Monday, May 07, 2012

Walking the Rings: Patience (After Sebald)

W.G. Sebald rose to prominence late in life, but for a brief period he was considered one of the leading candidates for the Nobel Prize in literature.  Unfortunately, due to his accidental death at the peak of his productive years, he is probably already due for a critical reappraisal.  Indeed, his influence on artists working in diverse disciplines has steadily grown in recent years.  Rock music documentarian Grant Gee radically shifts gears, using Sebald’s fictionalized travelogue-essay The Rings of Saturn as a jumping off point for his meditative documentary, Patience (After Sebald), which opens this Wednesday at the Film Forum (trailer here).

Though keenly aware of the pitfalls of such an approach, Patience more or less retraces the steps of the fictional narrator of Sebald’s walking tour across the picturesque but lonely Suffolk landscape in the German expatriate’s acknowledged masterwork.  Yet, it quickly becomes clear Sebald the author is a subject who resists biographers’ conventional strategies.

Instead, Sebald is often presented as a series of paradoxes.  The German-born English professor wrote all his significant books in his original tongue, requiring their translation in to English.  Several commentators note that it is really the Michael Hulse translation of Rings on which his reputation largely rests.  His work was deeply informed by the Holocaust, but is not easily aligned with any subsequent ideology.  Indeed, despite increasing invitations to serve as a public intellectual, Sebald remained a private, almost inscrutable individual.

For practical purposes, this leaves Gee with Sebald’s text and some striking East Anglia scenery, beautiful in a grey traditional Wuthering Heights kind of way.  Sounding like the essence of erudition, Jonathan Pryce’s voice-overs perfectly suit the former, while the mostly black-and-white photography of the latter evokes a mood of quiet introspection.  (However, Gee’s reliance on an academic researcher’s google-looking online map of Sebald’s Saturn sojourn, though impressive scholarship, consistently clashes the film’s visual style.)

In a case of truth in titling, Patience is not exactly a breakneck film.  However, it treats the written word with admirable reverence.  In many ways as much a work of literary criticism (rather more insightful than the current academic standard) than a documentary profile, Patience is recommended for select genuinely literate audiences. (It is a good film to keep in mind if The Avengers is sold out.)  It opens this Wednesday (5/7) at New York's Film Forum, with author and admiring Sebald colleague Rick Moody introducing the 8:20 screening.