Friday, July 31, 2009

You, the Living

You, the Living is Roy Andersson's follow-up to his remarkable 2000 film Songs From the Second Floor. Like its predecessor, You, the Living is a loose collection of absurdist vignettes set in a dull, gray city full of odd, depressive, quirky people. The film has no central narrative, it's simply a set of scenes, with characters whose lives occasionally overlap but still never really add up to a larger story. Instead, the stories are linked thematically, by Andersson's concern for the condition of people's lives in the modern era. His characters are beaten down, often terminally unhappy, trapped in dull routines and useless jobs. Andersson's vision is unsettling — dreary, absurd, shot through with dark, satirical humor — and yet not entirely bleak nor entirely hopeless. What this film is about, more than anything, is the possibility of finding some happiness in this life, some joy amidst all the ugliness, some pleasure to go with the pain. The film's central idea is the importance of living for the present, of enjoying oneself when death lingers unseen just around the bend, ready to strike at any moment. Andersson's characters are acutely aware of death and misery, and perhaps this primes them to also recognize the little moments of pleasure they are able to find at intervals.

Andersson has retained the signature style of Songs From the Second Floor: the camera is almost always static and maintains a respectful distance from the characters, who are staged in self-conscious medium-shot tableaux. These people sporadically address the camera, conversationally relating their dreams to an unseen audience. Sometimes these dreams are Kafkaesque nightmares, as when a truck driver dreams that he was tried and sent to the electric chair after breaking some antique dishes during a failed magic trick. Other dreams are more ecstatic and joyful, even if they're tinged with the melancholy knowledge that they're just dreams. Anna (Jessika Lundberg) is obsessed with local rock band guitarist Micke (Eric Bäckman), and one night she dreams that they get married and live in a moving house. She's still in her wedding dress, puttering around, while he plays guitar and smiles at her, and outside throngs of eager admirers gather to wish the happy couple their best. It's a dream, not only of romantic fulfillment, but of a world in which everyone is cheerful and kind and goes out of their way to be nice to other people. It's not the world Anna lives in, but the one she wishes she lives in.

In fact, the real world of the film is much colder, and is filled with puzzling incidents of degradation and anger. An Arab barber, fed up with his customer's subtle racism, shaves a stripe across the top of the man's frizzy red hair and then storms out of the shop. A teacher breaks down in tears in front of her class because her husband called her a "hag" during a fight. Andersson then cuts away to a rug shop, where a salesman is upset because he got mad and called his wife a hag, though he tries to poll his customers about whether it was worse that he called her that, or that she called him an "old fart." A woman named Mia (Elisabeth Helander) laments her loneliness and misery, completely ignoring the proffered comfort of her boyfriend, even as she ends every fight with an ultimatum and then a promise that she'll see him soon. Andersson's characters often don't recognize the opportunities for pleasure and happiness in their lives: Mia has a devoted boyfriend, while the bickering husband and wife obviously love one another, or else their words wouldn't have had such power to wound. In another scene, a man lies in bed naked, mechanically recounting the way his pension fund was drained of money by a poor banking decision, while on top of him his wife makes love to him, ignoring his words even as he ignores her. She seems to be enjoying herself, grinding away at him, moaning and exclaiming how good she feels, but the man is too wrapped up in monetary problems to join in, to have some fun himself.

Often, there is a subtle socio-political underpinning to Andersson's tableaux. He's presenting a world in which people are routinely dehumanized, in which their opportunities for pleasure and genuine human connection are scarce. Their office jobs are unsatisfying — one man, seemingly useless at his job, rather pathetically asks if any of his coworkers called for him, even though he knows they didn't — and their lives are draining and boring. Meanwhile, a wealthy businessman gloats over a successful deal over lunch, loudly talking into a phone about buying a boat, while behind him a pickpocket steals his wallet, immediately paying for his own meal with the other man's money, then going out and buying a suit. The pickpocket does all this with a noncommittal expression on his face, but he can't hide a small note of satisfaction when he tells the tailors that a certain material is too prickly on his skin; he's enjoying playing at upper class for a change. He's thus one of Andersson's characters who actually finds a bit of happiness in this life.

