Oct 3 2011

    Grant Gee on Sebald and Cinema

    Craig Hubert


    In Patience (After Sebald), a former publisher of the late author W.G. Sebald shares an anecdote about the difficulty he had assigning a genre to The Rings of Saturn. Is it fiction, non-fiction, travel, or history? The work, ultimately, is unclassifiable. The same can be said of the film, a meditation on Sebald’s walking tour of the Suffolk coast. Directed by Grant Gee, best known for his documentary Joy Division, the film explores Sebald’s work through landscape, image, and atmosphere.

    A few days before Patience's premiere at the New York Film Festival, Gee took some time to speak to Bookforum about the project.

    BOOKFORUM: You’re known for your work on music documentaries, but this film is different in subject matter. How did the project originate?

    GRANT GEE: There’s a company called Artevents who have this big project called The Re-Enchantment, which consists of five original commissions: a conceptual art piece, a performance piece, a book, a sculpture, and a film, all about various artists’ response to place. It takes place over the course of a year, and these things are rolled out every two months or so. A guy named Gareth Evans, who’s been a long term supporter of mine, who kind of kept me going with the short, non-commercial films I was making, said to me, ‘Look. I like your films, and I realize that all your films are essentially about place, even the rock n’ roll films.’ He told me what I’ve been doing for the past ten years, unbeknownst to myself. So we got talking and we both discovered that we really loved Sebald. In fact, the climbing film I’d just done (Western Lands) had a line in it, “west is where the light died,” and we both hit on the fact that in The Rings of Saturn, there’s this line, “east is the direction of lost causes.” It was a real hodge-podge of an idea initially, really messy. But after about a month or so of banging it around, I sort of hit on the idea of hanging it around the walk of The Rings of Saturn.

    What was your level of interest in Sebald’s work before you started the project?

    I knew very little about him and I came to him very late, like a year or so before I started work on the film. A friend of mine said, ‘have you read this yet,’ and shamefully I hadn’t. There’s a very good article by Rick Moody about Sebald in which Moody comes up with the term “textual compulsion,” to describe the feeling of discovering a writer and reading one book, then getting this itch soon after to read something else, and then having to read the next one, and the next one, until you’ve read everything that they’ve published. That’s very much how it happened with me. So I read The Rings of Saturn, and I still can’t quite work out what it is, how it operates on some people the way it does. It’s a mental space that’s quite troubling but is very addictive. Over the course of six months I just read everything by him, not so much about him.

    In the film, different people have different opinions on the benefits of retracing Sebald’s steps from the book. How important was it for you to do the walk from the book?

    I knew the film was going to be very digressive—I wanted it to be about him, about the book, about the landscape, about people’s responses to the book, about people’s own personal stories that have nothing to do with Sebald. It was necessary to find a really tight, strong, structural device to hang all this diverse stuff on. The stronger and simpler I could make that structural device the easier it was going to be to structure the film. So it became very important for me to go through the book line by line, to get the best maps possible, and to go, ‘Okay, he talked about this, so he must have gone down that path, he wouldn’t have gone down that main road.’ I spent quite a long time doing that, and it was really important.

    Also, I’ve only just remembered this, actually. I’d recently been to see an exhibition of the artist Richard Long. I don’t know if you know him.

    No I’m not familiar.

    He’s a walker. He’s an artist whose walks are his art. He does these very minimal but potent graphics based on each walk—a very straight formula that he devises for each piece. Something as simple and direct and formulaic as that was really important, because I knew everything else was going to drift, and I didn’t know what people were going to say, or where the film was ultimately was going to go. That made the concreteness of the walk really important.

    Were you a walker before the film?

    No, not really. Well, I only learned to drive two years ago. I’m not a great country walker; I’m a pedestrian and a cyclist more than anything else. The challenge of it—not that it’s hugely strenuous, but I’d never done anything like it—was important to me. Here is a task, the simplicity of it.

    The title of the film, Patience, doesn’t have any direct relation to the book, but feels very Sebaldian.

    Truth be told, the title came before this particular idea for the film. We went through about three major attempts and different proposals about how to do a film about Sebald. When we came up with the title Patience, it was because in the book Austerlitz there’s a key scene in which the Sebaldian narrator comes across the Austerlitz character, sees him from behind in a room, and he has a stack of black-and-white photographs. The narrator says he can see Austerlitz dealing them out in a sequence like he’s playing a game of Patience, which is like Solitaire in the States. The idea was that this guy is putting down family photos or location photos and hoping that a certain sequence of images will unlock the secret of his trauma. Obviously, thinking about montage and filmmaking, the idea of putting a certain sequence together that can unlock everything is very important. So I thought, okay, we can use this idea of dealing hands of images as a structural device. So we came up with this title, and when we decided not to take that approach, the title stuck.

