Songs from the Second Floor
dir. Roy Andersson
Fri Dec 6-Thurs Dec 12 at the Grand Illusion.

Imagine a movie made entirely of commercials, 46 of them, each absurdly intense, but not for antacids or razor blades. Instead, they advertise--oh, call it human decency; call it poetry. Thrillingly, they are both earnest and sardonic. They tell 46 small tales, many interrelated, of Economic Man.

All the tales are wild. A man burns down his business for the insurance money. Hooligans stab and kick a foreigner while a stolid bus queue watches. A girl is sacrificed for the supposed good of all. Many of the little tales are funny. A convention of crucifix salesmen eagerly awaits Y2K. A traffic jam becomes a medieval flagellant procession. A magician's act goes wrong. There are lots of laugh-out-loud laughs, and many a chuckle.

The movie is highly stylized. The actors' faces, ghoulishly whitened, droop impassively. Each tale is told in a single, wide-angle shot, almost always from a stationary camera position. In all the tales but two, the color spectrum is narrow; nearly everyone, male or female, wears a business suit; the comic energy of slowness is everywhere exploited. The characters speak aloud the vacuous clichés of government white papers.

Not all of it worked for me. Two Nazi subplots seemed overly specific and lame. Some of the funny bits lasted a beat too long. I hated the two full-spectrum scenes after my eyes had grown to love the delicate, creamy greens of the rest of the movie.

But everything else delighted me, and the film offers moments of pure cinematic joy. The alienation of a man in a crowded subway car becomes manifest when all the other passengers begin to sing together. A young man quotes extemporaneously from the great Peruvian poet César Vallejo, a poem that reimagines the Beatitudes for our time, and Vallejo's line "Beloved is the one who sits down" then chimes through the rest of the movie. Toward the end a character suggests (an indelible line in throwaway delivery) that people are only pretending they don't like poetry.

I'm resigned to making an ass of myself by trying to describe this movie; in fact, one of the subjects of its cruelest mockery is any attempt to philosophize or theorize our way out of the human muddle. All I can say is that the minute it ended I wanted to watch it over again from the beginning. I refuse to pretend I don't like poetry.

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