Patience (Grant Gee) and The Rings of Saturn (W.G. Sebald) – Capturing Perception.

There are a number of reception possibilities attainable when watching Grant Gee’s 2011 essay film, Patience (After Sebald).  Any film based on a book or around an author is always going to separate its viewers into two groups; those who have read the original source material and those who have not.  While the latter will be seeking to latch onto the their initial experience of film as it happens, the former will be no doubt be cast within the inescapable lure of the original book and its contexts.

For a film about W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, a book whose main goal is to attempt the capture of perception and memory, this is a pleasingly parallel relationship but also one that perhaps loosens some of the subtleties of Gee’s recreation and analysis of Sebald’s writing and philosophies.  Gee’s film is at once arresting, far more basic as a cultural meme than Sebald’s original prose if only for the fact that it manages to attain to that same capture of perception but in a relatively short experiential time.

This short essay is going to look at the aesthetic ways in which Gee goes about representing Sebald’s beautiful walk in the Suffolk and Norfolk countryside but also how, by recreating and providing comment on some of Sebald’s techniques, it manages to overtly comment and provide perhaps the most interesting and refreshing assessment of his work since the writer’s untimely death in 2001.

The Distance of Repetition.

For those who had the reversed relationship of coming to Gee’s film before approaching Sebald, reading The Rings of Saturn may be a stranger experience than the film gives credit too.  While the film has a very obvious visual quality – that of landscapes, eerie in their M.R. James-esque emptiness – the book spends little time on relating the actual physical, descriptive attributes of the landscape itself.  Instead, Sebald uses the landscape, or more precisely his ever changing reaction to it, as a way into addressing humanity’s most recent actions and atrocities.

It would be impossible for Gee to emulate this relationship with visuals, quite simply because the stimulus or the surface of the film is the first of many attractions of the medium itself.  Whereas Sebald had free reign to pick and choose the beauty and portrayal of this endlessly stunning landscape, if Gee wished to show it in cinematic terms (in order to start the trains of thought so vital to the book’s purpose), he has no choice but to present the image first before questioning it (later going on to overlap and montage to some similar effect).

This means that Patience has a natural distance from its, already distancing, source novel simply because of the different attributes of the medium of film.  There is, however, a vast difference between the distances created by the two artists.  Sebald’s distance comes from an interweaving of many different strands such as the writing and experience of Thomas Browne or the repeated connection to silk and silkworms.  From what at first appears to be, in essence, a travelogue, the book becomes a mine of ideas and remembrance built on this distant interweaving.

Sebald often links these small ideas to bigger occurrences, namely the various holocausts that humanity has bestowed upon itself over the last few centuries.  As a writer, his style is instantly one of melancholy, seeing past the beautiful environment and, as one of the talking heads suggests in Gee’s film, attempting instead to capture perception; that sense of a stimulus triggering off many different ideas outside of the acknowledging of the environment as simply an aesthetic one.

Gee in some ways attempts a more simplified concoction of this relationship and it works well for the film.  To truly capture the essence of Sebald’s experience only the act of reading of his work can provide the Joycean river of words with all its minutiae and flowing nature intact.  Yet Gee provides the viewer with enough potential Sebaldian imagery to provide a taster, perhaps even a warm up, for the true atrocities that lie in wait behind the seemingly pleasant and innocent East Anglian landscape.

Past/Future Slippages Through 16mm Film.

Perhaps the most startling thing about Patience is the idiosyncratic and unique textural delights provided by Gee filming most of the footage on black and white, 16mm film.  This provides two separate but ultimately linked ties to Sebald’s work and The Rings of Saturn.

The first of these is the obvious aesthetic link with one of Sebald’s more intriguing inclusions in his work; that of the grainy black and white photographs that seem to hint at so much in spite of some of their obvious banality.  Rarely are these photos of clear quality; in fact it’s fair to describe his own personal photos (not all of them are taken by him) as impressions only possible in the pre-digital era.

To tie in with these visual representations of Sebald’s work, the use of 16mm film naturally seems like a logical step in presenting and critiquing The Rings of Saturn.  They have that similar grain, that sense of finding something more unnerving behind the open landscape or the artefacts from history.  Within The Rings of Saturn, Sebald presents these images alongside his writing as if in some way trying to evoke the same response in the viewer as he has clearly experienced when seeing such visuals.  As proved in the film, even with walking the route that Sebald takes for the book, it is impossible to mirror his perception, especially in regards to his reception and experience of history which very few actually reading book will have anything similar to.

The second link between the 16mm and Sebald’s work relates to something that writer, Robert MacFarlane, has said about Sebald.  When describing the writer, he called him a “post-modern antiquarian”.  This could be an equal description of the use of 16mm film in the digital age; that while its use seems post-modern because of the new digital landscape in which it sits, it also never loses its sense of looking and feeling old and of being from the past.  This medium can transport even the most modern day of environments into some unnamed past, forever captured in grain and shadow.

For a writer who is at once both extremely modern in his style but shot through with the prism of a classical antiquarian, the 16mm film perhaps is the most aesthetically pleasing and apt model left to us when exploring the writing of W.G. Sebald.  Like his writing, it is just as littered with scratches and grooves that make it both a leaping jump towards recreating perception and something deeply humanistic to experience.

Adam Scovell

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