Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Songs from the Second Floor

The first time I ever truly recognized Sweden as something more than "that place with the chocolate" -- at which point I would remind myself that I was actually thinking of Switzerland -- was when I began to read about the extreme side of heavy metal as a teenager. Now I know it to be a place of good health and a laudable sense of equality, but these initial, tepid steps into the world of death and black metal, looking up both the music and the infamous antics of its practitioners in the Scandinavian section of Europe, painted Sweden and its neighboring countries as places of lingering Norse terror, where latent Viking spirits swirled in the snowfall. (The first Bergman films I watched, for all of their Christian imagery and themes, only enhanced that perception.)

Roy Andersson's Songs from the Second Floor is a comedy that plays entirely into this darker side of Sweden. To even call it a comedy at all sets an expectation for normally adjusted people outside of Sweden -- and I imagine a number of people within it -- that would not remotely match what the film depicts. Songs from the Second Floor is what Fargo might have been like if the Coens had put our lot in with the characters in its endless winter and Andersson manages to capture that feeling of blanketing whiteouts without even needing to use snow.

Then again, there are so many aesthetic and stylistic connections between Andersson's film and other directors that to focus on a thread as tenuous as Fargo is a waste of time. At various points, Songs from the Second Floor recalls Tati's Playtime, Kubrick, Bergman, the painting of Edward Hopper (including one reversal of his masterpiece Nighthawks, shot from the inside looking out), even -- if you ignore their directly contradictory humanism and deep cynicism, the static work of Ozu. Yet the most identifiable connection in this 46-take, 95-minute film is that of Monty Python, albeit Python if it had been less a group dynamic and more openly controlled by Terry Gilliam.

Set in a world of stock brokers and businessmen, Songs from the Second Floor plays like the calmer moments of Gilliam's bureaucratic nightmare Brazil, only to stuff all of the Pythons' absurdity into these more aesthetically neutral and suggestive shots. Andersson's film debuted in 2000, when it lined up to Y2K fears; now, however, its bleak vision of societal ruin via its money-lenders fits all too perfectly and uncomfortably with the current crisis. The common denominator, of course, is economics, and if money is the root of all evil, Andersson contemplates the spiritual health of society when it is itself rooted in money.

Andersson's 46 tableaux play out as loosely interconnected vignettes, every shot but one unmoving yet each shot dynamic and modulating. These vignettes start as quietly hilarious depictions of the world falling apart. A man who's worked at a company for 30 years is fired, and in his desperation he literally clings to his boss' leg in supplication, but the boss simply starts walking down the corridor to his other affairs, dragging the poor man along. The fired man returns home and sits fully clothed at the end of his bed not facing his naked wife, who beckons for some time before thinking to ask if anything is wrong, not noticing that her husband -- with his sweat-soaked, wrinkled clothes, matted hair and ghostly white face -- looks as if he stepped off the set of a silent Expressionistic film (Andersson puts this corpse paint on many of the actor's faces as the film progresses). Elsewhere, a magician attempts to saw a man in half, but the trick goes awry; the next time we see the poor volunteer, he's lying in bed as his sleeping wife's turning threatens to rip open his midsection again. A centenarian who was once a renowned military leader and a wealthy entrepreneur, now lives in an assisted living facility in a bed that resembles a giant crib, barred on all sides by metal as nurses change him. A group of naval officers come to pay their respects for his birthday, but their pomp and circumstance may as well be wasted on a baby. Their formal speech, however, stirs memories within the old man, leading to an uncomfortable flashback followed by an even more terrifying flash of understanding as the man looks around his prison with a look of horrible realization of where his life has led.

It is always difficult to explain why something is funny, if not completely antithetical to the ultimate intention of making the joke funny for someone else, but one could never get at why, or even how, the mordant comedy in this film works. The static manner of Andersson's presentation underscores a world of aimlessness and despair, and the hilarity of seeing a magic trick fail dies in the uncomfortable balance Andersson strikes between Kubrickian distance and a more empathetic quasi-humanism. Songs from the Second Floor is a comedy whose laughs are immediately swallowed in its own void, as if a black hole embarked on a stand-up career.

