Thursday, January 28, 2016

Living in a rut: Thoughts on Roy Anderson's "Songs from the second floor"

You should watch Roy Anderson’s astonishing film Songs from the Second Floor (2000). Anderson is a philosopher with a keen eye for marrying absurdity to beauty. His characters, so completely enveloped in their own misery and lostness, simply fail to see the humour in what they are experiencing. There is a nihilistic edge in Anderson’s vision, too, but it is not entirely devoid of purpose or meaning. It therefore stands in stark contrast with the more nihilistic films of the Coen brothers’ — their highly enjoyable meditation on the pointlessness of events in A Serious Man (2009) comes to mind — and David Lynch — his aimless, stupid, and highly overrated Inland Empire (2006) is a particularly good example of just how easy it is for the mind-numbing to be mistaken for profundity.

While the Coens rob their characters of the possibility of finding any meaning outside of their own attempts to understand the world and while Lynch holds fast non-meaning and the anti-logic of dreams in a bizarre conglomeration of non-sequiturs, Anderson presents a world that makes sense, but with characters who fail to see any sense in it. His characters tend to reach conclusions about their own situations that are far from accurate. This reflects their own spiritual wasteland, but does not necessarily assume the complete absence of the transcendent. It is the spiritually asleep who refuse to acknowledge their own shortsightedness and limitations, probably because, as Hegel shows us, we can only know a limit once we have gone beyond it; we can only see how far we've fallen when we have been redeemed.

Most of the central characters in Songs from the Second Floor, shown through a series of almost-but-not-quite connected vignettes, are often found repeating the same idea in different settings. An old man constantly complains that his business has “gone up in smoke” (He literally set fire to it) and that his son “went nuts” because he wrote too much poetry (It is clear that this is not the reason that he went mad). His other son keeps on reciting a line of poetry — “Beloved be the ones who sit down” — even though he is not quite certain of its significance. And a nurse keeps on asking the doctor she is having an affair with with when he is going to divorce his wife (His silence reveals that he has no such intention, but this does not stop the nurse from pestering him).

These repeated lines and scenarios are like many of the stories we tell ourselves to convince us that we understand the world. But, as theory on the narrative fallacy goes, understanding the story about something is not the same as understanding the thing itself. Nevertheless, we keep repeating our stories, keep telling ourselves that this-is-how-it-works even when the truth might be utterly different. We hear people say, for example, that ‘Everything happens for a reason’ and even find repeated stories about the meaning of life in the way that people spend money on more stuff: shoes, better technology, bigger houses, smarter cars, et cetera, et cetera. Everything happens for a reason, except reason, and everything else. Maybe.

Another interesting symbol in Anderson’s movie is the presence of ghosts who seem to interact with the living. As is typical in folklore about ghosts, they exist in a loop, constantly repeating themselves even though such repetitions make no difference to any outcome. And, of course, this is precisely the point that Anderson is getting at. The people in his story are all ghosts. And perhaps we are ghosts too, when we have a tendency to do what we have been doing for no other reason than that that’s what we have always been doing. This ghostly living has the ontological structure of a rut.

One of my favourite scenes from Songs from the Second Floor shows a massive open floor at an airport as a very large crowd of people begins to fill the floor on their way to check in for their flights. But they are all carrying baggage that is very, very heavy — so heavy, in fact, that they can barely move it. It is one of the funniest scenes I've ever seen in any film. Instead of the punchline of the joke being built upon a quick about-turn in logic, the punchline here is that there is no punchline. Everyone just keeps moving very, very slowly, straining, because of the weight of their luggage, groaning, despairing.

The check-in counter seems miles away; perhaps it is unreachable. We don’t get to see what happens to the people when they reach the check-in counter, but I would guess the following possibility. In keeping with the absurdism of the film, let’s imagine that the people are allowed to check-in all that baggage. Even so, it’ll soon become obvious, in a strange dance between tragedy and comedy, that the plane is so overloaded that it is unable to get off the ground. In this imagined ending to this scene, the people are carrying too much stuff and stuck in too many ruts, and as a consequence the heavens have become totally unreachable. This is not to say that these folks will never get into the the kingdom of the sky at all, but it is saying something about the fact that it’s difficult to fly when we do not take ourselves lightly. 

Maybe it’s impossible to fly when you’re on autopilot.

No comments:

Post a Comment