This is an odd kind of article because generally I think that film reviews, or popular film criticism in general, are attempts to art-ify film, to make the public take films more seriously than entertainment products. I won’t get on my soap box about my problems with the “is film art?” debate, but the purpose of this post is to demystify a film from appearances which might make it seem unapproachable to the average viewer. One that superficially out out of context may seem pretentious but is in spirit quite the opposite.
Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on A Branch Reflecting on Existence is a Swedish absurdist film that’s formally austere; the mis-en-scene consists of a set of static, obtusely triangular, off-center, tableauxs (the skewed perspective a tweaking of traditional renaissance perspective and all that assumes). This formal exactness, and the words “absurdist,” and “Swedish,” will probably scare casual viewers away. The goal of this piece is to try to make the film seem more approachable because I think it deals with very important timely, yet foundational human themes. It’s also really, really funny, sad, and even strangely moving. And also because I think that overly intellectualizing absurdism is just…absurd (I fought with myself as to whether I wanted to go with absurd there, I promise).
The film at first suggests that it will be an illustrative list of encounters with death (something along the lines of a Greenaway film or The ABC’s of Death) but appears to abandon that and we reach the proper action of the film in which two terribly inept comedy gag salesmen (Jonathan and Sam) try, and fail to make money in a sometimes grotesque, linearly confused town.
Familiarity with absurdist theater helps because a lot of the elements are so familiar: Jonathan and Sam are Beckettian characters, and this scene here is reminiscent of Ionesco:
But if you’ve never picked up Ionesco, or only think that Samuel Beckett is the protagonist on Quantum Leap, you’re far more familiar with absurdism than you think.
One of the great works of absurdism is Laurel and Hardy’s “The Music Box” (btw, the Bradbury short story kind of based on the film,”The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair” is really underrated). If you’ve seen that, or if you’ve seen a WC Field’s film you’ve seen an absurdist work. I think one of the reasons that I love absurdism is that it combines two of my favorite things: silent film comedy (or a post-apocalyptic version of it) and existentialist literature, and in the music box you have the Myth of Sisyphus; only here it might be less hopeful than Camus’ essay.
This isn’t a bastardization of the label, or an attempt to make absurdism seem approachable like those [Insert Title of Popular TV Show] and Philosophy books (to be fair, a few of those are quite good). Absurdism was borne out of popular art and popular, lower class theatrical traditions, especially vaudeville, the tradition from which Laurel and Hardy and WC Fields came from.
So what happened? How did a theater based in base, popular forms take on such elitist connotations? For Fredric Jameson, the failure of the many -isms of modernism was that they became separated from the public as a result of canonization and academic institutionalizing. Jameson saw postmodernism, with its “aesthetic populism,” “shlock,” and kitsch, as a reaction against arts it saw as elitist. This is unfortunate because a number of modernist movements’ founders (or forerunners) saw their works as being catalysts for large mass change or healing after WW1. For instance, Brecht’s theater was supposed to be a people’s theater, one that was enjoyable and popular. The canonization of absurdism is perhaps doubly frustrating because it wasn’t a movement to begin with, rather a post-hoc collection of diverse writers with similar themes, most of which vehemently refused to be considered part of an absurdist movement. That said, the attempt to classify an absurdist style does provide us with patterns to guide our expectations. And in approaching A Pigeon, it helps to reset your expectations from traditional narrative.
So here are a few things to expect:
It’s supposed to be funny:
Absurdism is comedic (or anti-comedic; contemporary viewers who have been exposed to year of Adult Swim should have a greater capacity to appreciate this kind of comedy) because it has to be. It’s a collective gallows humor for a world on the brink. And also because there is power in comedy. The great critic/philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote, in the second version of perhaps the most famous and misread essay in film theory, that “collective laughter is [a] preemptive and healing outbreak of mass psychosis.” He’s not talking about high art: “American slapstick comedies and Disney films trigger a therapeutic release of unconscious energies…this is the context in which Chaplin takes on historical significance” (38). By “historical significance” Benjamin isn’t talking about significant to film history, or even art history. He means the history of the world. In the “this context” of the essay he is talking about the very survival of humanity in the face of fascism and total annihilation. This popular, comedic art for Benjamin has potential to bring the masses together to recognize the repressive elements of society that are exploiting them to inflict war and pain.
