Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Seasoned Ticket 132
A new film by a modern master opens this week, with revenue-sharing streaming links that benefit your choice of local theaters: Stream here via SIFF, or here via the Grand Illusion.
Two people sit on a bench, perhaps reflecting on existence; the camera is behind them in a way that shows us a city below and beyond, a vast sky above, and a skein of birds V-ing off into the distance. (Also a path leading off into nowhere, which will return at the end.) This shot lasts a minute or more, and contains one line of dialogue: “It’s already September.” The shot hangs there, the birds recede, and then the next tableau comes on.
What we have here is a film by Roy Andersson, About Endlessness, the Swedish director’s first since the 2014 A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. If the style is Andersson’s customary mode, the running time might give a hint about what’s different this time. A Pigeon ran 101 minutes; his 2010 masterpiece You, the Living went 95. The new one clocks in at 75 minutes, which feels right. Pared down to essentials even more than usual, About Endlessness comes close to excising any hint of action or incident. There are impressions, and then we move on.
Most of these are self-contained vignettes: A man, holding a bunch of flowers, steps into a café; he ascertains that the woman he expects to meet is not there, and withdraws. A legless military veteran plays “It’s Now or Never” on the mandolin in a subway station. At first it is surprising that so few of the sketches build to a punchline of any kind; some, like a woman who breaks her high heel, barely qualify as noticeable. Sometimes a narrator, like someone keeping a little sketchbook, sets up the vignette. For some reason, I couldn’t stop imagining that the narrator was Greta Thunberg (it’s not, and it doesn’t sound at all like her), and that these observations—which begin with the narrator saying, “I saw a…”—have something to do with imminent global disaster.
The title tells us this movie is about eternity, if that’s the same as endlessness, and with that frame in mind you can’t help guessing that each of these little portraits is a vision of a purgatory that repeats itself, as though each segment just keeps playing out that single moment. Or that’s what I couldn’t help guessing, anyway; some of the bits are so minor that they seem inconsequential unless you infer them as randomly chosen moments that play out forever.
Most are self-contained, but a few characters return, notably a priest who dreams of himself as Christ (pulling a cross along a curved Swedish street); his crisis of faith puts him in a doctor’s office, where the crisis has no place in the doctor’s strict timetable for catching a bus home. There’s also a man bugged by the re-appearance of an old schoolmate who harbors an ancient grudge and refuses to respond to a greeting. When this man returns at the end of the film, still bugged, but admitting that we may be getting tired of hearing about his old schoolmate, the effect is droll indeed.
However Andersson gets his movies to look the way they do—super-clear, pale, with a strangely numbed quality—has something to do with this vision of life as a vague waiting zone. The unreality of it—the way snow doesn’t really look like snow in the film’s most enchanting sequence, but an artificial idea of snow—is well suited to these No Exit sketches.
Andersson’s method is not as whimsical as it might sound; he reaches big at times, and there’s one scene that takes us to Hitler’s bunker in the final days. Not as expansive or as exhilarating as You, the Living, this film concentrates everything down to the barest of essentials (Hitler, bunker, dust sifting down from the bomb-rocked ceilings) so that nothing much is left but a shrug. The movie’s final sequence has a road to the horizon and another flock of birds, or maybe the same flock of birds, and what looks like endless waiting.
April 30, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.