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A Pattern of islands: The power of personalised genres

1. Atoll Order

In 1952 a young British diplomat called Arther Grimble was posted to the (South Sea) Gilbert and Ellis Islands and he wrote of his amusing experiences in a book called A Pattern Of Islands. This phrase also seems a good image for a trip through selected Nordic films from the last few decades (while trying to avoid ship-wreck on the rocks of over-extended metaphor en route…).

The pattern – and purpose – is that of individual psychological meaning.

The islands are, of course, the five Nordic countries. Islands firstly by geography: either they are, or contain, islands. Islands secondly by political size: small countries struggling for identity in much bigger, turbulent seas. And finally islands by culture, film and other, a rich archipelago that is individually diverse but also collectively linked.   

2. I classify therefore I am

We humans are continually trying to impose order, and therefore understanding and meaning, on the waves of experience and information that come our way. Applied psychology is one approach, whether in formal therapist-client relationships or via pop-psychology that may only be intermittently helpful (In This Month’s Magazine –  ‘Is Your Hamster A Mouse Or A Lion In The Nesting Box…?’).

The creative process offers other ways.

The first, evidently, is individual artistic creativity. If profound, it fits what Jean Renoir said in an essay commemorating the life of Danish film director Carl Dreyer. “Did God give us the world so that we could take it apart and analyse it? This is what man is doing today. The investigations of the scientist are confined to the body and its surrounding elements. The investigations of the artist are aimed at knowledge of the soul”.

On the same topic, the psychologist Rollo May said the following (paraphrased) in his book ‘Love and Will’. “The neurotic and the artistic temperaments are similar in that they are both very sensitive to meaning and contradictions in their own lives and / or in society at large. The artist can, however, analyse these feelings and give them objective form in their creative work. By so doing they can make the conflicts intellectually tangible, easier to deal with, and also communicate them to other people. The neurotic personality, however, is unable to give their feelings coherent form: hence they cannot get to grips with them, let alone communicate them, and consequently they suffer”.

A second aspect of the creative process that establishes meaning is critical analysis of other people’s work. Building genres, classifications and patterns is part of this: it’s one of our key cognitive tools for imposing order quickly. We do it as film-consumers, using sets of ‘cine-syllogisms’ to help us: general rules to derive information about unknown particulars. ‘Most Nordic Noir films involve a complicated, grisly murder: a new NN film has been released: therefore it is likely to contain a complicated, grisly murder’ (“The two parts of a dismembered body are found on different transatlantic airliners travelling in opposite directions. The top half is wearing a knitted Faroese jumper. Discuss”).

3. He who chooses his own path needs no map

However if we want to apply the critical analysis approach ourselves to Nordic (or any other) cinema, there’s an obvious problem: thousands of people skilled in film studies have already written about the subject at length. If we’re fortunate this is done with an insight that matches word-count, though from time to time we surely feel tempted to apply the comment made by a fellow-philosopher about Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: ‘The journey was long, but the distance travelled all too short…”. Writers on Nordic cinema may all be fine people – by default the class of people who love Nordic film generally are – but it serves no purpose to flatter them badly by paraphrasing them ineptly.

So we are left with a third type of meaning that can be derived from the creative process, one that every individual can find, an additional type of pattern that crosses genre-boundaries: that of significant personal theme. Professional film-critics and cinephiles pick out themes as well of course, which can be very helpful if we are not filmically very literate, but at another level a theme almost certainly has to be an individual discovery in order for it to have long-term significance for us. We notice a certain pattern because at some level it resonates with our lives in a way another theme will not, and our antennae are tuned to see it.

And, if we are lucky, other people may in turn find our personal theme interesting, or useful as a trigger to finding their personal theme(s). There has to be some quality control however: obsessing about the use of the colour ‘green’ in Nordic film interior shots across the decades might be interesting (to some), but it is hardly significant. It smacks more of the academic B movie, ‘Desperately Seeking Dissertation’.

It is to this third type of meaning that the section header above applies (a quote from Queen Christina of Sweden by the way, according to the fridge magnet – those true memes of modern immortality – which I bought in Stockholm). In this context the words are not encouragement and solace for a lone hero / heroine beset by doubt, but the statement of a simple fact. If we want to make meaning of our own lives, either directly through introspection or by using film or other works of art as triggers, we are essentially and existentially alone. There is no map: either we put on the second-hand clothes of other people’s interpretations of their lives and call them ours, or we make our own meanings for our own lives. And if 100,000 other people also perceive the same theme, it does not matter: if we’ve worked it out for ourselves then this, too, is a creative act.

4. Vägmärken (markings/signs on the journey)

The Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjold, one of the great UN Secretaries-General, wrote a journal called Vägmärken that was published after his death. Not written with an eye on future release, it was the honest, private reflections of a spiritual man’s life in the public eye and his inner struggles (hardly surprising – being Secretary General during the height of a Cold War is enough to give anyone wind, nuclear or otherwise).