There’s a lot of Artaud in there, who is sort of the John the Baptist figure of absurdism. Czech literary critic, Jan Culik summarizes the project:
Absurd Theatre can be seen as an attempt to restore the importance of myth and ritual** to our age, by making man aware of the ultimate realities of his condition, by instilling in him again the lost sense of cosmic wonder and primeval anguish. The Absurd Theatre hopes to achieve this by shocking man out of an existence that has become trite, mechanical and complacent. It is felt that there is mystical experience in confronting the limits of human condition.
Absurdism approaches the “limits of the human condition” in darkly comic ways that go back to Kierkegaard’s use of the word irony: that the ideal is up on one level, and we in our world are down on a lower level, and the ironic is the vast difference between the two. Absurdism approaches the great ideas of our time but through characters and figures who are totally inept or incapable of approaching them.
It has a different goal than traditional storytelling
Most movies follow linear and logical causality. A causes B which leads to C, etc. One of the key features of absurdism is that it refuses this. Why? Well, A-B-C suggests that the world makes sense, that we can clearly figure out why things happen, why people do what they do. For absurdist writers, after the World Wars that is no longer proven by lived experience, and on personal levels battles with addiction and mental illness also refuse this sense making style. That said, nearly every review I read of A Pigeon suggest that each vignette was unrelated to the next. That’s not the case, most are related just not in traditional ways we would consider as chronological.
Expect a different connection with the characters
In traditional narrative we expect protagonists: people we root for and relate to because we either identify with them psychologically or want to be them. In absurdism, the characters, much like silent comedy characters, are often types rather than psychologically rounded people. In his massive biography of Beckett, James Knowlson summarizes Beckett’s work as exploring “man as a ‘non-knower’ and as a ‘non-can-er’.” One way to look at the characters in a film like A Pigeon is that they are fictional characters, or rather types who are suddenly thrust into the real world and are not equipped to “do” or do not “know” how to navigate a strange world. This feeling should be relatable to most of us, so despite the artificial nature of many characters we can often identify with them, but more with their spiritual condition than their inner psychology.
This suggests a different audience position. In most films, the films are there to entertain us and we have a privileged relationship to the world of the film. In an absurdist work we lose that privilege.
Enjoy it as sensation
Another way to frame A Pigeon, which might be helpful to some, is as a far more formal, dead pan, and tonally restrained version of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life*. That is not at all to suggest that the Python’s is somehow any less intellectual work, Monty Python, especially in Flying Circus, made some of the most intellectually dense comedy of the last century. Yet, growing up, I was initially turned off to the Pythons because I knew too many other 12 or 13 year olds who quoted lines from Holy Grail in horrible British accents. What I think this points to is that people can miss references to philosophy, medieval history, art theory, brutalist architecture, or foreign films in the Python’s works and still enjoy it on sensory levels: they talk funny, they use silly words, there’s lots of transgressive violence and sexuality. Likewise, you can still appreciate A Pigeon without knowing much about Swedish history, Beckett, or Marxism if you focus less on sense-making and more on appreciating the movement, the language, and the images.
I’m probably intellectualizing more than I wanted to. The best way to experience absurdist theater and films is to experience it, to avoid trying to make sense of it. Most of the time we watch a film for the story. That’s the worst way to approach an absurdist work. Instead let it unfold on its own terms; the more you experience the more it will build together to create a different kind of sense, one that can be quite powerful. It’s a freeing, frustrating, and enriching experience.
* Another helpful/important cross-reference is one of my all-time favorite films: Rene Clair’s socialist musical, A Nous a la liberte.
** Also a key concept to Benjamin’s “Work of Art” essay