After exploring a defunct post-punk band in “Joy Division,” helmer Grant Gee undertakes a film essay on W.G. Sebald’s acclaimed novel “The Rings of Saturn” in “Patience (After Sebald).” “Saturn,” hailed as a modern masterpiece, is told via a walking tour through the region of East Anglia, a meticulously mapped itinerary that gives way to the detritus of catastrophes past. Gee follows Sebald’s path with only occasional detours, while intermittently glimpsed talking heads fade in and out of artful black-and-white landscapes. Opening May 9 at Gotham’s Film Forum, this deconstructive pic never wields Sebald’s subversive power but follows evocatively in his wake.
Gee plays with complex juxtapositions of sound and image. He assembles an impressive roster of writers, publishers and photographers, all passionate admirers of “Saturn,” who fill the pic’s soundtrack with comments about their experiences with the book, digressing on its digressions, and adding their own layers of memories and associations. Whole passages of the novel are read aloud by actor Jonathan Pryce, and excerpts from an interview with Sebald further flesh out the docu’s dense audio mix.
Gee only infrequently attempts to visualize a particular passage from the book, and when he does, as with Sebald’s evocation of an apocalyptic dust storm, the effect tends to lessen rather than increase the power of the writing. More often, the helmer chooses as his starting point the book’s strange illustrations, most of them smudgy, processed snapshots that either match the text precisely or take off in directions only subconsciously hinted at (a barely decipherable shot of dead bodies lying in a wood, for instance).
Vistas in motion, seen from a train or car window, gradually give way to more stationary images of eroded cliffs by the sea, or of tree-lined paths continuing off into the distance. Excerpts from long-ago footage of girls in a herring-packing factory and bombing raids over Germany take Sebald’s imaginings into alternate dimensions. Such is the fascination “The Rings of Saturn” exerts overs its readers that some concoct complex diagrams and flow charts to trace the narrator’s journey, and Gee mixes these color graphics with his monochrome imagery.
Sebald ranks as one of the most digressive authors since Montaigne, and every step along his pilgrimage is like a rabbit-hole that drops the reader into an unexplored realm where silkworms, Rembrandt’s “Nightwatch,” dead herrings or the Holocaust hold sway. Gee’s segues, in the form of long dissolves and superimpositions, announce themselves more blatantly, particularly since the artistic commentary that makes up the film’s continuous soundtrack is composed of discrete sections marked by the names of the speakers.