Likewise, the films that an individual chooses from the huge number of possibles can also be regarded as journey markers towards a personal pattern of meaning. Or to use the title of one of Bergman’s films they are a type of ‘Smultronstället’, a Place of Wild Strawberries, an idyllic location of particular significance to an individual that provides a sense of peace and happiness. And even if not always peaceful and happy, they still comprise a place one feels compelled to revisit because it holds a mirror up to one’s own reality.

5. Filming the Idios

Resor Utan Mål (Travels Without a Goal).

In 1974 the Swedish author Harry Martinson was joint-awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Arguably his masterpiece was the poetic epic-saga ’Aniara’, written in 1956: a space-age dystopia with many resonances today. (The work was recently made into a modern opera: if you do nothing else after reading this article, look on Youtube for Aniara / Helen Sjoholm / Kleerup – the music in the few clips available is extraodinary. Then buy the CD).

In his youth he worked his way round the world on boats as a deckhand and stoker, and wrote about his experiences in Resor. It is an apt title for beginning a journey, since it represents the element of serendipity, or lucky accident, in how we are affected by films. Very rarely do we go and see a film with a goal in mind (apart from the general ones of being entertained or informed), and if we do, then we are frequently disappointed. Having specific expectations can also act as a filter that prevents us being fully open to the film – and we may miss the opportunity of being touched by it in unexpected ways.

Strawberry Melange.

It is necessarily the case that the films comprising a person’s cine-Smultronstället will be idio-syncratic, an individual choice. And not only the films, but the segments selected from the films too.

Yet the following continue to resonate for me, as I suspect they may do for others, because they deal with key life choices that many of us will have to face at some time.

The films in question are the following. I do not describe the characters / storylines in any detail:  that is not the purpose of the article. If you haven’t seen them and become interested, look on a film database – or rent the DVD. Caution: if you are unfamiliar with them, you can probably assume the following tag lines do not do them full justice.

O’Horten. (2007 / Bent Hamer). Train driver retires.

Elvira Madigan. (1967. Bo Widerberg). Two people listen to Mozart in a forest.

Babettes Gæstebud / Babette’s Feast. (1987 / Gabriel Axel). Woman cooks dinner. People talk.

• Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy. (2000- / various). Cute stories about a modern-day Pollyanna.

Wallander series. (2000- / various). Diabetic buys dog, gets Alzheimer’s.

Mies Vailla Menneisyyttä / The Man Without A Past. (2002 / Aki Kaurismäki). Man gets hit on the head. Later he washes out a shed.

Getrud. (1964 / Carl Dreyer). Girl does not want boy. Girl gets depressed (so does boy)..

(Interestingly both the start and end films, separated by 43 years, feature the actor Baard Owe).

(a) Don’t Wait Till The Final Station.

In O’Horten a train-driver does, in fact retire – but then faces the question of what to do afterwards. His life has been defined by rails, literal and metaphorical. His colleagues give him a nice send-off but… Is this all there is ? Extending the scope: is this the lot for most of us ? A lifetime following lines which we do not have the courage to leave because they are secure, and give a sort of meaning to our existence ? Do we wait for a decision-crossroad (rail) to be forced on us in oldish-age, or do we strike out before in search of – well what ?

(b) Seek The Authentic Life.

The key to a successful, joyous life is probably best summed up in Joseph Campbell’s call to personal bravery: ’Follow Your Bliss’. But where do we find it ? Where even to start? Maybe Victor Frankl has an answer. Following his WWII incarceration in the camps, in books such as ’Man’s Search For Meaning’ and ’The Doctor And The Soul’, he suggested we can find meaning in three main areas.

(1) Work – in this case creative work that fills us with passion, not everyday drudge.

(2) Eros – uniting with something outside of oneself: a person, a cause, art etc.

(3) Attitude in the face of extreme adversity – sometimes the only freedom left.

In Babette’s Feast the heroine, a refugee master-chef from France, cooks a meal of Elysian quality for her strait-laced, become-joyless-over-time, employers and their friends. She puts all her resources – talent, money and passion – into the creation of a banquet that loosens the tongues, psyches and souls of the diners. Such is the power of joyous work.

In Elvira Madigan, a deserter army officer (Sixten Sparre) strikes up an extraordinary short-lived romance with a circus acrobat (Elvira Madigan). For a brief period in summer they live a passion that inflames their senses in a way that most of us dream, but rarely experience. Such is the power of Eros.

(c) Face Adversity With Courage.

