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Interview with Grant Gee

As the theatre is relit and the credits roll on Grant Gee’s latest film, Patience (After Sebald), an essay on Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, I examine the faces around me, though for what I’m not sure. What had I just experienced? How would I describe it?

 

Outside, revellers are accumulating in Trafalgar and Leicester squares: limbs bared to a January bite. Conscious but passive, I’m drawn into an orbit of Soho and Covent Garden, unable to do anything but walk, dismissing that I’m experiencing grand cliché: disassociation from the tacky throng of Central London, the automatons rehearsing roles in badly lit film sets.

 

The title of the film, Patience, originally referred to the eponymous character in Austerlitz laying down black and white photos on a table, as if playing a game of patience which could unlock hidden memories. It is given further meaning as one of the film’s interviewees suggests that Sebald’s writing requires patience; it needs time to penetrate your skin. Grant Gee’s film deftly unpacks Rings of Saturn, clarifying Sebald’s opacity while replicating the author’s episodic method – in the film’s instance, examining personal responses of various artists and writers to the book, including Iain Sinclair, Tacita Dean and Marina Warner. Patience feels like an extension of the book itself, continuing its evocation of destruction, decay and despair in the age of reason.

 

Grant has previously made two feature length documentaries: Joy Division, which chronicles the band’s life; and the ambient Meeting People is Easy, for which Grant was nominated for a Grammy, which follows Radiohead as they tour OK Computer. He has made numerous short films and had a productive period in the 90s making music videos for famous bands, most of which he admits are mediocre, apart from the iconic No Surprises by Radiohead, of which he is justly proud. I meet him in the BFI cafe. The large glass windows are showing a sneak peek of spring: an oceanic sky and the Southbank’s brutalist concrete solar-cast copper. Grant is affable and earnest, thinking carefully about his responses, giving them length and depth. He is modest about his career and apologises several times for rambling, which he does not.

 

Q

The White Review

— What was your personal reaction to Sebald’s work?

A

Grant Gee

— There’s something about The Rings of Saturn that produces a dream-like state. It’s often quite hallucinatory and properly surreal. Everyone who reads the book seems to have this very strange experience of finding coincidences and connections to their own lives, travels and family histories. I’m not really sure how this happens but it does seem to be in the area of surrealist techniques. The Rings of Saturn is sometimes like Breton’s Nadja, right down to the murky photos throughout. There are repetitions and unflagged, buried correspondences that, when you encounter them are experienced as a kind of déjà vu. Sebald is very adept, like Ballard in a way, at doing things with the mechanics of the prose that produce a dream-like state. I made some very basic efforts at that in the film. They’re buried there.

 

My personal reaction was really the desire or compulsion to just read more and more – all – of his work and build up enough of an obsession so that when I was asked to develop the idea for the film then there was enough of that obsessive energy to naturally carry me from the book out into the landscape. Like with all good obsessions, the book starts to go way beyond its boundaries; you start trying to find the traces of it in the world. That’s what I was doing in the film: I wanted to go out and find other people who’ve had that kind of response, who were prompted to some kind of action by the book.

Q

The White Review

— The film is very adept at unpacking the book. There were things I had completely missed in the first reading, such as the way the photographs correspond to each other in terms of composition and light, for example. It’s shocking when you realise things like that passed you by, that the book is full of buried correspondences.

A

Grant Gee

— I was at a festival in Rotterdam, doing various Q & As, and I was reading the book in between to refresh myself, and I started realising how much of the book is about the Netherlands, which I had completely missed before. The book begins with Thomas Browne, possibly in the audience of the dissection which Rembrandt painted; then there’s the battle of Sole Bay; the Dutch colonialism in the East Indies which relates to the silk production; Sebald meets a Dutchman in the Crown Hotel who takes him out into the field that he bought near Boulge; and then you think, if you stand in Suffolk looking out to sea, the next thing you see is the Netherlands, and in fact the landscape is the Netherlands – it is the Netherlands with the land in the middle scraped out by sea. So, the Netherlands is a major thread which had never twigged before, I’m sure there’s loads more.

Q

The White Review

— You’ve said you’re interested in place, that it’s a big theme in your films. And that’s obvious in the three documentaries you’ve made.

