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Songs From the Second Floor (Roy Andersson) 2000
After two long years, Songs From the Second Floor, Swedish director Roy Andersson’s apocalyptic look at the dangers inherent in modern society, finally has opened in the United States, and I think this is one instance where the delay caused by the film’s inability to get distribution might cause serious harm to its stateside perception. Safely ensconced midway through the year 2002, any millennial tension feels like a long gone fad. Y2K seems about as relevant to our lives as the Pet Rock does, and that’s a shame, since Andersson’s movie would have fed off of whatever fears we still had lingering a few years back. Essentially beginning as a Brazil for contemporary times, Songs develops as it continues into a broad and scathing critique of the way we live. Andersson argues here that mankind has become so obsessed with capitalist goals that we simply can’t be bothered to notice the divine. There’s really only one good idea in this movie, but the director runs with it and presents it with an unforgettable visual panache.
Songs begins rather unassumingly as a derisive appraisal of the corporate world, and in early scenes we watch as its characters, almost universally dressed in three-piece suits, scurry about. While Lasse, one pathetic soul who hasn’t missed a day of work in fourteen years, is suddenly fired by his weasel of a middle manager, every door that lines the endless and stark hallway where the humiliation takes place is cracked open, with a pair of beady eyes meekly peering out. It’s not until the next shot, though, that we notice that the dismissal took place at 4:30, presumably after one last day of work was wrung out of him. The film is loaded with such small humorous details, many of them tiny fragments of the compositions that Andersson creates. I imagine not even a high-end HDTV could do full justice to the visual majesty of the film, because of this meticulous art direction. Instead of stopping to sympathize with poor Lasse for long, though, the film moves on to an impressive procession of inventive dioramas that further flesh out this urban hell. Endless, unexplainable traffic jams and Buñellian groups of businesspeople that travel down the street while flagellating each other are but a few of the sights that Andersson has to show us on this tour of a melancholy dystopia that feels eerily familiar. The stories that eventually arise here are deliberately clichéd (a passion play unfolds, a mistress begs her lover to leave his wife, a woman complains that her boyfriend doesn’t love her after he fails to call her before stopping off for a drinking binge after work), so that they can remind us of reality, and in that proximity to the truth of our lives, the film gathers much of its power.
The quote, “Beloved is the one who sits down,” prefaces the film, and though several characters repeat it explicitly during the movie’s running time, it seems to point most explicitly to Andersson’s directorial style. He employs here a camera that literally sits down. Nowhere during the movie does he pan (though he does zoom a few times), and the viewer as a result remains a still and patient observer that awaits the inevitable. Luckily Andersson’s compositions are so gorgeous that the immobile camera never for a moment leads to visual boredom. Despite the lack of panning, he connects the shots, which rarely take place more than once in the same room, by almost always showing somewhere in the frame a doorway or a window. Characters are often seen entering or exiting from those doors, creating the impression that these tableaux are multi-layered vistas that expand beyond where we can see. Perhaps more importantly than endowing the film’s images with a spatial depth and sophisticated visual complexity, these portals create the illusion that each set is connected to the others, and suggest that anywhere that we go in Songs’ world, more of the same awaits us.
Songs From the Second Floor feels like a cryptic puzzle of a title, and it’s never explicitly explained, but I believe it refers specifically to one scene about a third of the way through in which Kalle, one of the many beleaguered businessmen in the film, is riding home on a subway car after he’s set fire to his business in hopes of collecting insurance money. In a moment of breathtaking beauty, the passengers of the crowded car begin singing an ethereal and operatic song that leaves Kalle strangely indifferent. The “second floor” referred to here, I imagine, is meant to be Heaven itself, which is upstairs from the first floor that we call Earth, and this song sent from it was nothing less than a miracle, but because of his urban malaise, it leaves Kalle utterly unmoved. From this point on, Kalle becomes an ironic Christ figure for this tortured society, which has casually cast aside Jesus, who as one disgruntled man remarks, “should have kept up with the times.”
A Christ that doesn’t equate the human soul with dollar signs makes no sense in the capitalist culture of Songs. During one scene, a hundred year old man is celebrated for all he’s accumulated through his long life, but no one seems to notice that his odd reward for his astonishing productivity is that he gets to rot away in a rest home that’s a bit more posh than usual. For all of his possessions and land, his senile state seems a small price to pay to those around him. When the despairing Kalle goes to the church for monetary guidance, the clergy chastise him and complain about their own economic woes. Though the world seems to still be filled with people who are willing to commiserate with those less fortunate (if only for the self-gratification it provides), the financial productivity of person is the sole way to determine an individual’s worth here, and after he cons his way to a substantial insurance windfall, the Chirst figure Kalle’s business, and very soul, is resurrected.
Kalle’s attempts to convert the masses to his cause, though, are underhanded and packed with ulterior motives. He attempts to sell some shoddily made replicas of the crucified Christ to people, but no one seems interested in that outmoded brand of iconography at the turn of the millennium. When one of the Jesuses nearly falls off its cross and begins swinging in the background of a shot, it initially appears to be some easy anti-Christian criticism about how easily and shoddily faith can be converted into commodity, but we later find that it prophesizes Kalle’s own wavering reluctance to step into his destined role. Because he suffers as the masses of Songs’ world do, however, he is the perfect martyr for them. The pain and worry that he feels seem to be universal among the human race of the year 2000, whose every facet of life seems to be encumbered with struggles. The last remnants of resigned hope that stir among the people of faith speak of a vague “new day” that the film’s end suggests is imminent.
As the end of the film, and the film’s world, encroaches, the populace begins to grow more and more frenzied, until they regress to the point that they desperately attempt a paganistic sacrifice (prefaced by a hilarious scene in which they attempt to convince their young offering that they know best) in hopes that it will stave off the apocalypse. It’s quite obvious, though, that Andersson places little stock in the beliefs of these people, who seem to be the closest to theological experts that this world has to offer, since he gives equal screen time to the viewpoints of the insane on issues like religion and commerce. The film’s shocking final scene tells us that even the afterlife offers no respite from the madness, however, as Judgment Day is unleashed upon an unwilling Messiah, who cravenly gives up on humanity. As I noted earlier, Songs From the Second Floor is a movie that has a one-track mind, but it isn’t afraid to follow that track to its end. It offers a rich but supremely pessimistic alternate world that is far too close for comfort to the one that I live in. I shudder thinking about what a second viewing might reveal.
* * * 1/2