A few seconds after the title of Grant Gee’s film fades, a subtitle appears that tells us what the next 84 minutes are going to be about: “A Walk Through The Rings of Saturn.” Patience (After Sebald) is a tour through a book rather than a visit to a place or the story of a life. Gee does, at times, show us locations referred to by the words of the book, but, as several interviewees say, it’s foolish, really, to follow in Sebald’s footsteps. So, like a good reader, Gee follows Sebald’s words.
Patience is a layered, often leisurely film, content to linger on images or, in one instance, plunge the screen into blackness for a few moments. The film begins and ends with the opening and closing words of The Rings of Saturn, wonderfully read by the actor Jonathan Pryce, whose uninflected, almost monotonous voice has the requisite underlying hints of sadness and melancholy. Packed into the center of Patience are superbly edited interviews, scenes of East Anglia, clips from vintage documentary films (the British fishing industry, World War II, the hatching of silkworms). In a film equivalent of Sebald’s multi-layered text, Gee often has two, if not three distinct films superimposed : his own contemporary documentary, a vintage film, and the slow scanning of the words from Sebald’s book. The visual tracks and the audio track act like tectonic plates, shifting underneath each other and causing momentary, almost random disruptions that jar the viewer into seeing new relationships. The film is predominately black and white, although there are brief incursions into color film, as well as sequences when small color films are inset within the dominant black and white image.
By visually and aurally keeping Sebald’s words first and foremost in the viewer’s attention, Gee emulates the act of attentive reading. As the film moves through the book (always reminding us that we are focused on a book, Gee frequently notes exactly what page the film is referencing), Gee digresses to a geographic site, or permits a talking head to propose an interpretation or or explanation of Sebald’s text or insert a bit of Sebald’s biography, or, as Sebald often did in his books, simply leaves us staring at an inane, odd, but somehow fitting image. It’s precisely how an engaged reader would move through Sebald’s meandering text, pausing briefly to wonder about an odd reference (what does the Emperor of China have to do with the bridge over the river Blythe?) or reflect on a particularly beautiful or unexpected turn of phrase. Is there another film like this, a film that simulates “reading” a book? I can’t think of one.
The talking heads (who, for the most part, remain offscreen talking voices) are a well-chosen lot that includes: Robert Macfarlane (writer), Christopher MacLehose (publisher), Adams Phillips (writer and psychoanalyst), Barbara Hui (creator of LitMaps), William Firebrace (architect), Rick Moody (writer), Bill Swainson (editor), Kate Mitchell (theater director), Iain Sinclair (writer), Lise Patt (editor, Searching for Sebald), Christopher Woodward (writer), Tacita Dean (artist), Jeremy Millar (artist), Michael Silverblatt (KCRW radio interviewer), Dan Gretton (writer), Marina Warner (writer), Sir Andrew Motion (poet), Arthur Lubow (journalist), and Chris Petit (writer & filmmaker). Poet and Sebald translator Michael Hamburger appears via clips from an earlier film. And Sebald himself is heard, talking about Virginia Woolf, Bleak House, and other topics), via Silverblatts’ great radio interview, made only eight days before Sebald’s death. Gee elicits many great quotes, but one of my favorites comes from Macfarlane, who calls Sebald a “biographer who walks his subjects back into life or maybe he walks forward after them into death.”