The lack of clear direction between some of these vignettes is visualized in the movement of the film's characters. An endless traffic jam fills the streets at all hours of the day, with drivers swearing in frustration and inching forward endlessly, yet no one seems to have a destination, certainly not one worth the hassle of this journey. A naval officer on his way the centenarian's birthday stops inside a cab, seemingly more to sit down and enjoy some heat in between walking than to try to reach the nursing home. The officer speaks to the cabbie, the son of a prominent character, discussing how he got distracted from writing a speech by drinking and how he came up with his philosophy toward life. "Life is time and time is a stretch of road," the officer says. "That makes life a journey, a trip." For him, our "map and compass" is tradition, and without them we are "stumbling around in the dark." Then, without realizing the full implication of what he's asking, the officer looks around outside the car windows and asks, "Where are we?"

It's a question asked by many characters throughout the film, and the truth may be that no one knows. People slave away at their jobs, sit in traffic, have goals, but to what end? Everyone with some sort of objective forgets it along the way to completion. The scene that mimics and reverses Nighthawks captures the loneliness of Hopper's original painting, of the women and the unfit men left behind in World War II to eerily empty cities, but it also complicates that isolation by then showing that, from the reverse angle, there is actually a vastly populated world just outside the window as the traffic inches onward. In this sense, Andersson presents the world as a place that is both too confining, in terms of the compartments (be they country borders or segregating customs) that separate mankind, and too large, a vast universe that cares nothing for this speck on the edge of oblivion. One woman who got out of her immobile car to come in for a refresher prepares to head back out and asks the natives, "Does anyone know how to get out of here?" "No," flatly comes the response.

Despite this universal sense of anomie and aimlessness, the film does follow some sort of path by choosing one of its menagerie of grotesque oddballs to follow predominantly. We first meet Kalle (Lars Nordh), a rotund furniture salesman, covered in soot on a subway car, holding in his hand a sack filled with the ashen remnants of his business life. As he stares into the distance, the other passengers appear to break into operatic chanting, their singing signifying both a victory and an omen. As it happens, Kalle burned down his store himself, thus granting him a liberty from a mentally draining job that tormented him but setting up the possibility of discovery by investigating insurance agents.

That fear is lessened, however, when we see how the insurance agents, and everyone else, is too preoccupied with their own trouble to even care whether his business burned down at all, much less who did it. The insurance company doesn't stall payment out of suspicion; it does so because its function is to avoid payment, and an investigation would just cost money where they could easily bury the claim in paperwork for free. Even the clergy has no time for Kalle's despair, as the vicar of a church responds that he cannot sell a house and will take a $200,000 loss. "At the end of your wits...So?" he spits. "Who isn't?"

Andersson hides in that exchange a jab at the hypocrisy of organized religion (that a vicar could somehow scrounge that sort of money to buy a house and then focus on losing that cash over his parishioners' troubles) that will become much more overt part of Andersson's focus. Looking for work, Kalle finds himself at an expo by a booth selling all sorts of crucifixes, as the man running it reassures those who order these crucifixes to resell that the market is good. Y2K, he reminds them, is also Jesus' birthday, and as if the blatant commercialization of God was not already apparent, here Andersson brutally mocks the idea that those who believe the world would end that year would spend their money on trinkets like these because of perceived spiritual quality.

Spirituality is all but dead in this world, though, and the film's routine quoting of poet César Vallejo, who wrote radical polemics about the extreme poor, appears to apply more to spiritual poverty than physical. Then again, that spiritual poverty appears to be linked to financial straits in a world that places so much emphasis on money that a lack of it causes an existential crisis. The link between the supernatural and the coldly capitalist is best illustrated in a scene where an economist, stymied for ideas, gazes into a crystal ball for the answer. Of course, the crucifix "business" also shows where the two lines intersect, and Andersson slyly turns one salesman's failure to hock his supply into a metaphor for a loss of faith. We see the man throwing out a car filled with Savior-on-a-Sticks of all shapes and sizes as he cries, "I staked everything on a loser," an abysmally dark moment of comedy even before you consider the full possibilities of its ingenious pun. Kalle himself becomes something of a Christ figure at the end, though both he and his "followers" turn their backs on each other.

