Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Last and First Men (Johann Johannsson, 2020)

Last Man

(Warning: plot discussed in explicit and leisurely detail)

I remember reading Olaf Stapledon's novel when much younger, fascinated not so much by the sweep and ambition of the book-- a history spanning two billion years into the future, through eighteen species of man-- as by its wide-ranging intricacy. Easy enough to depict great height in a film or painting: just imagine a level spot to stand on, and an edge. The real challenge is in selling that distance, include enough detail to convince the viewer that he really is standing atop a dizzying height looking down, and that those little cotton balls crawling slowly past one's toes really are clouds. Stapledon does this with seeming ease, his deceptively simple prose a crystalline lens focused on passing strange worlds and bizarre civilizations, pulling back to take in ever larger scales till one is viewing the universe itself. 

Not sure why Johann Johannsson thought Stapledon was appropriate material* for his first and last feature film (the composer died in 2018) but the score fits surprisingly well with the screenplay-- Johannsson's incantatory music weaving an auditory spell around the massive stone blocks of former Yugoslavia's now-neglected World War ll battle memorials

*(Turns out Johannsson is an avid fan of the genre-- Stanislaw Lem, the Strugatskys, Samuel Delany, among others)

Stapledon's narrative when boiled down to basics is essentially a grocery list-- he's an epic listmaker. He introduces characters and societies then proceeds to break down their every characteristic according to social, psychological, physiological, even spiritual domains, and the droning obsessive quality of his narrative serves as surprisingly apt complement to the droning obsessive quality of Johannsson's music. What completes the equation-- completes the film essentially-- are the mysterious monuments themselves; the once gargantuan examples of Brutalist art-- raw stone sculpted into solid occasionally soaring shapes-- now represent the Eighteenth Men or their structures, or their machines (from the way they pose against bright sky in frozen and occasionally anthropomorphic shapes it's hard to tell Man from memorial from machine, which may be the director's intent). 

The film starts with parts of the monuments and their rough rock surfaces; when Stapledon describes the men themselves-- tall, of a wide variety of skin colors and furs, with an upward-looking eye that can peer into the heavens-- Johannsson inserts images of square blocks with queer even comical expressions (his film betrays a deadpan sense of fun Stapledon never quite managed to acquire outside of purposes of satire-- and even when the writer does do parody he'd do so in the pace and manner of a tectonic plate). 

Using the plummy tone and cadences of Tilda Swinton ("There was no one else I imagined" Johannsson enthused, "I wanted her narration to sound like a strange academic lecture"), the Last Man begins by commanding us to "listen patiently." As he (she?) speaks, the camera zooms slowly in on a pair of huge rings set one before the other like sights along a gun barrel. 

Swinton's or Last Man's voice (it has an intriguingly androgynous quality) shows the arrogance of a superior being; we feel not so much addressed as condescended to, the target of those colossal rings. Sometimes tho Johannsson depicts Swinton's voice as an electronic green blob trembling on an oscilloscope screen; then her voice is more garbled yet intimate-- as if Last Man were whispering into a crude makeshift microphone transmitting over a great distance (two billion years, give or take a millennia), confiding to us an urgent secret. 

Turns out the Last Men face inescapable catastrophe; they're dying, and they've sought us out, the first and most obviously inferior of their kind, to teach us their mistakes (perhaps avoid their fate), the same time they hope to learn from us. These men in their more evolved wisdom realize they have lost something along the way-- the ability to face impossible odds, to accept one's doom and plod forward anyway, no matter how weak and growing weaker by the day. This situation the Last Men unexpectedly find themselves in is a situation we find ourselves in all too often, and the sudden concordance in circumstance helps humanize these divine creatures, drag them down to our level. 

At the same time the diminishment of these Last Men seems to ennoble them. Their earlier confidence describing the glories of their culture and achievements felt sterile, meaningless, like admiring a snowcapped Himalayan peak; it's only when the Last Man finally admits to his eventual downfall and need for help that he starts to acquire emotional dimension-- only when we notice the cracks in his armor do we feel the true magnitude of his stature, and suddenly we realize why the massive blocks seem so appropriate: they boast of strength and solidity but in their crumbling state also confess to a loneliness we can all understand. Suddenly we care; suddenly their plight matters to us, and we can finally apprehend the distance from those heights to the bottom far below.

Stapledon has never been considered an overtly sentimental writer (if anything C.S. Lewis accuses him (in so many words) of lacking humanity) but arguably that lack of sentiment only adds power to his narratives-- he holds back and holds back and holds back and when he finally lets loose the results can be overwhelming. Last and First Men was his first work of fiction (he would hone that sadness in his sequel Starmaker (guess what that book's about) and in his late masterpiece Sirius) but even in this early effort he manages to turn what Johannsson describes as a 'strange academic lecture' into a work of genuine tragedy; Johannsson's triumph is to realize that mighty narrative-- with a minimum of money, with his eerie inimitable music-- on the big screen. 

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