A

Grant Gee

— I’d never really thought about it until Gareth Evans, the producer who commissioned this, said, ‘Your films are all about place, aren’t they?’ My degree was in Geography and I did a year towards a Ph.D. in the same subject but I didn’t realise it was such a noticeably strong component in the films.

Q

The White Review

— Since it’s been brought to your attention have you reflected on why and how it’s important in your films?

A

Grant Gee

— Well one obvious reason is that if you’re making a documentary very often all you’ve got to start with is talking heads and more or less ropey archive footage. Your raw materials are quite low rent and so the setting of the story, the scenography, really makes a difference in making something richer, more cinematic. And it’s cheap. In Joy Division, for instance, we’ve got people in a room talking against a black backdrop and archive footage that people have seen on telly – it’s easier for the viewer to dismiss that. But what else I can do for next to no money is shoot the city, put it into a richer cinematic space.

 

Undiscovered archive film often doesn’t have a lot of drama in it, but what you do find is very interesting location information: councils shoot training films in Salford about vandalism, and the most dramatic part of that film is a wasteland, and so the wasteland goes in the documentary. Nothing else about the training film is remarkable, only the shot of the tower block with the policeman on a horse in the foreground in the rubble, like in Tarkovsky perhaps. That is a strand that’s important in my films, but in Patience landscape is important because it’s not a narratively driven film, so the more ambient the cinematography, the better. In that film the landscape and wild track audio is important because it’s static. There’s a lot of information going on in the audio track, so the landscape is a way of entering into the cinematic space.

Q

The White Review

— In Patience, someone discusses psychogeography, how it’s become fashionable, and questions whether what Sebald was doing is really psygeography. What’s your relationship to the term?

A

Grant Gee

—  Tony Wilson said in one of the interviews he did for the Joy Division documentary that the Situationists were city planners. I liked that. I was always interested in the term from the Situationist stuff that was always on the fringes of punk and post-punk through Iain Sinclair’s early books, Patrick Keiller’s films… But I’m not sure I know what psychogeography has come to mean now. It certainly has a very different meaning from what it had at its conception or even twenty years ago – the utopian, revolutionary politics, combined with the sense of movement through the city as a kind of spatial psychotherapy where all kinds of hallucinatory histories come bubbling up.

 

But oddly enough, thinking about your question, the debt to surrealism and the hysterical intensity that Sebald brings to bear on places and which places bring to bear on him and the vertigo that floors him when he gets close to The Horror… you could place him in that tradition. Maybe Austerlitz in particular, the London scenes. Certainly he’s more in that line than in the line of nature writing which he also gets put in.

Q

The White Review

— You’ve said that Marker and Keiller are big influences on your films. What interests you about their work, and what have you incorporated from theirs into your own?

A

Grant Gee

— It’s odd thinking about influence when I think I’m basically a fan. But maybe the simplest influence was showing a way to try and make films that felt as intimate and natural as writing. A single camera out in the real world. Nothing obviously dramatic. Some music. A voice reading a text. And out of those elements come films that are the equal of anything.

 

So it comes down to a sense of: you can walk around with a camera and see the world as it is, frame a little detail of the world and use that as the basis of something, some form of personal expression.

 

The problem for me then was trying to write the essay part of the essay film and realising that I’m not a writer. I couldn’t (and still can’t) write anything like the kind of narration that Marker and Keiller can. I think the other great essay film of recent years – right up there with the best – was Chris Petit’s Content. And of course he’s another terrific writer.

 

As far as what I’ve incorporated…. Probably everything I could get away with but I remember thinking Keiller’s very long locked-off shots of bus shelters and bridges and doorways in Robinson in Space were fantastic. Just gawp at something for long enough and it might start to get a life of its own.

Q

The White Review

— What excited you about those films?

A

Grant Gee

— Again, this encyclopaedic aspect. The films have a wiki feel to them, which is also true of Sebald. Of course, it has this utter integrity, but at many points along the way, you can come across a portal out of the work and into the world. Little stories, little facts, locations – you can get up and go there. In Keiller, it feels like consciousness in the world, rather than an art work standing alone in the world. Though the work is obviously locked and unchanging, it feels like the relationship between the artwork and the world is porous, it feels like the world can change the artwork. That’s the strange thing about The Rings of Saturn, you can feel like you’ve not read it before, because things have shifted. You think, ‘Was that bit in there before?’ People have asked me at Q & As, ‘Why didn’t you put that bit in the film?’ and I’ll think, ‘What bit?’ Half the time I’ve been wrong, and half the time they’re wrong and are talking about a different book. I really like that. A book that rewrites itself, when you close the covers, it shifts itself around.

