Saturday, August 04, 2007


COOL & CRAZY ("Heftig Og Begeistret" 2001, Norway/Sweden, Knut Erik Jensen)
You search for the rainbow believing you're wise,
But perhaps what you seek is in front of your eyes.

Early in this nordically understated documentary about a Norwegian men's choir in a remote fishing village, we're given glimpses of what we take to be sea-smoothed boulders, obscured by snow, somewhere near the impossibly cold northern sea. As the film progresses we get other impressions – this rounded grey shape shows up in the corner of a frame here, as part of a backdrop there, underfoot in another scene. They are unremarked by the film maker or the people of the town, but our curiosity begins to be engaged. How big are those things, anyway? And they can't be stone, the shape is too regular, they must be man-made.... The glimpses begin to add up, we start to get a sense for the odd shape of these things – and the size, they must be ten feet high. And just as we begin to realize we've noticed these strangely symmetrical four-legged Stonehenges, the camera steps back and lets us see. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of these things, heaped along the sea's edge like a giant child's building set, Stonehenge sized, swept aside in a jumble whose scale dwarfs the people we've begun to be familiar with. It's at that point we hear all that's going to be said about these wondrous, strange creations; " If not for the breakwater and the choir, we could not live here."

Like so many of the best documentaries – one thinks of the work of Erroll Morris, for example – and like the taciturn Finnmark people it introduces us to, this film doesn't spell itself out for us. God is in the details, and we are invited to observe closely, to make the inter-connections ourselves, to draw our own conclusions. There is no narration and little narrative structure, so the film gathers its weight and effect by the gradual accumulation of specificities, juxtapositions, ironies. One man prides himself in his walk, "firm and decisive." The church pastor speaks matter of factly about losing a childhood friend in a Nazi bombing attack on the village. We watch car tail lights drive to rehearsal along the village's one main street: later, they drive back home in the deeper darkness. In a series of brief conversations we come to know a recovering drug addict who, after years of homelessness in the city, takes fierce pride in owning his first home: "I am staying in Berlevag. Have to convince myself that I have grown up. That's important, to go with that feeling." (Quick – name another movie set in Berlevag...)

"The Strand Boys" – two brothers, 87 and 95 years old – zip their winter coats in unison, and the quick efficiency of the gesture speaks of long habit, brotherhood, and the unarguable realities of snow and cold. They sing "Children Of The Heavenly Father" in shaking, randomly-pitched voices, then comment that it would sound a lot better with all four parts. We are taken aback, later, when the whole choir assembles to sing the piece – outside, at night, punctuated with the laughter of children sledding – and the sound is glorious, rich, resonant with meaning.

Another man, who has sung with the choir since 1935, shows us a handful of coloured lights and – inexplicably – a single crab shell, hanging in a doorway in his otherwise neatly-ordered home: "Last year's Christmas decor," he explains. We intuit that he is a widower. "I especially enjoy the rehearsals now that I'm alone." A huge, bearded man reclines in his bubble bath, aged pictures of Marx and Lenin framed on his brightly painted wall: "I was a satyr in my youth. I was a singer in several dance bands. So I had plenty of opportunities.... Often it was just pure lust. One would regret it afterwards."

The humour – and there is plenty of it – is so droll and understated we're not sure we're meant to be laughing. But we do. Immediately after the man with the drawn and haggard face calls himself a carefree optimist, we cut to the choir neatly posed on the curving steps of a white painted oil tank, singing "Trolljazz" as they gamely bob back and forth, more or less in sync with the music, in what must pass for choreography in Norwegian fishing villages. A delightfully extroverted organist mangles the Wedding March, the camera cuts to the pristine Lutheran altar as he curses in frustration, and then remark "I used to call myself an atheist. Don't know what to call it now... I'm more liberated in my relationship with the church – now that I am the organist."

Of course, music is at the heart of this film. Unfortunately, this seems at first like a serious problem. You realize that these boys don't rock. They don't even swing. You make a mental note not to rush out and buy the soundtrack CD. The opening number in praise of Finnmark, "wondrous ever to behold, wintry nights so calm and cold" gives way to an ode to the women at the fish plant:
The filleting lasses are packing,
Their knives they go flashing
And fingers are swift
They cut and they fillet and work through the shift
"Keep up there, we won't have no slacking!"
The lasses at the pack house like ladies proudly prance,
The lasses at the pack house, how they deserve a dance!
Maybe it comes across better in Norwegian.

Curiously, though, this music grows on you, as do these people. There is a winnig directness about it, a lack of guile that is ultimately refreshing, even bracing. And in a sense the undeniable banality of some of these pieces provides a curiously effective set-up for those moments of real beauty when the choir sounds really good, when the music evokes something glorious, reassuring and deeply spiritual. Note the moment when the camera begins its pan of the choir with a shot of the recovering addict: "I know well that God's inviting all the peoples of this earth, Therefore happily I follow, come and join me in rebirth!" Deeply affecting – forced rhyme schemes notwithstanding.

The hard realities of these lives are never far removed from the comfort of the music, or from the almost Zen-like sense of humour reflected in the film. At one point the agnostic church organist delivers a monologue while playing the organ that veers from droll comedy routine to the yearning of a true artist, in what amounts to "found" poetry: "I am a multi-instrumentalist, but not very good at any of them. Compared to Paul McCartney, for example. I simply have to play. That is my strongest urge. Some have to steal, or burn down houses, others have to play. I can't explain it. It is just something that musicians feel. An irresistable urge. You have to hear those chords. ... I'm supposed to know this!"

Whenever the filmmaker seems to invite us to laugh at these people, it is never condescending: the irony is infused with affection, and exactly mirrors the character of his subjects. (Director Knut Erik Jensen himself grew up in the extreme north of Norway, before studying at the London International Film School and returning to Scandinavia to work in film and television.) The "politically dead Communist" and the drug addict work together to fry up some sort of breaded meat at the town's cafe: "Trygg and I are ruling world-champion chefs." To which his comrade adds, "Fish tongue can only be fried in Melange margarine." A certain easy-going, self-deprecating humour is essentially Norwegian, and one senses that its understatement and resolute unsentimentality come by way of extreme isolation and the communal battle against the elements.

The predominant impression you're left with is of the immensity and hostility of this desperately cold environment, and of the warmth of its people, especially when they gather to sing. The extended opening sequence gives an impression that we won't shake for the duration of the film: the sound and sight of the open ocean, snow on a rocky shore. A male choir, sonorous and deep, is occasionally audible through the wind and waves. Then we see the men: they are standing in a blizzard, singing. The wind begins to whip up the snow, carrying away snatches of their song, and soon they are lost to sight.

This film doesn't go out of its way to entertain. It doesn't pander. Instead, we are welcomed without fuss into these quiet, stoic, ordinary lives. And if we pay attention, we may come to see not only their humanity, but also a certain matter-of-fact glory.


Available at Videomatica

A sequel was made during the choir's tour to America which happened to coincide with the destruction of the twin towers: COOL & CRAZY ON THE ROAD

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