Wahlström & Widstrand, 2012.
Reviewed by Henning Koch in SBR 2012:2
Review Section: Non-Fiction
At first sight it is bewildering to see Tolv månader i skugga (Twelve Months in Shadow) presented as a novel, although Moodysson quite plainly writes about himself, offering his musings on society, his life in cinema and why he no longer feels he has it in him to make another film. The reader’s initial resistance is soon won over by Moodysson’s passionate prose and keen observation. It is interesting to look into the mind of a well regarded film director and recognise some actual talent there, not just inflated self-regard. As we move smoothly and cinematically between Småland, Athens, Moscow, Stockholm and Malmö, we sense that a secondary purpose of the author is to muddy the division between autobiography and fiction. Even our own lives are stories, after all, in which we figure as the heroes. Can anyone know this better than a filmmaker, who takes the raw material of life and turns it into edible fare? ‘I am not sure I could do it any more’, Moodysson comments when faced with the prospect of making another film. He has just come back from one of his many trips to Athens to examine the lives of refugees, struggling to survive inside fortress Europe. His descriptions are full of insight but he baulks at the prospect of making a film about them. ‘I could only do something that was absolutely as I wanted it’, he adds. We realise that this year in the dark with no cameras rolling may have given him the opportunity of expressing himself more fully than he could ever have done in a mainstream film.
With this, we come to the second main thrust of this non-fiction novel, namely that filmmaking is living in the shadow of its past. Moodysson constantly makes tired remarks about film festivals that invite him to talk about films that he made some years back. Throughout this ‘novel that is not quite a novel’ Moodysson dwells on the historical figure of Anna Achmatova. In a sense, it is as if he were preparing material for a biopic, but we can be sure that no such film will ever be made. Through writing ‘fact-fiction’ he can create a free-flowing film in his mind, and in ours. Moodysson writes at times as if Achmatova’s destiny (as a poet) and his (as a filmmaker) had something in common. ‘Alone in my little apartment. I carry all those who are dead in my arms.’ Yet, as he senses in this melancholy work, his life as an artist could not possibly achieve the freedom, nor the tragedy of hers. Why? Well, principally because of the form in which he is working.
Of course, film is also art. The growth of filmic art is interestingly if at times slightly arbitrarily explored in Resan till månen (A Trip to the Moon), a companion text to the exhibition of the same name at Bonniers Konsthall (Art Gallery). It features a number of essays and extracts by fiction writers – Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Alexander Ahndoril as well as by academics such as Christiane Paul (film curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art) and Gene Youngblood who has written on video as an art form in Expanded Cinema.
Again, one notes a certain ambiguity when it comes to defining the dividing lines between fiction and fact. In Ahndoril’s radio play Private Film, Ingmar Bergman gives him a video tape containing traces of an argument with an ex-wife. Ahndoril renders the conversation in full, but given his authorship of The Director (tr. Sarah Death) one is left wondering whether he has simply made it all up or if there is a grain of truth in it. The tension created by this uncertainty gives the piece its value. Another contributor, Jan Holmberg of the Ingmar Bergman Foundation, offers an excellent short essay taken from Slutet på filmen (The Ending of the Film, Daidalos, 2011) in which he looks at filmic remakes as a form of obsessive obeisance to past glories. He cites the example of Gus van Sant’s remake of Psycho in which every frame is identical to the original version. Although Bergman once stated that ‘nothing is made for its faults’, Holmberg suggests that the new Psycho may have ‘projected its failure from the start.’ Was van Sant in fact making an artistic statement on the impossibility of repetition? Holmberg also quotes interestingly from Marx, who once said that revolutionary epochs ‘anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service.’
Once we approach the problem of restoring old film copies, we must also face the limitations of the process. Holmberg mentions the impossibility of preserving Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, because ‘the emulsion in the original negative… had a silver content exceeding any available new film stock by far…’ Other rather hair-splitting problems trouble him: the restored copy of Vertigo has a soundtrack in stereo, whereas the original was made in mono. Classic films, then, are already physically disappearing. In the modern era, films are multi-platform digital content.
Sarah Arrhenius, co-editor of A Trip to the Moon, points out that the engagement with film ‘in the visual arts may have something to do with the fact that we find ourselves, due to a technological shift, in a moment after film.’ This is backed up by video installation artist Tacita Dean in Save Celluloid, for Art’s Sake and in Christiane Paul’s excellent piece Expanding Cinema: The Moving Image in Digital Art which gives a useful summary (with accompanying Internet links).
Gene Youngblood’s contribution from Expanded Cinema closes the loop of the discussion. Through the intensifying medium of communication, we are now ‘in direct contact with the human condition’; there’s no longer any need to represent it through art: ‘[this] … virtually forces cinema to move beyond the objective human condition’. It is a statement with which Lukas Moodysson might agree. Film is in a period of structural change. Lars Henrik Gass of the Oberhausen Film Festival has repeatedly made similar arguments. He points out that, in Germany alone, cinema attendance has gone down from over 800 million per year in the 1950’s to a shade over 100 million today. Change is in the air for an industry that once prided itself on reaching the masses. For a short while it managed to do this with cinematic works that will endure as art. However, filmic art today will be found in museums and film festivals, not cinemas.