Wednesday, September 28, 2011

NYFF ’11: Patience (After Sebald)

W.G. Sebald rose to prominence late in life, but due to his accidental death at a relatively young age, he is probably already due for a critical rediscovery. Yet, for a brief period, he was considered one of the leading candidates for the Nobel Prize in literature and influenced many artists working in diverse disciplines. 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 screens Sunday during the 49th New York Film Festival.

Though keenly aware of the pitfalls of such an approach, Patience largely retraces the steps of the fictional narrator Sebald’s walking tour of 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 Saturn on which his reputation really 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 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 online map of Sebald’s sojourn, though impressive scholarship, consistently undermines 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 screens this coming Sunday (10/2) at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the 2011 New York Film Festival.