ROY ANDERSSON

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

Roy Andersson

source:cinema-scopecom

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson, Sweden)

Filmmakers have a variety of reasons for enlisting non-professionals for their casts, but often what they seek is a rude, unvarnished vitality that actors can only simulate. Roy Andersson, however, works hard to dull any such spark from his chosen performers. First among his favoured tactics is the makeup that leaves their faces looking pasty, pallid, and largely free of flesh tones. While slightly more colourful, the typical wardrobe selections are unflattering and ill-fitting: business attire for the men, Mennonite casual for the women. Whatever their gender, their gestures and movements betray little evidence of grace even when the characters perform in a dance studio, like one of the many clusters of unhappy folk in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.

No matter what the circumstances at hand—which in the new film range from a desultory museum tour to the humiliating retreat of King Charles XII and his forces after their defeat in Russia circa 1709—Andersson’s sleepwalkers struggle to produce any kind of reaction. Typically imprisoned in the middle distance of Andersson’s shots, they are impassive to the point of seeming frozen, their facial features locked in expressions of helpless stupefaction. One can imagine Andersson approaching an actor after a take on a Stockholm soundstage—whose temperature is carefully maintained at four degrees Celsius, as recommended for safe food storage—and quietly imploring, “Can we try that again, except with a little less hope?”

Of all the miserable people in Andersson’s Golden Lion winner, the two novelty-item salesmen who provide the film’s hardiest throughline may be the most forlorn. Jonathan (Holger Andersson) arguably has it the worst of the pair since he’s forever trying on the cheap vampire teeth and hideous “Uncle One-Tooth” mask that the team feebly hawks to a variety of uninterested clients. His shoulders slouching ever lower with each appearance, he eventually gets to assume a more natural position when he spends one of his last scenes head down on a desk in the facility where he and partner Sam (Nils Westblom) are presumably biding their time until death’s release. Not that there’s any dignity in succumbing to the inevitable, judging by the events in an unrelated scene, where a man’s sudden demise on a ship cafeteria floor prompts the staff to implore someone, anyone, to claim his lunch since it’s already been paid for and cannot be returned.

That A Pigeon… still qualifies as one of the year’s most richly amusing and deftly orchestrated films will be no surprise to Andersson’s loyalists. However, the coarsening of the director’s tactics as he hammers away at his favourite notes once again may leave them feeling more of the despondency they see in their on-screen surrogates. The film closes what Andersson has taken to calling his “trilogy about being a human being.” Though the phrase certainly has elements of his mordant humour, it’s also symptomatic of a weakness for over-ambition and overstatement that mars the final entry more than its predecessors. The fact that it’s the least fragmentary and most easily parsed of the three also goes a long way towards explaining why it’s the one that has netted the biggest prize. Compared with the slow disintegration of everything you know and hold dear in 2000’s Songs from the Second Floor (which is grim yet fastidious enough to evoke Time of the Wolf as directed by Jacques Tati) or 2007’s more eagerly phantasmagorical You, the Living (which almost concedes the existence of joy even if it can only live in our dreams), A Pigeon… drives a harder, straighter path to its big ideas, which is both a strength and a liability.

Indeed, however much it shares with the others in the trilogy or the vast array of reference points that Andersson has cited—e.g., Bruegel the Elder, the Neue Sachlichkeit art movement of ’20s Germany, Homer’s Odyssey, Peruvian modernist poet César Vallejo—A Pigeon… may be closest in form and sensibility to his own short film World of Glory (1991). That was the first full demonstration of his mature style and his moment of re-entry into the cinema world after the largely disastrous reception of Giliap (1975) and his far more successful spell directing ads. Several scenes in A Pigeon… seem to bear a direct relationship to World of Glory, most prominently a horrific sequence of African slaves being herded by colonial-era soldiers into a monstrous steampunk musical contraption and then roasted for the entertainment of a wealthy audience.

