Songs From The Second Floor
SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR
Sanger fran Andra Vaningen
director/script/editing : Roy Andersson
cinematography : Istvan Borbas, Jesper Klevenas
lead actors : Lars Nordh, Stefan Larsson
At its best, Songs From The Second Floor recalls Chris Morris’s Jam – perhaps the most remarkable, surreal, disturbing and inventive of all British television ‘comedy’ programmes. At its worst, it’s uncomfortably reminiscent of Simon Munnery’s Attention Scum – probably the most putrid, tedious and pretentious. The split is roughly 80-20 in favour of the rotten stuff, but that 20% just about makes the whole self-indulgent smorgasbord worth sitting through.
What makes Songs so frustrating as a movie is that on paper it sounds like it’s going to be an amazing experience, pushing back the frontiers of cinema. There are 46 scenes, mostly of deadpan, absurdist humour, and the camera never moves once. There are plots, and fragments of plots, but these are less important than atmosphere and mood: we’re in a kind of dream state, or perhaps a nightmare, or perhaps it’s the after-life, or perhaps it’s just the last moments before the end of the world, or the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse.
The ‘action’ unfolds in and around a faceless modern city, in ordinary office blocks, coffee shops, hospitals, apartments, corridors, streets. An enormous traffic jam gridlocks the city – most people are desperate to flee, and what few individuals remain have oddly white-powdered faces. The main character, Kalle (Nordh) is a chubby businessman who’s just incinerated his own premises. He visits his son Thomas (Peter Roth), a poet who has gone mad and now lolls silently in a hospital bed. Kalle, in desperate need of cash now that his insurance scam has failed, meets a friend who sells crucifixes, reckoning that the year 2000 will see a boom in demand. Meanwhile, a group of economists, unable to come up with a long-term strategy to save their country (their world?) from disaster, decide to try human sacrifice.
Andersson can’t be accused of aiming too low with Second Floor – he’s clearly striving for some kind of state-of-the-species address, lampooning big business, government, the church, medicine, entertainment: all the things that claim to have the answers but end up falling short (“It’s not easy being human,” moans Kalle). You can see what he’s getting at, but he doesn’t have the skills – either as a director or as a scriptwriter – to do anything especially interesting or fresh with these ideas. Two brief street scenes in Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice covered the exact same territory, saying more in 97 seconds than Andersson manages in 97 minutes. And to think, he spent four years of his life labouring on this project.
The screenplay is particularly tough going, a sophomoric mulch of sub-Beckettian repetitions and non-sequiturs: “Blessed are those who sit down” is said twenty times if it’s said once. There are moments of grinding, vaguely offensive pretentiousness, as when Kalle is haunted by the spectre of a Russian teenager hanged by the Nazis, the kid still sporting the noose around his neck.
And even though he comes up with some striking compositions, often involving enormous vistas of vanishing perspectives, he can’t resist spoiling the effect with some crashingly heavy-handed imagery or symbolism – what is there to say about a director who, during a scene in which economic experts blunder towards prognostication, has the old duffers actually passing along a real crystal ball?
The human-sacrifice scene could and should have been a devastating panorama, with thousands of ‘witnesses’ arrayed on a hillside watching the blindfold sacrifice totter over a cliff edge – except Andersson can’t resist filling the left-hand edge of the screen with a bunch of bishops in colourful ecclesiastical attire. Similarly, the final shot of the movie, which could and should have been one of the most remarkable in all cinema, is fatally compromised by featuring a huge rubbish-pile of abandoned crucifixes.
There is one great shot that Andersson doesn’t cock up: an enormous airport departure lounge, with would-be passengers pushing vast trolleys loaded with suitcases towards an impassive line of patient check-in staff. But even here, we’re too consciously aware that it is a ‘great shot,’ just as the non-moving camera feels more and more like a clever-clever gimmick, a show-off technical feat that’s about nothing except itself, about nothing except Andersson having a particular idea and carrying it out – the essence of conceptual art, but, sad to say, the antithesis of cinema.
16th April, 2001