Among the film's happiest characters are undoubtedly its musicians, who find satisfaction in their creative pursuits. The film is driven by the bouncy, bopping pulse of its music, a makeshift fusion of Dixieland jazz, New Orleans funeral music and the martial rhythms of a marching band. These musicians practice, oblivious to the discontent of those who have to hear them, who shout and bang on the ceiling for them to stop. But nothing stops them, and Andersson scores the film to the lugubrious bloop-bloop-bloop of the tuba and the leaden thump of the bass dream. He loves these ungainly instruments, which dwarf the men who play them. They are awkward instruments, silly even, but Andersson presents these men playing in isolated scenes as soloists — just tuba or just bass drum, each of them blasting away on their limited instruments. The music these men create is loose and spontaneous, as is the torchy song Mia invents about her own problems early on in the film, singing it on a park bench. The spontaneity of this music is contrasted against the ritualized music of funerals, the martial rigor of military parades, and the formal singalong that a group of wealthy partygoers engage in, enacting a set of prearranged moves to accompany the song. This song is an empty charade of drunken revelry, sung by people who lack the passion and deep emotional wellsprings that run through the film's other characters. Mia drinks because it's the only way she's able to cope with her depression; her partying is real life, not a ritual imitation of it.

You, the Living is ultimately a film about going on with life in an era when so much seems futile and impossible to fix. At one point, a woman in church rattles off a litany of the horrible evils requiring forgiveness from the Lord: lying governments, distracting media outlets, corporations growing wealthy by screwing over others, the greedy, the corrupt, the warmongers. This is explicitly a film about living in the post-9/11 era, the Iraq War era, surrounded by hatred of all kinds, by corruption and a global economy that makes a few rich at the expense of everyone else. Andersson, needless to say, is interested in the "everyone else." These people live their lives, and have fun if they can, under the shadow of death, the shadow of the terrors unleashed on the world by forces no one can seem to control. In the film's final image, the town is beset by a sinister squadron of planes, possibly coming to drop their bombs and put an end to it all. Andersson seems to be asking, if the bombs drop tomorrow, what will you have done today to make life better for yourself and those around you?


Carson Lund said...

Hey Ed, awesome post! I love this film and all of Roy Andersson's work, which always remains assured and consistent, right through to his startlingly original television commercials. I have written about You, the Living before, and believe you hit the mark perfectly by pointing out the film's more uplifting moments as opposed to the more consciously dark and existential Songs from the Second Floor. I believe this film is even funnier.

There is one thing I've always wondered about regarding You, the Living: its title's relation to Ayn Rand's novel, We, the Living. I haven't read it, but I'm curious if it's just because of the bleakness of the allegory that the titles are nearly congruent. Do you believe Andersson shares some of Rand's socio-political outlook?

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Carson. I actually prefer Songs From the Second Floor, which blew me away back when it first came out, but this film is definitely funnier and lighter, leavening Andersson's oppressive vision with larger doses of humor. His short World of Glory is pretty great too, if you haven't seen that one.

I haven't read that Rand novel, but I'd be very surprised if Andersson considered himself a Randian objectivist. The film's title comes from the Goethe quote that appears at the beginning; Rand may very well have been referencing the same source. From the admittedly little I know about Rand, her objectivist philosophy would seem to be very much at odds with Andersson's concern for the average man and his suffering. Rand would likely have considered most of the characters in these films as beneath her contempt.

Carson Lund said...

Yes, I agree actually about the differences between Rand and Andersson when it comes to these characters. And I do remember the Goethe quote, but I was imagining that perhaps Rand did riff of that quote as well. At the screening of this film, the man giving the introduction even made a joke about how dark the film is with its comedy, using the Goethe quote at the beginning as immediate proof.

Also, it's my fault that I came off sounding like I prefer You, the Living. I meant only to distinguish the two films; one being more pointedly comical and the other more serious. Indeed, Songs from the Second Floor is one of my favorite Swedish films, and that scene when the girl jumps off the cliff in front of the massive audience that dwarfs along the vanishing point was absolutely miraculous.

Sam Juliano said...

Ed, I have not watched YOU THE LIVING yet, but I do have the DVD in my possession, and will watch it as soon as possible. I am most assuredly a fan of SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR. I am hardly surprised the style has been retained, and yes, that dehumanization is part of the essence here. I will come back to this review as soon as I see the film, and comment further.

zcr said...

I think the music is Andersson's ultimate sarcastic blow... the film starts with a terrible dream and ends with its realization, and the same bow is with the music - tuba and drum practise, and them march - to war. (In Songs, mind the flute tune!) To me, both movies seem much heavier and 'depressive' (well, 'too realistic' may be better, to cover the incredible humor) than you suggest, I think they are about impossibility of happiness (the 'main' character in Songs calls smomething like "I'm only an ordinary person and I would like to have a little fun/happiness..." sadly, he fails, because of all the nightmares and spectres of bad luck and bad decisions he had been gathering over his life... that is so universal and true!)

BTW - the truck driver is not electrocuted because of the broken dishes - not at all! it's because of what he accidentaly uncovered (compare to the scene with the old general in Songs)

Anand Prasad said...

Virtually every web-page about this film shows the guitarist at the wedding scene. Does anyone know who is playing guitar?
Is it really Eric Bäckman who really does play guitar for a band called Deathstars?
If so he is not given a music credit at the end of the film.