Sunday, January 3, 2016

Living in a rut

The following was originally published on January 11, 2013.

I recently finished watching Roy Anderson’s astonishing film Songs from the second floor (2000). Anderson is clearly a philosopher, and has 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, but it is not entirely devoid of purpose. It therefore stands in stark contrast with two other films that I watched recently, the Coen brothers’ highly enjoyable meditation on the pointlessness of events in A serious man (2009) and David Lynch’s aimless Inland empire (2006).

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 non-logic of dreams in a bizarre conglomeration of non-sequiturs, Anderson presents a world that clearly 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. Most of the central characters, 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 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.

Another interesting symbol in Anderson’s movie is the presence of ghosts who seem to interact somewhat 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 potentially ghosts too. We all 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 is the ontological structure of a rut.

One of my favourite scenes from the film 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. 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.

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