“Patience (After Sebald)”. W.G. Sebald vs Grant Gee

Adriana Prodeus

“Devoted readers of Sebald will already be lining up along West Houston Street with dog-eared paperbacks, waiting for the Film Forum box office to open”, wrote The New York Times before the opening of” Patience (After Sebald)”. And although the film was somewhat embellished, it turned out to be a cult hit, at least as much any grainy black & white documentary about literature can be a cult hit.
Director Grant Gee, known for his documentary films about bands, including Joy Division, Radiohead and Gorrillaz, initially planned to do a performance piece in which he would follow the path of his favourite writer from Suffolk, lifting and placing stones in places that were of relevance to the book. He could not imagine that this prose could be translated into moving images. “Because of the hypertext-y, encyclopedic style of his writing, it’s difficult to translate into conventional cinema,” he said. But Gee finally decided to make such a movie: a multi-layered, collage, presenting different visual textures.
He shot the film in 16mm during a solo “English pilgrimage”, and conducted extensive archival work, placing together images, and interviews with friends, artists and intellectuals in the film. The work he performed was similar to that of the writer’s, following various parallel tropes. The work that resulted is an essay about the book as well as an interpretation of it. It is also a personal journal and a sketch for a portrait of Sebald. “The Rings of Saturn” is so dense that the work could go on without end.
The film manages to do the impossible: it not only relates the story but also reflects the mood of the book, its appearance (the layout of text, and the concept for the layout of the illustrations on successive pages), its overtones with critics and readers, and its impact on other writers and artists. It also allows the prose itself, masterfully read by Jonathan Pryce, to resound. This is all complemented by the music of The Caretaker – looping and sombre, composed of hissing, scratching, and creaking. It captures Sebald’s style perfectly – it flows like a dark, thick liquid, reflecting an atmosphere of solitude, melancholy, and despair.
The tropes expressed in “Patience” enrich the reading of the book, sharpening our eye and ear to Sebald’s masterful craftsmanship. They also provide a perfect prelude to “The Rings of Saturn”, sketching out the great mystery contained in this book.
Like the motif of silk, which is used to make black-dyed fishing nets that form “a kind of wall in the water which the fish swim up against in desperation until at length their gills catch in the mesh, and finally they are throttled during the near-eight-hour process of hauling up and winding the nets.” Silk for Sebald is a sign of death, spun slowly, almost imperceptibly, over ten chapters, and then stretched out in the final pages, revealing its horror in full. Earlier, an executioner performs an execution with a silk cord, and later, the poet Swinburne looks like a Bombyx mori caterpillar as he eats lunch, devouring the food in front of him piece by piece, after which he took a nap, and then “abruptly awoke to new life, convulsed with electric energy, and, flapping his hands, flitted about the library, like a startled moth, clambering up and down the stands and ladders to fetch the one or other treasure from the shelves.”
“The Rings of Saturn” forms a fascinating labyrinth in which you can also find Joseph Conrad – the fate of the author and the Korzeniowski family is intertwined with Sebald’s journey in a completely unexpected way.