Roy Andersson, a Swedish filmmaker known for his experimental yet simple approach to aesthetic and his humorous perspective on the destructive nature of human behavior, communicates a deeply rooted and concealed issue alive throughout the world today in his film Songs from the Second Floor (2000). Through this dark-comedy/drama film, the dread and existential crisis affiliated with the feeling of complete hopelessness, the act of contributing to your own destruction, and the steps taken that lead an individual to completely break down and begin attacking their own self identity as well as the unity and security of an entire country is communicated. These concepts are revealed through the instability of the character’s relationships, the reactions to destructive behavior, and the loss of the stable foundations that seem to shape their lifestyles and identities entirely.
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Andersson’s portrayal of our world as a dystopia through Songs from the Second Floor gives insight as to what our faith is built upon and awakens our sense of despair as we recognize our own society within the destruction shown throughout the film.
Employment status and one’s contribution to the economy and industry are crucial factors when determining success and approval. Many individuals structure their lives around a job they are either working towards or already have in order to feel validated and useful to both themselves and those around them. This not only puts immense stress upon the individual to maintain their performance to their own standards but also introduces the risk of potential loss of stability and control if the opportunity or role in the industry is taken away. Throughout the film, Songs from the Second Floor, the importance of labor, employment, and a successful business or economy is evident. The society shown in the film and the individuals introduced are extremely dependent on the trust they have implanted in their industry and businesses. The characters seem to fail to understand the temporary state that jobs and money holds and completely disregard the qualities of life that bring authentic happiness and healthy joy into their lives. The economy in the film is presented as unstable and the community is struggling to cope with the loss of their most treasured foundation, the trust and dependency they have instilled into their jobs.
One of the main characters, a middle aged businessman invested in his work and ritual lifestyle, is introduced in the beginning of the film. He is shown shining his shoes in preparation for a meeting with his boss and debating with his wife about missing work to spend the day with her. He quickly declines his wife’s offer to spend the day together and states that he hasn’t missed a day of work in fourteen years, ending his rebuttal with everything has its day. This infers that while the man may hope to take a day to himself at some point in the future, his current lifestyle and obligations won’t allow it. This reveals that labor and work is in high demand as well as the rewards that are granted to those that work hard and produce positive results for the economy. After we observe the interaction between the husband and wife, the camera cuts to a scene of the same man on his hands and knees at the feet of his boss begging to keep his job. We learn that he has been fired from his job of thirty years due to the crash of the economy and the poor state of the business. Despite the worker’s begging and efforts, the boss explains that, there is nothing (he) can do, and frees himself from the grasp of the man before leaving him on the floor of the office. The individual introduced through this scene is just one of the many displeased workers present throughout the film.
Majority of the individuals presented in this society seem to be completely reliant and addicted to their jobs and positions in the industry. This behavior contributes to the identification of the society as a dystopia because the continuous, boring, and unrewarding work that is forced upon these individuals seems to be wanted and cherished despite the unhappiness it brings upon those involved. Acquiring an unwanted job and living an unexciting lifestyle is a possibility that many people fear today. This film brings that fear to life and not only demonstrates what happens when this is a reality but also puts the work we do in preparation for our future into perspective. Success and respect relies heavily on one’s employment status, role in society, and wealth. This is evident in both the world presented in the film and and world we live in today. Studying hard, earning a degree, and being rewarded with a job that generates a large income and exciting life are qualities that are ingrained into the goals, hopes, and dreams of individuals everywhere. The amount of trust that we put into our jobs and consumer habits creates an economy that we can not successfully live without. However, based on the efforts and time that we devote to our business practices and industry the economy will equally suffer without our contributions. Our constant fear of not positively contributing to society is what actively keeps the demanding relationship between people and the economy alive.
The demand and strain that is put on individuals to maintain their role in society in order to keep the economy from crashing can be expanded upon in the essay, The Fethishism of Commodities by German philosopher, Karl Marx. Through his writing, Marx explores the effect of work and production on society and introduces the concept of labor acting as a commodity. The ideas presented in this essay explains the behavior of the characters in Songs from the Second Floor. Marx explains that we cannot disconnect labor from commodity without losing the sense of quality and use value of those products. One does not exist without the other. We depend on our own labor as a product and therefore put immense confidence in our jobs and their ability to create a blissful and rewarding lifestyle for ourselves and our loved ones. Throughout the film, the most prized and sought after commodity was work and the profit that comes with it. In current times, holding a steady job and having an influential role in the industry is just as easily recognizable as being highly respected as in the film. The tragedy that was experienced when the availability of labor was in danger and the effect this event had on the community gives insight to the possible negative outcomes of depending solely on the availability of labor.