Q

The White Review

— Did you feel when you read Sebald that this was the literary equivalent of the aesthetic that interests you in film?

A

Grant Gee

— No. Keiller’s films are more self-consciously quirky, so they kind of prime you to not quite trust what’s going on – playfulness and irony, undercutting the image and all that. But the seeming utter seriousness and lugubriousness of Sebald’s written voice is disarming. It takes a long time before you realise he’s being as playful and deceptive and ironic as Robinson. I don’t know whether that’s purely a function of the voice in which he was writing or whether it happens when that voice has been bounced off another language and translated. In the film, the most missed person is the translator. My producer couldn’t get in touch with Michael Hulse at all. The people we talked to in publishing said it ended up very fraught between those two. They spent a long time selecting Michael, then Sebald gave him incredibly detailed instructions and when the first translations came back, Sebald red lined it all and sent them away again. This is from a man who runs the British Centre for Literary Translation but won’t do it himself. You can really imagine that fucking a translator off. The only joy is having your own take on it, then the author starts going, ‘No, change it, not sure to what, but not that.’

Q

The White Review

The Rings of Saturn were, for me, an evocation of the barbarism of reason and the Holocaust as its apotheosis. It reminded me of the early Frankfurt School, and I then discovered Sebald was a student there, of Adorno. Were you aware of this?

A

Grant Gee

— No. I read an interview with Sebald – and this is perhaps the kind of thing that happens when you’ve done fifty interviews and you try and start getting a bit evasive and contrary – and he got another question about the Holocaust and said, ‘Well, it’s not the Holocaust’. He said: Napoleon was the real exemplar of it and the Holocaust was the end product, if you like, of a view from above, where you could start looking at masses as one, and start killing on an industrial scale. The next book he was working on when he died was about Corsica and Napoleon, I believe, linking the deforestation of Corsica with Napoleon’s exile there.

 

Someone wrote that every one of his books could have been called On the Natural History of Destruction. Every step forward requires despoiling the planet. Everyone’s ambition involves killing another few thousand people somewhere down the line: the desire for a diamond means 10,000 die, the desire for a silk shirt means you boil alive thousands of these little worms. I don’t think he’s using it all as metaphor for the Holocaust, it all is what it is. It’s what people do. It changed the way I look at the South Downs – I live in Brighton and love the aesthetics of the South Downs. And now when I’m up there I just see it all as just: this was all forest once, this was all trees, and it’s been almost desertified to allow sheep farming, been turned into something minimal, functional.

Q

The White Review

— Do you feel this despair at modernity is continuous through your documentaries? Radiohead being chewed up by the culture industry, Joy Division as products of a decaying post-industrial Manchester…
A

Grant Gee

— Yeah I suppose in those two cases it’s post-ideological problems: you can analyse the problem from a left-wing perspective but you can’t act on it. It’s people who are aware and are very articulate in their awareness of what they’re subject to, but are powerless to do anything. In Manchester, that’s the constituency of the revolutionary working class there, who at that time were all being turned into Thatcherites. It’s what capitalism does in terms of processing people, but the people themselves don’t have any way of collectively dealing with it. Or don’t have an ideology which is big enough to really counter the monster.

 

Thom Yorke is great at personifying capitalism as a monster, as various monsters vs. demons. Sebald’s pessimism is both more metaphysical – throughout The Rings of Saturn he’s quoting the seventeenth-century proto-entropy of Thomas Browne – and more rooted in eeh day to day state of things: I’ve heard him talk about the destruction of intellectual culture in universities. Also, for instance, there’s a joke in the film about what the twentieth century has done to the German language, that he can’t speak it anymore because it’s become so kitsch, and he has to refer back to nineteenth-century German to find a language that wasn’t embarrassing to speak.

 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Evan Harris lives in London, has published in 3: AM Magazine and The Quietus, and is at work on two books: a creative non-fiction about modern nomadism, memory and myth, set in Central Asia; and a novel about boredom, anxiety and authenticity, set in the vapid orbit of The University.


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