In the character of Lisbeth Salander we find a heroine of almost archetype dimensions. Faced with extraordinary odds she simply, never, gives up. The following quote from Jan-Erik Pettersson’s book ’Stieg – From Activist To Author’ describes her attitude. “Not to submit under any circumstances. Even the most oppressed and abused can become invincible if they do not allow themselves to be broken”.

Wallander echoes this attitude too. Persistent to the ultimate degree, error-prone, physically and psychologically fallible, he wins through. And part of the reason is that he is working his bliss. Though I don’t believe it found its way into any of the films, he spells it out in the  ‘The Fifth Woman’. “All policemen are different. It’s only when we can work with something that brings out our strengths that we’re of any real use”.

And he engages with the challenges and unpleasantness of life, unlike his father who has found stability in a changing world by retreating into the incessant re-production of a single theme in his paintings.  As WH Auden quotes Hammarskjöld in the introduction to Markngs: “In our age, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action.”

(d) Don’t Be Controlled By The Past.

Lisbeth Salander is trying to escape / resolve her past, just in order to lead a semi-normal life (assuming she is capable of such). The chef-genius in Babette’s Feat is also fleeing a past – but in a new place can give expression to her creative genius. The lovers in Elvira Madigan are escaping their past and their present – and at the end also have to escape their future.

In The Man without A Past the hero literally has none, due to amnesia following a violent attack. Carte Blanche, Tabula Rasa – he has all the syndrome. And yet he proves it is possible to create new happiness even without being defined by his memories. A modern-day Zen / Existentialist hero, creating a new life moment by moment.

(e) Accept Isolation.

When I first saw Gertrud I found myself irritated, and then increasingly enthralled. This dichotomy seems to have been typical of the reactions when the film came out. The following is a quote from the same publication where the essay by Renoir appears. “…based on a play by Hjalmar Söderberg. It caused a furore, dividing public and critics. Dreyer sought in Gertrud to give equal weight to dialogue and picture, and the film was accused of being theatrical”.

It deals with two types of alone-ness. Firstly, in terms of content, it portrays the isolation resulting from a great love never found. “Once again the principle character is a woman, but this time she does not succumb. Failing to realise the great, sovereign love, Gertrud withdraws into isolation”. This is the downside of seeking a particular type of  bliss; there is no guarantee of success. What if it is not realised ? We are left with ourselves, or maybe we settle for comfortable companionship (which can be a fine thing, but is a problem if partners have different expectations). And we can never escape the final isolation – we all die alone – so maybe we should get used to it.  This sort of isolation though, however necessary, is a predominantly melancholy affair.

There is a second, more positive, aspect of isolation in Gertrud – illustrated for me by the film’s style. When I first saw the movie I found that it dragged horribly, and all those dictums such as ‘film is a  visual medium’ and ‘action and image speak louder than words’ seemed very relevant. Then I began to adjust myself to the pace of the film and a curious thing happened: the slow rhythm and measured, even apparently stilted, dialogue, somehow took me out of my conventional expectations regarding the passage of time. Because of their deliberateness the words took on more weight: instead of their being part of a fast-flowing current of speech and action they now acted as small stepping stones in pools of silence. By being isolated, they became more visible. It was a little like being in a meditative state: in conventional dialogue one has to focus so as to keep up., whereas if the dialogue is spare one has time to really observe the words, and the speakers, and their expressions. The viewing becomes reflective,: we realise the power of weighing words, of not speaking automatically. Isolation as a means of bringing focus.

The final example of isolation’s potential takes us back to Lisbeth Salander, and another quote from Pettersson’s book. “Her uncommunicativeness is her greatest strength. In extreme situations of vulnerability she shuts out the external world, constructs her own inner world of strictly logical rules and then acts, takes her revenge, and frees herself”. Isolation as a prerequisite for power.

6. Back to Port

Reviewing the films I selected one last time, three things came to mind.

Firstly, there’s a scene in Fanny and Alexander where the heroine’s first husband talks about the power of the theatre to make sense of a chaotic world, echoing Rollo May’s comment on the power of art . Secondly the value of (some) films as a tool for solace, growth and encouragement.: this even has its own name now – Cinema Therapy.

Finally, I realised there were no films from Iceland… It is not that I haven’t enjoyed many films set there, just that none have seized me as these others. I was wondering whether to lever one in – surely Nordic fairness demands it  – when I realised that, for me, Iceland itself is the film, the physical landscape that informs so many of the films there. It is a vast, sparse, austere, countryside. There is nowhere to hide between you and the sky, no comforting forests, no languid rivers, no soothing pastoral landscapes. Isolation, again. You can’t ever escape it, only keep it at bay.   

Bon voyage.

The quotes on Carl Dreyer in sections 2 and 5e are taken from a short booklet published in 1968 (?) to commemorate Dreyer’s life. It was issued by the Press & Information Department of the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

CategoriesIssue 9
Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.