About Endlessness at Venezia 76: The Emperor’s New Clothes
Films are, believe it or not, about things.
There are many ways a film can be about things – can have themes and ideas – and not all are equal. The best way a film can be about things is if it actually has ideas – it actually shows you something new and challenges your way of thinking. For example, Venice’s own Ema presented unconventional ideas of family and liberation that made me think about social constructs and morality.
Second best, perhaps, is when a film doesn’t necessarily present ideas but encourages you to come up with your own. A film like Solaris, for instance, asks us whether we can truly know or love another person. The film doesn’t necessarily argue the issue or put forward a thesis, but it asks us to consider, given the evidence, whether or not we can comprehend another soul. This allows us to come to deeper and new understandings about things that we hadn’t really thought about before.
By far the worst way a film can be about something is by saying or asking completely nothing. These kinds of films present situations which the viewer has to ‘understand’ by trying to figure out what the movie is ‘about’, in the same way that one might look at a painting and say, after a long period of thought, ‘it is about loneliness’.
It is the worst way a film can be about something, because it provides no fresh ideas, and doesn’t even encourage the spectator to come up with their own – instead, it asks the intelligent viewer to superimpose their own pre-existing knowledge of themes and concepts onto the film in order to understand it. In other words, instead of Solaris asking, say ‘can we ever know another person, truly?’, it would simply asks ‘what is Solaris actually about?’ (if it fit into this third way).
The only good that can come out of this third type of film is the self-congratulation and self-edification of the viewer, who now believes they are intelligent as they have been able to understand the film. Unfortunately, these emotions can often be misunderstood, and the self-gratifying feeling of having understood something hard to understand is powerful enough to fool people into thinking that certain films in this third category are incredibly powerful or intelligent. This is impossible, because the power and intelligence comes solely from the mind of the beholder – the film itself has nothing to say. If the viewer did not already know the themes and ideas they superimposed onto the moving image, they would be unable to understand it as the film itself doesn’t convey the ideas.
I’m not sure if that makes good sense – I hope it does – but About Endlessness easily fits into this third category. A loose series of short viginettes which tell us absolutely nothing about the human condition and ask us no provocative questions about it whatsoever, it’s a film that only gains intellectual power from the critic/viewer having the mental capacity to ‘understand’ the point being made and thus believing the work to have a ‘theme’ or intelligence, when in fact they have come up with the idea themselves, and not Roy Andersson.
An example might make things clearer. In one of the viginettes in the film, a man expresses annoyance that a friend of his has a PHD. The critic thinks hard about what this could possibly mean and deduces that the scene demonstrates the feeling of uselessness and pointlessness of life that one feels when they get older – the sudden realisation that nothing you did mattered to anyone and that your life has been a disappointment. The critic might then think, if they aren’t so critical after all, that the film is very astute in showing this man and his problems because it has illuminated a facet of the human condition. But the scene doesn’t illuminate anything at all; instead, the critic has superimposed something that they already knew onto the moving image to concur that ‘this is what the film is about’. If the critic did not already know that life was rather futile and disappointing and pointless, in the main, then they would not be able to understand the scene – for the scene does not actually convey that idea.
Another example, for posterity. A group of young girls start dancing randomly on the street. The critic says ‘this illuminates the transcendent random capacity for beauty that humanity possesses’. But does a group of girls randomly dancing on the street really demonstrate, in any meaningful way, any transcendent beauty? Not really. We think it does, in the context of this film, because the sheer pointlessness of these viginettes requires us to superimpose ideas where there are none. We see ideas because we believe there will be ideas in this sort of film, and then we search the frame for meaning that quite possibly does not exist. The meaning we find, though, will be our own meaning.
You understand, hopefully, my problem with About Endlessness – it is not about endlessness. It is about nothing. And a film this random – this absurd – which is about nothing is… well… kind of pointless.
That’s not to say, however, that there are not things to like. For starters, like all Roy Andersson films it is visually spectacular. Solely shot on sound stages, and cloaked in Scandinavian browns and greys (not a primary colour is to be found), these scenes are aesthetic, geometric wonders that are both post-modern and brutalist at once. They are set designs that practically ooze depression, but in their clean-cut shiny surfaces also reflect prosperity and a certain kind of middle-class ennui-ridden prosperity.
Every single thing is exactly where it should be to the point of visual ecstasy. In one particular scene set in a supermarket, a grotesque, gaping monkfish leers at the audience out of the corner of the frame – staring dead-eyed straight out of the screen. It’s a powerful, amusing, disgusting image that’s kind of genius. In another scene, as a man is being crucified, a couple aimlessly drink wine in a shop window – failing to notice what’s going on outside, or simply not caring. It’s these wonderful, beautiful details that make the piece worth watching.
It is a film whose sets belong in an art gallery, and whose lush visual design alone prevents a score of any less than three stars being awarded to it. Even as I struggle to see the ideological value in About Endlessness, make no mistake that I am in awe at its aesthetic power and prowess.
Several scenes, too, do have a sort of raw energy that make them stand out from the rest. A moment where a man destined to be shot begs for his life has a chilling, poignant sense of futility and fragility to it – stirring emotions and ideas that I’m not sure I can adequately explain in this review. At another point, surely the highlight of the film, we’re given a glimpse of Hitler walking into his crumbling bunker at the end of the Second World War – the look on his face conveys the indescribable feeling of such a titanic defeat and disappointment in the moments before his suicide. It is a brave and terrifying section of film – one that invites us to sympathise, in some way, with a mass murderer – but one which has an almost extra-terrestrial power as a result.
To the extent that the film is funny, or crowd pleasing, its ideas are mostly hackneyed and wouldn’t raise more than a smattering of polite laughter in a mainstream picture outwith a festival setting. A priest has stopped believing in God – how many times have we heard this one before? He dreams of being crucified, and the crowd laughs, but it’s the cheapest, easiest sketch Andersson could have come up with. Later, the priest downs a bottle of communion wine, which also gets a laugh, but getting drunk on sacred spirits is one of the oldest gags in the book. It is, above all, lazy. A sequence involving a dentist who’s just a bit…. done with life, on the other hand, comes close to comedic genius – causing the biggest laugh on the Lido this year and provoking an ecstatic round of applause.
Slight, uneven, and feeling perilously underdeveloped at just 73 minutes, About Endlessness is a mostly pointless affair – especially when compared to the similar A Pidgeon Sat on a Branch Contemplating Existence. But it’s incredible, artful production design and a number of stand-out sequences make it worth a watch at the very least. Just don’t expect any miracles.