    Luckily, thank God, when we interviewed Rick Moody, there’s a bit in the film where he says a lot of people don’t like Rings of Saturn because there’s not a narrative drive pushing you through it. He says, 'I think that’s a sign of impatience, that you’re not being led through the book.'

    While watching the film, I kept thinking of it in terms of an essay film, akin to the work of Chris Marker or Patrick Keiller. Were you looking at this type of work, or thinking of this form?

    Robinson in Space and Sans Soliel are my favorite films. The trouble is—and I would love to be able to make films like that—I really don’t like my writing voice. I’m not a writer. I can do short text, quirky writing, but nothing that can sustain ninety minutes. I certainly wouldn’t like my voice slapped all over it. It’s not really an essay film; it’s my eye, it’s me carrying the camera, it’s me being more formally experimental with documentary than usual. It has some elements of the essay film. It is a very subjective assembly of comments; it’s not supposed to be an objective portrait.

    Sebald is well known for the use of images in his work. Do you see Sebald’s work as cinematic?

    He says very little about cinema. There is one reference in an essay he wrote about Kings of the Road by Wim Wenders. He opens the essay with an interesting recollection of watching the film. He’s that generation; he’s absolutely of Wenders’ generation. Once you know that, you can feel the similarities between Wenders and Sebald, but Sebald willfully took himself away from that culture. I think of Sebald more as a photographer. There’s a quote I read somewhere where says he wasn’t very interested in school and he spent most of his time in the darkroom of the school’s photography lab. And there is something—I’m not sure if I’ve made this up or imagined it—about the way images work in his book: it feels to me like a black-and-white print developed under a red light, like it comes up out of whiteness, and if you leave it there it will black out in the tray. It’s this kind of rising and sinking of the image; it’s a very strange feeling in Sebald. The film I made is barely cinematic at all. It contains very basic, postcard compositions, more like photographs.

    There are moments in the film when you incorporate footage of your own footsteps, shot with a digital camcorder – a small personal touch in the film, as if the conversations in the film are your own little tangents akin to Sebald’s.

    It’s a horrible little flip camera; I don’t know why I took it with me. It’s great you picked up on that because most people just think it’s horrible, these little feet. I knew in the absence of my narration or recorded voice, I wanted to put myself in it. I spent eight days walking on my own carrying this fucking heavy, heavy bag on my back, and I thought the physical aspect of the walk, the fact that it was actually a walk through it, seemed important. I wanted to get a sense of that. The imagery is all slightly archaic and I thought this kind of hugely compressed, very low-quality, digital stuff—absolutely vintage 2010 equipment—would somehow be a little hole through the middle of the film imagery to let you see the 21st century. It doesn’t quite work, but that was the idea.

    Do you see similarities between the work of Sebald and the work of other subjects you’ve documented? I was thinking of Joy Division while watching the film—of a certain atmosphere they share.

    That’s funny you use the word atmosphere, because the last moments of the Joy Division film feature the song “Atmosphere” and a walk in silence. At the end of the Radiohead film, the last words spoken are, “we hope that you choke,” and then after the Joy Division film, you get a film about Sebald. And strangely enough, Sebald lived in Manchester when he first moved to England. In The Emigrants, there’s a section where he’s walking down Palatine Road, where Factory Records was. So that’s a very bizarre connection. Other than that, I don’t know. I bet there are a lot of people who have Sebald books on their shelves who have Joy Division records as well.

    Do you have any new projects coming up?

    Not that I’ve got any money for yet. There are two films that I’m pushing for, and strangely the one I didn’t push for at all, is coming out of this film. There’s this rather extraordinary theater director named Katie Mitchell in the UK—she’s very high profile, but very experimental as well—and she has received funding to do a stage version of The Rings of Saturn next Spring in Germany. That will be the biggest profile Sebald project in Germany to date. It’s going to be a real number. She wants to use the landscape shots from the film, and some new stuff that I’m shooting as part of the show, which is going to be extraordinary.

    Craig Hubert is a writer based in New York.

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