Finding Expression

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The printed word, the moving picture, the photograph, the sound of a voice—all modes of expression of reflections, feelings, observations.

I experienced an exhilarating convergence of these forms of communication at the Detroit Film Theatre on November 9, 2012 as I watched the movie Patience (After Sebald), a few days after I started reading the book on which the film was based, The Rings of Saturn, by W.G. Sebald.

This 1998 book was about Sebald’s walking tour of a coastal area of England in the early 1990s. It often took creative side journeys of free association into subjects suggested by what Sebald encountered during his walks.

I was glad that I had started reading the book before I saw the movie. I had experienced Sebald’s dreamlike prose firsthand, before experiencing it on film through excerpts and interpretations.

I was equally glad that I still had much of The Rings of Saturn left to read after seeing Patience (After Sebald), but now with the historical background and personal interpretations of the many people who spoke in the film.

That seems to be a contradiction of some sort, but it describes how the movie and the book reflected off of each other during the screening. Often, an actual page from the book was shown on screen, to give people a taste of the reading experience to mix with the other impressions of the film.

And like myself, many people interviewed in the movie had difficulty expressing what they took away from Sebald’s writing—but this journey towards understanding was still a unique, stimulating experience.

The movie could be seen as a version of a particular story about the human condition—a story that Sebald had captured in words and photographs. I’ve observed this sharing of a story between movies and books or plays, but it was a stimulating experience to see such subjective, personal expressions handled creatively both in print and on film.

The film was shown at 9:30 p.m. on a Friday night, and was the only screening of the film at the DFT. This was a particularly good time to see it, because of the sleepy, impressionistic feeling of the movie, something like the weary, reflective feeling that you get just before you go to bed.

It was about 11 p.m. when the film ended, and patrons filed out quietly, including some young hipsters whose evening probably had several hours remaining. What did they get out of the movie? Some kind of intellectual thrill that re-inforced their self-image as edgy and outside the mainstream?

Many people carried their own private, curious impressions of the film as they drove off into the night, amidst the concentration of old and new buildings in the Cultural Center of Detroit.

In the book, one of the subjects is decay, how magnificent structures that once bustled with activity are now a bare shadow of their former selves. The movie also touched on this theme, and it made me think of walking tours of Detroit that also educate their participants about how things have changed through the years, such as the visits to old downtown movie theaters every summer by the Preservation Detroit group.

Sebald’s interest in architectural decay didn’t have the fascination that seems to pervade the observations of outsiders about the “ruins of Detroit.” Sebald just seemed to want to see the truth of what happened, how it was part of life—a symbol of the impermanence of things.

Similarly, Sebald also was concerned with the tragedies of war, including genocidal behavior. He had a very acute sense of the tragic, and how even the most quiet settings, like a sailors’ library, can conjure up associations with much sadder events.

A few people walked out of Patience (After Sebald), which didn’t surprise me. If this was there first experience with Sebald, it might have been hard to adjust to the rhythms and approach of the film. I myself only had a few days of experience with his writings. When the movie ended, there was no applause, just peaceful murmurings of thoughts about the film.

On the printed Autumn 2012 DFT schedule, Patience (After Sebald) appears down in the lower left corner. I didn’t see it the first few times I scanned the schedule.

But finally noticing it, and seeing it at the DFT, was further proof of the endless variety of the DFT schedule, and of the original works of cinema that are always awaiting DFT visitors to discover.

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Copyright © 2012 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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