Nothing in Andersson’s work has been so assaultive as the first scene of the earlier short, in which Holocaust imagery does the work of the latter’s bleakly absurdist refashioning of European colonialism. In the first case, a mass of similarly helpless naked people was shunted and sealed into the back of a truck whose one airhole is then hooked up to a hose leading from the exhaust pipe before being driven away. Played by Klas Gösta Olsson in the already requisite makeup, World of Glory’s unnamed narrator and central figure is among the crowd of gaunt onlookers, though as the truck drives in circles with its suffocating cargo in the back, he looks back toward the camera every so often with a forlorn expression as if to say, “This really is awful, isn’t it? Makes you think.” To be fair, the actual contents of his direct address to viewers in the remainder of World of Glory’s 14 minutes are not as firmly on the nose as some of the lines in A Pigeon…, which can unfortunately shift away from Andersson’s preferred voice for his characters—the flat, featureless vocabulary favoured by emotionally repressed Northern European bureaucrats with shades of Beckett, Monty Python, and one of SCTV’s Ingmar Bergman parodies—and sound rather more like thesis statements about the unmitigated shittiness of things.

“I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine” is the refrain that is most often repeated in A Pigeon… It’s an emblem of the kind of blandly non-committal, vaguely positive talk that Andersson’s characters try their best to employ, mostly since they’re not allowed the release afforded by primal therapy or party drugs. While happiness exists only as a fantasy in You, the Living—most memorably in the young woman’s dream of post-nuptial bliss in an apartment that’s incongruously situated on a moving train—here it can only be part of a romanticized past. More specifically, it’s confined to the ’40s-vintage beer hall known as Limping Lotta’s Bar, where the titular hostess leads a sing-along before gamely dispensing kisses to each and every soldier there.

This brilliant long-take sequence is one of A Pigeon…’s showstoppers. Its impact is matched by the two entrances for King Charles XII in an inexplicably present-day bar that is roughly commandeered by his officers. Like the lovers-on-the-train sequence in You, the Living, these segments elicit a feeling of awe: who else but Andersson could mount scenes that are so logistically daunting and so unabashedly idiosyncratic? Though A Pigeon… is the first Andersson film to be shot digitally, he continues to rely on practical, in-camera effects. To watch all of the king’s soldiers and horses march past the bar’s front windows—and then stumble and hobble back in the other direction after the Russians do their worst—is to witness the crackpot apotheosis of the dearest principles of Hegel, Bazin, and Buster Keaton.

And yet as we continue to track the downward trajectory of the salesmen and other sad sacks, the film falls prey to strategies that seem laborious rather than admirably labour-intensive. Another gruesome sight gag, this time involving the agony of a lab monkey, possesses an anger that feels too brazen for the trilogy’s fussy, fusty universe. Other lamentations sound like just that, and are cried out in voices that belong in our world rather than the more ascetic and aesthetically purified one that Andersson has so carefully devised. Such lapses convey a degree of restlessness, as if he were chafing at the limitations of the deadpan brand he worked so hard to establish. But there’s a hectoring quality to them, too, as if he regarded his viewers to be as dense and unfeeling as the people who fill his frames. Finally we are left to conclude that our reward for meeting the challenges of being human are so pathetically meagre, we’re wise to snatch a dead man’s lunch whenever given the opportunity. Since it apparently comes with a full pint of beer, it could be a worse deal.
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source:theartsofslowcinemacom

It’s been almost a year that I have seen Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014), a film I remember was very good, but I was reminded of it only when Franco-German TV channel ARTE showed it not so very long ago. But what is there to write about this film, a film that is only a part of a trilogy which, taken all three films together, is so much stronger than a single film? I therefore watched the other two films of Andersson’s “Living trilogy”, albeit I would probably refrain from using this description and use “The Human Condition trilogy” instead. Together, Songs From The Second Floor (2000), You the Living (2007) and A Pigeon make for an entertaining view on us as humans, on us as a society, of life as sometimes being completely absurd and we still follow it endlessly like that famous hamster in his wheel.

After having seen the first two films in that trilogy, I was annoyed that I saw A Pigeon before, so that the chronological development didn’t quite work out the way it’s supposed to. Nevertheless, I could see connections, contradictions, additions – all of that made the trilogy throughly interesting, especially if you have a dark humour and are willing to laughing about yourself. It’s difficult to write about three films in a single blog post, but I try to keep it as contained as possible.

