Upon the outset, a coincidental bout of serendipity had struck; the smile inducing collision of events that feels slyly preternatural. The book atop my to-be-read pile was W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, The New York Film Festival was announcing its lineup and I had hit one of those momentary insensate fugues. Upon reading Sebald, a warmth had percolated, brought on by a momentous journey of the mind. Tracing life's ingested motes along the shore of England, through History's genealogical pathways; receding with the tide into the German ocean. Turning to the festival program I noticed a documentary on Sebald, namely an "aesthetic response" to The Rings of Saturn. Perking my curiosity, and fondness for what I had just read, I attended.
While certainly aesthetic and most definitely a response, I draw issue with the film's description and salesmanship of non-traditional. From the festival program:
"Structured as a journey through the coastal Suffolk landscapes described in Sebald's The Rings of Saturn--one of the most highly praised and hotly discussed literary works of recent years--the film avoids typical art documentary strategies, weaving commentaries by artists and critics such as Robert McFarlane, Rick Moody, Adam Phillips, Tacita Dean and Chris Petit into a rich aural tapestry that offers a revealing counterpoint to images of places and things described in the book. The result is not an adaptation or explanation of Sebald, but a kind of aesthetic response to his work."
Beginning with a map, or as we learn shortly a litmap, pinpointing each place visited throughout The Rings of Saturn, physically along the coast of East Anglia and tangentially passaged abroad, Patience quickly queued an uh-oh of sorts. Maybe non-traditional aesthetic responses must lay out the territory through google maps before embarking. The map dissolves to Barbara Hui, speaking about her literary mapping and the motivation to create it, fondness of material and associations. From which we gather a general understanding of course and inter-connectivity, all things bound together related in one form or another. A good enough place to start, and with that the aesthetic response begins: Photos from the novel are placed on screen, over which the novel is read. Video, following suit, of places visited displayed in the same grainy over-replicated form as the photos appear, over which the novel is read. And, thankfully, commentary on the novel and author finds its place on screen; hardly a step outside the box.
Maintaining the same pattern and overall structure of the novel, Grant Gee would rather recreate the space of Sebald's journey than pave his own path. Beginning each section with a page number, a place and the voice of Jonathan Pryce reading from where the number dictates, the words of Sebald and images of locations described appear, often overlaid with feet walking mid-frame. As Sebald weaves the connective tissue of the world, leaving the shores of East Anglia, the film diverges to academic thought and reader reaction; aware of the fork but not the proper direction.
Attempting to present the novel in near entirety, through the source and occasional talking head, proves less a response than a fairly standard documentary, lacking the prosodic vibrancy of its inspiration.
My favorite bit of topical discourse arrives in the form of translated work vs. linguistic integrity. The part where the academics say you haven't read the novel until you've read it in German, and rightly so, but instead of exploring the tempestuous relationship between Sebald and his translator Hulse we are given placating academics telling the audience if they read it in English they haven't truly, done the right thing.G
As the film, with the written word in tow, drifts into the artist's melancholy, walking as therapy, and the creative brooding of the florid wordsmith I gave up my hopes of something different. A hope that would have seen the source material transformed into a form spiritually akin, yet manifestly different. It was with this I lost Patience and walked out at the 60-minute-mark.
I hope all with interest read the triumphant novel. The textural supplements are free for those looking; this spoon-fed package is available for slightly more.
Patience screens Oct. 2