May 1, 2003

Cornell Cinema

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We live in a society where nearly everything — time, happiness, youth, love — has been sacrificed in the name of progress and money. Think back for a moment to the climate surrounding the millennium’s approach: fear, uncertainty, absolute desperation, all because a few computers might read the date wrong. Swedish director Ron Andersson’s Songs From the Second Floor captures that mood perfectly, exploring the place of humanity in the computerized, corporatized world.

Songs willfully subverts narrative structures, working more on a metaphorical and poetic level than a literal one. The film’s many characters are bare sketches, caricatures who fit certain “types” in modern society; the catch, of course, is that all the types are pretty similar, reflecting the increasing homogeneity of the industrialized world. Each of these characters is disconnected from those around them. Interpersonal relationships mean very little, particularly when compared to the pressures and responsibilities of work. Even love is marginalized, subordinate to the interests of the corporation.

Everyone in the film is lost, from a struggling salesman haunted by an old business partner and a hanged young man, to a man who’s been sawed in half by an incompetent magician, to a mental patient who wrote poetry before going insane. The film simply skips around from one perfectly calibrated scene to the next, flitting in and out of people’s lives and catching them at odd little moments in their mundane daily existences. Each shot in the film feels perfect; the sense of framing and composition is that of a still photographer. And indeed, there is virtually no camera movement — the camera simply shows us an interesting moment and then sticks with it until it’s over.

There are plenty of interesting moments, too. Andersson rejects realistic storytelling in favor of a surrealistic sense of visual poetry, in which a cult of bishops pushes a blindfolded young girl off a cliff (“sacrificing the bloom of innocence”), a crowd of people march through the streets periodically whipping themselves, and a hanged Russian ghost follows around a businessman with the noose still dangling from his neck. Each of these incidents comes virtually without context: the only thread running throughout the entire movie is a subtle mockery and satire of corporate society’s tendency to subjugate the individual will. All of these characters are ground up by their jobs, treated like dirt by their bosses, and forced to spend half their time commuting in four hour traffic delays where nobody gets to go anywhere.

Andersson’s surreal, almost flippant treatment of his subject helps to alleviate some of the oppressive aura of depression and hopelessness running through these characters. Thus, we can laugh a little at the truly bizarre circumstances on the screen, even while acknowledging each shot’s dark emotional undercurrents. In one memorable sequence, a failed salesman piles up a heap of his latest rejected product, giant crucifixes with Jesus mounted somewhat shabbily on them; the scene’s funny in a “whoa he’s throwing Jesus around” kind of way, but it’s also an intensely sad comment on the rigors of the sales profession and commercialism’s hold over everything.

It’s the film’s ability to balance its hopeless perspective with sardonic lunacy that makes it both entertaining and thought-provoking. Each scene is meticulously arranged to deliver its allegorical message, and each line of dialogue has a double edge of bitterness and humor. These characters are acting out their sad, monotonous lives in a gray, crumbling world not too far removed from our own, but their reactions to the world around them are much like those of a rat in a cage. As they scramble and fight trying to get free, all along they are going round and round on a wheel for the entertainment of their masters.

Archived article by Ed Howard