Today, after the usual convoluted windings of a desultory office conversation, T told me how, back when she was a wee undergrad at the New School, she used to work at Lord & Taylor’s taking catalog orders over the phone. Passing her office just now, as I do dozens of times throughout the day, T was, as usual, chatting on the phone. Not too long ago I joked that she was moonlighting as a telephone sex operator. “Ha-hah,” she said, but then cut short our conversation to answer her phone. The irony of all this is that T refuses to own a cell phone. Yes, the time is now 2009. Hello?
Friday, after dragging T around to some lame sample sales, we had a buffet lunch at Curry Dream on 39th. When I walked in to work today, T informed me she spent the weekend paying for eating from a buffet. Poor T. If you see her, be sure to rub her belly.
I HOPE YOU’RE SITTING DOWN
by Sarah Winshall
Songs From the Second Floor, written and directed by Roy Andersson, introduces the viewer to a gray world where capitalism is king and everything seems to be falling apart. A man loses his job of thirty years. An unexplainable traffic jam, easily rivaling the one in Godard’s Week End, clogs the city. The stock market is crashing, and a parade of self-flagellators are roaming the streets. The year 2000 is rapidly approaching and it looks like the world is going to end. These tongue-in-cheek scenarios contain a bleak humor that is painfully applicable to our current global economic and existential situation. This is a world that, surprisingly, seems a lot like the one we live in.
The CEO of an important company suddenly must face the unthinkable - his huge, money-making company is no longer making money and must go out of business. He denies the inevitable for as long as he can, but ultimately he must join the masses of men like himself, who have given up hope and are fleeing the city.
This storyline is not uncommon in our own failing economy. We read news stories every day about giant corporations suddenly folding, or famous rich people declaring bankruptcy. But Andersson presents these commonplace stories with an offbeat tone that allows the viewer to watch such scenarios play out with a certain detachment. It is through this detachment that an unexpected humor arises.
For example, the scene of the CEO’s escape is a near-silent procession of fleshy, pasty, fat, rich, Swedish, middle-aged men wheeling luggage carts piled high with all of their earthly possessions through a huge gray room lit with fluorescent lights. The CEO’s assistant struggles with the cart as an awkwardly loud clatter is heard. His golf clubs have fallen off the impossibly tall pile of belongings. The two exchange some words, and it is concluded that the cart is too heavy. Nonetheless, they push on. The whole exchange is incredibly visceral - like eating a hard boiled egg on an airplane, it brings up feelings of embarrassment, satisfaction, fear, pleasure, and alienation all at once.
Andersson touches on many classic existential dilemmas in an unusual way. Though his characters are often distraught and overwrought, the cinematic style translates their problems with a cool detachment. Dialogue is peppered with casual references to universal human suffering:
A disheveled man covered in ashes walks into a coffee shop and is greeted cheerfully by the girl at the counter: “How are you?” He responds casually: “What can I say, it’s not easy being human.”
Though later in the film this man will prove himself to be a tantrum-throwing expert, he is also aware of the unremarkable quality of his misery. It a universal despair that every human must face, and therefore an appropriate response to any casual greeting. His nonchalance makes the viewer hyper aware of our own helplessness, as humans, to improve our existential situation. Bizarrely enough, the ultimate reaction to the exchange is laughter - as suddenly the whole absurdity of Being Human has been cleverly and painfully made light of.
The disjointed tone of the dialogue is thoroughly supported by the visual technique. Each scene was filmed in a single take. The camera almost never moves and is usually looking into the scene from straight on. As a result, the actors often end up looking directly out of the screen at the audience. But the fourth wall is never broken; they can not see us. Instead, their slack faces stare straight ahead as they go about their miserable lives. It is like the screen is a thin veil that separates the world inside from the one we inhabit. The two worlds are almost the same, but the mere fact that we can look into their world sets it apart from ours. The potential for voyeurism turns the film into a parable for our own universe. It provides us with enough distance that we are able to laugh at the misfortunes that would normally make us cry.
Andersson uses a line from the poem “Stumble Between Two Stairs” by Cesar Vallejo repeatedly throughout the film. “Beloved be the one who sits down”. Songs From the Second Floor was inspired by this poem which extends its backhanded respect to the people of the world who have made poor decisions or found themselves plagued with misfortune. “The one who sits down” seems to refer to those of us who fail, who embarrass ourselves in front of others, or who simply do not make the effort to be better people. It seems to me that Andersson has created a film that celebrates the most revolting aspects of the human condition. We are all beloved, and we are all disgusting.