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A Second Look: 'Patience (After Sebald)' is literate cinema

Grant Gee's wide-ranging documentary on author W.G. Sebald and his book 'Rings of Saturn' explores the link between the psyche and the environment.

September 15, 2012|By Dennis Lim, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • A still from Grant Gee's movie "Patience (After Sebald)."
A still from Grant Gee's movie "Patience (After Sebald)." (The Cinema Guild )

With every misguided film adaptation of a beloved book, we're reminded of the gulf between cinema and literature, two art forms with vastly different means and effects when it comes to such matters as sensory detail and interior life.

But "Patience (After Sebald)," a documentary about the work of the late German-born author W.G. Sebald, is a striking and ambitious merger of the two, an unusually literal — and literate — attempt to make a film about a book.

Directed by the British filmmaker Grant Gee and new to DVD from Cinema Guild, "Patience" is not quite a biography of Sebald — although it does touch on many aspects of his life and work — but a filmic translation of his best-known book, "The Rings of Saturn," published in German in 1995.

A beguiling hybrid of fact and fiction, part travelogue, part history, part memoir, "The Rings of Saturn" was the book that put Sebald on the map internationally (it was translated into English in 1998). It documents a walking trip through Suffolk on the east coast of England, where Sebald lived and taught for more than three decades.

Especially since the author's death — in a car accident in 2001 at age 57 — "The Rings of Saturn" has inspired literary pilgrims who use it as a guide book, tracking down its coastal villages and medieval churches, hoping to see them simultaneously with their own eyes and through Sebald's.

Like these fans, Gee retraces the footsteps of the book's author and narrator, documenting his ramblings with a 16mm Bolex camera whose grainy black-and-white images match the moody snapshots that often punctuated Sebald's texts. Gee stays close to the book's itinerary, even annotating images and passages (read by actor Jonathan Pryce) with page numbers.

As in the book, this is not a linear journey but a throughline that allows for multiple meditative digressions, on time, memory, exile, historical trauma and more. The task of analysis falls to a diverse roster of uncommonly incisive commentators, most of whom are astute readers as well as fine storytellers.

Poet Andrew Motion, critic and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, novelists Rick Moody and Marina Warner, and artist Tacita Dean, among others, bring distinct perspectives to Sebald's work. Mindful of the visual tedium of the talking-head format, Gee never lets the interview footage take over; faces fade in and out, keeping the focus on words and images.

Combining these deftly entwined insights with layering effects and canny juxtapositions, Gee approximates the book's palimpsest effect and its fondness for wandering down rabbit holes. As such, "Patience" is not just a landscape film but also an essay film, in the spirit of the singular Chris Marker, the late French filmmaker whose sensibility and interests dovetailed in many ways with Sebald's.

A music-video veteran best known for his documentaries "Joy Division," about the Manchester post-punk band, and the Grammy-nominated Radiohead tour film "Meeting People Is Easy," Gee has experience finding cinematic corollaries for other art forms. The music he gravitates to also suggests an affinity for the melancholia that pervades much of Sebald's work.

"Patience" originated as a commission from an arts organization on the themes of place and landscape, and the film is, among other things, a fairly accessible example of what has come to be called psychogeography, loosely defined as the study of the relationship between the psyche and the environment.

Defined by the French Situationists, psychogeography is by now something of a British specialty, thanks to such writers as Iain Sinclair (one of Gee's interview subjects) and the filmmakers Chris Petit (also in the film) and Patrick Keiller ("Robinson in Space"), whose rural English travelogues, threaded with secret histories and hidden connections, are a template of sorts for "Patience."

A worthy tribute to an unclassifiable masterpiece, "Patience (After Sebald)" is an homage that avoids the traps of slavish imitation. It's less an adaptation of "The Rings of Saturn" than an expansion of it — and not just that, less a feat of literary criticism than something more elusive, a film that uses the tools of cinema to evoke the experience and the pleasure of reading.

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