Postcards from the 49th New York Film Festival Pt. 2
Grant Gee, Patience (After Sebald) (2011)
Geoff Dyer’s forthcoming book Zona (2012) has a premise that is so simple and brilliant it seems almost a wonder that it hasn’t been tried before: as the book’s subtitle puts it, Zona is ‘A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room’. In other words, a book about Andrei Tarkovsky’s seminal Stalker (1979), itself loosely based on the novel Roadside Picnic (1971), by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.
‘Loosely’ is key here. The skeleton of Zona is something like a glorified transcript of Tarkovsky’s film, a factual description of what is seen on the screen. As a project, it has more in common with Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002) and Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (1998), than any traditional work of film criticism; all are works that successfully turns homage into formal device, whether it is in Van Sant’s shot by shot remake of Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho, or Dyer’s descriptive summary of Stalker.
But Zona hangs a great deal onto the scaffolding of this formal conceit. The book itself is full of digressions, both filmic and personal, as well as footnotes, interpretations, imprecations and asides. There’s a definite gulf between the tone of Zona and the tone of Stalker, which is almost certainly the point; if an auteur is characterized by the recognizable strength of a signature style, then Dyer is clearly an auteur, even when in the grips of a masterwork authored by another.
Grant Gee’s film Patience (After Sebald) (2011), featured as part of the New York Film Festival’s documentary strand, is a near perfect inversion of Zona: a film about a book about a journey, or at least a series of walks – the book in question being W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995, translated into English by Michael Hulse in 1998). Both Zona and Patience (After Sebald) are, implicitly, works of criticism, works of intense (and self-declared) fandom, and works in one medium about a work in another medium. The crucial difference lies in their attitude to authorship.
Patience (After Sebald) holds as its organizing principle the retracing of the Suffolk walks in The Rings of Saturn. Early in the film, Robert Macfarlane describes his own botched attempt to restage the Suffolk journeys. After encountering holiday crowds rather than introspective solitude, Macfarlane gives up the endeavour as an exercise in failure. Later in the film, Iain Sinclair similarly ridicules the notion of retracing Sebald’s footsteps as simultaneously ludicrous, obvious and literal.
And yet that exercise in necessary failure is the premise for Patience (After Sebald), which is less a film essay in the manner of Chris Marker, and more a work of intense reading and affection. One of the film’s many interviewees, Rick Moody, describes the love he feels for Sebald’s writing, and love is a recurring theme in the documentary, which is less about Sebald’s novel per se, and more about the experience of encountering that work.
The film necessarily circles around a notable absence: Sebald himself, who died in 2001. Patience (After Sebald) therefore feels like a meeting of the faithful, Gee’s walk itself a kind of pilgrimage. The film enlists a roll call of literary and artistic luminaries ranging from writers (Iain Sinclair, Marina Warner, Adam Phillips, MacFarlane and Moody) to artists (Tacita Dean, Jeremy Millar and Lise Patt), none of whom appear to have known Sebald intimately, but possess his texts in the highly personal ways. Their voices, by turns elegiac, chattering, impassioned and obsessive, provide a soundtrack to black and white images of Suffolk, the product of Gee’s Sebaldian strolls.
Patience (After Sebald) is at its best when it reaches for a certain mode of incantation – when, for example, Dean describes a series of small coincidences, Sebaldian in nature, that cemented her affinity with the author’s work. Patt describes making a ‘Sebald ouija board’. And Millar set off a series of fireworks at the site of Sebald’s fatal car accident; in one photograph, he locates Sebald’s own face in the hazy cloud of firework smoke.
This last moment is perhaps stretching the point, and is not necessarily the kind of coincidence that Sebald was especially interested in. But certainly the idea of belief is important to Patience (After Sebald) and crucial to Stalker – and by extension, Dyer’s Zona. The relationship between faith and risk is a necessary part of all artistic projects, the negotiation of the fault line between ambition and capability. In the case of Zona, the decision to write the gap between film and text is part of its formal experiment; the clash of voice and form is the both the book’s risk and its point.
By contrast, Patience (After Sebald) is a fluid, fond tribute to Sebald that is ‘in the manner of Sebald’. Zona attempts no such mimicry of tone (if anything, it’s ‘in the manner of Geoff Dyer’) and uses its extended description to create an effect that is divorced from the smooth functioning of form and narrative, an intervention in the form of an apparently dutiful retelling. By contrast, Patience (After Sebald) is a little too placid, and a little too literary. Its wagers are uncertain, but it remains a gentle work of loss, affection, and mourning.