While economy thrives off our want to be successful and contributive to society, it also survives off our frustrations towards the ways that our lives are affected by the industry and the demands we have created for ourselves. The need to constantly be working while at the same time contributing to society as both a consumer and producer leads to a tiring sense of endless disapproval and uneasiness. This is obvious throughout the entirety of the film through the apparent sadness and confusion displayed by the characters. The appearance of the individuals and the environment in the film are presented as physically plain, dull, lifeless, and near-death, yet they still seem to hold an immense amount of emotion and concern for what lies ahead. (Tucan). This theme is introduced within the first five minutes of the film, when we meet the characters controlling the businesses that will go on to destroy the foundation and faith of countless individuals’ lives.
The two men discuss their failing business and what lies ahead for their company, their workers, the economy, and themselves. During the conversation, it is stated that if the company keeps performing poorly they will have to shut down entirely, leading to disaster for many people. This feeling of concern and empathy is quickly disregarded by one of the men, who seems to be the owner and boss of the corporation. In response to the struggle of living without a job or source of income he responds, What’s that got to do with us, we won’t be around then. What’s the point of staying where there is only misery? (Andersson, 2:06). This opening scene hints at the obvious dissatisfaction present throughout the society and the burden that is brought upon the people living in a world dominated by business. The two men clearly understand the consequences that a failed business has on not only themselves, but also on everyone that may work for them. However, they don’t offer any solutions or suggestions on how to save the company. They seem to understand that the business world and economy they have created has grown to be too powerful to be controlled or fixed. The world seems to be overrun by the sadness and confusion that has emerged from the working class of people unable to keep their jobs or make enough money to support themselves or their family.
Their lack of hope for the future and the mindless work that they force upon themselves in order to distract themselves from their failures and destruction can be explained by Guy Debord’s theories in Society of the Spectacle. Debord describes the spectacle as, nothing more than an image of happy unification surrounded by desolation and fear at the tranquil center of misery, (Debord, Thesis 63). The spectacle is an explanation for why humans find a common discomfort among themselves as they attempt to achieve a false ideal image of what they hope to become based on the unrealistic expectations they have created for themselves. They dream of achieving success and prosperity in a society that thrives off their misery, therefore, turning their dissatisfaction into a commodity. Today, the economy and capitalist market takes control of our lives in a very similar way to the community in Songs from the Second Floor and to Debord’s theory. Our market’s thrive off the control that advertising, mass media, and social expectations have over our wants and needs. The standards we hold ourselves to would not exist without the media convincing us that we need certain products or services to be successful, liked, or noticed. This relationship between humans and the economy creates an unhealthy relationship with business and an overpowering need to fulfill our endless desires and wants to be what society deems as successful.
The pressures and expectations society puts on humanity leads to fears that overtake one’s mental health and rationality, including the ability to determine imagination from reality and right from wrong. Being taught to believe that your main duty and goal as a conducive part of society is to hold a steady job and perform mindless work under the immense pressures of society puts a recognizable strain on those that choose to endure the burden of participating in a struggling economy. This struggle is clearly represented through one of the main characters’ experiences with the world in which he has become a victim to and the way his reality mimics the fears he has for both himself and his future. This individual is the owner of a struggling furniture shop and the father of a young man that is thought to have been driven crazy from writing poetry. Over time, he encounters the ghosts of individuals that have lost their lives due to the evils that the economy has introduced into society. The ghost of a man who lost a large amount of money, the ghost of young boy that was executed, and the ghost of a young girl that was sacrificed for the good of a failing company follow him through his decline into insanity.
Jean Baudrillard comments on reality and originality in The Precession of the Simulacra. Baudrillard explains that over time, determining the true origin of any concept, product, or entity is impossible due to reality’s tendency to mimic simulation. This connects to the lack of the characters’ understanding as to where true contentedness originates from. During his time of desperation and confusion, the business owner struggles with identifying the issue with his current beliefs and his own value to society. He believes that working is the only way to have a positive contribution to society and that the only thing worth being concerned about is earning a profit. When faced with the three ghosts, he fails to understand that the qualities he cherishes most are the same things that lead to the downfall of many lost individuals. The society believes that the only way to be respected is by devoting an entire lifetime to endless work, leading to the misinterpretation of reality and expectations. This is similar to our society today because many people believe that by achieving the same status of idolized figures they will be able to create a lifestyle full of opportunity, profit, and success. This glorified image is encouraged through media and the false perceptions of reality that it creates.
