Songs from the Second Floor – Roy Anderson – Part of a proposed trilogy including You, the Living (which I’ve seen, but created less of an impact on first viewing – will revisit). Takes the form of interconnected vignettes (closer to ‘windows’ or remote sketches), with each shot allowed to play out as a single long take-the camera remaining static. This cold and composition-conscious style is maintained throughout. A town of grey oppressive towers, concrete blocks and derelict space, falls prey to an unexplained eternal traffic jam; cars crawl along a road, inching with a sense of futile inevitability toward an undisclosed sense of apocalypse. A large man, his bloated shuffling form wrapped in a ash smudged coat, despairs that his business has burnt down…only to reveal it was he who burnt down the shop. His son has ‘gone nuts from writing poetry’ and is sporadically visited in the sterile corridors of an asylum. To mark the millennium a business contact decides to stock buy/sell crucifixes…only to realize the absurdity of his impractical business ambitions. A magician calls a volunteer onto the stage, the crowd looks on with amiable good will, the magician then proceeds to actually saw a man – his trick going horribly, predictably, wrong. Generic businessmen, ill fitting drab suits and perennial briefcase clutching intent, populate the grey universe of Anderson’s bizarre creation. An anti bourgeois lament of the conformist routine of economic gain, where human interaction is drained and stifled by market values, and where insomniac eyes peel, unseeing through the drudging, endless, absurdist working day. This is a theatrical, sobering and morbidly humorous blend of Kafka’s clinical existentialism and the tragicomedy of Beckett’s ‘end of the world’ conjuring. A truly eccentric, individual and surrealist (without ever needing to rely on visual effects) drama on pathos, despair, the absurd and the frightening…all in the trudging of every day towards some, never seen, never known, abyss.
The camera’s fixed positioning, which allows each scene to evolve around a static, unchanging, viewpoint, demonstrates an artful sense of depth and an intriguingly painterly composition. Imagine Edward Hopper, drained of colour (Diners for the dead) and marinated in a near biblical volume of melancholy…then twisted with a mischievous slap of bleak comedy. There is also the way in which Anderson subjects each figure to a whitening make up; all the faces are cadaverous, sweating and unnervingly chalky. Often a character will stare out to the middle-distance/camera, like a disillusioned model in a Francis Bacon portrait…just without the brush strokes of movement. Everything unfolds with the natural and yet paradoxically otherworldly movement of an interrupted still life, the postures of adopted realism, warped and shuffling out of place. The expressions of Anderson’s actors are pained, waxy, and tangibly physical masks. Each face made grotesque, each character both relatable and opaque, and each unraveling story grimly set in the fatigue of sweating, smelling, wrinkled, fat, flawed and ghoulishly human existence. 9.8/10