I should start, perhaps, with the most obvious characteristic of the Living Trilogy: all films look the same. I’m not sure whether I have seen a trilogy of films before where everything seems to be the same. Even the characters look the same. Andersson does use different actors from time to time, but they’re always white. I mean, make-up white. They’re pale, exhausted, looking almost sick, half dead. The interior of their flats and houses makes you see (and feel) that time literally stands still. Andersson took a long time to complete this trilogy. Between the release of the first part and the release of the third part (all three films played at Cannes), there was a gap of 14 years. So maybe make it 18 years or so, between the conception of the first film and the release of the final part of the trilogy. This is slow, but it resulted in quality work. And while the years passed, life seems to stand still in Andersson’s work. This is ironic, of course, giving the title of the trilogy (Living), whereas it should perhaps be called otherwise. Or maybe this is the whole point? Maybe it is to show us that we’re running in circles and that we don’t really go anywhere?

The interior design of buildings in all three films is the same. Sometimes I would even go as far as suggesting that he uses the same flats for some scenes, shot from a different angle. This is what Béla Tarr used to do. If you watch his arthouse films from after Sátántangó(2000), you see a link between them all, which is not necessarily connected to the films’ narratives, but to where the films are shot. Everything repeats, nothing moves forwards. Andersson uses a very sterile environment, 70s or 80s style, cold. Almost exactly how his characters look like. The bars change, but the people who drink their beer there are more or less the same. And why do they drink? Usually to drown their sorrows, the ridiculous existence of humans in a world that is so absurd that it makes you laugh.

Andersson shows us this absurdity in slow, long-takes. Those who like Slow Cinema and have followed my slow journey on this blog know that cinematic slowness serves different purposes in different films. In Andersson’s, I find, cinematic slowness serves the heightening of absurdity. It really brings home how ridiculous life can be sometimes, or how ridiculous we can be in certain situations; such as when a man’s hand is stuck in a train door and everyone stands around and, rather than being concerned, they wonder how it happened, they remember their own accidents, they watch. They watch more than anything else. An accident becomes a sort of animal in a zoo that you simply watch. You gather around and you do nothing. This stoppage of time, this absurd watching, is reinforced by the use of a static camera. Andersson usually doesn’t move his camera. There are very, very few pans or traveling shots in this trilogy.

And in fact, Andersson reduces the aesthetics to a bare minimum over a period of over a decade. It feels very much like the development of Béla Tarr, who became more and more minimalistic in his approach to filmmaking. From Sátántangó to Werckmeister Harmonies to The Turin Horse, Tarr reduced the aesthetics more and more; less characters, more barren mise-en-scène, less camera movements, less dialogue. His films were steering towards an end. The same can be said of Tsai Ming-liang, whose last feature film Stray Dogs was, perhaps, his most minimalist film. Andersson, I feel, works very much in the same manner. Songs and You the Living were stronger in their narrative progression. If something wasn’t clear in one scene, he would usually show us what really happened or what the previous scene meant in the next scene. In A pigeon, Andersson fragments the narrative almost to an extreme. It feels more episodic than the previous two films, albeit everything does come together in the end. But there is a sense of fragmentation, of a fracture that disrupts the narrative flow. Is this a sign of trauma? Perhaps, given that the trilogy contains elements to the brutal reign of the Nazis.

Andersson’s trilogy is tragic and humorous. Albert Serra was the first slow-film director I got to know who used comedy elements in his films. Slow Cinema as comedy, as entertaining…Andersson goes there, too, but makes more persistent use of it. He does so in order to open our eyes, to hold a mirror in front of us and show us to ourselves. Perhaps it is not spoken about often in the context of Andersson’s films that the director uses a direct confrontation with history and the way we deal with it. The first two films show this explicitly; one character, a sort of hardcore rocker, wears a T-Shirt with the Nazi SS symbol on the front. You only notice it once he gets up from the bench, once his partner pushes him away because she no longer wants to see him. (Or does she?) It would go unnoticed if you were focusing on the frame’s foreground only. There is another scene in which a man, in an attempt to do the famous magic stunt, tries to remove the tablecloth at a big family gathering all the while keeping the (expensive!!) china service on the table. Once the table cloth has been removed, the table shows two swastikas. It’s still there, we haven’t finished with it. The Nazi past, the Nazi support, is still there; almost dormant and yet very present, if only one takes the time to look. Andersson encourages us to do so. I laughed about those scenes, and also about the 100 year old admiral who had been placed in a nursing home and receives high-profile guests for his birthday only to make a Hitler salute. In any other film this wouldn’t be funny, but Andersson has created a bizarre and absurd trilogy that you have no choice but to laugh. And this, I have to say, absurd reaction to things that should shock me made me reflect about where we are. I became the pigeon sitting on a branch reflecting on existence.

