You the Living (Du Levande) Roy Anderson ( Swe; 2004;) Ensemble piece.
viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 3rd Oct 2021; ticket £7.00
The end of an era
What is absent in Roy Anderson’s ‘You the Living’ is as significant as what is present. Walls and windows dominate the settings of the scenario, but there are no mobile phones, no computers. This is a film made at the end of the era of walls and windows at the point where the era of screens was starting to dominate the parameters of existence. From about this point in time it was the relationship between humans and the digital membranes in which ‘we the living’ were now starting to live, that was becoming critical.
Cinema has played a significant role in portraying built environments and exploring its effects on those who have to function within their ambit. Silent movie makers such as Chaplin and King Vidor (the Crowd) used industrial and office settings to emphasise the dehumanising de-individualising nature of contempory work areas. Later as modernist architectural structures started to dominate public space, Jaques Tati, as supreme clown, explored and played with the effects that these buildings have on the behaviour and psyche of people.
In ‘Playtime’ Tati moves through the world of the newly built massive glass structures of transnational corporate capitalism. The core of the ‘Playtime’ thesis is most vividly played out in the sequence that takes place in a large glass fronted office block. Contemporary building is seen as afflicting on the ‘common man’ a state of mind in which disassociation/discontinuity are the prevalent and sometimes dominating characteristic of modernist urban experience. These structures are haunted by beings who struggle to remember why they are there and who lapse into fragmentary confused states of mind as their purposes languish, overlaid by disorientation. Deterritorialised gaggles of people wander through the space their agitation and continual motion distracting them from their initial intention. Ultimately they are left with only the transitory reflected glimpses of themselves as a memory of where they have been. Tati’s humour offsets, intensifies and points up the human condition in these places.
Spatially Roy Anderson’s film works in kindred territory. Like Tati he also exploits contempory settings, both public and private, to invoke humour as a vehicle for stripping back the human experience of modernity to its painful core. Although ‘You the Living’ uses dialogue to fill out the scenario, like ‘Playtime’ the essence of Anderson’s film rests on his visual virtuosity and a strategic employment of in-camera framing. Unlike Playtime, Anderson’s movie is dominated by his radical use of colourisation as a defining feature of its design.
Every scene in the film is characterised with the same overwhelming colour schema: a sort of deadening matt blue grey tone washes through the picture. This colour design comprises an invariant visual field which not only informs the performances of the ensemble, but also affects the consciousness of the viewers, shaping their emotional response to the visual material as it works to offset the deadpan humour. The film comprises sketches, some inter-related, whose humour mainly derives from exposing and provoking the mordant character of the irony implicit in everyday life situations. Some of these vignettes work better than others. But even when script and scenario are weak, the persistence of the omnipresent colourisation filling out the field of vision, sustains the mood of the audience, ever more deeply confirming their emotional knowledge that they are watching a statement of a world view that is defined by a bleakness of destiny. Anderson’s vision is that we are trapped within the walls of a twilight world that anticipates death; there are windows but there is no daylight.
But ‘You the Living’ marks the end of the era of films made about the effects on people of the built environment: a world where there are walls and windows. Because inexorably it is the world of screens that has become the key defining feature of our lives. Screens are not windows letting in light, giving out onto a singular view; they are portals, gateways to an infinity of worlds.
In the sort of life which we used to lead, defined by a traditional built linear environment we were contained and conditioned by those structures which ordered our day to day existence. It was a world of surfaces that contained us and which we confronted physically. A world that projected itself onto the individual, where the vectors of meaning were directed out from the world and onto the human. With digital technologies mediated through screens and keys, this order of relationship is reversed: vectors of meaning now run from the individual outwards into the world in ever increasing feedback loops of intensification. The individual is now the centre of the world and projects themselves out into multiple universes. Once the world was defined by actual surfaces. Now we have virtual surfaces, instable constantly changing disintegrating reforming particles that continually resolve their configurations according to our projections. They are the vehicles of our own vectors of meaning and signification – Facebook, YouTube and multifarious other platforms.
Central to ‘You the Living’ is that it paints a picture of a society under immanent threat from unseen forces. The last days of this world are being captured before the cataclysm, before it is destroyed. The last shot certainly suggests an approaching catastrophe. In Anderson’s movie characterised by ‘walls and windows’ we are watching the last days of a certain type of psychological stability when it made discrete sense to ask what was: true or false; real or virtual. In our time of the reversal of vectors of meaning in which screens now enable individual projections to define the world, traditional ideas of signification and collapse into a myriad streams of shifting signs where there is no stable ground. Questions pertaining to: true and false, real or actual cease to have definitive meaning. The significant questions relate only to who is writing the programmes?
As is appropriate Anderson has the last laugh. In the final shot he sends in his squadron of heavily armed virtual nuke bombers to blow the shit out of ‘You the Living’ so that we may become ‘You the Dead’. With this deliberate decision to end the movie with a digitally composited SFX effect, Anderson announces the end of the world of surfaces and advent of the new age of screens and technical images made concrete through the quantum particle world of contemporary physics.