In times of desperation and need, sacred items are either newly made or reintroduced into society in the attempt to establish a sense of comfort, hope, or stability among those that are struggling. Material things and products have taken a new role in our world as having the ability to bring a sense of familiarity or security despite the temporary form they have. In the film, as the community begins to lose hope in the world they have built around money and product, they turn to religion in hopes of bringing solace to those struggling. However, religion is reintroduced into society in a way that highlights where humanity went wrong. This attempt is made by a man who creates a business selling models of Jesus being crucified on the cross. The purchase of this product is meant to be a reminder of what faith used to be built upon and allow humanity to restore stability in something that may have the power to pull them out of the mess they created. While the focus should be on the meaning behind the product, most of the attention of both the producer and the consumers is on the money being spent on this purchase. It is revealed that this symbolic item was created in an attempt create business. The businessman tried to create and sell what he believed the people were looking for, faith and reassurance.
However, the creation of this product originated from an interest in personal gain as opposed to an authentic desire to bring a sense of healing to a damaged community. This is ironic in the sense that the image he is portraying through his business is meant to communicate a sense of understanding, care, and humanity. This scene can be discussed in relation to Emile Durkheim’s essay, Origins of These Beliefs: Origin of the Notion of the Totemic Principle, Or Mana. Through this piece, Durkheim explains the purpose of symbolic images and their effect on society. He believes that through the belief of a higher power and the physical emblems they embody, people can begin to live in a more productive and healthy way. Because of the effect these totems have on people, society never stops creating new sacred items, (Durkheim). Despite its intentions, the image of Jesus on the cross fails to bring solace to the community, further proving that humanity has lost touch with the principles that previously brought them happiness.
As humans lead themselves even further into destruction and despair, it is easy to confuse right from wrong. Accurately recognizing who or what is determining these standards is essential to identifying whether these expectations come from a positive source. The community in the film has been trained to think that success only comes from a traditional industry job. This leads to many individuals that may be more interested in artistic or non-traditional careers to be cast from society or misunderstood. This concept is conveyed continuously throughout the film through the phrase, Beloved be the ones who sit down. In a world where everyone is distracted from life and consumed by the endless ritual of business, remembering to take time for one’s self is often forgotten. The thought of sitting down and taking a break from work or refusing to participate in the demands of society is considered outrageous. Admiring those that choose this lifestyle is considered to be even more unacceptable. This makes this quote highly controversial in respect to the society created through this film. The first time we observe a strong negative reaction to this phrase, is when the business man visits his son in the hospital for the mentally ill.
The man is infuriated when his other son begins to recite a poem that includes the line, beloved be the ones who sit down, to his brother in the hospital. The man believes his son is being encouraged to remain secluded from society and unemployed, however, the intention of the poem is to reassure the son that those not involved in the lifestyle built by the economy are wiser and more cherished by those who recognize the destruction around them. This scene illustrates the idea that those that don’t adhere to the image and role of the working man are thought of as insane, useless, and ill. Human connection and emotions are disregarded as insane when they aren’t being utilized with the benefit of business in mind. The role that societal demand plays in creating a standard for what’s right is illustrated through the essay, Interpretation of Cutures by Clifford Geertz. The chapter labeled, Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight explores the culture of a Balinese village and the meaning that has been constructed around the sport of cockfighting. He discovers that while the sport may be illegal, the society as a whole agrees to continue its practice. Society’s ability to strongly influence the spectrum of right and wrong is apparent through both the essay and the film. Geertz suggests that, man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, (Geertz). This theory is proven through the dystopia created by Andersson as well as the world we actively participate in today. Both societies are successful in convincing the public that by achieving a traditional lifestyle and having a stable job you are more likely to achieve recognition and happiness.
The themes presented through Songs from the Second Floor give deeper insight to the dangers we are exposed to if we continue to rely on an economy built from our own fears. Andersson’s approach to the controversy surrounding our industry and the destruction it creates in our personal lives is expanded upon through the studies of past philosophers and continues to remain relevant as we study the current habits of businesses and consumers. The exaggerated and dramatic representation of a society in despair allows us to observe the faults in our own habits and recognize the false faith we have in the world we have created around us.
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