but Sebald seemed to seek them out, and he always dove right into them, eager to see where they would lead. Others talk about Sebald’s fascination with “what is left after the Earth has ground itself down” and his ceaseless search for hidden patterns in seemingly random things. He was a master at teasing out the mysteries in “uncanny coincidences,” says one, after noting that coincidences, like dreams, usually lose their power if we talk about them.

The images in the film sometimes illustrate what’s being said but often work parallel to the words, mirroring the oblique way in which Sebald liked to use photos in his books. Some of those connections are so opaque that the images fight the words for our attention, and sometimes—like when drab color inserts of Lee’s feet following the path laid out by Sebald appear in the middle of the black and white frame—the images just seem expendable. But the words and ideas are strong enough to carry us forward even when the visuals falter.

Written for The L Magazine

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