With Andersson’s work more so than with other directors I need to say that a lot of action is happening in the background. If you watch the films as usual, expecting things to happen right in front of your eyes (just as we expect it in life – we don’t want to look deeper than that), then you will miss a lot in the trilogy. It is worth taking your eyes of the obvious and look beyond the surface, both in terms of the framing and in terms of the narrative. It is in the background, underneath the surface, where life really happens. There is this wonderful trilogy The Human Condition by Masaki Kobayashi. Kobayashi’s trilogy speaks of what it means to be a human being. He focuses on our hearts, on everything that goes on inside of us. Andersson’s trilogy is a different take of the same thing, 40 years later. It is also about the haunting of the past. Whereas in Kobayashi’s trilogy, events were happening, Andersson returns to the effects of the past on our present society, our current politics, our current life. It is impossible to say that these two trilogies are the same. But there are similarities, extensions, additions. They are are different ways of making us see and feel of what and who we are. And yet, both trilogies are about the human condition.

The Living trilogy – do Andersson’s characters live, or are they dragged along? Do we ever move on, which is what living is actually about? The pigeon who sits on a branch reflecting on existence is the perfect metaphor for what the viewer is encouraged to do while watching Andersson’s trilogy. What does “existence” even mean? We exist, but do we live? Where does life start and mere existence stop? Are we merely passively watching life going by, suffering from the weight of our existence and everything it entails? Strangely enough, even though none of the three films is very cheerful, Andersson’s trilogy triggered optimism in my heart and in my mind. What exactly causes that, I don’t know. But I do know that the Swedish director has created a very effective trilogy about us, the living, hearing songs from the second floor all the while we sit on a bench reflecting on existence.
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source:thelmagazinecom

A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence is an unfashionably philosophical, if comic, reflection on man’s inhumanity to man—and, in one scene, monkey. But it’s certainly self-aware. Let’s start with the title, which sounds like a 60s European art film sent through translation software. Director Roy Andersson, who has only made five feature films in his 45-year career, viewed his fellow Swede Ingmar Bergman as a rival when the latter was still alive. A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence can be seen as a way of trying to top Bergman’s metaphysical aspirations, while retaining a sense of humor.

At first, A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence seems like a series of plotless sketches. (The film consists of 39 shots.) It opens with three deaths in a row, but lets us off easier than World of Glory, the 1991 Andersson short dramatizing the Holocaust. Gradually, a narrative emerges. In the main thread, two shy, down-on-their-luck novelty goods salesmen live in a flophouse and try to scrape together a living. Elsewhere, a flamenco teacher uses her position as an excuse to feel up a male pupil. The film slips in time several times—in parallel to the scene with the teacher, King Charles XII emerges from the 18th century to pick up a male bartender. The patrons of another bar join together in song. The salesmen repeatedly demonstrate the wonders of vampire teeth and a grotesque mask to an apathetic clientele; even they seem as bored as they people they talk to. Most powerfully, Andersson reflects on the horrors of racism and colonialism in a two-scene sequence that never sheds a drop of blood on-screen but outdoes 12 Years A Slave for sheer discomfort.

The strangest thing about A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence is how much it feels like a product of this moment. The film is a contemporary of “the Golden Age of Television,” not Bergman’s Persona. The lighting and cinematography look like video, not 35mm, although Andersson’s framing and blocking do call for the space of a theatrical setting. He never moves the camera and places the actors at a remove from it. A sense of depression is reflected in his reluctance to use close-ups or camera movement, yet Andersson has quite an eye for beautiful set-ups even within the restrictions he’s given himself. His sense of humor is deadpan and misanthropic yet humanist. Andersson’s dour wit isn’t far from Louie. A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence expects the worst from the human race but holds out a slim hope for the best.