You can retrace the steps, but not the experiences or the revelations. It is a pity, for that is all we desire as we stumble doggedly after the footsteps of the greats. We read the same lines, walk the same walks, stare at the same oceans and kick at the same sands. We’re waiting, hoping for the desired revelations and insights that never come. Experiences truly become our own when they refuse to conform to our expectations.
It must be so, for Patience (After Sebald) to exist. In the film, admirers, friends and students of Sebald trace his meditative walk through Suffolk, England that is his novel, The Rings of Saturn — a genre-defying novel that is based on various historic places that Sebald visits. And instead of finding his experiences, they find their own. They discuss the author, his novel, the locations, themes, history and other cursory tangents, in a dialogue smeared with perspective and personal insight that lend color to what is otherwise a colorless film.
I mean colorless in the literal sense: the film is black and white. The shots carry the same texture and emotion as the images in the novel, which Sebald produced by taking photocopies of photocopies of photocopies. Edges are thwacked and dulled into submission until they are reduced to flickering grains that bleed from one shot to the next, in a manner that is as hypnotic as the voice that accompanies them. And if these shots have a particular order, then it follows the order that thoughts follow in a long walk. They meander. From silk worms to herring, from a walk in the forest to a lonely drive along an empty street. As we travel, excerpts from the novel (narrated by Jonathan Pryce) and the voices of Sebald’s various admirers weave in from one scene to the next, in a tone of depth and intelligence.
To put it crudely, the film is but an academic slide show dedicated to a venerated author. It works, because the author is so eloquent, the subjects so thoughtful, the screen so unobtrusive and the music so sparse and delicate. Had the film been nothing but a reading of The Rings of Saturn accompanied with images of the book’s various locations, then that would have worked too, and indeed it does when it acts as such. In the opening, we hear Sebald’s beautiful prose — as a train whistles on screen and birds twitter off screen. It’s charming and melancholic, rather soothing in its bare simplicity.
For reasons I cannot exactly explain, I also found the scene rather touching. I say this with the full expectation it will not be so for others. Such is the nature of the film. It is a collection of personal thoughts and reflections, and some of the moments will be meaningful; others as dry as an academic lecture. Revelations will be personal, the foundation of what the subject describes as the “fundamental mismatch between the footstepper and footsteppee.”
A film built on the fundamental mismatch between the footsteps of an author and the footsteppee of his admirers invites the suggestion that it is essential to read the book prior to viewing the film. I hold the adamant opinion that a film be able to stand on its own two feet regardless of its literary lineage, and Patience (After Sebald) does this full well.
“It was customary in a home where there had been a death, to drape black mourning ribbons over all the mirrors and all canvasses depicting landscapes, so that the soul, as it left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a lost glimpse of the land now being lost forever.”Imagine hearing these lines for the first time in the soothing voice of Pryce, as the film slowly reels out of a haunting overview of the criss-cross path of Sebald’s walk. An academic film that allows ignorance on the subject to enrich the experience. It’s quite something.