Thursday, January 21, 2010

Modern Maestros: Roy Andersson

Robert here, with another installment in my series on directors who define our times. The difference between this series and the Directors of the Decade is subtle. Yet the change allows me to feature someone like this week’s Maestro, whose exposure may be too small to have impacted the decade, yet is one of the most imaginative directors currently working.

Maestro: Roy Andersson
Known For: Vignette filled films, examining the tragic-comedy that is life.
Influences: He claims Van Gogh more than anything. But there’s also some Fellini, Gilliam and Bergman (who Andersson believes to be overrated).
Masterpieces: Songs From the Second Floor
Disasters: his 2nd film Giliap was a commercial and critical disaster. But that was 35 years ago, not relevant to a series focused on the “modern”.
Better than you remember: Still, those who trashed that film were misguided.
Awards: Some awards here and there in Berlin and Cannes but never the Gold.
Box Office: His most recent, You, The Living is his highest grossing with over 21 thousand in the USA (suggesting that he’s slowly being noticed).
Favorite Actor: Andersson uses non-professionals. And he doesn’t use them twice.

Roy Andersson’s first film, A Swedish Love Story was released in 1970. That doesn’t exactly make a case for his “modern-ness.” The failure of his second film, 1975’s Giliap doesn’t exactly make a case for his “maestro-ness.” As a result Andersson sat out the next twenty-five years only to return in 2000 with a new style that was shocking, moving, unexpected and a film that was a downright masterpiece. Songs From the Second Floor (and for that matter his most recent film You, the Living) is comprised of several loosely connected, statically shot vignettes where characters, heavily covered in pan makeup live out the absurdity of life in the 21st century. One critic called it “Ingmar Bergman as realized by Monty Python.” Another described it as “Terry Gilliam’s subconscious pressed through Kafka’s meat grinder.” Indeed it was hard to describe. So, in lieu of trying to explain it myself, please enjoy this segment from You, the Living.

And so on it goes, sometimes surreal, sometimes sad, sometimes poignant. Andersson’s films continue a grand tradition of darkly comedic, intensely honest Scandinavian cinema. It may have taken him twenty-five years to get there, but I’m certainly glad he did. Many have pondered the meaning of his films and some have suggested they exist on a some strange Purgatorial plane. It's not surprising given his films' copious amounts of metaphor, religious imagery, end-of-the-world via traffic jam, parade of businessmen flagellating themselves, you get the picture. But Andersson insists, stylistic flourishes and all, they are a reflection of modern Europe. And they do not paint an optimistic picture. The consistent consistents in Andersson’s world seem to be depression, cruelty, dashed hope, and society against the individual. In fact, his two most recent films end on notes of personal and social Apocalypse that leave little reason for optimism (but still laughter). Not since Fellini has the world been presented as such a macabre circus (and even Fellini was often more sentimental about it).

This trick is about to go terribly, hilariously wrong.

No, tragic absurdism isn't anything new. But the overwhelming scope of Andersson's films and the sheer amount of honesty through constructed reality, qualifies him as a unique voice in world cinema. I wouldn't call him a "Director of the past Decade." His two films of the aughts have mostly been relegated to cult status, but his exposure is increasing. In the coming years his name will be one you'll hear again, and probably again. His films are a reminder of whats possible if you refuse to limit yourself to the literal and push the medium of film outside of it's preconceived borders. He's not revealed too much information about his next film (one hopes it maintains the spirit of his past two while exploring new ground) although he's mentioned he'll be sticking with the style and spirit that has made him one of the most unique filmmakers of our time.


Anonymous said...

BTW, try Wifi blocker to jam all spy devices in your room or office.

Robert said...

Say what you will about spam, at least it kept the post from being comment-less. I'll feature someone who should inspire more conversation next week.

Until then, if you're unfamiliar with Mr. Andersson's work, you should really check him out!

Jim T said...

I admit I didn't know him. Now I do. Posts like this one are always useful even if people don't comment on them. ;)

juno101 said...

I've been hearing a lot of great thing about You, the living. now im really interested!


i keep hearing i would like this director so i know i should see his work.

can time just stop for a year and allow me to catch up?

Bing147 said...

You, the Living and Songs From the Second Floor are both in my top 20 of the last decade. Songs From the Second Floor being my favorite of 2000. Terrific films that speak deeply to the human condition.

TobiasS said...

He's actually very loved and hated here in Sweden, both among critics and audience. Personally I cant stand him...

Tom said...

I would say Brecht is a massive influence on Andersson

Loki said...

Sounds interesting certainly worthwile to check out.