June 5, 2015

"You the Living": A Black Human Comedy

Five cooks stand staring out a window; they are partially hidden and separated from the gray world.

They are replaced at the window by one man, and slowly moving past outside is an old man with a walker. He walks with difficulty, bent over, and pulling something behind him.

When I saw what he was dragging––a small dog wrapped up in his leash––I burst out laughing, and kept on laughing with great hilarity. I wanted to kick myself to stop: stop it! the poor dog! but it was so darned funny: aren't we just like that, dragging a life burden that needn't be one; we make our inattentive selves miserable. This was just one small scene among many, a favorite one, in the film You the Living by the Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson. As I was thinking about how to approach writing about Andersson's unique sensibility––mordant, sensitive, critical, loving––and his demanding aesthetics––all the sets in the 50 short segments except for one were constructed on a large sound stage––I thought of Balzac and his Comédie Humaine. Both artists attempt to show life in all its complexity and misery, its desires and disappointments, though Andersson is a lot funnier. He is famous in Sweden as a maker of commercials and you can get a sense of his way of seeing by watching a few of them at this link. I'm sure that his use of short pieces in a feature film was influenced by this work.

You the Living begins with a quote from Goethe, and we later see a bus with Lethe, the river of forgetfulness in Hades, as its destination:
Be pleased then, you the living one, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe's ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot.
We are so often not pleased: we whine, we yearn, we complain; we are sad, feel unloved, unappreciated. A recurring character in the film is a big woman who keeps telling her boyfriend to leave, that no one likes her, no one understands her....go go away. He tries and tries to cheer her up, but it's only when he tells her he has to go home because the oven is on, and that there's a veal roast cooking, does she say that she'll come by later. In the commentary, Andersson explains why he only shows the lives of ordinary people:
I believe that art is universal, both in a geographical and social sense. Art defends man regardless of standing because deep down we are all so very alike.....we all need respect, attention, and love.

There is a great deal of wonderful music in this film, including Dixieland, and offbeat instruments like this sousaphone, not much appreciated by spouses. All these sets were constructed, a work of several years, so the view through a doorway––a place for a figure to stand––with a slight glimpse of another room, is planned. The colors are all grays. The camera does not move. The picture on the wall at left falls into the fish tank from the noise.

Andersson spoke a lot about politics in his commentary, and here is a segment on class: the window washer, wearing workman's blue, is standing outside the posh gallery while the man inside points to spots that he sees; the window washer obediently takes a rag to each spot pointed out. The gallery person is ridiculous and the workman dignified. But I tend to see a larger, more metaphoric meaning in many of these sketches: we can think about how we too often look towards tiny imperfections and let them ruin something beautifully done.

This is an important scene, another setting in a room looking out into a hallway and more doors (and notice the Blossfeldt print hanging on the wall); it reminds me of the Dutch painter de Hooch who often painted rooms opening onto doorways. The doctor is a psychiatrist, worn out and very unhappy, funny in his gray affectlessness; he complains about his patients
...who want me to help them have fun. They demand to be happy at the same time as they are egocentric, selfish, and ungenerous. 
He has given up on trying to make mean people happy; instead he prescribes pills, lots of pills. Why this bleak assessment of humanity can also be humorous is one of the mysteries of this film. We are forced to look at ourselves and realize, yeah, we're pitiful creatures, aren't we? and have a rueful laugh over it.

In a small church, a wry twist on a familiar scene of a woman kneeling and praying "Forgive those....", but her list of people to be forgiven keeps going and going and is not the usual sinners, and she goes on and on and on while the person patting her back wants her to get up so they can leave. Her list includes:
those who are greedy and cheap
who grow rich by paying miserable wages
who withhold the truth from the people
who are heartless, merciless, and quick to pass judgment
newspapers and TV channels that mislead, that distract attention from that which is important

Two people recounted dreams in the film: first a terrible dream of a cement worker who found himself in the home of a rich family, with a dinner table set with 200 year old family china. He prepares to do the tablecloth trick, but instead of all the dinnerware staying on the table, it comes tumbling down and breaking, revealing Nazi swastikas hidden under the cloth. He is put on trial for destroying the china and is sentenced to death by beer-drinking judges. It is the justice system run amok. When the electric chair technician has to check an instruction manual, the humor turns very black.

There was another dream, one of sheer beauty and kindness and love: a young woman meets a rock musician in a bar and falls yearningly in love with him. Her dream shows their little home after the wedding, and their blissful union. He plays a beautifully on the guitar while they look at each other sweetly. Soon I noticed that the scene out the window was changing, as though this very ordinary apartment was a moving train.

Their little home pulls into a station, where a large crowd of well wishers greets them with shouts of congratulations; it is an extraordinary moment. Ah, if only the world could be this generous, this perfect. But the young woman does not have her dream fulfilled.

And...we are all doomed: the bombers will come and life will end. Andersson spoke of the tragedies of the bombing of innocent people, all those leading ordinary lives. I see this final scene less as a political statement than as a metaphor for the death that will come to us all; so, as Goethe wrote, we living ones should be pleased with the life given us before then.


  1. The commercials are NUTS! I can't get enough.

    1. You're very welcome, JBS. I'm glad you like those wacky ads. I think, then, that you'd like the movie.

    2. I did watch the movie, understood two words in it, "brass band", and enjoyed it immensely. It was interesting to follow the threads which led from one vignette to the next.