Kalle constantly bemoans his mentally ill son, Thomas, telling everyone who will listen that the boy "wrote poetry until he went nuts," as if intellectualism gives one a clear view of the world, one that would drive anyone insane. This sort of crushing nihilism would be interminable if it wasn't played as absurdist farce. Every scene has something funny in it, and often one joke filters in through background as another one is still continuing in the fore, such as Kalle funnily try to sell a pile of ashes as the Chippendale sofa it used to be when suddenly a group of stock brokers walk by the window in the background flagellating themselves. By inserting such gags, Andersson frees himself to rail against the evils of society without reveling in them. Even a ritual sacrifice comes to be something nonchalant, a normal part of life in a mad, mad, mad, mad world. Plus, the director frames the shot to show the young virgin being watched by religious and military leaders, showing how those who lay down society's guidelines are regressing it to the age of such barbarism. The problem is not that the world has moved into too liberal and unfeeling a territory; it's that it's been held in place for too long, to the point that the planet itself has stopped turning (which might explain why the camera never moves). Capitalism and technology are merely new tools with which entrenched ruler classes exert their power.

Songs from the Second Floor may not contain much hope, save the possibility of Kalle and his flock returning to each other, but at least it allows us the courtesy to laugh at doomsday. So many layers of society are mercilessly skewered, and society so pathetically stalled at the start of the millennium that the film has lost none of its relevancy; if anything, the financial collapse and the latest and biggest revelation of how deeply the Catholic Church's cover-up of child molesters runs give greater clarity to Andersson's attacks on religion and capitalism. Perhaps that's why it's not so easy to laugh at Songs from the Second Floor: it sees too much of us to place the audience at ease. One of its last images shows people at a station in what appears to the bridge between the world and the afterlife, as people drag their baggage (literally and laboriously) into the next world. It's impossible to say whether we're watching this from God's perspective or the Devil's, and the grand and terrible implication of that is that no distinction exists between the two. By that point, anyone who previously wished to point out the irony of a director renowned for his work making commercials using his first feature to lambaste a world run by money might suddenly find himself incapable of speaking up.


  1. I love that this review started off by referencing black metal, an unexpected but somehow oddly appropriate reference point for Andersson's bleak, darkly humorous worldview. I'd love to see an Andersson film scored by Abruptum, as crazy as that sounds on the surface.

    And I love this movie, which blew me away when I randomly saw it back in college. I knew nothing about it beforehand, and found myself absolutely stunned. It's so consistently clever, so unlike any other movie. It's a film where each scene stands out for its symbolic and thematic heft, for its encoded depiction of our own world with its prosaic problems of money, desire for love and connection, toil, religion and spirituality. So many individual scenes remain seared into my memory, testament to the power of Andersson's static tableaux, like all the self-flagellating commuters walking through the streets, recalling Andersson's countryman and kindred spirit Bergman.

    Andersson's follow-up, You the Living, is good as well, in pretty much the same style as this one, though with perhaps a slightly more direct humorous streak.

  2. There were so many times when I burst out laughing, only for the full force of the scene to hit and kind of choke them, only to reach the bigger payoff and be funnier than ever. This is such a striking film, comparable in some way to all those people I mentioned yet singular in its effect. You, the Living just jumped up my queue.

  3. Man, I don't know...I've never understood the lovefest for this movie. I think I definitely need to see it again before I rail too much against it as its probably been more than five or six years since I've seen it. And at that time I only watched it because I worked at a video store and watched anything and everything...and the coverbox had a great quote from Ebert on it. I remember watching it, mouth agog, and thinking "this is so awful and tedious".

    Like I said, though, that was a long time ago and I probably didn't give the film the attention it deserved considering you and Ed and countless others I respect greatly recommend the hell out of this film.

    I'll be revisiting it soon, no doubt.

    Great review, as always, Jake.

  4. Great review!!!
    Regards from Poland