Saturday 28 January 2012

The long walk: "Patience (After Sebald)"

To simplify, first of all: Patience (After Sebald) is a film about a book about a man going for a walk. The book is The Rings of Saturn, written by the German author W.G. "Max" Sebald, whose narrator, a writer searching for new projects in the wake of completing his most recent work, sets off on a stroll through the East Anglian countryside, each new location sparking a flurry of free associations. As the reputation of Sebald's book grew among a small yet devoted cult, Saturn aficionados came to map the route the narrator took, and to make their own pilgrimages across this particular landscape; the latest to do so is Grant Gee, the documentarist whose earlier Joy Division had been at least as interested in the metaphysics of that band as it was in any of their records.

Off Gee toddles with his camera, through Lowestoft (where your correspondent spent many happy holidays as a boy) and Southwold, along the River Blyth into Rendlesham Forest, and then on through Yoxford to Ditchingham Church outside Norwich, the images he sends back overlaid with musings from fellow Sebaldites: writers Rick Moody and Marina Warner, theatre director Katie Mitchell, psychologist Adam Phillips et al. Some of these talking heads are more expected than others: seems you can't float the word "psychogeography" without Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit, those Candymen of high-concept cartography, appearing.

As a meander down memory lane, both Sebald's book and Gee's film are hardly sunny. Saturn was published in the mid-1990s, and its peregrinations take in ethnic cleansing in the Balkans; other reference points include the Holocaust and Tarkovsky's film Stalker (subject of a new and not entirely dissimilar literary project by the writer Geoff Dyer, oddly enough), plus the cliff off which poet laureate Andrew Motion's grandmother threw herself. Shot in a grainily evocative monochrome under grey, wide-open skies, the film reclaims this region as a place of sadness - of rubble and ruins, abandoned homes, factories and caravans, of sand and ash only moistened by tears from above; the idea, in both Sebald's writing and Gee's direction, is that we might turn a corner, or a page, and find ourselves in Belsen-Bergen, or the death camps of the Congo.

As such, Patience (After Sebald) probably isn't one for an Orange Wednesday. (Given Gee's track record, I'd suggest a Blue Monday would be more appropriate - though one sorely misses the warming Manc humour of his earlier film.) In every sense, the writer and the filmmaker are covering a lot of ground here, yet while certain anecdotes stick in the mind and reverberate - one contributor comes up with a spot of near-supernatural alchemy to bring this journey to a close - so too there are a lot of flat passages dependant on highly individualised readings of the text. It remains an adventurous film, both physically and mentally, but in the interests of the public health, I feel I should point out that sitting in a cinema to be told these things and shown these sights is a poor substitute for reading the book and taking the long walk for yourself.

Patience (After Sebald) is in selected cinemas.

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